Manchester United, Nobel Prizes, and ubiquitous hot sauce: Somerville's Journeyman meets Jasper Hill cheese
I'm Meg, one of the 20 new wedgeheads blogging about their experiences with the Birth of a Cheese 2012. The first thing I should tell you is that I got engaged to my now-husband over a wheel of robiola la rosso. The second thing I should tell you is that I'm the general manager & beverage director of a teeny restaurant in Somerville, MA called Journeyman.
Journeyman is the kind of restaurant that takes its cheese pretty seriously, but even as someone who can talk about membrillo, honeycomb, and all the traditional cheese-sides until she's blue in the face, tasting a cheese that isn't at its peak is a scary idea. I may know what I love about a well-aged wheel of comte, but could I recognize those characteristics in a young cheese? Before I opened the white cake box with the Jasper Hill sticker on it, I was worrying that I wasn't going to have good enough feedback for Jasper Hill, Culture Magazine, or my own internal standards: this is like judging who'll win a Nobel Prize out of a class of kindergarteners, isn't it?
To calm myself, I asked my business partners, the married chefs behind Journeyman's kitchen, to taste with me. Having two trained palates whose idiosyncrasies and complexities I know so well alongside me reassured me that together we'd come up with valuable feedback for Jasper Hill, and some fun anecdotes to blog about.
There were three nearly-identical wedges of cheese in that box, nestled between wood shavings and an ice pack, and I was nervous right until I started unwrapping each wedge. As the familiar aroma of ammonia and cow joined the familiar crinkling sound of waxed butcher's paper, I relaxed. This is the part I know how to do: I eat professionally! Half of my job is tasting what my favorite chefs have created and finding ways to enhance that on the table for a guest, either with the right words to introduce it, or with a beverage pairing to match it. It suddenly seemed less daunting to eat kindergartener cheese with my favorite chefs, and even more exciting: not only was I tasting the cheese for the kinds of details that interest me, I was going to hear what two of the best chefs I know thought, too.
We tasted first thing in the morning (by our standards, at least, because morning doesn't start until 10am in our world), and you'll see the morning detritus of restaurant life around us in my photos: stacks of plates, day-old menus, and the ubiquitous bottles of hot sauce that my staff leave everywhere after hours.
The unwrapped three wedges were of soft yellow cheese with a lovely orange-y-pink rind, and the sunlight from our skylight lit them up so they almost glowed. If I were to be completely over-the-top in our visual descriptions, I'd say that the cheeses were the colors of a sunrise.
We reviewed what we knew: this was an unfinished alpine cheese, but were we looking at 3 wedges cut from one wheel or more than one wheel? Were we looking at a cheese that was incredibly young or already well along its path to the long aging we'd expect from a wheel that large? Could we see distinct differences in the colors, textures, or blooms of each cheese that would help us tell them apart aside from the different numbers carefully stuck on the packaging of each cheese?
I pulled out our evaluation form, and started scribbling the basic categories for our feedback down: appearance & aroma, texture & taste, marketability & conclusions. We'd not been staring at the cheeses for 30 minutes, and we ended up abandoning the cheeses for another 30 minutes to get coffee, as we were all cracking jokes about how the cheese reminded us of pillows, smelled like sleep, and needed more caffeine.
When we came back, palates dulled but minds sharpened, we settled in to tasting. I'll leave my precise tastings notes for the Jasper Hill folks, but let me say, at least, what we concluded from our earlier questions: we don't think these three samples came from the same wheel, there was enough variation in moisture and salt levels, enough differentiation between the smell of the rinds and the taste of the pastes, that they must be from at least 2 different wheels.
We also decided we were looking at this cheese at a very young age because of the tackiness of the rind, the relative lack of bloom, and the creamy/bouncy texture of paste we associate with cheese that's only a few months into its aging. As we finished up tasting, I asked the chefs if they'd cook with it, and Tse Wei said, pointing at one of the samples, "that one's a [soccer] cheese, I'd eat it at 4am while I"m watching a match & drinking whiskey." So there you have it, from the mouths of well-regarded chefs, this cheese can be paired with the next Manchester United game.
As for a beverage pairing, I don't know that I agree with Tse Wei's prescription of whiskey and soccer, but I could see this being an excellent cheese for beer drinkers. I'd be inclined toward a Berliner Weisse, the lightly soured wheat beers from Germany that are my favorite for late spring & early summer drinking. The slight tang of the beer, and the young, still-yogurt-y tang of the cheese seem like natural mates to me, especially if you happen to make my favorite meal out of the cheese, like Diana did with our leftovers: cheese toasties on sourdough with mustard and a side of tomato soup.