Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Italian Connection – Cheese PLUS Dessert Wines!

I love most things Italian, so in January when we saw the listing “La Dolce Vita: Italian Cheese & Dessert Wine” on the schedule for current term at The Cheese School of San Francisco, signing up was a no-brainer. As described in the schedule:

“The French may say a meal is not complete without a bit of cheese to cap it off, but the Italians certainly also know a thing or two about finishing with formaggio. Suffice it to say that the grandest cheese of them all, aged
Parmigiano-Reggiano, shows off some of its finest attributes at the end of a meal, as does a creamy Robiola. Paired with Italian dessert wines…such
sweet indulgence!”
If we needed any further motivation, one of the instructors was going to be Lynne Devereux, who had lead two earlier classes we had enjoyed at the Cheese School, and who also helped to organize the recent 3rd Annual California Artisan Cheese Festival we attended last month in Petaluma....

The class description indicated that a fellow named Andy Lax would be co-presenting the class with Lynne. We had not met Andy before and he was not shown on the Cheese School’s Faculty Bios page. Always nice to have a bit of mystery going into a class.

Alex was going to join Cass and me for the class, but after the gastronomical excesses encountered at the Giants’ Opening Day at AT&T Park, decided that a full course of cheese and wine that evening might be pushing it a bit. Hence, it was left to Cass and me to enjoy the class by ourselves.

When we arrived at the Cheese School we greeted Lynne and had a chance to meet Andy. We learned that Andy is with Fresca Italia, the Bay Area-based importer of a very impressive range of Italian cheeses and other food products founded by Michele Lanza in 2001. If you have ever had Italian cheeses in the Bay Area – especially those that are somewhat less common or that come from smaller producers - the chances are very good that they were imported by Fresca Italia. For example, Andy told us that Fresca Italia supplies many of the excellent cheeses we have enjoyed at Perbacco in San Francisco. Thank you Fresca Italia!

Lynne and Andy

After a brief introduction, we started sampling the following nine cheeses that had been selected for the evening:

Piave Vecchio – Veneto - Cow
2. Robiola Bucaneve (Caseificio Reale) – Piemonte – Cow/Sheep/Goat
Camilla (Caseificio Reale) – Piemonte - Goat
Robiola Delle Langhe Due Latti (Guffanti) – Piemonte- Cow/Sheep
Montasio DOP – Friuli-Venezia Giulia - Cow
6. Canestrato (Pecorino) di Filiano – Basilicata - Sheep
Blu del Moncenisio – Piemonte - Cow
8. Parmigiano-Reggiano (Agriform) – Emilia-Romagna - Cow
9. Parmigiano-Reggiano (Vacche Rosse) – Emilia-Romagna – Cow

For our wines we enjoyed:

Drusian – Prosecco – Veneto
~ 2007
Elio Perrone – Bigaro – Piemonte
~ 2005 Beltrame – Verduzzo Friulano - Friuli-Venezia Giulia
~ 2001
Fattoria di Piazzano – Vin Santo – Toscana
Marcarini – Chinato – Piemonte

All of the wines had been obtained at Ceri Smith’s Biondivino, a small but very well-stocked Italian wine specialty store on Green Street in San Francisco, just off of Polk. The Biagro from Elio Perrone was a wine I had not had before. It is a sparkling wine made with a combination of Moscato and Brachetto grapes and had a wonderful strawberry flavor that went well with the lighter cheeses. It was also my first time to try the Chinato – a Piemontese aromatic wine seasoned with herbs. It reminded me a bit of an Italian amaro, for example Averna which I like a lot, but as Andy said, may not be for everyone.

Our Favorite Cheeeses: Lynne and Andy had us sample each wine with two or three of the cheeses. By comparison to some of the other classes we have taken at the Cheese School, it was handled in a more relaxed fashion, which was fine with me. Although both Cass and I liked most of the cheeses, we each tried to pick three we most enjoyed (apart from the Parmigiano’s which are hard to beat – more about those below). For Cass the top three were the Robiola Bucaneve (named after the white Snowdrop flower called "bucaneve" in Italian), the Camilla and the Canestrato di Filiano. I had the same choices with the exception that I picked the Piave instead of the Robiola Bucaneve.

Caseificio Reale: Both the Robiola Bucaneve and the Camila are produced by
Caseificio Reale, a relatively new cheese maker in the Cuneo region of Piemonte. We have had other cheeses made by them and have always liked them. It is worth keeping an eye out for their products, several of which are imported by Fresca Italian. For example, here are two or Janet Fletcher’s reviews in the San Francisco Chronicle for Caseificio Reale’s Toma Reale and Plin di Capra.

Pecorino di Filiano/ Pietra del Sale: The Canestrato di Filiano was the only cheese of the evening from the southern part of Italy and the only one that was pure sheep milk (my favorite). Andy told us that this cheese was one of Italy’s “DOP” cheeses (Denominazione di Origine Protetta = Protected Denomination of Origin (PDO)) and that the official name was “Pecorino di Filiano”. “Pecorino” indicates it is a sheep milk cheese (“pecora” = sheep) and Filiano is a town in the Province of Potenza in the Region of Basilicata, a sparsely-populated and often overlooked region wedged between Puglia, Campania and Calabria on the instep of the Italian boot. The area is sometimes also referred to by its original name, “Lucania.”

The term “canestrato” (“in a basket”) refers to the fact that the cheese curds are drained in a basket during the production which imparts a characteristic pattern to the rind. Andy explained that the producer of the cheese we had at our class is named Giovanni Samela who has a farm and restaurant named Pietra del Sale near Avigliano in Basilicata, about 10 miles south of Filiano. Although the DOP regulations allow the use of milk from several breeds of sheep, Andy said Giovanni is seeking to obtain a new classification for the Pecorino di Filiano he produces using just from the milk of the Gentile di Puglia breed of sheep which is native to that region.

Parmigiano-Reggiano/ Le Vacche Rosse: Finally, the Parmigiano-Reggiano, of which we had not one but two samples! The first was a “normal” Parmigiano produced by a large Veneto-based company named Agriform which produces both Parmigiano as well as several other well-known regional Italian cheeses (including Grana Padano).

The Agriform Parmigiano was good, but it could not match the second Parmigiano, described in our handout as “Red Cow,” which was fantastic. Andy explained that prior to the World War II almost all Parmigiano had been produced using milk from a breed of cow called the Reggiana, which, due to its distinctive red coat, is also called “Vacche Rosse” – the red cows. After the war, Friesian cows which produced more milk were introduced to Emilia-Romagna and began to replace the Reggiana, even though the quality of the Parmigiano produced using their milk, which has a lower butterfat content, was arguably of lesser quality. This trend continued until the 1980’s, at which point the Reggiana breed started to make a comeback led by a few producers committed to more traditional standards. Those producers included a company named Grana d'Oro located in Cavriago between Reggio Emilia and Parma.

Today Parmigiano produced from the Reggiana breed is increasingly available, although it is more expensive than Parmigiano made from the milk of other breeds of cows. Parmigiano produced using milk from Reggiana cows can be identified by the mark of the Reggiana breeders association (
L’Associazione Nazionale Allevatori Bovini di Razza Reggiana (ANaBoRaRe)) which appears on the rind. In addition, Grana d’Oro has its own a proprietary “Vacche Rosse” mark which appears on their cheese.

Cass and I felt this was one of the best classes we had attended at the Cheese School (and this was #22 for me!), even discounting for the fact that I am such a sucker for anything Italian. The cheeses and wines were well-selected and Lynne and Andy worked well together. We are looking forward to more to come.

With Abby and Ariel and Cheese School Class #22 Special Gift Pack!!

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Friday, April 3, 2009

A Day at the Sakata Seed 2009 Pack Trial

Each year flower breeders and marketers throughout California participate in the California Pack Trials in which each participant presents its new flower varieties at its facilities. One of my long time clients is Sakata Seed, and earlier today I had the chance to visit their Salinas Research Station to catch the last day of the Trials.

Happily it was an absolutely perfect day in Salinas and the flowers were at their best. One of the things that constantly amazes me is how the Sakata technical personnel are able to get all the flowers to bloom at the same time. I guess it helps to have a humongous greenhouse.

After a very nice lunch we had a chance to wander around the large display area and take a close look at the flowers. Sakata is particular proud of the SunPatiens variety they have developed - the first impatiens flower which can take full sun and high heat. In addition, I understand it absorbs five times as much carbon dioxide as any other similar bedding plant - no doubt a candidate for Federal stimulus funding!

Sakata's SunPatiens

With Some Long-Time Friends - Hide Takahashi and Paul Bennett

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