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.
I heard the woman ask for New York State Cheddar.
Immediately, I was thrilled; in fact, I could barely contain my glee. This was the first moment of the first day on a new job. And it wasn’t just any new job. It was the summer of 1984, two years after I’d graduated college, intent on becoming a writer. My first post-collegiate job turned into a marathon nightmare of 100 hour workweeks that left no time whatsoever for writing (and little for sleeping or leisure). This was my first day on the sales floor at my new job as a cheesemonger in Bloomingdales Fresh Food area, a part time job that I figured would pay my share of the rent (which was barely $350 in a NoLita duplex; doesn’t 1984 seem like a long time ago?) and enable me to develop a journalism career.
We’ve got heaps of snow lying around, how long will we have snow on the ground? We scraped the snow up so we can reach the animals and get to the cheese, making huge piles like disorderly snowmen. I’m old enough to remember 1963, when I was very sad and the grown-ups were inexplicably happy when the snow finally went away in March. My son made a convincing looking igloo by packing snow into a box to make blocks and built them into something big enough for 3 lads to sit in, grinning wider than the doorway.
We can see the tracks of wildlife – deer, boar, rabbits, hares, badgers and foxes. We can see how bold they are, coming right up to the house, deer going between the house and barns. It’s hard for them, and hunger drives them closer. When the snow goes, everything has that battered look, all the food the wildlife rely on deep frozen and thawed.