I am a firm believer in the powers of the pig. It truly is a wonderful, magical animal that can give us ham, pork chops, bacon, pork belly…not to mention the endless creations featuring pig as star, both good (Morelli’s Maple Bacon Brittle ice cream) and not-so-good (Bacon Air). BUT, what can’t that hog give us? The answer is what defines for me why Homer Simpson is wrong (just this once) when it comes to the real magical animals. Pigs can’t give us cheese. And you know I’m not talking about head cheese.
Why all this ruminating about swine and cheese? Last week I had the pleasure of attending a special luncheon at Holeman & Finch featuring discussion with Liz Thorpe. As Vice President of Murray’s Cheese Shop and author of the recently published book The Cheese Chronicles, Liz knows a thing or two about the luxurious product that can only come from our friends the cows, goats, and sheep. The whole pig thing came about when the cheeses at the luncheon arrived, plated beautifully, on a pig-shaped cheese board. Par for the course in Holeman & Finch, which prides itself on the ingenious preparation of pig in many delectable forms, but it was enough to remind me why some animals are more equal than others.
On to the good stuff! At the luncheon, I enjoyed Sweet Grass Dairy Chevre, Burrata di Andria, Westfield Farm Capri, La Serena, and Nettle Meadow Kunik. Accompanied by beet chutney, fig preserves, spiced pecans, fresh strawberries, and H&F bread, as well as a perfectly dressed salad of spring lettuces, ramps, radishes, and pickled mushrooms, I couldn’t have dreamed up a better lunch. Paired with a crisp white wine and finished with pears and sorghum syrup, I pretty much decided I could live on bread, wine, cheese, nuts, veggies, and fruit alone. Ok, it would be several days at least before I missed the might of meat.
After much sampling and re-sampling (a tough job, I know), my favorite cheese on the board was the Nettle Meadow Kunik–a goat’s milk cheese made into a triple crème through the introduction of Jersey cow cream. As Murray’s declares on their website, “Brilliant!” It’s buttery and tangy, mild enough to please anyone but flavorful enough to bore no one. It is dense, creamy, and crave-worthy. Additionally, it was interesting to read on Murray’s site that the cheese-maker feeds her animals only organically-grown grain and hay, as well as a variety of herbs. Everything they’re doing at Nettle Meadow is working, in delicious fashion.
The Burrata di Andria came in a very close second-favorite. The fact that if not otherwise in polite company I would have picked up the bowl and drank its leftover contents…perhaps indicates a tie. This cheese is so fresh that you’ve got to eat it within two weeks which, given its enrobing, creamy, salty-sweet goodness, shouldn’t be a problem. It’s similar to mozzarella di bufala, which I fell in love with while studying abroad in Italy, eating fresh mozzarella from buffalos whose fields I had moments before walked by. For me, burrata has all of the fresh creaminess of mozzarella with a little more flavor. Flavor that makes you want to slurp it out of a bowl.
I always enjoy goat cheeses and found the tart, fresh offerings from Sweet Grass and Westfield Farm to be prime examples of flavorful chevre. Liz mentioned to us that we goat cheese lovers are lucky to be in Georgia, where dairies like Sweet Grass can benefit from a climate that fosters near year-round grass-feeding. It’s because of this diet that the Sweet Grass goats produce a slightly more yellow-hued chevre than their Massachusetts counterparts. I thought they were equally delicious, but am so proud to have Sweet Grass as a local go-to.
Finally, I least enjoyed the La Serena, but my personal tastes don’t generally lean toward cheeses that are described as “barny.” I know that some folks seek out “zippy” cheeses like this and, unlike my experiences with full-on stinky cheeses like Stilton, I thought the Serena to be palatable. Its gooey core was especially balanced when I paired it with the earthy beet chutney. I also appreciated the ancient technique of using dried wild thistle to set the milk–as with any food or drink, a little knowledge goes a long way toward true enjoyment.
I’m excited to learn a lot more by reading Liz’s book, because the cows, goats, and sheep are only the beginning (or middle?) in great cheese stories. Field to farm to table couldn’t be more important than it is in the world of cheese-making and there couldn’t be more incredible stories than those of the artisans who bring us this most magical product.
Check it: Now is the perfect time of year to put together a beautiful cheese board (be it pig-shaped or no)! Not only do cheeses have terroir, but they have seasons, too–in fact, goats and sheep tend to mate in the fall and stop producing milk during the winter. That means that beginning in April is the best time for fresh goat and sheep’s milk cheeses. Cows produce milk year-round, but the early spring and fall milk, when cows are eating grasses and flowers, brings the most yummy cheeses.