Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Want some cheese with that whine?

“What do you smell? Stone fruit, citrus, a hint of cat urine perhaps?”

I’ve been to many a wine tasting and seminar and they’re always a bit daunting, always a bit intimidating when someone exclaims the undertone of chocolate in the Pinot Noir is heightened by briary essence and barnyard (AKA manure). Even more so when the sommelier nods in vigorous agreement and you yourself look sourly into your glass: half angry that you don’t taste it, half extremely glad you can’t.

You are part of the intelligentsia if you exclaim that a certain Sauvignon Blanc has a hint of cat urine, or that other varietals are full of soil or minerals, but apparently, do not ever say the red’s reminiscent of dried rose. Cause that means the wine has been bottled by an amateur. Go figure.

Yesterday I attended such a gathering with four dazzling wines filled to the brim only to compliment the main event: a white plate studded with a circle of eight glorious slabs of cheese. It was my first official cheese class, though in my line of work I’ve been fortunate enough to attend others (nibbling behind the curtains, that is, straining to hear the famous chefs, hand shaking from the weight of the bottle I held, ever ready to spring out and jump upon patrons to top off their glasses). But last night I paid my way like a grown-up and so I had a proper seat and before the first cheese was tasted, I promptly knocked my fork to the floor, and as it thundered through the acoustics, I understood completely why I shouldn’t be allowed at such classy events unless on staff.

The cheeses ranged from fresh and firm and milky white to 65% butterfat, oozing gold through their chalky encasings. One was a long and nutty cheddar, another a heavily veined blue, one the only lightly pasteurized goat’s milk cheese worth trying, peppered with several layers of rind, noted by ash. Some of them were pretty darn stinky. As in burned both my nostrils and my mouth. You know a cheese is good when you feel nose membranes and mouth tissue sear simultaneously.

My favorite of the night was a tie between the Brescianella Stagionata (described as an exceptional washed-rind, soft-ripened, cow’s milk cheese from Lombardy with a beautifully smooth, sweet paste--wonderful rich flavors and a lingering, grassy aftertaste, but really, this is the one that burned me so fabulously) and the Bayley Hazen Blue (an aggressive Vermont blue with a woody, natural rind like tree bark).

Our cheesemonger, the famed Waldemar Albrecht, explained to us it all began in the Middle East, when desert trekkers had accidentally churned and curdled milk in their carried hide skins. He navigated the difference ranging from buffalo to mare and how cheese is the perfect fermented food and should always be eaten with the perfect fermented drink (wine or in some cases, beer). He stressed how Artisanal was the first empire to age cheese in temperature controlled caves, how some specific and incredible raw milk cheeses are illegal here (not to get into politics, he noted, his Venezuelan lilt straining over the words) and finally, hinted at the education one could obtain while under study at such a prestigious fromagerie; milking the animals at dawn and dusk, pouring off whey and salting for hours, boots heavy with earth (and finally, what I imagine to be blindfold tastings administered by a large headmistress with a large whip: “Non, non, non! Eeest Roquefort, imbecile! Non Stilton! Now go clean the bidets!” Though in fact this last item was not mentioned, I am convinced it is true.).

And suddenly, as impulsive as I have always been, I got really excited. I thought, gee, that sounds a lot cooler than grad school for creative writing…maybe I can sign up to work on a farm for a few months as a monger in training…

Ah, to be young…and covered in cheese…a lofty goal if there ever was one.


Madame Pinot said...

on the wine tasting, i went to a pinot tasting in san diego in november, and i was hearing the same things (barnyard, briary essence). i thought, why am i drinking this? but i didn't taste it, i just tasted the goodness of it all!

great post!

themarina said...

As someone that grew up milking goats and making cheese, I can tell you that it's not as glamorous as it sounds. However, I will agree that a good cheese is one that has a distinct flavor and sometimes scent.

goodness gracious! said...

i'm similar-my backup plans if i don't get into grad school are mixology (taking that dale degroff bartending course at the rainbow room) or glass blowng/casting, or possibly candymaking/sugar blowing. or bookbinding. because, you know, they're the natural options if this whole phd in psychology doesn't work out.

Anonymous said...

Sounds freaking awesome.

Frannie Farmer said...

It does dound cool. I imagine I would react the same way ...

PeeJ said...

Stupendous! I would've skipped straight for the cheese though. I am a complete cheese-aholic, and thankfully here in good old Blighty we're just spoiled for choice. Shropshire Blue (which is bright orange but shot through with gorgeous blue coppery veins) is just too good for words...!

I think the guy's right, a good cheese should go with a good wine but it works OK with a good tart apple.