Sunday, March 14, 2010

Cheese from Farm to Table

On Friday evening Alex, Cass and I were back at The Cheese School of San Francisco for yet another class (#26 for me). Since we have taken so many classes there over the last two and a half years, we have become a bit more selective with our selections. However, we did not want to miss Friday’s class since it was being taught by Wil Edwards, one of CSSF’s instructors who has taught some of our favorite classes in the past:

Pecorino Perfection,
Alpine Cheese & Alsatian Wine, and
Cheese & Charcuterie.

Friday’s class was titled “Cheese from Farm to Table” and was described in the class schedule as follows:

“The magic of artisan cheese is that it's a living food, and never more so than when the complete story of a hand-crafted cheese, from farm to table, is revealed and explained. In this class, Wil Edwards presents a slideshow of some of the fascinating cheese makers he has encountered in Europe and America, brings their stories to life, and recounts the fascinating journey that brings the precious fruit of their labor – literally as we taste them – to our table.”
Alex, Cass and I arrived at the School on Friday just after 6:00 and were
greeted by Wil and Sara Vivenzio, the School’s Director, who poured us glasses
of Thomas Fogarty Riesling to enjoy while we waited for the class to begin. The
class got started about 6:30 and we all took our seats. Sara introduced Wil and
away we went.

Wil is a very engaging and entertaining guy who has worked in various positions at cheese producers, such as Harley Farms in Pescadero, and at cheese agers, such as Luigi Guffanti in Arona on the shores of Lago Maggiore in Piemonte, and most recently as Editor-at-Large of CULTURE magazine. He is also an excellent photographer and a number of his photos are on display on the walls of the School.

Although we had ten cheeses to sample on Friday night, the thrust of Wil’s presentation focused more on the individual stories behind those cheeses and, in particular, on the individuals involved with their production. For the first time since I have been attending classes there, the presentation area was set up with a slide projector, and over the course of the eveing Wil went through about 150 slides he had taken.

The following were the cheeses for the evening in the order presented:

~ “Fresh Chèvre” from
Harley Farms in Pescadero, CA (goat);
~ “Crescenza” from
Bellwether Farms in Valley Ford (near Petaluma), CA (cow);
~ “Green Hill” from
Sweet Grass Dairy in Thomasville, GA (cow);
~ “Piedmont” from
Everona Dairy in Rapidan, VA (sheep);
Parmigiano-Reggiano primarily from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy (cow);
~ “Pleasant Ridge Reserve” from
Uplands Cheese in Dodgeville, WI (cow);
~ “Devil’s Gulch” from
Cowgirl Creamery in Pt. Reyes Station, CA (cow);
~ “Red Hawk”, also from Cowgirl Creamery (cow);
Gorgonzola (the younger “Dolce” vs the aged “Piccante”) primarily from the Lombardia region of Italy (cow); and
~ “Original Blue” from
Pt. Reyes Farmstead in Pt. Reyes Station (cow).

The cheeses were accompanied with three wines from Thomas Fogarty Winery:

~ 2008 Skyline Riesling (Monterey County);
~ 2008 Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir (Santa Cruz Mountains); and
~ 2001 Frank’s Vineyard – Vintage Port (Amador County).

Our favorite (top 3 for each of us) cheeses of the evening were:Add Image

~ “Fresh Chèvre”/Harley Farms – Cass #1; Alex #2
~ “Green Hill”/Sweet Grass Dairy – Cass #2, Alex #2, Mike #1
~ Parmigiano-Reggiano – Mike #2
~ “Pleasant Ridge Reserve”/Uplands Cheese – Cass #3, Alex #1, Mike #3

Here are photos of some of the producers of the American cheeses who Wil introduced to us during our class:

We were not able to identify the specific producers of the two Italian cheeses – the Parmigiano-Reggiano and the Gorgonzola – since each is produced by several individual producers within the qualifying territories. Those are two of the limited number of traditional Italian cheeses which are regulated under the "Denominazione di Origine Protetta” (DOP) classification (aka “Protected Designation of Origin" (PDO) status under EU regulations), and each has its own “consortium” which regulates its production and promotes the cheese:

Parmigiano-Reggiano Consortium
Gorgonzola Consortium

I would particularly recommend a visit to the Parmigiano-Reggiano Consortium site since it has some excellent videos demonstrating the cheese’s production (including the “fire branding” of the rind with the Consortium’s mark).

When Nancy and I visited Italy in 2006 we toured Caseificio Castelnovese, one of the cooperatives producing Parmigiano-Reggiano just outside of Modena. It was an awesome site to enter their aging area and see aisle upon aisle of approximately 80-pound wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano stacked from floor to ceiling - and, of course, that is just one of many such producers.

One thing I learned at our class on Friday is that each wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano is marked with a unique identification number assigned to the producer (the “matricola” -- e.g. 2973 for Castelnovese).

So if your cheese monger has an entire wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano, you should be able to determine who produced it and where it came from. Here is a page on the Consortium’s website with identification numbers for at least those producers which have websites.

In addition to highlighting the human stories behind the cheeses, Wil also pointed out European roots for several of the American cheeses we sampled - for example, Bellwether Farms’ “Crescenza.”

That cheese has an Italian heritage as indicated by the following passages from Bellwether’s website and a San Francisco Chronicle “Cheese Corner” article by Janet Fletcher, another of our CSSF favorites:

From the Bellwether Farms Site: The recipe for our Crescenza was learned
on a trip to Northern Italy in the spring of 1996. One of our customers, Carlo Middione, recommended we try this cheese. We were introduced to a small cheese maker a little west of Milan who processed about 100 gallons of milk at a time and made a variety of cheeses from each batch. Her creamery was a two person operation located on her family’s dairy. The dairy was large and sold most of its milk to some large customer but she ran the small creamery and cheese shop herself. We spent the day with her and were able to help her make her cheeses. After returning to the US, I began working on the Crescenza. It took about 6 months before I was able to adjust the recipe to account for the higher butterfat and solids of the Jersey cow’s milk we were using. The secret of this cheese is balancing the acid development with moisture level in the correct he cheese to have it ripen properly.

From the Janet Fletcher Article: Bellwether cheesemaker Liam Callahan went to Italy's northern Lombardy region to learn the techniques of making Crescenza, also known there as Stracchino. He uses the same culture and roughly the same method and, according to his mother Cindy, who started the dairy, the results are comparable. Some Italian chefs have told Cindy that they like her Crescenza better, an astonishing admission given Italy's chauvinism in culinary matters. The Callahans use pasteurized Sonoma County Jersey cow milk, which is higher in protein, fat and beta carotene than the milk from most other dairy breeds. In these qualities it resembles the milk from the tired (stracca) cows that have
traipsed up and down Lombardy's mountains in search of pasture. Contrary to what you might think, the extra effort causes cows to give extra-rich milk.

There was some discussion at class of the origin of the name “Crescenza,” although no one seemed to know the answer. From further research it appears it is a derivation of either (a) the Italian verb “crescere” – to grow, or (b) the Latin “carsenza” – another name for focaccia bread – in either case it is an apparent reference to the fact that the cheese apparently expands in size as it ages.

Wil also highlighted the differences that milk makes in the cheese. For example, although both Cowgirl Creamery cheeses are made from cow’s milk, their new “Devil’s Gulch” cheese is made from the milk of Jersey cows from the John Taverna dairy in Sonoma, while their traditional “Red Hawk” is made from the milk of Holstein cows from Straus Creamery in Marin.

As noted earlier, in addition to his other activities Wil is Editor-at-Large of
CULTURE magazine and, at the end of the evening, he showed us a sample of some
of his photos of cheese rinds (including one of the very colorful red pepper covered “Devil’s Gulch” we enjoyed during the class) that both are featured in the latest issue of CULTURE (Spring 2010 – Vol. 2, Issue 2), and will be on display in the near future at Barn Diva in Healdsburg.

It was a most enjoyable class!

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