After several weeks on the road, I am currently touring the U.S., any novelty that might once have been associated with eating out twice daily has well and truly worn off.
Have just spent fourty-eight fruitful hours in Chicago where Google helped me discover Pastoral, an attractive shop located near my hotel, specialising in artisanal wines, cheeses and bread (they also sell online).
Pastoral is very much in the same vein (no pun intended) as Terrence Brennan's Artisanal and Murrays' Cheese Shop in NY or the Cowgirl Creamery Artisan Cheese and Cheese Plus in San Francisco. It also reminded me of Alon's an exceptional bakery with an excellent cheesemonger in Atlanta.
I like to eat local wherever I am, admittedly not always fruitful, so selected four U.S. cheeses: Bayley Hazen Blue, Blythedale Camembert, Bijou Goat's Cheese and Graton Select Cheddar. All four, I later discovered, hail from Vermont. Three of the four were described to me as being modeled on European counterparts: Stilton, Camembert and Crottins de Chavignol. As for the fourth Vermont has long established itself as a producer of excellent cheddar.
Buying and Tasting Notes
Don't buy big, ready packaged, chunks of cheese. A cheese course for 4-6 people requires 4-6 pieces of cheese no bigger than 120g or 4oz each. For a sense of abundance add grapes, membrillo (quince jelly), highbake water biscuits and/or flatbreads.
Having lived in the U.S. for a number of years I have one piece of advice for my North American readers who like imported cheeses, get to know your cheesemonger. And by that I mean a real cheesemonger, not the guys, nice as they are, who pile it high in plastic wrap at Wholefoods. If my first introduction to Stilton, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Gorgonzola or Montgomery (English) cheddar had been those I bought in several U.S. supermarkets, I would have wondered why on earth people rave about these cheeses.
I know from the packaging that a lot of supermarkets import their European cheeses from Neal's Yard in London. These guys know their stuff, I lived next to their Borough Market store and was all too regularly a satisfied customer.
Something clearly happens during transportation. I don't know whether they travel in less than optimium conditions or whether the whole process just takes too long. All I can say is that the Stilton that turns up is a far cry from the rich, creamy and crumbly delight that we find in the London store. A lot of the parmesan that I have found in the U.S. is already sealed in plastic wrap, and worse has started to develop white crystals, cause for a refund or for a customer never to return to a store in Italy.
So, don't accept second best, find yourself a great cheesemonger, one who delights in knowing every aspect of the produce they sell.
I allowed each of the cheeses to sit outside the refrigerator for almost two hours. I accompanied them with some of Pastoral's excellent rye flatbread and a bottle of Beso de Vino SELECCIÓN 2007, a medium bodied spicy red wine. I purposely chose a wine that would not mask or overpower the cheese, this was an excellent choice.
Bayley Hazen Blue
Made from raw milk by the folks at Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vermont this was suggested to me as comparable to a Stilton.
I was so excited to taste cheese of this quality. It demonstrates what can be achieved when smart well-educated producers take the best that the world currently offers and retools them.
This cheese is luscious and rich reminding me of the best of Stilton, but this is no Stilton pretender, it has fresh grassy notes that distinguish it and a character all its own.
This gets my gold star.
Tom and Becky Loftus produce this cheese at Blythedale farm in Corinth, Vermont. An excellent example of a Camembert style cheese. The richness of the original milk shines through and this reminded me of an older style of camembert, it packs good strong flavours and is well balanced.
It seems that everybody is making Camembert style cheese these days. In addition to this example I have sampled "Camembert" from England, Wales, Germany and Canada. This cheese stood out from the others, but still lacks the punch that raw milk provides and which gives Isigny (France) and their like an edge.
I would give this a silver star.
Grafton Select Cheddar
This cheddar is produced by the Grafton Village Cheese Company in Grafton, Vermont. The "select" is a one year old cheddar with a great deal of character. It is rich and nutty on the palate, redolent of a young parmesan. It packs plenty of flavour without stripping the roof off ones mouth.
A cheese of this quality isn't going to give the makers of Montgomery cheddar a run for their money, but it's a delightful addition to a cheese platter.
I look forward to sampling the more mature versions of Grafton cheddar on my next trip.
Bijou Goat's Cheese
Bijou is made by Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery in Websterville, Vermont.
It is made with from pasteurised milk, so the flavours were likly to be muted. From a texture point of view this is an excellent cheese, but like so many North American goat's cheeses, I have tasted, it lacks real goat flavour. I am beginning to think that this may be deliberate on the part of the cheesemakers, in a bid to make it appeal to the widest possible audience.
I hope to taste something in the future that compares favourably with the goat's cheeses that we produce in Poitou, France. Given the high standards that are being attained by other Vermont dairies such as Jasper Hill Farm I can think of no good reason why this cheese shouldn't be just as good.