I had always admired how the French were able to create a meal out of a little bit of cheese, a loaf of bread, and a carafe of table wine. So simple, yet so elegant. So I decided to try it myself, under the guise of a winter cocktail party at my house. Indeed what it turned into was a cheese-for-all! At one point my tiny kitchen had more than twelve people standing around, all angling to try the different offerings presented on my solid wood carving board, and taking turns slicing up the long lanky French baguette with my very dull kitchen knife.
Given my love for Veuve Clicquot, I just had to have a couple of creamy cheeses, both of which were triple cream, the St. Angel, and the Cremeux de Bourgogne (Burgundy). Murray’s Cheese store in the West Village of Manhattan had the most delightful sign up on display for the Burgundy version: “The sweet milky and mild interior is fluffy in its mouth, but quickly unravels into silky crème fraiche texture under the work of the bloomy, white mold rind.” I personally do not relish the rind, as I believe the taste is too powerful and detracts from the subtle flavors of the cheese itself, however, upon reading this description I later was eagerly flattening and spreading the rind along with the creamy inside thick onto my dainty little slices of bread and sharing little bits of angelic heaven with my good friends.
I then moved towards the medium soft and salty standard, the French Raclette, as well as the Italian softie, Taleggio. Encouraged by the very helpful and patient barman at the shop, I took his suggestion and added Brebirousse d’Argental, something I had never tried before. After being put out in room temperature for quite some time, both the Taleggio and the Brebirousse (French for “red sheep”) gained a pudding texture, and while not triple creams themselves, become very very smearable on the little pieces of French baguette that was getting harder and harder to slice with the dull kitchen knife as more and more Veuve and Barbera d’Alba was consumed. Both of these cheeses elicited little gasps from my guests who truly seemed to be pleased, and eagerly asked the names of the cheeses they were enjoying.
Just as I thought I was done at the counter, I decided to provide a mate to the lone Italian cheese, and added a half-pound of Calabresi Hot Salami. I’ve now since learned that the trick to teasing out the paprika and peppers from this amazing Hot Salami is to have the meat sliced paper thin – this way the fattiness of salami is not overpowering and you truly get to enjoy the spices dancing at the tip of your tongue. And make sure they slice the salami and lay it out for you on wax paper, then roll it up to take home, old school style. This way any excess oil gets sucked up by the paper and leaves only the best for your mouth to enjoy. I’ve had this sliced into a plastic container and trust me it is not the same.
So which cheese is the “Chairman of the Board”? Hands down it was the Red Sheep, the Brebirousse. Luscious and silky, with a pungency that did not overpower, it disappeared in a matter of minutes. It was also perfectly suited for a party in a small Manhattan apartment, as the aroma was concentrated around your tongue and not your nostrils. It also didn’t smell up the flat.
The Red Sheep is the new boss in town, the Big Cheese. I just wish it stuck around a bit longer. It disappeared faster than the alcohol.
If you’re into cheese and like good turns of phrase, please see the artful and literary descriptions below provided by Murray’s Cheese (www.MurraysCheese.com), my now favorite shop on Manhattan’s Bleecker Street – which by the way is quite meaningful, considering Bleecker Street has both Marc Jacobs and Cynthia Rowley, as well!
Cremeux de Bourgogne – Ever want to turn breakfast in bed into an all day affair? A slab of this pillow triple crème is a de-motivating force to be reckoned with. Just add fresh fruit, brioche toast, and mimosas (hold the OJ) for a hedonistic way to start the day. Like all triple crèmes to reach the US, this one is pasteurized cow milk though it hails from Burgundy rather than the typical northwestern area of Normandy. The sweet milky and mild interior is fluffy in its mouth, but quickly unravels into silky crème fraiche texture under the work of the bloomy, white mold rind. By that point it’s got just a hint of white mushroom aroma and adopts a more buttery rather than milky character. 16.99/lb
Taleggio (Cave aged) – This iconic Italian softie has assumed a defining role in the pungent washed rind family, made in the northern Valsassina foothills since the 9th century – one bite of the meaty, nutty, fruity interior and you will understand its millennial appeal. The squares of pasteurized cow’s milk are washed with a brine to foster a sticky orange edible rind while air pumped from the original caves causes a dappling of soft and earthy tasting grey mold. Ripe wheels have a pudding texture – smear on veggies or toasty breads with a glass of Soave. 14.99/lb.
Brebirousse D’argental – A sheep in Taleggio clothing, square, though from French Lyon, not Italian Lombardy, orange, but tinted so with annatto, not washed-rind cultures. The visuals are where the masquerade ends. This handsome tile has is sweet and delicate with a loose, oozing paste. The rind is toothsome but tender and the finish has just a hint of lanolin. This mild, pasteurized import is choice with dried cherries, or a glass of Rose. Go on – add a little mystique to your next cheese plate. 18.99/lb
St. Angel – A devilishly heaven-sent triple crème that’s smoother than a chorus of angels led by Marvin Gaye. Mushroomy, buttery, and rich pair with Champagne, of course! 17.99/lb.
French Raclette – A toaster oven’s dream, raclette takes its name from the French verb ‘racler’, meaning ‘to scrape.’ Traditionally, Alpine cheesemakers would lunch upon boiled potatoes and cornichons, covered with the melted cheese that they scraped from a nearby fire heated boulder. Semi-soft, made of raw cow milk, and washed with brine, we finish it to deep, fruity pungency and salty perfection. Stay true to the name, and melt atop all manner of winter root vegetables. 14.99/lb
Calabrese Hot Salami – This calabrese salami will wow you with flavor, it won’t leave you gasping for air. A taste from the southern tip of Italy, it is zesty with paprika and peppers. Slowly air-dried, it is ideal as a topping on pizza or as a rambunctious partner to mozzarella. 15.99/lb
Lead-In Photo Courtesy of Gregory Gerber/Shutterstock.com