Cheese 127 Beecher’s “Flagship” Handmade Cheese

Have you ever longed for something a very long time-fantacised about it-wondered what it would be like to have it as your very own thing? I mean, who doesn’t?

But is that longed-for thing ever a cheese for you?

You see, for me, it often is. Perhaps that’s why I have a cheese blog and so few other people do. When I start thinking about a cheese, I just can’t get it out of my mind. I must have it. I must possess it! I must ingest it! his is how I feel about today’s cheese, Beecher’s Flagship.


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About a year ago I made my annual pilgrimage to Pike Place market in Seattle. It’s a vibrant if not overly crowded and touristy indoor/outdoor market full of fruit vendors, craft vendors, and men flinging fish. Across the street from the market is Starbucks store number 1 with its devotees lining up in pilgrimage, then a little further down this store, Beecher’s. A cheese store, with its own line up! When I was there last the line up was out the door, and I didn’t have the time to wait, so I was stymied. Why were they all lining up for cheese? This seemed so cruel to me. Apparently there was a sort of cheese making museum behind these lines-with a matching one in the Flatiron district in New York- where cheese making can be observed first hand, and I do SO APPROVE  as cheese making as entertainment, more places should do this

At long last I have managed to procure my own Beecher’s cheese, and it awaits me now. The label says, “semi-hard cow’s milk cheese, robust and nutty, straight from Seattle’s historic Pike Place Market” (I told you that bit already). I’m not sure if all the cheese is actually made there on site, or if this is a demonstration kitchen with another kitchen doing the heavy lifting elsewhere. It’s hard to imagine how that much cheese comes from such a little space, but maybe they make it work-I’m not sure.

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It’s apparently “pure, all natural and additive free and aged 15 months.” This cheese is pasteurized and made of cow’s milk, for those keeping tabs of these sorts of details. Beecher’s is the brainchild of turophile Kurt Beecher Dammeier. He opened his doors in this business in 2003. 1% of all sales go towards the Flagship foundation providing education about the benefits of healthy eating and nutrition to kids-sweet, like the healthy eating of cheese. Nicely done, Kurt!

Just in case you were wondering what exactly this  “flagship” cheese is, I notice that it won second place in the 2009 American Cheese Society “Aged Cheddars” so there’s your answer, it’s a cheddar. I notice from the Beecher’s website that there’s also a 4 year aged version and a smoked one too. Flagship also comes in a raw milk cheese, and a cloth bound raw milk version called “reserve”-bummer, I didn’t manage to score that, but now I have another goal, I must get me some of that cloth bound reserve.

My little slice of cheddar, erm, Flagship sits beside me. It’s not raw milk, or cloth bound, but it’s still a lovely cheese to behold. It crumbled ever so slightly when I cut it, and I do so love that. It has a lovely looking texture with a faint echo of curds in the paste. It’s a uniform light yellow throughout with no rind. The smell is totally mellow and chilled out. This is, after all a pasteurized cow’s milk cheddar, even my husband couldn’t complain about this one. Incidentally, there’s a LOT of complaining at times around this house at the cheese I bring home, I mean, really.

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Here goes: Salty, tangy, meaty-it’s a nice cheddar. There’s just the slightest hint of tyrosine crunch in this cheese, which makes me very happy. I bet the 4 year version is delightfully crunchy. It’s a nicely balanced cheese-the tart and salt are in great balance, and it has that happy cheddar hit that everyone loves, I mean really, who doesn’t love a real cheddar. My only complaint would be that perhaps it’s a little tame for my taste buds. Now that I know there’s an aged and a cloth bound version, I long for that strong mouldy taste as you approach the rind. I appreciate that may not be for everyone, but it sure is for me. This one is a perfectly lovely and friendly cheese, it’s a starter Cheddar and certainly won’t scare anyone away-and for those of us who like to kick it up a notch, there are more gnarly options, and THAT’S a very good thing.

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Day 67-Provolone Piccante

I’m turning into a cheese geek.  There’s no denying it.  I was in Stong’s market yesterday, and nearly had a public fit of joy when I realized they carried a whole line of Greek cheeses.  Later, I went out to Salt, a charcuterie restaurant in Gastown- and checked out their tasting menu. Imagine how thrilled I was to find Lincolnshire-“please, is the Lincolnshire Poacher?” I inquired, full of hope.  I also scoffed at the Mahon on the menu and steered my friends far away like a mother hen with her little cheese chicks.  You see, this is what I have become.  My life revolves around cheese.  It only took 66 days.

Speaking of cheese, isn’t it interesting how you often know the name of a cheese, but actually have no idea of what that cheese is?  Take Provolone, for example.  Up until just now I couldn’t tell you the first thing about it-but it’s one of those cheeses that has worked its way into our common discourse. Perhaps that is because Provolone is actually the national cheese of Italy.

Have you ever wandered into an Italian deli and noticed the weird looking cheese bound up in twine and hanging from the ceiling like some sort of fromage-based bondage scene?  That’s provolone.  It’s kind of like a mozzarella, only with taste.  Both cheeses come from the Italian “pasta filata” or “spun paste” family-meaning that they are a pulled-curd cheese.  The cheese curds are heated and then kneaded and stretched like a salt water taffy.  That gives the cheese that chewy texture and allows the shape to become almost anything.  After the young provolone is stretched it is then put into any number of bizarre shapes ranging from pear, sausage, or  hot air balloon, to the more creative. Some people actually sculpt provolone into animals, figures, or just about anything else.  It’s basically cheese silly-putty. A single provolone can weigh anywhere from one to several hundred pounds, so there’s an awful lot of room to free-form with this cheese.

Provolone-which means large Provola (basically meaning small provolone, a cheese tautology) first appeared about 120 years ago in southern Italy.  It started as a small cheese, made by individual producers, but then it grew and grew in size and popularity as it spread north. Provolone is now made both industrially and artisinally.   Provolone is always made from full-fat cow milk.  It is usually pasteurized, but sometimes made from raw milk.   There’s a lot of taste difference in the provolone family.  My sample, the Piccante (piquant) is aged a minimum 4 months and is well-piquant.  Then there is the Dolce-sweet version- which is younger and milder. Two types of provolone, Val Padana and del Monaco have received DOP designation, but not Provolone in general.  This explains why you find cheese calling itself provolone  just about everywhere.

My little piece of provolone piccante isn’t claiming to be DOP, so it likely isn’t. It has been warming up beside me for some time now, waiting for me-patiently.  The longer it waits, the stronger it smells.  This is actually quite a stinky little cheese for something that looks so benign.  The chunk it was sliced from also looked rather benign, no balloon or animal shape, no tortured string-acrobatics. Sigh.  My slice is pale and wan.  It looks like mozzarella. It’s firm looking with no eyes, no mold,  and no discernible rind whatsoever. Boring.

Here goes…

Mmmmm.  Not what I was expecting at all.   Yes, piquant is correct!  This cheese is extremely um, “intense” in flavour-not in a rotten sort of way, but in a salty, cheesey, bound-up-in-twine and hanging from the ceiling, astringent, zingy, “oh my God what is this,” sort of way.  It almost hurts my tongue to eat it- the taste is so loud.  Second bite-Holy!  It’s so sharp and zesty that my saliva glands have just gone insane-squirting madly. What in the world have they done to this cheese? How do you make milk taste like this?  Why did I ever think this was a boring little cheese? Provolone piccante is a sleeper: looks like mozzarella, tastes like pain. But in a good way.  You know that line,”hurts so good?”  I think they were talking about provolone piccante.   Clearly this is not the version found in sleepy little deli counters across the world, I suspect that would be the dolce (sweet) version.  That’s for wimps.  For those of you who like to eat on the edge, pick up some piccante and thank me later.

Day 63-Mahon

I got a little panicky yesterday. I have less than 40 cheese slots left.  I worry that I wasted too much time mired in an endless onslaught of triple cream brie.  Now there is so much cheese to eat, and so little time.  In order to address this I have done some research and made a “hit list” of cheese.  Really, 100 cheeses is just scratching the surface.  However, if I do manage to find the remaining 40 or so on my list I should be representing a relatively even-handed look at the cheeses of today.  Just so you know, there is a method to my madness!

Back to the Mediterranean!  Well to Minorca, which is the most northerly of the Balearic islands in the Mediterranean, technically part of Spain.  Minorca is the home of a historic and beloved cheese – Mahon, also known as Mao. It’s an ancient cow cheese that comes in both raw and pasteurized-lucky for me, mine is raw! Do you know why raw is always better?  It’s because cheese is all about bacteria-pasteurizing milk kills all the bacteria-then you have to start all over again.  It’s never going to be quite right-that’s why-if you aren’t pregnant, and if you have the option-go for raw. Raw will almost always be more intense and more delicious.This message was brought to you by raw.

Minorca is quite a remote Mediterranean island. Historically, the people there made cheese as a subsistence food  to keep their precious commodity of protein safe in a land of no refrigeration. Back in the day it was always a sheep cheese-and records of cheese making here go all the way back to the 13th century.   However, the British invaded in the 1700’s and brought cows with them.  Luckily, they left the cows behind, and the island switched to making cow cheese with the same methods: enter, Mahon.

Things got kind of interesting for Mahon after the British left.  The cheese became a trade commodity on which an entire new class of people based their livelihood- the “gatherer-ripeners.”  These folks emerged as a distinct social class, the first real cheese middle men.  They controlled all aspects of the cheese on island and made it a consistent product.  They traded goods to the farmers and received fresh cheese from the farmers in exchange.  The gatherer-ripeners then took these cheeses to their caves for the finishing. They then sold these cheeses at market, often for export, where its fame spread.

This basically  continues today on the Island. About 300 families create the milk which is now ripened by one of a few affineurs on island-perhaps a descendent of the historic gatherer-ripeners!  Affinage is really where it’s at with the creation of Mahon.  All young Mahon is kind of the same-generic, it’s the ripening in underground caves with a controlled climate that makes all the difference.  Depending on the desired finished product, the cheese will spend between 2-10 months in affinage.  The rind is created by rubbing butter, paprika and olive oil into the cushion shaped cheese at regular intervals during this period-which kind of sounds like fun!

Mahon is eaten at different stages. I think mine is the older version, as it’s pretty hard and parmesan looking, not a light and supple cheese. The rind is orange and I think inedible.  The interior is pretty yellow looking and a little speckled with crystallization, I hope I’m in for a crunch! It’s a very hard and firm looking cheese, but it’s not crumbling at all.  It’s totally keeping its act together. The smell is mild and almost nutty, no hint of nastiness in the least.

Here goes…

Astringent!  Salty!  Holy Hannah, my mouth just puckered right up.  I wasn’t expecting that kind of tartness in a cheese aged like this-usually a cheese has mellowed a little.  It’s super sour and my saliva glands have just gone into overtime, squirting like mad in order to deal with this taste.  The flavour has no subtlety to me at all.  I taste salt, I taste bitter.  Those tastes are so strong that any other note I should be catching is completely annihilated. The texture is firm, but does break down nicely on  the palate.  It doesn’t melt really, it just evaporates into a salty liquid.  You know how sometimes a really ugly chick is the most popular girl in her home town because she’s basically the only girl?  I suspect this may be sort of the case with Mahon. If you were stuck on an island in the Mediterranean with really only one cheese available, I bet you would think it was pretty fantastic too.  As for me, I’ll take a pass.

Day 54-4 year Cheddar-Ile aux Grues


It’s Christmas Eve. Merry Christmas/Solstice/Hanukkah/Kwanza to all of you out there in the blogosphere.  Don’t you just love the holiday season?  Doesn’t it make you think of cheese? I have been thinking about cheese a great deal-yes-don’t act surprised!  I’m quite chagrined that I wasn’t more in love with yesterday’s cheese, Keen’s Cheddar.  It’s awful when you want to like something, but don’t. I really wanted Keen’s to be the one.  Everything seemed right about it, but it wasn’t.   The thing is, I’m mad about cheddar-and I’m desperate to find the cheddar-the cheddar that I shall cuddle on the couch with in years to come, the cheddar that will become my cheese BFF, the cheddar that will go for long walks with me in the forest.  OK, maybe not long walks.

I have briefly touched on the 1000 year history of cheddar.  It has dominated the cheese scene since the second world war virtually extinguished thousands of British cheeses.  Why, though- why cheddar? It’s believed that Romans brought the first cheddar recipes from France to Britain.  Cheddar was made locally and on a small-scale just like all other cheeses until the 19th century when it became the first cheese to be “modernized.” A man named Joseph Harding known as the father of Cheddar Cheese (omg, so jealous of this name) mechanized the cheese making process of cheddar including developing a “revolving breaker” for curd which was called the “Joseph Harding method”.  This was the very first scientific approach to cheese making, and basically because of Harding, and its awesome taste-let’s be fair-Cheddar got the jump on all other cheese. The Harding family introduced their production methods to North America and their son took it to Australia, and so the Cheddar making technique, and cheddar itself spread across the land, like melted cheese from a spilt fondue!

Cheddar is made just about everywhere.  Today’s cheddar is a raw milk cow cheese from the Québécois Ile aux Grues (Goose Island.) This is a fromagerie on a small island in the St. Lawrence river-I have previously sampled and reviewed their cheese, “Riopelle.”  According to their website:  http://www.fromagesileauxgrues.com/cheese-house/ Ile aux Grues is a co-operative of 5 dairies working together  since the 1970’s.  They only use milk from their island herd of Brown Swiss cows that munch exclusively on the marsh grass of the island-the best of all grasses for cheese production!

I’m excited and a little alarmed that I see no reference to a 4 year cheddar on their website, only a mild cheddar and a two-year cheddar-yet my label clearly states “4 years.”  Could it be a two-year cheddar that was overlooked for a while?  Maybe it’s special!  Speaking of special, isn’t eating 4-year-old cow milk special.  Think about it, shouldn’t this kill me?  That it doesn’t is testimony to the wonder of our friends, the cheese microbes and their ability to transform a bit of rotting milk into the preserved sublime.

My little square of mysterious 4 year Ile de Grues cheddar sits quietly on my desk.  Cheddar does tend to behave itself, it ‘s firm and self-contained, uniform and smooth. The paste is pale and creamy, there is no rind.  I don’t think this was a traditional cloth bound cheddar, there are no wrappings to take off. It smells very mild, no hint of rot or nastiness of any kind, it’s hard to believe it’s 4 years old!

Here goes…

Wow! Tangy! So intense and cheddary, it’s like distilled essence of cheddar. It’s cheddar moonshine.  It’s like every cheddar you ever ate was put into a centrifuge and spun at high velocity until the cheddar flavour only remained-and then you ate that.  Really, wow.  It is a perfect balance of salt, tang and yum.  I could wear this as cheese perfume.  People would follow me like the Pied Piper of Hamlin.  Oh yes..this is the one.  I have been looking for you a long time, my little friend!  Your  texture is also sublime.   Thanks to the Harding method you are so smooth and creamy.  You aren’t crumbly like the Keen’s cheddar yesterday, and you don’t have the same tyrosine or calcium lactate crunch as the Keen’s.  But that’s ok with me, little friend, it’s just a smooth ride the whole way from bite to swallow.   This is just an amazingly piquant cheese, and I am actually drooling now after having a little nibble, salivary glands are going overtime dealing with this taste.  Great job, Ile aux Grues 4 year cheddar, oh, what a friend I have in (your) cheese-us!

 

Day 53-Keen’s Cheddar


It’s finally happened-53 days in.  I thought of eating cheese this morning and a little voice inside of me went, “oh f*ck, not cheese.”  It passed, quickly-don’t be alarmed!  But it turns out that I don’t have an infinite love of cheese-which is actually ok, as this blog will come to an end in 47 days, and then what?  Am I supposed to hang out in cheese shops with a long face, hoping someone will throw me a rind?  Am I to take up cheese making?  This madness must come to an end.

Speaking of madness, can you believe we are at cheese 53 and it’s only today I am trying Cheddar?  Why it’s the “single most popular cheese in the world!”  Well, at least according to John Cleese. Before starting my folly of fromage Cheddar was the only cheese I would ever go out and purchase. I knew it came in three flavours: orange, white and marbled-0h, also shredded.  God, that’s embarrassing. I hope by now, we all know that colour means nothing, the orange of Cheddar is actually a dye called annatto, it was historically used to colour crappy cheese to look like really good cheese and the convention stuck.  Also, the colour has nothing to do with the taste, it’s all about the culture, the affinage (the aging) and the recipe. And, there is no such thing as “marbled cheddar.” Shudder. The horror.

So…Cheddar.  There’s actually so much to say, that I am breaking this into a couple of posts. First, Cheddar is a cow cheese produced in many countries-the name cheddar is not protected, although it is actually named after the village of Cheddar in Somerset, England. It’s the most popular cheese in the UK and number 2 behind mozzarella in the USA (must be all the pizza and stuff).

Cheddar has been made in Somerset for about one thousand years…the “Cheddar Gorge” and “Wookey Grove” have a number of Cheddar caves in continuous use for a millennium (is it just me or do these sound like a cheese version of Willy Wonka?)  The second world war almost knocked out the British cheese making tradition.  Many cheeses became extinct as almost all milk was used for making a single cheese called “government cheddar.”  Before the war there were almost 3,500 cheeses in England, and after the war fewer than 100 remained.  Holy Hannah, looks like the real victor of WW2 was cheddar.  How did I miss that one in the history books?

Keen’s Cheddar is a raw milk cheddar which has been artisanally made since 1899.  It’s cloth bound and matured for 12 months in some cave with a fabulous name (nice website at http://www.keenscheddar.co.uk/).  Although the term cheddar isn’t protected, the phrase “West Farmhouse Cheddar” is PDO  (Product of Designated Origin) and Keen’s has this designation. The Keen family has its own cows and makes its own cheese onsite-that’s why they get away with using raw milk-their cows only graze at Blackmoor vale.   This cheese is an award winner  taking home, ” first prizes at the Nantwich International Cheese show 2009, Gold award at the world cheese awards  held in Dublin, and the best PDO Cheese at the British Cheese Awards.”

My little chunk of Keen’s looks like…well, Cheddar cheese.  It’s white and creamy and kind of firm-but not dried out.  There’s a little bit of cloth that you need to take off, they remind me of mummy wrappings.  In all my cheddar eating years I have never peeled off a bit of cloth, so you do have to wonder what I have been eating.  Not real cheddar. It smells yummy and cheesey, and well-cheddary.

Here goes…

Wow, what in the world is this?  If this is cheddar, (and it is) I have been eating something else entirely. First, the texture is what you would expect, firm, yet creamy, no surprises except for the crunchy tyrosine crystals-crunchy cheddar, that’s a first for me. The taste is so sharp it makes my salivary glands squirt.  It’s much more intense that I was expecting.  It tastes like cows and booze, and tears-likes bovine teens on a bender.  It’s faintly barnyardy-but also quite salty and just a tiny bit sweet. I’m strangely not liking this cheese.  I want to like it, but it just doesn’t taste right- perhaps my taste buds have been ruined by crappy cheddar.  The thing is, crappy cheddar, has been one of my “go to” comfort foods, it’s the taste I am most familiar with, and even though this cheese is patently better, it’s just not what I am expecting. Sorry, Keen’s, it’s unfair, if only you had gotten to me first!

Day 50-Thomas Hoe Stevenson Red Leicestershire

My 50th cheese!  I’m half way through my journey of fromage.  This blog is getting older.  I am getting older.  Guess what else is getting older?  Did you guess cheese?  You would be correct.  One of the things I most love about cheese-and that’s saying quite a bit-is that it is aged, and often-the older it is-the better.  It’s the controlled falling into rot that fascinates me.  In this world of “fast food” cheese is the ultimate “slow food.”  Cheese is Zen.  Cheese teaches us to wait.  Cheese is wise.  I learn from cheese.

Today I kneel humbly before my cheese guru-Red Leicester, also known as Red Leicestershire, also known as Leicestershire cheese.  My particular sample is the “Thomas Hoe Stevenson” Leicestershire, a pasteurized English cow cheese, and a close cousin to cheddar although this one fits in the “English Crumbly” category, like yesterday’s cheese, Lancashire.

Leicester has an interesting history.  It’s been around in one form or another for hundreds of years.  This cheese was originally made on farms in Leicestershire with the extra left over milk from Stilton making, and was coloured with carrot or beet juice before annatto came along.  It’s interesting to me-as a younger sibling of a patently GREAT elder sibling-how many cheeses are made up with the leftovers of a great cheese, or the crap winter milk of a great cheese.  In a fit of cheese anthropomorphizing  (if it’s even possible to anthropomorphize cheese) I often feel great empathy for these cheeses-that’s a personal aside.   The county of Leicester was a hot bed of cheese back in the day, a cheese market was established in 1759 with regulations and rules about how the cheese was to be made and sold.    This early cheese board actually hired a  town crier to read aloud the punishments for any person trying to sell a bad cheese!

Cheese making in all forms came to a grinding halt in England in the second world war due to rationing. Many cheeses became extinct at this time.  The government also used WW2 as an opportunity to put in rules and regulations around specialty cheeses. Red Leicester was actually not made during this period as the addition of colouring agents was also banned during the war.  This cheese made it back from the brink of extinction and seems to be doing well these days, it’s made by a number of cheese makers.

My little slice of Red Leicestershire hails from Thomas Hoe Stevenson-which is a trademarked name owned by Long Clawson Dairy Limited (http://www.clawson.co.uk/.)  I’m not sure who Thomas Hoe Stevenson was, or why the Long Clawson Dairy uses his name as a trademark-honestly, I think “Long Clawson” Red Leicestershire has a better ring.  But no one asked me.  Long Clawson are essentially Stilton makers, and again, this poor cheese is made with the non-Stilton left over milk.  Red Leicestershire is cloth bound and buttered-and for the record-that sounds like fun!

 My slice of Red Leicestershire is quite a beautiful looking cheese.  It’s got a dark red-orange hue, like someone really went crazy with the annatto-it’s by far the reddest cheese I have ever seen.  It has a brown cloth rind that needs to be peeled off before eating. It has a crumbly looking interior structure-like a cheddar, it’s firm and hard .  The smell is faint and a little barnyardy, it’ been aged at least 9 months, so all the ammonia is long gone.
Here goes…
It tastes like cheddar that’s been hanging out in a horse stall for a little bit too long.  There’s a distinct “eau de barn” but I kind of like it.  Mmmmm.  It’s making my jaw squelch-do you know what I mean?  Some tangy cheeses actually make my saliva glands squirt, and it actually hurts just a little.  There’s a real tang to this cheese, but also a backing of acetone, and cow and yum. I have tasted this acetone flavour on one other occasion-Riopelle D’Isle and I don’t know what this taste is doing in either of these cheeses.  That being said, I do like it very much, so maybe it should be there.  It just seems kind of weird.   The texture is just great, very firm and crumbly.  Actually, this is a freaking great cheese.  It’s quite strong and packs a punch, but isn’t raunchy in the least.  If I were a town crier in the 1700’s in Leicestershire I would sing praises to this cheese, bravo, encore, well done!