A Vermont Cheese vs. A Texas Monger
My first-ever blog post. Given my life for the past year, it only makes sense that it’s about cheese (and I couldn’t be happier for it). I’m Bradley, and I’m still kind of new to the world of cheese. I had my first bite of real, actual cheese at Antonelli’s Cheese Shop in Austin, Texas. My girlfriend had dragged me there just a few days after its grand opening and I asked my cheesemonger, John Antonelli, for the stinkiest cheese he had in his case. He handed me a bite of Red Hawk. A little over a year later and I found myself working behind the counter as an official cheesemonger for Antonelli’s. And a little over a year after that first day I can say I have tasted literally hundreds of different cheeses, probably thousands of different wheels, and been to Wisconsin to meet some of the best cheesemakers in the business thanks to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. Now, thanks to Culture Magazine and the Cellars at Jasper Hill (whose cheeses occupy a large portion of our shop’s case), I get to be an official taster for a brand new cheese. Life is good in Austin, Texas.
My coworker, Paul, called me on my day off to let me know that a package had arrived at the shop for me, and everyone was straining their willpower not to dig in before I got there to claim it. Upon arriving at the Cheese House (across the street from our little shop), I grabbed my box from the walk-in and tore into it, pleased to find about a pound and a half of cheese wrapped neatly in cheese paper bearing the Cellars at Jasper Hill logo. I was pleased even further when I peeled back the wrapping to expose the rind- that sweet, sticky, orange-brown, funky rind that I love so much. And I took a big whiff.
I promptly took the cheeses home and set them out on the table to warm to an appropriate temperature, trying futilely to get my mind off of them for an hour or two. The cheesemonger in me won out, and the allotted time passed before I dug in.
Each of the wedges was obviously taken from a fairly large-format wheel. Each wedge had a slightly different color to the rind, and no two rinds had the same tackiness to them. Also, the paste of each wedge showed varying amount of eyes, which, along with the cues from the rinds, hints that each wheel was of a different age. The slightly funky, musty smell, taken with the other cues from the rind and the paste, lead me to expect one of two things: either a creamy, smooth, mushroomy cheese like Raclette Valais or Fontina val d’Aosta; or a shalloty, garlicky, funky taste like Wildspitz or Holzhofer. Fortunately, the folks at Jasper Hill did NOT disappoint- my expectations were WAY off.
There were subtle differences between the three wedges- varying degrees of salt, funkiness, etc.- so I’ll focus on my tasting of the third wedge. I actually tried this one an hour or so after the first two, so as not to overload my palate and not to lose the nuance of this third cheese. The straw-colored paste was perfectly smooth and semi-soft, telling of its melting potential. The taste was familiar, but it took me just a little while to place it. It was buttery, a little salty, there was a little bit of green onion and sour cream and… there it was! Potatoes. Taken with the earthy flavor of that slightly gritty rind and you’ve got a dead ringer for baked potato with everything on it (except for bacon, so not quite everything). All I needed was a nice, juicy rib eye and a cold beer. Or maybe some small pieces of steak, a raclette machine, and a cold beer.
Which brings me to my next point: this is definitely a cheese to go with beer, or a good, dry apple cider, like the Bandera Brut from Austin’s own Argus Cidery. Of course you COULD do wine, but you wouldn’t drink wine with a baked potato, at least not in Texas. Instead, you would reach for something like a Shiner Bock. It may not be the classiest or most esoteric beer out there, but it’s smooth, malty, bready flavor is what I crave when it comes to steak and potatoes. And for a cheese that’s made in Vermont, there’s something distinctly southern about the way it tastes.