Monday, April 21, 2008

King Island's Cloth Aged Cheddar: Cheese & Wine

Recently I tried a cheese from Australia that so warmed my dairy obsessed heart that I've been aching to wax on about it on this blog. So it seems fitting that the first wine and food pairing topic on the reader's request list that I'll tackle is cheese. It feels like I'm cheating.

In time I'll cover hundreds of cheese and wine pairings (my tummy is growling already), but the focus of this post is King Island's Cloth-Aged cheddar, and the wine to sip while you nibble.

Why cloth age?

Cloth-aging is a technique utilized to supply some of the finest cheddars in the world with their subtle panache. Wrapping the cheddars with cloth rather than plastic or wax allows air to more freely circulate around the cheese. The result is a cheese that ages, or dries faster than their waxy cousins. The outcome is a drier cheddar, with crumbly verses a chunky texture.

In addition, most often the milk used for the cloth-aged guys is raw (not heated to the point of pasteurization), and throughout the six months to a year plus that the cheese is aged, the milk becomes more nutty and buttery. This, for me, is what defines a cloth-aged cheddar: a crumbly, buttery, nutty cheese that sometimes reflects the grass or herbs the cows are eating who produce the milk. The majority of cloth-aged do not have as sharp of a flavor as the wax or plastic-aged, and so being, it's much easier to taste the nuances in the milk.

I've tasted everything from grass to thyme in a cloth-aged cheddar before, and the King Island Cheddar shone no less brightly. Caramel, nutty, butterscotch and tangy, the King Island Cheddar even provided me with a flashback to a day when I was eating fried oysters. It was that sweet, opulent, briny, and even light mushroom character in the cheese that sang to me. Go figure?

But what made my first taste of this cheese even more exciting for me was that it was also the first time that I had a cheese from Australia that left me enamored. Now, I'm sure that there are fantastic cheeses in the country, but most of them either just aren't imported to the U.S., or they are hidden away in cellars of the Fromage Maffia, who are unwilling to share their joys. I firmly believe this because although I order cheese for the wine bar that I work at and worked in a gourmet cheese shop prior to this job, I've never taken note of say, more than three excellent Australian cheeses. There is no other way to explain this.

What to drink with cheddar
Cheddar's a picky cheese. It doesn't like to be paired with quiet or delicate varietals, or even big Pinot Noirs. In fact, it stomps it's feet and refused to behave and show it's best side unless paired with a riper wine. A "fruit-forward" wine -a.k.a- a wine whose grapes where picked when very ripe and relatively sweet so that the first thing that hits the nose when tasting the wine is FRUIT!!!!) is the best choice for a Cheddar.

Like a screaming child with a scraped knee needs a lollypop, this cheese requires a little sweetness to tame its sharp edges. California wines are normally the ripest, and our Zinfandels and Syrahs in particular are excellent at exhibiting full-fruit while not giving up any of the other more refined flavors inherit to the grapes.

Keeping this is mind, some wines that I've tasted with this Cheddar, and others, that paired fabulously, are the Terre Rouge "Les Cotes de L'Ouest" Syrah, by Bill Easton, and the T-Vine Zinfandel, made by Greg Brown (whose Vin de la Table interview I will be posting within a week or so!).

The Terre Rouge is an Sryah made in Amador County, CA that has a brooding, smoky, spicy earthy, peppery character. But it also has thick blasts of raspberry and blueberry fruit, which means that it is just lush enough to pair nicely with the cheddar's bite.

The T-Vine Zinfandel is an extracted, bold wine with oodles of fruit. It's intense, deep, very peppery, spiked with blackberries, cassis, and graced with a great acidity and big tannins that make it stand out from other super fruity Zins. In England, people often have chutney or extracurricular fruit spreads with their cheddars. This is what the T-Vine was to me- a thick, fruity enhancer to the cheddar that together with the cheese, popped in the mouth. P.S. I've tried T-Vine Sryah with cheeses of this kind, and it works just as well.

Some fantastic cloth-aged cheddars from the U.S and the U.K, just in case Australia isn't in your local cheese shop.:
Shelburne Farms Cloth Aged, Vermont
arr Valley Cave and Cloth Aged CheddarC, Wisconsin
Isle of Mull and Westcombes Cheddar, both by Neal's Yard Dairy, England.

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Monday, April 14, 2008

Merry Edwards & Philippe's French Dip

Los Angeles is a city to which I’ve been on a number of occasions, but not one that I’ve really enjoyed until taken on a local’s tour by my friend Kate, of My Friend Kate Tours. A town where many of the best restaurants and bars are barely marked or nearly windowless, LA aches for an introduction. Especially a culinary one.

Thanks to the tried and true experience of our friend, my husband and I ate the best tamales in Echo Park (true they were the only ones sampled, but their silky lard inspired texture, tender meat, and expert chile heat left convinced). Then, we were lead to Philippe’s restaurant, where we consumed French Dip sandwiches in their birthplace and had a beautiful imbibing experience.

According to Philippe’s website, the owner Philippe invented the French Dip sandwich, a sandwich whose bun is dipped in au jus, or meat juice drippings, when a customer’s bun was accidentally dropped in a meat pan and the customer was so enamored with the creation that he brought back his friends for more. And more. Inspired by his French heritage and the like last name of the customer who fell in love with his mistake, Philippe named his new delicious moneymaker the French Dip.

After I heard the story of the sandwich, the only question remaining in my mind was: Should I get a cup of the 10 cent coffee that Philippe’s still sells, or should I pair wine with my French Dip. Guess my answer.

I swore that I would expend any wine snobbery and order whatever the place sold for wine, just for the experience. If Philippe thought Charles Shaw or a white zin was the best paired with his meat-wiches, then so be it. I’m always willing to try someone else’s wine pairing and figured that if the offering was unpleasant, merely a sip would provide sufficient means for a post. Besides, one of my wine pairing pet peeves is that people always go for the tried and true beer and sandwich or BBQ or soul food match when any of these foods may actually taste better with wine. Although I love a good brew, I didn’t want to go there. If what they had didn’t work, I knew that I could come up with one back at home.

Then I arrived at the restaurant and my jaw dropped.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised to find the glories that I did on the menu. Philippe was a Frenchman. Did I really expect him to permit consumption of white zin in-house?

Not only did they have Spottswood, one of the best biodynamic/organic Napa Cabernet Sauvignons on the menu, they had Merry Edwards Pinot Noir. And more. Now, I don’t know if you know how wonderful Merry Edward’s wines are, or how hard they are to acquire (restaurant only, not available in wine shops), but I certainly do. After much work, I was able to buy them for our bar. We had to send them our wine bar food and wine menus, tell them of good intentions with their wine, promise to only pour them at the wine bar, and lastly, sign a contract saying that we would not sell their wines on the floor or buy them for personal consumption. It was so worth it.

Back at Philippe’s, I ordered the 2006 Merry Edwards Russian River Valley Pinot Noir with my French Dip, because it is one of my favorite wines, and because I’ve never had the honor of drinking this wine in a restaurant sans a white tablecloth. We got a pork and beef dip to share .

The Merry Edwards Pinot Noir is always a force to be reckoned with. Her Russian River version in particular, with its deep cherry, pomegranate and wild spice flavors and a backbone of bright acidity, is a Pinot Noir that can stand up to…. wow, almost anything.

There is an assumption out there that Pinot Noirs are always shy, delicate creatures. In actuality, and as demonstrated by such Pinots as Merry Edwards, Fort Ross, Cargasacchi, the Alfaro Family, many Pinot Noirs have the strength and grace to stand up to darker or lush cuts of meats and triple-crème cheeses as well as lighter fishes or poultry. They can be so well-structured, in fact that any of these Pinots will taste even better after sitting opened in their bottle for a day or two or three.

True to its reputation (spread by Vin de la Table) of being a Pinot Noir that’s remarkably easy to pair well with food, the Merry Edwards was fantastic with the French Dips. It could easily handle the sliced roast beef, but alas, I like it best with the pork. I’ve always preferred roast or pulled pork sandwiches (the aforementioned would taste awesome with a bigger Pinot Noir) to sliced roast beef, so call me partial, but the luscious fat bits remaining on the pork meat really shined with the wine.

And the sandwiches? Lord they were good. The idea of an entire sandwich dipped in meat juice never appealed wildly to me, but I’m an adventurer and wanted to test my sandwich boundaries in the dish’s birthplace. You can either have them dip the buns for you- which is good for beginners scared by soggy buns- or one can order a bowl with the juice to dip the buns themselves. Imagine a crispy bun, softened with au jus, and filled with supple meat. Exactly.

Needles to say, my food and wine experience in LA was one that I won’t forget. It was also one that inspired my husband and I to decided that in five or six years, if either of us were offered a fantastic job in that city, we might consider relocating to Hell-A. Just consider, mind you.

Coming soon: Cheddar and Wine, Straight Outta Chocolate, Chocolate and Wine... more winemaker interviews, and more and more.

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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Salads and Wine: A Dirty Rumor Exposed

Thank you for all of your posting advice! I will attend to all your wine and food pairing interests in the coming months. In the meantime, keep the topic recommendations coming. I want to write about the wine and food pairing in which you're all interested. Now....

Someone, lets say it was one of the Hilton sisters because sometimes their all-night parties lead to crazy things, once spread the word that salads do not pair well with wines. I know, horrible. But even worse was that some of us, not knowing that one of the Hiltons recently called West Africa a country or that the same one occasionally forgets to put on her underpants, believed that there was a holy truth to this statement.

The horror.

Please allow me the honor of defalsifying the former accusation; Salads can be wonderful with wine.

The statement that salads can be hard to pair with wines does have some foundation. Vinaigrettes, after all can be pains to match, as the acidity levels in the vinegar can just make a wine feel funny. With reds especially, they tend to remind them of their former salad days when they were this close to becoming vinegar if they made a wrong decision in their fermenting path. And this embarrasses them. In addition, the acids in salad dressings, mixed with the tannins in darker red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, can lay the grounds for a horrible, mouth-puckering situation. Take note, high acid foods + very tannic wines = often awkward.

However, with a little love, a salad can grow up to be a fine pairing for wine. Here are some hints:

1. Make a salad dressing with a light vinegar. Stay away from recipes insisting that you use all balsamic. Balsamic is generally too harsh for wines. If you need to use balsamic for some reason, mix it with a wine-themed vinegar, like mucat, or champagne to tame its bitter finish.

2. Use vinegars made from wine grapes or named after a wine growing regions or white grapes (a.k.a Champagne, cava, muscat). They are gentler on the palate, less acidic, and can easily snuggle up to their wine friends with a little olive-oil coaxing. Think match like with like.

3. Skip vinegar all together and use lemon juice or another citrus fruit for the acid. This creates a lighter, more subtle salad dressing. Plus, citrus fruit doesn’t feel like it’s in competition with wine, rather it aims at highlighting any citrus flavors found in the wine, or any other flavors that citrus can bring to the surface.

4. Drink Gruner Vetliner and other whites or rosés without oak with your salad. Wood and vinegar and letttuce, come on, does that even sound good?

5. If you are drinking reds with your salad, drink a higher acidity red with bright fruit, light tannins and very little oak (see # 4), like a Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley. Do not drink Cabernet Sauvignon with your salad. It will not taste good. It has too much oak and tannins to sweet talk a salad.

What do you drink with your salads?

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Saturday, April 5, 2008

Advise Me!!!

So I have some ideas for future posts, like salad and wine pairing advice and more on CHEESEs (sigh), but what I really want to know is, what do you want me to write about?

What are some pairings that you want further explored?

Any questions you've been pondering about wine and food matches and losses?

Anything that you've wanted me to explore more that I've touched on before?

Any grapes out there that you've been aching to pair with a tasty morsel that I haven't even mentioned?

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