Sunday, March 29, 2009

Got (Alpine) Cheese? Pairings with Alsatian Wines

After as many classes as we have taken at The Cheese School of San Francisco (now over 20), we have covered many of the best known cheeses and cheese types and have become a bit more selective about the classes we attend. However, in January when we saw the offering of “Alpine Cheese & Alsace Wine” on the School’s calendar of Spring classes, we realized that there were still new pastures to explore. Last Thursday evening Alex, Cass and I were back at the School for that program:
“Yodel-ay-hee-hoo! You’ll want to shout from the mountaintops after
indulging in this deep dive into the best alpine cheeses from Switzerland,
France, Italy and Germany – known for their creamy, nutty, sweet goodness – paired with Alsace wines from along the banks of the Rhine, which originates high in the Alps and flows throughout the valleys in which Alpine cheesemakers have traditionally brought their wheels to market.”

Mark Todd had been scheduled to teach the class, but at the last minute had a conflict, so a team comprised of veteran School instructors Wil Edwards – who had taught our “Pecorino Perfection” class in January and who we had just seen at the Artisan Cheese Festival the previous weekend - and Melissa Schilling, stepped in to fill Mark’s shoes.....

Although I like to think that I have a fairly good sense of geography, I realized when we signed up for the class that I was not sure where Alsace was, over what area the Alps extended, or where they were in relationship to each other. The following map answers all of those questions (the numbers on the map correspond to the ten cheeses listed below and show the general areas where each cheese is produced):

It is always a pleasure to attend a class at the Cheese School at any time of the year. However, on Thursday evening was the first class we had attended in some time where we arrived when it was still light out, and the classroom on Thursday evening with all the cheeses set out and lit by the natural evening light struck me as particularly beautiful:

At the beginning of the program, Sara Vivenzio, the founder and Director of the School, introduced Wil and Melissa.

Then we were off. The following ten cheeses from the general area of the Alps – all cow milk, six Swiss, three French and one Italian - had been selected for the evening:

1. Emmentaler Switzerland – “Höhlengereift” (cave-aged)
2. Le Maréchal – Switzerland
3. Appenzeller – Switzerland
4. Le Chartreux – France
5. Comté – France
6. L’Etivaz Gruyére - Switzerland
7. Bettlemat – Italy
8. Vacherin Fribourgeois – Switzerland
9. Grès des Vosges – France
10. Forsterkase – Switzerland

They were paired with the following five Alsatian wines:

1. NV Cremat d’Alsace - Jean-Philippe et François Becker
2. 2006 Pinot Blanc Reserve – Pierre Sparr
3. 2006 Riesling – Trimbach
4. 2007 Muscat – Allimant Laugner
5. 2005 Pinot Noir – Charles Baur

Here are a couple of maps of the Alsace region showing both the wine producing area and the topography – the Vosges Mountains to the west (with the vineyards on their eastern slopes), and the Rhine river, the border with Germany, to the east.

The wines were all very good and well worth trying again. There is much more to explore on the Alsatian wine front, and there are some helpful online resources here, here and here.

There were a full range of accompaniments presented with our wine and cheese, bread, dried and fresh fruit, chutney, and nuts. In addition, for the first time we were served Hibiscus flowers (on the left in the following picture - who knew they were edible!) – which hade been dried and then reconstituted in white wine. They were quite good - crisp and not overly sweet.

It was an entertaining (and filling!) evening, although given the large number of both cheeses and wines and the amount of information that they wanted to present, it seemed that both Wil and Melissa – who are both high energy people - were in many places rushed to get through the program, and it was frankly not the best coordinated class we have attended at the School. This seems to me to have been one class where less would have been more.

As far as the cheeses go, there were three – the Appenzeller, Comté, L’Etivaz Gruyére – that we had sampled at earlier classes at the School. However, looking back at those earlier notes it was interesting to see that at least my reaction to the cheeses this time was quite different for the Appenzeller (which I liked much better this time) and the L’Etivaz Gruyére (the reverse) – no doubt the pairings are a contributing factor (the earlier class was Sheana Davis’ “Belgian Beer & Cheeses” class!). The one unwavering cheesy beacon was the Comté which we have had a number of times (just last week again at the Cheese Festival and which is perhaps my favorite cheese of all (as long as it is Daphne Zephos selection!). This time, just a step below the Comté on my “Mike Likes” scorecard, were the Appenzeller, Le Maréchal and Vacherin Fribourgeois.

A couple of interesting things to note regarding the cheeses:

~ The name “Emmentaler” is not a protected name, such that much cheese called “Emmentaler” comes from other areas. For the traditional and best Emmentaler, look for “Emmentaler Switzerland” (which is a protected name). Höhlengereift” (cave-aged) indicates a further step up in quality.

~ Traditional fondue is made with a combination of three of the Swiss cheeses: Emmentaler, Appenzeller and Vacherin Fribourgeois.

~ The Grès des Vosges – the only one of the ten cheeses that was from Alsace - is named after a orange sandstone found in the Vosges Mountains given the orange color of its washed rind. The famous Chateau de Haut-Koenigsbourg, which is on the heights above the vineyards on the eastern slopes of the Vosges, is made from the same stone.

~ The Forsterkase is wrapped in fir bark, which you can just make out in the photo of the cheeses.

That was our second to the last class at the School for the current term. We are looking forward to "La Dolce Vita: Italian Cheese & Dessert Wine" on April 7!

Alex and Cass (far right) with Cheese Elves, Abby and Rebecca


Suzele said...

Sounds interesting...
I've been racking my brain trying to figure out what this "Grès des Vosges" is.
I have never seen or heard of it and I've lived in Alsace now for 4 years.

I suspect it is the pasteurized version of Munster since real Alsatian Munster can't be imported into the US.

Was it a strong smelling cheese?

gastronomichael said...

Suzele: Thanks for your comment. It is a pasturized cheese, and certainly looks a lot like Munster. Here's a link to a well-know New York cheese store that carries it - For a "washed rind" cheese (it is apparently washed in kirsch cherry brandy during the production) it was not all that "stinky." BTW, love your blog - a great resource should we ever get to Alsace!