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Sarah Stegner
gourmet articlesarchivesarah stegner
Artisinal Cheese
The emergence of quality farmstead artisinal cheeses in the United States and a rejuvenated interest in the cheese course in Fine Dining has lead a frontier of interest focused on cheese. Restaurants of all price points have followed the' fine dining' lead in the market and incorporated cheese into there menu's. Some using the more traditional venue of a selection of cheese after the main course and others pushing the envelope with creative menu items. Here is some basic information that might be helpful in riding the wave of cheese.

Traditionally the cheese course is served between the entree and dessert. It is occasionally found on dessert menus in place of a pastry. In my Dining Room I encourage the guest to have a small cheese course between the entree and dessert. I feel it satiates the palette and finishes the meal nicely but doesn't satisfy a desire for something sweet. My favorite accompaniment to cheese is fruit and nuts. Pears, apples, figs, and grapes are a wonderful choice. (Not all fruit pairs well with cheese!)

An alternate accompaniment to cheese would be a small salad. Hard core cheese lovers tend to select a simple white baguette to accompany the cheese. However fruit and nut breads are a nice choice as well.

A specialty accompaniment from Spain is a pressed dried fig cake with almonds or a pressed dried plum cake with prunes. The basic rule is taste the cheese you are serving with its accompaniment and ask yourself does it compliment the flavor or adversely affect the taste of the cheese. Some accompaniments can upstage or overshadow the subtle nounces of the cheese flavor. Trust your palette to dictate the accompaniment.

When you are putting together a cheese course it is important to have the three main varieties of cheese made from cow's milk, sheep's milk, and goat's milk present. Then consider the textures of the cheeses. Hard, semi soft and creamy cheeses add complexity to the course. The next step is to offer cheeses with different flavor intensities. The cheese should be arranged mildest to strongest starting like the face of a clock working from right to left. Finally, a more sophisticated approach would be to offer diversity in the style of cheese making, utilizing flourished rind and wash rind cheeses.

Over the past 10 to 15 years several wonderful varieties of American cheese have come into the market. Many of the American cheese makers are still so small that it is difficult to find the cheese unless you have a personal connection with the cheese maker or live near a farmers market that supports small producers. However, there are a few exceptional quality cheeses produce by cheese makers that have farms large enough and have been through trial and error long enough that they can deliver a consistent quality product... These handful of people are honored and respected in the restaurant industry.

Judith Schad's Cannon Ball, Crocodile & Sofia Goats Cheese

To produce a farmstead artisinal cheese the animals need to be raised on the farm and milked where the cheese is hand made. This requires the cheese maker to be skilled in raising animals, managing a farm, making cheese, running a business that turns a profit, marketing the cheese and making sure it reaches its destination in optimal condition all at the same time. It is a relentless process that demands 24-hour attention and care. The tentative hold many of these artisans have on there trade and the difficulties facing these small family run farms requires the appreciation and understanding of the restaurant industry. Some of the American farmstead artisinal cheese on the market now can be tasted side by side with the best cheese in the world and match the quality with there own distinct style and uniqueness.

One of the best, Judith Schad, makes farmstead artesian goat cheese. Her farm is in southern Indiana on the boarder of Louisville, Kentucky. She has approximately 180 goats on a beautiful picturesque farm. The care and respect for the animals is heartfelt. Her cheese has a bold robust personality that is creative in size, shape, textures, and flavors. Her diverse styles of goat cheese shows off her skill as an artisan. Judith also goes to great lengths to be assured that her cheese arrives in the proper condition of ripeness. This final emphasis on quality gives the restaurateur the added edge of perfection.

Aged Old Kentucky &
Aged Alpine

Other wonderful farmstead artisinal cheese makers are Mary and Dave Falk. Their farm is located in the Trade Lake area of northern Wisconsin. Mary and Dave's claim to fame is in the form of a sheep's milk cheese called Trade Lake Cedar. All of their cheeses are named after the small lakes that border their farm. Trade Lake Cedar cheese has a depth of flavor that is intense and wonderful. They raise their sheep in an area that has never been farmed and boarders pristine "wild" country.

Tim Stone's Great Hill Blue

They age the cheese on cedar bows in an open-air cheese cave. The flavors of the Northwoods are fragrant and distinctive.One frequently asked question is do you eat the rind of cheese or just the center. My answer always is the same, if it taste good eat it. In this case, you absolutely must eat the rind. It is a wonderful accompaniment to the semi hard center of Trade Lake Cedar. The list continues to grow in the United States of exceptional high quality farmstead artisinal cheeses. The American cheese society meets every year to taste and evaluate cheese. It is an opportunity for members of the cheese making community to share information about techniques and overcoming difficulties together. They publish a directory of cheesemakers each year that is a great resource. (E-mail: [email protected]) Tim Stone makes a wonderful full flavored blue cheese from Jersey Cow’s milk.

After you have researched and tasted just the right cheese that you want to serve then you need to know how to properly store and handle the cheese. Ideally, store the cheese in an area that will retain some humidity and is not too cold. They should be loosely wrapped in parchment paper. At home I store them in a Tupperware container with a slightly moist cloth. The harder cheese can last longer with out dramatic changes in there taste. Its important to understand that when you keep a cheese more than a day you are ripening the cheese, a process called affinage. Each day you ripen the cheese you are making a slight adjustment in the flavor. Your palette determines if it increases the quality of the flavor or not. Cheese should be served at room temperature. The standard length of time would be two hours out of refrigeration for one pound of cheese. Some cheeses run when they are cut in the center and at room temperature. There are a few that are served with a spoon and scooped out of a small wooden container. Serving cheese at room temperature not only affects the consistency of the cheese it also affects the taste.

I have often heard the comment that cheese is an acquired taste. When you taste a piece of cheese if it is good quality and has been handled well from beginning to end even the novice will like it. Good quality cheese tastes good. Cheese is not something that you have to get used to. You should like it right away. Its also important to note that cheese can be intimidating for a guest to make a selection. Some restaurants have handled this by taking away My direction with the wait staff is for them to have enough information that they can tell the guest what type of milk was used, what country the cheese is from, and a basic description of how it tastes. If they know some details about how it was made or what makes it special great, but the emphasis needs to be on how it tastes. The only way people will feel confident explaining to a guest how a piece of cheese taste is if they are familiar with it. Let your staff sample the cheese........

Sarah Stegner is the Chef of The Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Chicago ( a Four Seasons Hotel)

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