Great Expectations: Sweet Beautiful Milk Can Do No Wrong
I’m Jackie and I live on a small farm in Western Pennsylvania where I raise old-fashioned Milking Devon cattle. This farm evolved from my frustration with America’s industrialized food system. Auburn Meadow Farm is a living experiment in sustainability and humility. And deliciousness.
The farm is in a rural community called West Middlesex, a little over one hour north-west of Pittsburgh. It’s a Walmart sort of town, but our more upscale local grocery chain attempts a fine cheese case. You have to check regularly, as sometimes there are random treasures, but most of the time, the cheeses are safe, pre-cut & wrapped and completely misunderstood by their caretakers.
For example, on learning that the Jasper Hill cheese would be inspired by Appenzeller, I have to admit, I had never tasted Appenzeller. Being curious, I drove to Pittsburgh to visit our best-known cheese monger in the city and asked for an Appenzeller recommendation. No recommendation necessary – there was just one to choose from. Apparently, if you’ve got one Appenzeller, you’ve got them all…
Not a good sign, since The Murray’s Cheese Handbook tells me that since there are “seventy five cooperatives cranking out some two hundred thousand wheels each year, there is good Appenzeller and not-so-good Appenzeller. Avoid the foil-wrapped stuff that’s firm but gummy and tastes like cheap slicing Swiss cheese.”
My monger knew little about Appenzeller aside from where to find it and that I had to buy at least ½ pound. We looked everywhere on the foil label for any indication of maker or identification beyond the name of the cheese and Switzerland and couldn’t find anything more specific.
Foil wrapped? Check
Firm? Check, check.
Gummy? Check, check, check.
Tastes like cheap slicing Swiss cheese? I wouldn’t go that far, but I was pretty confident that this was not the Appenzeller that Max McCalman’s Cheese, A Connoisseur’s Guide to the World’s Best calls “a treasure – a beautiful and delicious artifact, an exemplar of traditional Swiss mountain cheeses.”
And Steve Jenkins in his handy Cheese Primer teases us with descriptions of Rässkäse, a style of Appenzeller aged much longer than usual. My commercial Appenzeller shows no traces of the special peppery, herby, wine or cider baths that small producers give their cheeses, and while I don’t know for sure, I find it unlikely that my commercial Appenzeller was made from raw milk.
I shared my precious Jasper Hill Farm box with friends, and again, thank you so very much; it was a real treat and we had great fun with it. We all appreciate hand crafted things and a small aside: we loved the use of the wood shavings in the packaging.
Coming from a cheese-starved region as I do, maybe my experience and standards are not as high as some of the other tasters, but I was thrilled with the simple, clean, high quality of the cheeses. Clearly they are a work in progress, but beyond the aromas of the rinds, the paste of each cheese has the buttery richness of beautiful, well-handled cultured milk. Each of the cheeses was in line with my expectations and even in their unfinished state, already a huge upgrade over my no-name Appenzeller.
Considering each sample strictly on an as-is rather than a what-will-be basis, everyone’s favorite was 111228. It had an enjoyable balance between salty and cultured cream and the texture seemed a little fattier & creamier than 111215.
111215 was simple and clean with a slightly less pleasant texture that makes me guess it’s made with skim. Definitely saltier and somewhat sharper than 111228, we couldn’t help but wish this one into the future because it promises to become more nutty and develop crystals (we love crystals!) with age. I’m dying to know if I’m right about the milk on this one, because I have a secret dream of making piquant, washed rind, crystal filled cheeses from skimmed milk.
Even though in its present state we enjoyed it, 120125 was not the favorite eating cheese. It is however, the one that still has me thinking. The rind was the most off-putting to me, in both aroma and texture. It definitely smells of cat pee, and the sticky, salmon colored tackiness was not pleasant. But 120125 is complex, the paste has the rich sweet cultured butter flavor plus a bit of oniony-feetiness that offers great promise.
This afternoon, I decided to cook up a little lunch using my cheese. I had plenty of 120125 left, so decided on two things: a grilled cheese and a salad.
I had some Pullman bread, which I thought would be perfect for such a mildly flavored cheese. I am a fan of toasted rather than fried cheese sandwiches and Pullman toast is delicate and gives a perfect not-too-scratchy, soft, comfort-food texture.
I buttered one side of one piece of bread, piled it with some grated 120125 then topped that with a little broccoli slaw. Maybe not for you, but I love slaw on a sandwich. My slaw has a tiny bit of Dijon in the vinaigrette that I felt added just the perfect, subtle tang and crunch. I toasted it quickly on both sides in a dry cast iron skillet, cut the crusts off, and there you go. The perfect summer lunch.
My salad was Alton Brown’s fresh broccoli salad leftover from last night’s Mother’s Day dinner. The broccoli stalks are sliced very thin on a mandoline and lightly dressed in a lemony, Dijon vinaigrette. From an earlier foraging mission, my cousin had given me a precious stash of shelled black walnuts. Unlike the more common English walnuts, black walnuts have a fruity flavor unlike anything else. I toasted the walnuts and topped my broccoli salad with them and some grated 120125.
Yum. As pungent as it smells, I was surprised at how mild the cheese was when used in cooking. Though I expected mildness, I wanted the cheese to be the star and took care to keep the flavors of the foods paired with it low key. Even so, the cheese we fondly dubbed “Cat Butt” turned out to be even milder than I expected. Had the flavor of the cheese been just a tiny bit more pungent, this would have been a memorable meal. As it was, it was just pretty darn good.
By the way, Vince’s (from Jasper Hill Farm) sealed tasting notes were very interesting to read after the fact. I’m excited to know that if all goes according to plan, we are going to get to try these same cheeses again after further aging. I’m dying to know more about the milk: what month was this cheese made, is it from Ayrshire cows, what were they eating at the time and I think the milk is raw, but is it?
The excitement is killing me; I can’t wait to see what a few more months will bring….
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