ACS, american cheese society, Appreciating the greats, blue cheese, certified cheese professional exam, cheese tastings, Roquefort Cheese, tasting cheese

Appreciating the Greats: Tasting Roquefort

Getting to know cheese requires at least four of the five senses: looking, touching, smelling and tasting. If you’re a cheese maker or affineur, then you would also bring in hearing to evaluate a full wheel of cheese by knocking on it.  Simply put, it takes a lot more than throwing a cube of cheese in your mouth to appreciate it. If you want to know it more intimately, then you study and evaluate it. Its color, aroma from paste to rind, texture on your fingers and your tongue. So much of this will help you go beyond having a passive appreciation of cheese.  

In the movie, “How to Cook Your Life,” Edward Espe Brown (author of the famed Tassajara Bread Book) is at the sink cleaning rice. He says something simple, “When you wash the rice, wash the rice; when you cut the carrots, cut the carrots; when you stir the soup, stir the soup.”  Which is to say, be in the moment of the task at hand.  When you taste cheese, close your eyes and focus on every sensation that’s going on. Take multiple bites of the same cheese until you feel you have a good sense of it. Pay attention because your first bite and your fourth bite will not taste the same. Your tongue and nose will pick up different notes as it moves around on your palate and opens up. 

As I take study breaks from preparing for the Certified Cheese Professional exam, I’m reintroducing myself to some of the greats of the cheese world that I have, I will admit, taken for granted and pushed aside for some newer, flashier wheels. I’m taking the time to get to know them again, like old friends, and first up is Roquefort.

History:

Roquefort has a written history dating back to at least 79 AD, though it is said that Ceaser’s centurians encountered it in the 1st century BC. It was also the first French cheese to be ‘protected’ by the French Parliment in the 15th century, then the modern AOC (Appelation d’origine Controlee, which has now been replaced by the European AOP) in 1925. The secret to Roquefort is the caves that dot Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, which are now owned by only seven cheesemaking companies in France.

Under the requirements for AOC, Roquefort must be: 

  1. All milk used must be delivered at least 20 days after lambing has taken place.
  2. The sheep must be on pasture, whenever possible, in an area including most of Aveyron and parts of neighboring départements. At least 3/4 of any grain or fodder fed must come from the area.
  3. The milk must be whole, raw (not heated above 34 °C; 93.2 °F), and unfiltered except to remove macroscopic particles.
  4. The addition of rennet must occur within 48 hours of milking.
  5. The Penicillium Roqueforti used in the production must be produced in France from the natural caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon
  6. The salting process must be performed using dry salt.
  7. The whole process of maturation, cutting, packaging and refrigeration of the cheese must take place in the commune of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon.

Tasting Notes: 
Milk: Raw Sheep
Brand: Coulet 
Appearance: 
     Rind: None, wrapped in foil
     Paste: Smooth, slightly creamy paste; off white in color, deeply pocketed with evergreen/blue veining
Smell: 
     Paste: Woodsy, mushroomy, fruity
Mouthfeel: Dense, like Mascarpone. Slightly granular texture with the molding.
Flavor: Upfront spiciness; slight sweetness, warming profile, like cinnamon or chile. Faint notes of liquorice or tarragon.
    

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From Maine to Madison

I really never thought cheese would be my life. When I went to culinary school, nearly a decade ago, I thought I would end up working in a kitchen or, at the very least, baking full time.  I was a fairly quick study and was pretty successful in my classes. When I left, because my partner at the time was in medical school and we couldn’t afford two tuitions, I didn’t give up. At least not on the journey I had started. The relationship, well, it lasted another few months before I met my Missus, ended things with my ex and moved to Maine.

It was here that I got my first job in a kitchen, which lasted several months, and then I moved on to the kitchen at The Whole Grocer. There, essentially, things changed. As part of my daily tasks, I began to assist the Grocery manager with cutting, wrapping and tagging cheese for their small refrigerated section. It was during this time that my rudimentary knowledge on cheese began to grow and my genuine curiosity was piqued. Before that time Buffalo mozzarella and Manchego were the fanciest cheeses I had known, which were leaps and bounds beyond what I had been exposed to growing up (Land O’ Lakes White American cheese was a staple in our household and a cryovaced block of cheddar only introduced itself on occassion).

At The Whole Grocer, I was introduced to cheeses like Fromage D’affonois, The Drunken Goat and local fresh chevres from York Hill and Sunset Acres. I would bring home little wedges when I had the extra money and would even stop in to K. Hortons to try things we didn’t carry.  Then, The Whole Grocer became Whole Foods and I didn’t follow my budding interest in cheese to the new store. Instead, while working in another department at the time, I would allot myself no more than $20 a paycheck to spend on new cheeses. It was around then, about six years ago, that I also started keeping a cheese journal so that I could keep track of all of the various cheeses, which ones I liked or didn’t.  It only took about a year to get over 100 entries in the book. Now, I have more entries than that just in ‘aged cheese’ section.

Eventually, I did find my rightful home behind the cheese counter and, to date, I’ve spent nearly 10,000 hours of my life standing there, helping customers plan dinner parties or finding the cheese that they had in Italy when they were there on holiday. I’ve taught several classes both in and out of the store and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some of the best cheesemakers in America today. I’ve also moved up, going from general Specialty Team Member, to taking on the responsibilities of purchasing the local (New England) products for the department, to Lead Buyer. Cheese has become my life, not only how I pay my bills, but a huge part of my ‘food personality.’  I figure that, when people on the street recognize you and say, “Look, it’s our cheese lady!” that I’ve stumbled on to a pretty rewarding path.

But, why am I going on about this? Well, cheese is taking me on another, unexpected journey.  In just under four and a half months, I’ll be sitting in the Hilton Hotel in Madison, Wisconsin, taking the “Certified Cheese Professional” exam that the American Cheese Society debuted last year. The Missus best described as the cheesemonger’s equivalent to the sommelier certification, though to not such an intense degree (at least, not yet). But, until July 31st, I will be delving into a whole different level of cheese obsession–getting into the science of cheese, studying affinage, marketing, etc–more so than I already have.

And, I’m going to take you on this journey with me. We’ll call it “From Maine to Madison,” and you can bet, without a doubt, that I’m going to use this blog to share many of the things that I’m learning along the way. Those books in the picture above? Those are about half of the ones I’ll be studying from, along with the hundreds of pages I’ve already printed out from Power Point presentations that Whole Foods created for the team members to study. Oh, and the FDA HAACP Principles and Application Guidelines. Fun, huh? I won’t bore–or, rather, scare–you with things like food borne pathogens, but I will be highlighting a cheese and/or style every week.

I will try to remember to come up for air every once in a while, but my posting my be sparse until the test is done and my brain–which is surely going to be leaking out of my brain from all of the information I’m going to cram in it–re-solidifies into a functioning mass.

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The Cherry on Top

As the Missus and I walked into the Prime Mercedes-Benz show room this past Sunday, it felt like we were walking into an adult wonderland of booze and sugary treats. We were hardly alone, too, as roughly 500 other people joined us to ring the final bell of Restaurant Week with their ‘Signature Event,’ a competition of local pastry chefs and bartenders.
While top honors for drinks went to Zapoteca and Sonny’s–for the “Peoples Choice” and “Judge’s Choice,” respectfully–the venue was so crowded that we never made it through the throngs of people to get to their tables.  However, we did manage a few sips of cocktails from:
Bar Lola, as co-owner Stella Hernandez worked as a one woman army mixing and pouring her Bulleit Rye anchored “Coolidge Ave. Cocktail,” as quickly as guests could scoop them up. Like many drinks on their menu, this was crafted by Stella and pulled off sophisticated drinking with little effort. We may have gone back more than once.
Academe, housed at The Kennebunk Inn, brought out the whimsy big time with their “Not So Old Fashioned,” which boasted both a pipette of chai maple syrup, cara cara sorbet and a maraschino cherry gelee. It was captivating to watch them assemble, but actually following the steps (I think we were given a four part instruction on how to drink it) proved to be a bit more complicated than the event allowed for. A pipette of maple syrup just makes for a hot, sticky mess when you’re getting knocked into every second and trying really hard to remember what you were supposed to do after that. But, that’s not to say that it wouldn’t be better appreciated sitting at their bar without risk of dousing yourself with syrup.
Azure Cafe, in Freeport, also played around with a dash of Molecular Gastronomy with their “Sweet and Tangy Screw with Basil-Mint Caviar.”  I honestly expected to come home and find that they had won People’s Choice with this as it seemed to be the one I heard the most buzz about. Not only did it have a dose of refreshing basil-mint orbs at the bottom of the glass, but it also listed ‘Tang Simple Syrup” as an ingredient in the program. Let me say that again: TANG Simple Syrup. I’m not one to drink with brunch, but I’d be extremely hard pressed to turn this down any given Sunday.
One of the Missus’ favorites of the evening was the “Driving Miss Dizzy,” crafted by The Great Lost Bear. Perhaps because they’re thought of as more of a ‘burger and beer’ joint, but it seems that the GLB has a tendency to surprise. You wouldn’t really expect them to have lavender buds kicking around, or making such a delicate drink with a base of sparkling lemonade, but they did. And they pulled it off well. 
Obviously, we only partook in a fraction of the cocktails (I could go on a rant about the lack of water available for those that didn’t want to drink as much as others), but my reason for being there was definitely the desserts. 
We started the tour with the Whole Foods entry of a goat cheese cheesecake, dubbed the “Tipsy Tennessee Goat,” that was topped with a Murphy’s Stout salted caramel and brown butter and gingersnap crust. 
The base was perfectly tart and tangy and the caramel, which generously coated every sample, had just a hint of bitter from the stout beer. We know that I’m a sucker for anything covered in caramel, so this was a great way to start our sugar fueled adventure. 
After that we sampled the eventual winner of the evening, from David’s Opus Ten, flaky beignets with peppered strawberries, creme chantilly and balsamic reduction.
David and his crew garnered automatic points for serving the only warm dessert of the evening, but the crunch of the beignet, paired with the lush chantilly creme and spicy strawberries, made for an all around pleasurable dessert.  With the ‘restaurant within a restaurant’ already gathering a bit of buzz, I’m more than certain this dessert won him a few new fans. 
Now, while we weren’t sold on the drink from Academe, you couldn’t help but fall for their interpretation of the classic childhood pairing of “Milk and Cookies.”
As you walked up you were handed a small whisk of raw cookie dough and then a vial of sweetened milk, which was really an uncooked creme anglaise, and told to squeeze the pipette as you bit down on the cookie. Because it was so simple, and so ingenious, this could have easily failed if the cookie wasn’t good. Luckily, it was a damn fine chocolate chip cookie, bringing the best of both chewy and crunchy to your mouth. They easily had my vote for my favorite of the evening.
Another uber-cute dessert came from Walter’s in Portland.
Their entry, dubbed “Panna Buttah and Jelly” called to the kid in me that loves peanut butter cookies, but also to the adult that could eat panna cotta every evening if given the option.  Sadly, this dessert suffered the same as Academe’s drink, nice in theory but fell apart in execution. As soon as the peanut butter spoon tried to pierce the concord grape jelly top, it broke and shattered into three different pieces–and some of it ended up on the floor. I was only able to taste the smallest bite, with a salvaged nub of the spoon, before we threw it away in disappointment.

I would like to apologize outright to Standard Baking Company for taking a horrible photo. It truly does not do their Lingot d’Or bars any justice. The bars, which held a smooth chocolate and whiskey souffle on top of an almond shortbread, were nondescript. Sure, there was obviously a little gold dusting on top, but it didn’t look as interesting, or as decadent, as the first bite turned out to be. Of all of the pastries I’ve had from Standard this is, above and beyond, their finest. It was also the last bite of our evening and it was a lovely one to go out on.

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