In sharing stories with fellow cheese dorks, I’m starting to realize the extreme measures to which people will resort for a fix. I’m not talking smuggling French cheese past U.S. customs in one’s underwear, although that’s certainly admirable.
No, I’m talking about situations that are perhaps a bit humiliating, if not outright pathetic. I seem to find myself in these situations with some regularity, in part because I’m frequently on the road (here or overseas) for my work as a food and travel journalist. The fact that I’m lactose intolerant just adds to the fun.
“What is that?”
Ok, not the most gracious way to greet my husband who is, uncharacteristically, standing at the stove. But on the burner is a pot the size of a minivan. In his hand is a 12 mile long spoon. The pot is filled to the rim, molten liquid bubbles bursting wetly splatter the counter, and…the floor. The dog, aka “the Mop” for the extent of this kitchen escapade, has gamely taken on floor cleaning duty.
But, when I asked that rude question I did already know it was one of two things; a lifetime supply of dragon fire salsa, or (and here is where my heart started to sink) a vat of chili.
It’s chili. We will be eating chili for quite a while.
(Why is it absolutely necessary to make chili in cafeteria size proportions? I have a theory. I think it’s because this is xtreme cooking, not to simply put food on the table, but to make a statement about the essential manliness of chili.)
March - early spring warmth after the cold weather is like breathing out after a shock - just the joy of it is enough. All the signs of spring hasten on, buds swelling, birds engrossed in their courtship and nesting, spring flowers start - primroses, daffodils, blackthorn. The landscape, so long held in suspension, slowly then faster and faster animates in the wild dance of the seasons. Ravens call from the woods, a fat fallow hind, belly big with calf, can’t be bothered to skitter out of the way when she sees no threat from me, and walks over the hedge into the copse. They’ve got a good eye for what’s a threat: there is an old fallow hind who follows the woods tractor, knowing that the felled trees will give a good lunch on the soft bark from the top of the tree. When she hears the grunt of the tractor, she follows the sound: won’t follow other tractors, just the one with Tony in it who fells the trees.
At 8:30 this morning I took my seat in a classroom at the Vermont Institute of Artisan Cheese (on the campus of UVM in Burlington), to start the first of a four-day- cheesemaking intensive course. This education for me is long overdue. As the editor of culture magazine, I’ve learned a lot on the job about what makes one wheel different from another, but there are big gaps in my cheese intelligence. What really happens (on a microbial level) when milk, starter, coagulant and a cheesemaker come together in a creamery? It was time I knew.
Like most people I look forward to Saturday, but for me it isn't the start of the weekend. Instead, it's my day at the Cheese Shop. After spending my weekdays working either as a freelance writer or running The Joy of Cheese, my series of informal cheese seminars, I spend Saturday afternoon and evenings at The Bedford Cheese Shop, and though exhausting, it's always enjoyable.
First of all, I've done this sort of work in the food business since I was 24 and since the next birthday is number 51, it's reassuring that I can still do something physically rigorous as well as I did when I was 28. It's a fact reinforced by my collegial relationship with my coworkers who are mostly in their late 20s and early 30s. But the real highlight is the cheese, it's what makes this kind of job, so much more than customer service.
Last Thursday night I taught a cheese and wine class pairing class at the 92nd St. Y, and it was wonderful in all the usual ways. The room was packed full with more than 30 people from a diverse range of ages. My collaborator, Beau Rapier, one of the managers at Uva Wines & Spirits, brought exceptional wines to match with the cheeses (the list is here), and the discussion was lively with thoughtful questions right from the outset. These classes typically run 90-105 minutes long but ours ran nearly two hours and fifteen minutes without anyone looking impatient or edgy. Afterward I was approached by a nice couple and asked, “so when will you open a store in this neighborhood.”
I just started eating Crescenza, in a serious way. It's actually called Crescenza Stracchino (or just Stracchino), and it's a soft-ripened cow's milk cheese without a rind that's bright, clean and quite undiscovered as a cheese. It originated in northern Italy and was named Stracchino because it was made from the milk of the "stracca" (tired) cows making their way up the mountains. Oddly, the resulting milk from this hard work is very rich. Domestic versions use whole, pasteurized milk that resemble this.
What's it like? It's halfway between cream cheese and fresh mozzarella in taste and consistency. It's simple and young, and it comes in sealed plastic because the whey hasn't been drained out completely (which is why it's so soft and runny).
How to eat it? On toast, with honey or jam. On pizza (put it on at the very end, like ricotta). Best of all, stir it into polenta, or put a dollop into tomato soup or on top of pasta. It melts beautifully, making everything it melds with extra creamy and luscious. Comfort food in all kinds of weather.
Who makes it in the U.S.? Belgioioso Cheese, from Wisconsin, and Bellwether Farms, California. Look for it!
Everything has the battered look that comes from sitting in a deep freeze of a winter with several inches of snow sitting on its back. Since then, there’s been weather enough to get growth started - grass, snowdrops, catkins. Then we have frosts to remind us that winter has something else in store. Wild things get bolder as they get hungrier, in the hundred hungry days between Christmas and Easter. Owls fly on fine nights, a barn owl swoops low overhead on a starlit night. We collect the owl pellets for children to discover the delicate tracery of the skeletons of the little creatures the owls eat - death and excrement, enormously interesting to children. Although we are culling wild boar, they are still bold, facing you out if you come across them in the track, sniffing and snorting, eventually lumbering away, oddly nimble despite being so solid.
17 January 2011
Podere Conti, Pontremoli, Italy
Tonight I really gained insight into the birth of opera. The depth of tradition and honor in this country is something you can feel deeply in your cells, and with a little research one can integrate quite smoothly. I recommend starting in the kitchen, since it is the most sacred of spaces, second only to the centuries-old churches perched high on mountaintops and nestled into villages. The birth of an opera in this century, one might think, is highly unlikely, but I can assure you that an American in the kitchen of a traditional Italian home is a think tank for operatic composition.