Late August in Northfield – warm bright days, cool nights. The Connecticut flows low and lazy. In The Valley, the yearly glut of corn and tomatoes. What more could one want? Why cheese, of course. Where once the adage “Things go better with bacon” was au courant,“Things go better with cheese” is timeless. In preparing for my Northfield trip, I wanted to assemble a cheese plate that would highlight the summer’s cheese bounty yet also offer contrasting tastes. With the guidance of cheesemonger Stephanie Santos at Central Bottle + Provisions, I was able to compose a plate that would be the perfect hostess gift. Since I also had breakfast on my mind, I was looking for somewhat mild cheeses. Though stinkers (washed rind cheeses) and blues would be just fine for my breakfast, I didn’t want to inflict my peccadilloes on others. In the end, I chose a fresh goat cheese, a bloomy rind sheep’s milk and an aged cow’s milk cheese. My Northfield cheese plate –
- Ruggles Hill Creamery “Summer 2012” – To lead off, I chose a fresh goat cheese flavored with lemon, thyme and sumac. Cheesemaker Tricia Smith is making this cheese specifically for the summer. The blend of herbs she uses to dust the top of the cheese are the same she uses in her award-winning “Lea’s Great Meadow”, a bloomy rind cheese with a discrete line of herbs laid down in the center of the cheese. Originally, I was going to buy the “Great Meadow” but Stephanie pointed out this cheese and I immediately changed course. Unlike other herbed cheese – think “Fleur de Maquis” – which are so heavily encrusted that eating the cheese is like chewing on seeds and stems, the herbal complement here is judiciuosly applied. The cheese is chalk white, somewhat creamy yet still crumbly with lots of lemony highlights. The sumac adds an inexplicable je ne sais quoi. Buy and try before the season passes.
- Woodcock Farm “Summer Snow” – I first met Mark and Gari Fischer at the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese at UVM when we were all taking a class in French artisanal cheese making techniques. Emigrés from Manhattan, they had bought a farm outside of Woodstock, stocked it with sheep and were intent on making cheese. One of the perks of the class was that aspiring cheesemakers – such as the Fischers – could bring samples of their cheese to be evaluated by the Institute’s staff. At that time , they were developing an aged sheep’s milk cheese. The professorial consensus was that it wasn’t quite ready for release but was on the right track. With further refinement, that cheese became the award-winning Woodstock Wheel and now the Fischers’ signature cheese. “Summer Snow” is their seasonal offering. I’ve been enjoying this cheese for several years now so when Stephanie had it in stock, I immediately threw it in my basket. “Summer Snow” is a bloomy rind, often likened to Camembert. For me, though, this delicately flavored cheese exhibits what my cheese mentor Robert Aguilera refered to as the white heart of sheep’s milk cheeses. (Try it and find out just what he meant.) The cheese is near liquid by the rind, firmer towards the center. This was the most popular cheese on the plate.
- Springbrook “Tarentaise” – “Tarentaise” was originally developed at Thistle Hill Farm where it is still made. However, the cheese is also now being made at Springbrook Farm where profits from its sale help endow the farm’s foundation, Farms for City Kids. The foundation brings inner-city kids out to the country for a therapeutic dose of farm life. This was the cheese I used as a contrast to the goat and sheep’s milk cheese. A raw cow’s milk cheese done in the style of a French Alpine Cheese and aged for two years, this is a big one. The cheese is antique ivory, firm but pliable. Aromas of caramel, grass, sweet cream; multilayered flavors of caramel and pasture herbs; big and meaty; a wonderful mineral tang on the finish. This cheese is perfectly produced. And in the somewhat tired wrangling of “Old World versus New World” cheese dominance, this cheese is an American winner; a forthright example of American cheesemakers taking a European cheese and making it their own. In a way, this was the bacon on my suitable-for-breakfast cheese plate.
All cheeses available at Central Bottle + Provisions