Food: Farm-fresh and well-aged cheese
Special to the Free Press
For many of us born and raised in the good ‘ol U.S. of A., cheese is synonymous with Kraft, Cheetos and those perfect yellow squares wrapped in plastic we ate because they were “American.”
True cheese connoisseurs have a palate and vocabulary that is far more sophisticated, knowing that being able to distinguish between Brie, gouda, manchego, munster, Parmesan and mozzarella is only the beginning. While the trend toward artisan cheeses started nearly a decade ago, it’s only now that Americans are ditching the Cheese Whiz and deciding that, in fact, real cheddar is much better.
FROM FAT FREE TO WHOLE FOODS
Based in Denver, Amy Combs runs her own business called A Cheese Peddler, in which she offers wine and craft beer pairings, seminars, catering and even a monthly cheese club. Combs said the interest in artisan cheeses stems from both the farm-to-table movement and a return to eating “whole” or unprocessed foods. For decades we believed that fat, in any form, was bad for us, which as a result regulated cheese to the junk food category.
“The whole reduced-fat nonsense, it hasn’t really paid off,” Combs said. “We’re still the fattest country in the world. … The word ‘cheese’ — I’ve been wanting for the past 10 years for there to be another word, because a Kraft single is a cheese and a five-year aged gouda is a cheese, but it’s a fine cheese that’s alive and kicking and really healthy.”
Combs said aged cheese, like gouda, contains beneficial bacteria and cultures that aid in digestion. Also, the fat content in fine cheeses is measured by the solid, so a triple-creme Brie may technically be 75 percent butter fat, but the cheese itself is very high in moisture. The way we measure fat content in certain cheeses is often misunderstood, explained Combs.
TASTING THE ARTISAN-MADE DIFFERENCE
Like wine, the taste of a particular cheese changes by season, location and cow (or goat or sheep). Pollyanna Forster, co-owner of Eat! Drink! in Edwards, said every step in the cheese-making process is crucial to both the flavor and quality.
“What really makes an artisanal cheese is (similar to what makes) an estate-grown wine,” Forster said. “(It’s) a level of quality and control (that includes) what the animal is feeling, how it is milked and at what point in the year it’s giving birth. This control goes all the way to the end in how you want to age the cheese.”
Unlike being a 22-year-old without a care in the world, there is no perfect age for cheese. It mainly depends on the type, with some cheeses considered aged after 48 hours and others, like gouda, seen as best when aged at least six years. When it comes to selecting a slice, knowing the backstory on what you’re buying is essential.
“For myself, it’s being able to connect all the dots,” Forster said. “Knowing that it’s coming from a small producer, ethically raised — happy goats, happy sheep and happy cows — there really is a difference. You can certainly taste it in the cheeses. It’s also about being able to have a relationship with the cheese monger, like a server at a table they’re procuring the cheese for you, explaining it to you and telling the story behind it.”
‘THERE’S A CHEESE FOR EVERYBODY’
Tasting artisan cheese is a tantalizing experience for the tongue, in which your taste buds tickle in delight with new flavors every time. Eat! Drink! in Edwards carries roughly 100 different types of cheeses, half of which are available year-round and the other half being seasonal.
“(At Eat! Drink! you can) taste and try every single cheese before you buy it, so you can get what you like and may not see it again for another year,” Forster said.
Forster said while certain fine cheeses are an acquired taste, “with over 7,000 cheeses made just in France, there’s a cheese for everybody.”
Both Forster and Combs agreed that artisanal cheeses made here in the U.S. are finally making a name for themselves both nationally and overseas. In Colorado, which isn’t a great state for cows, seek out fresh cheeses made from sheep’s and goat milk. Forster recommends Haystack Mountain goat cheese, Jumpin’ Good Goat Dairy and MouCo Cheese Company, which produces soft-ripened cheeses near Fort Collins.
FINDING THE PERFECT PAIRING
For some, the best part about eating cheese is having an excuse to wash it down with wine. Forget the old rule about only pairing fine cheeses with white wines. Combs said an easy motto to remember is “match the pungency to the potency,” in that if you have a mild cow’s milk cheese, you’ll want a mild, white wine.
Forster suggests pairing “like with like, or the opposite,” she said.
“A big rich red cabernet goes wonderfully with blue cheese, that would be ‘like with like,’” Forster said. “Champagne, with its acidity and bubbles, also goes well with blue cheese and that would be an opposite.”
In Europe, it’s common to eat fine cheese for dessert, partially due to its digestive properties. This habit has yet to take off on this side of the Atlantic, but if you do dream of ending your day with a smidgen of gouda or a piece of pecorino, don’t worry about running out.
“Never buy too much cheese,” Forster said. “Buy enough to enjoy it a couple of days and then come back and buy some more.”
We may have grown up thinking that craft cheese was spelled K-R-A-F-T, but now it’s time to enjoy the finer things in life. More grass-fed, straight from the farm, aged to perfection artisan cheese? Yes, please.
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