Cows and Goats and Sheep -- Oh My!
May 26, 2004

Last week our Spanish/Italian cheese importer with Forever Cheese dropped by to tell us a little about the cheeses we've been getting from him. Did I say "a little"? Well, the reality is, he told us A LOT and he also took us through some condiment pairing. No, I don't mean dipping slices of compressed cheddar in puddles of French's yellow mustard or dishes of barbeque sauce. Not that I haven't been known to do that, but I'll move on so my husband can stop making retching noises behind me. One of the more awesome aspects of the tasting was that we got to have it at The Slanted Door.

Those of you who live in San Francisco or read the New York Times food pages will be well acquainted with this Vietnamese Valhalla. Those of you who aren't or don't will just have to suffer with the knowledge that you are missing out on one of the culinary wonders of this world. The Slanted Door has moved several times during its lifetime and is now stylishly ensconced in the Ferry Building with high ceilings, a cracked glass bar, and an achingly gorgeous view of the Bay.

We started out with small crumbles of Piave Vecchio, a cow's milk cheese from the Veneto region of Italy. It's aged between ten and twelve months and has a deep nutty flavor. Our representative from Forever Cheese wanted us to try the Piave with a dab of mostarda di frutta. Now, I was able to recall my culinary training and remember that mostarda is a mixture of whole fruits or fruit chunks preserved in a simple sugar syrup with mustard seed and other seasonings. In Lombardy, it's a common accompaniment to meats. This particular mostarda was pear and quite tasty. You know, I'm going to stop italicizing "mostarda" because while it's correct to do it, it's sort of pretentious -- as though I'm speaking with a regular old American accent but suddenly morphing into an Italian one just to pronounce that word. See NPR radio personalities for further proof of this -- and it's really annoying to have to code it constantly. ANYWAY! Mostarda, though sweet on the outset, is zingy and spicy at the end. I quite liked it with the cheese.

At this point, wine had been passed around in those glasses you get at a restaurant only when you order a bottle of some of their best wines. Other wines don't seem to be worthy of such thin, bulbous vessels. We were drinking an Austrian Grüner Veltliner. It was light, peppery and nice with all the cheeses.

Our next cheese was a Spanish goat that I hadn't really tasted too much at work. It's called Garrotxa (pronounced gar-roach-uh), is aged eight to ninety days in Catalonia, and has a natural grey rind. The raw pate is chalky white and smooth with no eyes (those bubble things) in it. I was wowed by this cheese and felt as though I had never truly tasted it before. Its smooth texture is reflected in the not-too-goaty taste and you can even pick up some slight herbs in the dry down. Yum, I will be pushing this cheese a lot more now.

As I will be doing for these two aged Pecorinos from Emilia-Romagna that always bored me in the past. We had the Pecorino Foglie di Noci (Pecorino aged in walnut leaves for four to six months) and the Ginepro, also aged four to six months. Both are sheep's cheeses, but the Ginepro's rind is rubbed with balsamic vinegar and juniper, which imparts a wonderfully deep, rich flavor to the cheese. It might be my untrained tongue, but I found the Foglie di Noci to be much fruitier tasting than the Ginepro. Doesn't really make much sense, does it? Yet, that's how I felt. Mind you, I kept that bit of information to myself because the walnut leaves are not supposed to give that sort of flavor.

It's like the time Dr. Mathra and I went to a wine tasting at Harvard's Grad School where we tasted a Chianti that smelled like rotting garbage. It tasted fine but I wasn't going to volunteer that my nose was affronted by the stench of slick lettuce and oozy meat. I've later learned that the aroma of trash aged with flies is often a common descriptor with certain wines.

I loved these Pecorinos and am going to start bringing them home to cook with them. Our rep also passed around Marcona almonds to clear our palates. I can't get enough of those little greasy disks. Marconas are Spanish almonds that are smoother, rounder, sweeter, and paler than other almonds. The ones we get in our shop from Forever Cheese are fried in olive oil and salted, and they are more addicting than Macadamia nuts. According to a ton of articles I've been reading lately, most nuts (almonds included) contain the same beneficial Omega-3 fatty acids found in certain fish. Some sources even claim that Marcona almonds have a "relaxing" effect.

The most incredible cheese of the night was passed around next. "Passed" isn't exactly the right word, though. This cheese -- La Serena from Extremadura, Spain -- oozed all over the plate we were passing. We each had to scrape off a wedge. My god, this cheese! This cheese! It's described as being a rennetless, raw sheep's cheese, but it's only rennetless in the sense that no animal rennet is used. Instead, thistle flower is used as the coagulating property; it's a vegetable rennet. The comments around the table from the chefs and other food people there was that this was a "busy cheese" or "extreme cheese." La Serena is creamy, intense, and luscious, and I wanted more and more.

During each tasting the uncut rounds of cheese were passed around so we could examine their labels, rind, and heft. When La Serena reached me I was shocked to discover that it was...ALIVE! Well, it actually is, but what got me was how I could feel the cheese innards sloshing heavily around as I tipped the round from side to side. Not as loose as pure liquid, mind you, but not too far from Jell-O either. The experience was really cool. One of my fellow cheesemongers brought up the fact that La Serena and another Spanish cheese are often served with the top of the round sliced off so people can just spoon the cheese out. It's instant fondue! In fact, that's not too far from the famous raclette dish (made from a cheese of the same name) served in France and Switzerland. The main difference is that raclette is served warm to achieve the molten state, and La Serena is already there at room temperature.

Steven Jenkins' Cheese Primer has an interesting view of La Serena. He says it's not exported and rare even in Spain. Hmm. Of course, his book was written in 1996, so it sounds like Forever Cheese has made that statement false. While we don't currently carry La Serena at the shop, I am fervently hoping against hope that we soon will. If you ever see it on a cheese plate menu, you will be a fool indeed if you don't order it.

Next up was that ubiquitous of all Spanish cheeses, Manchego. We were tasting the same Manchego we carry: Manchego El Trigal. It's made from sheep's milk and aged for eight to ten months. It's one of our most popular cheeses. We got back to the accompaniments at this stage and paired the Manchego with the Spanish quince paste known as membrillo. Membrillo is fairly gelatinous, solid enough to be spreadable, and made only of quince, sugar, and lemon juice. Apparently, offerings of membrillo and Manchego are found on nearly every menu all over Spain. It's like mozzarella sticks and marinara sauces over here -- [sigh], I weep for this country sometimes. The pairing was lovely -- the "sheepiness" of the Manchego really brought out some almost spicy aspects of the quince paste. I was convinced I could taste clove or cinnamon even though they aren't usually in membrillo.

We moved on to try my least favorite of the cheeses, Sottocenere. Its name means "aged under ashes," which explains the grey rind. What came as a complete surprise to me is that the rind is also made up of nutmeg, fennel, licorice, clove, coriander, and cinnamon. I've never detected ANY of those flavors in this semi-soft cow's milk cheese from the Veneto. This cheese leaves me cold, because while I like truffles -- both white and black -- this cheese does not deliver what it promises. It has bits of white and black truffles throughout the pate, and it smells wonderfully of those costly funghi but I cannot find much of a truffly taste in it. I also don't like how rubbery and wobbly the pate is -- it reminds me too much of the government block of cheese we took on trail when I canoed and backpacked through the Boundary Waters. I know that seems hopelessly unsophisticated of me, but there you are. So many people come into the shop looking for truffled cheese because they think it means they are being extravagant and gourmand-y, but at twenty-three dollars a pound, I'd much rather indulge in the next cheese.

Gorgonzola Piccante. This is not the stuff you buy pre-crumbled in little plastic bins at Safeway. This is pure. This is clean. This is heaven. The salt brine on the exterior of the wheel helps the Gorgonzola dry out quickly and it leaves a pinkish hue behind -- much like the rind of Red Hawk, which makes sense since that one is also brined. I love both the Gorgonzolas we carry for different reasons. The Gorgonzola Dolce is creamy and unctuous and coats my tongue with a tangy sweetness not found in many blues. Piccante is harder, crumbles easily, and has a slight punch at the end. We tried this cow's milk cheese from Lombardy with a drizzle of chestnut honey. Now, I am not a honey fan, but chestnut honey? To die for! Especially when served over this cheese.

Throughout the tasting a few invitees had to come and go for various reasons, but for a few of the cheeses I had this nice guy next to me, to whom I explained what we were tasting, how old the cheeses were, and where they came from. After a bit, he smiled, and got up saying, "I have to go cook!" He thanked me for helping him out. I turned to my manager and asked if he was a chef at The Slanted Door. "No, he's the owner," she said. "That was Charles Phan?" I almost screamed. She nodded. You have to understand -- for me, meeting Charles Phan was the equivalent of sitting next to Brad Pitt in a movie theatre and explaining basic plot points and characters because he came in late. He seemed so young! "He's just a regular joe," my manager smiled.

Yeah, a "regular joe" who's been The Chef over at the NYT for the past month! A "regular joe" who makes these awesome glass noodles with shiitake mushrooms and yellow scallions! A "regular joe" whose current wait-list for reservations at his restaurant is over a month long!

"Regular joe." Hah.

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