North Andover, Mass. — We are in the midst of a revolution — albeit a yummy one.
It’s a cheese revolution, and the dairy product has begun a quiet occupation of our culture, tables and markets.
The revolution started with chic restaurants offering a cheese course, with suggestions from an on-staff maitre d’ fromage. Around that time, stores started importing a wide variety of cheeses. Today, cheeses that weren’t available in the United States five years ago regularly appear on supermarket shelves.
Signs of cheese’s new primacy in a country once known for the blandness of its cheeses are everywhere.
Cara Kennedy of Haverhill, a cheese expert at Wild Oats in Andover, selected three of the 100 types of cheeses available at the market to demonstrate the vast variety. Within minutes, customers decimated the cut cheese by half. In half an hour, it was gone.
Dominic Sorrentino of Andover liked the aged Gouda so much, he bought a chunk himself.
“I’m not a connoisseur. I like food. It’s why I come here,” said Sorrentino, who liked the strong, bold taste of the cheese.
Kennedy has seen customers increasingly interested in cheese. One hunted through her hostess’ garbage at a party to find the rind of a cheese that she loved. She brought the rind into Wild Oats for Kennedy to identify, which she did.
“I see people going like this,” said Kennedy, holding a block of shrink-wrapped cheese to her nose. “They want to smell the cheese through the plastic to see if it’s good.”
Lately, stores devoted to cheese in all its incarnations have begun popping up, like Grand Trunk Old World Market in Newburyport, which offers close to 100 cheeses during the holidays. Owners Angela and Jeremy Kirkpatrick of Newburyport regularly travel the world looking for unique cheeses (and ways to eat it) to promote at their shop.
“Every region has its own way of doing things,” Jeremy Kirkpatrick said.
Most cheese are made from cow’s milk, but growing percentages come from sheep and goats, adding unique flavors and textures to the cheese case. While cheese can have a high-fat content and can be bad for cholesterol, Angela Kirkpatrick, a nutritionist, said cheese consumed in moderation can be beneficial to a diet for its healthy bacteria.
But truth be told, cheese sellers find their customers are more concerned with taste and texture than beneficial bacteria.
“I would definitely say in the past two years, people have taken more of an interest in cheese and wine,” Kennedy said. “They want to be connoisseurs, not just consumers.”
Some people are also becoming makers. Stacey Fraser, who owns Grapevine restaurant in Salem, Mass., makes her own cheese for her own consumption.
“I like the whole idea of the slow food movement — Americans are way too invested in processed food,” said Fraser, who learned to make cheese through a course she took in Vermont. “I see people who want to eat less processed food and know where it comes from. I think it’s a health thing, too. We have so many health issues in this country related to the crap we eat.”
Elizabeth Mulholland and her husband own and operate Valley View Farm in Topsfield, which makes about 5,000 pounds of goat cheese from its own Nubian goats. It’s sold at Shubie’s in Marblehead, Aquatini in Newburyport and other places around Boston.
“We sell all we can make — if we made more, we could sell more. We only want to have so many animals here,” said Mulholland, adding the demand comes from people’s universal love of cheese. “Everyone eats cheese, don’t they?”
Mulholland thinks micro-dairies like hers are on the rise in New England, where large dairies aren’t feasible because of space.
“We are still on the uptick of small micro-dairies, like the microbrewery industry,” she said. “We are going to see more of them popping up.”
While Fraser doesn’t use or sell her cheese at her restaurant because she isn’t licensed to do so, she often gives away her creations to brave friends and relatives. Reportedly, she makes a mean Camembert, Montego and sheep cheese rubbed with paprika.
“Cheese has a bad rap. A lot of people don’t eat it or appreciate it as much because people think it’s bad for their diet,” Fraser said. “What we eat for dairy is not as nutritious as it used to be. As soon as they started pasteurizing and ultra-pasteurizing, it took away all the good bacteria.”
Many would argue this process also took away all the taste. Cheeses made from unpasteurized milk are known for their remarkable flavors. However, children, seniors and those with weakened immune systems should not eat them.
Another factor in overall cheese flavor: what the cow, sheep or goat ate. Those that graze on grass or flowers make a tastier milk and therefore a better cheese. For this reason, cheeses made with summer milk are more prized than those made with winter milk, when the animals were probably eating grains or feed, not pasture.
“You can definitely taste the difference,” Jeremy Kirkpatrick said.
Fraser uses only raw milk from a grass-fed animal in her cheese making, and she finds those who try her cheese appreciate her efforts.
“A lot of people are becoming a lot more aware of different cheeses,” Fraser said. “It’s amazing. People are beginning to realize that it’s something that is as diverse as wine. The possibilities are endless. It’s like having an empty canvas.”
Cheese from abroad does have things in common with American cheese, which experts agree has gotten more complex in the last decade.
“In the last five years, there are a lot of artisan cheese makers out there making cheese,” said Jeremy Kirkpatrick, who stocks some American artisan cheese in his cheese case.
American cheese will never successfully replicate certain European cheeses because of factors such as climate, the animal’s diet, and the relative humidity of the cheese collection, storage and aging process, all of which tend to be unique region to region.
“Unless you are there in the area, you cannot do the same thing,” Fraser said.
There are also some cheeses that will likely never make their way to these shores — ones with living mites or larvae that contribute to the taste of the cheese. These are considered delicacies in their own countries, though most cringe at the notion of cheese filled with worms here. They would also never make it past customs.
For chef Harley Smith of Ten Center Street restaurant in Newburyport, unique cheeses offer cheese plates and dishes that bring something special to the table.
“I try to get rare, artisanal, small batches of cheese, served with crackers and toasted nuts,” said Smith, who also serves an aged Gorgonzola sauce with a hamburger and makes a twist on French onion soup with Gruyère cheese. “Particularly at our bar, we get a lot of people who will have a glass of wine and a cheese plate. My cheese plate always changes, with three cheeses, usually one blue, one triple crème and one goat cheese. Just something different every time.”
Cala’s Restaurant in Manchester-by-the-Sea makes a macaroni and cheese with penne pasta, ham, asparagus, chicken and cheese sauce that includes a cheddar Jack cheese and a smoked Gouda. Last weekend, they served a Gruyère fondue in a roasted pumpkin, with pieces of focaccia bread.
“It was a great seller,” chef Brian Partelow said.
Rosemary Ford writes for The Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Mass.
This recipe produces a mild cheese. It is eaten either by itself or enjoyed on bruschetta or toast, drizzled with olive oil, a pinch of garlic salt and a slice of ripe tomato.
1 gallon milk
1 teaspoon rennet (extract from the rennin-containing substance from the stomach of the calf)
2 pinches salt
Heat the milk to lukewarm (86-90 degrees) and add the rennet. Turn off heat and let set for about 40 minutes.
After the milk has set, turn the heat back on to low and heat again for about 2 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, pull the curds to the side of the pot. Keep moving the curds for about 10 minutes with the slotted spoon. (This breaks up the curd and lets them drain in.)
Remove the curds from the pot with your slotted spoon and place into a basket. Return the basket with the curds in it back into the whey and cover the curds with the whey, pressing the curds into the basket with your hands.
Remove the basket from the whey and set another mold inside the first one. Put a 6- to 8-ounce glass of water on top of it. (This is used as a weight for pressing the cheese. Press this way for 2 hours.)
Take out the cheese and turn over, salt to taste, return to the basket and continue pressing for 11/2 hours longer. Remove the cheese from the press and refrigerate.
This is a dessert dish, traditionally served at Christmas. It’s not really custard, nor is it a cheesecake. (One historical note: The difference between the initial 400 degrees and final 325 degrees is attributed to the burning of a four-log fire to a three-log fire.)
1 gallon raw milk
1/2 rennet tablet dissolved in 1 tablespoon tap water
3/4 cup flour
1 cup sugar
1 cup whipping cream
Save 1 cup cold milk to mix with flour to make a soft paste. Dissolve rennet in water.
Heat milk to lukewarm (98-102 degrees).
Remove from heat, add soft paste to warm milk and stir in dissolved rennet. Stir often until milk begins to set; cover and let stand until firm (about one hour).
Break up the milk mixture and remove the whey. Do not make the curd too dry, and treat with gentle hands. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Mix eggs, sugar and whipping cream. Add cream mixture to curd and bake in a glass dish at 400 degrees for the first 30 minutes and then reduce to 325 degrees for about 30 more minutes.
Be a cheese snob
r Single crème, double crème and triple crème refer to the creaminess of the cheese and the fat content. Single crème cheese tends to have a 45 percent to 55 percent fat content, while triple crèmes can have more than 75 percent.
r Not all cheese goes well with wine. Stronger cheeses pair best with reds, while milder versions can go well with whites. However, many cheeses really go best with beers, especially some German and Scandinavian cheeses and ones from the Alsace region of France. Check with your cheese monger for pairings.
r Find a good cheese monger. Seek out people at local shops or supermarkets who really know their cheese.
r Judge cheese by its rind or crust. Good: natural rings, buffed, brushed and washed. Bad: plastic, paraffin and paint.
r The younger the cheese, the milder the flavor.
r Make sure your cheese is cut freshly for you.
r The edibility of the rind is a matter of taste and common sense.
r Store cheese in a refrigerator. The vegetable compartment is best. Wrap it in foil or plastic.
r The harder the cheese, the longer the shelf life.
r Serve cheese at room temperature.
r When serving two or more cheeses, serve ones of different milks (cow, sheep, goat).
r Serious cheese deserves serious bread.
Source: “Cheese Primer” by Steven Jenkins.
Fresh cheese, uncooked and unripened: There is an undrained version (like ricotta) and a drained version (cream cheese)
Soft cheese: An unpressed cheese, like Brie or Camembert.
Washed rind: Cheese that has been rubbed or washed during the ripening process, in a spice-like paprika or a liquid-like wine. Examples include a French Epoisses or a Pont-l’Evêque.
Natural rind: Chestnut skins are one example. One type is French Cantal.
Blue-veined cheese: The blue comes from the mold. Examples are American Maytag or a French Roquefort.
Uncooked pressed cheese: Made from a cured but unheated cheese, like a Spanish Manchego.
Cooked pressed cheese: Made from a cured and heated cheese, like a Dutch Gouda.
Processed cheese: Made from natural cheese and other products. American cheese is an example.
Source: “Cheese Primer” by Steven Jenkins.
Type and taste
Teleme: Made in Maine, dusted with rice flour; mild with a smooth but tart flavor. Best with a fig or apricot chutney
Pecorino Fresco: Young, Tuscan sheep milk cheese; salty. Good cheese to stuff in a fig and bake
Rembrandt Gouda: Butterscotch-flavored hard cheese. Tastes best with sherry and apples
Comte: The No. 1 French cheese, with a nutty flavor and fruity aftertaste. Great fondue cheese
Fromager d'Affinois: Mild, soft cheese, similar to a Brie. Tastes good with red pepper jelly or walnuts
Brie de Nangis: Stronger that most Bries, with a mushroom flavor. Served best with crackers or toasts
Swiss Appenzeller: Intensely nutty flavor, sort of resembling burnt toast; washed with wine. Great fondue cheese; also good on its own because of its strong flavor.
Bucheron: Semi-aged, soft cheese from the Loire region of France; intensely salty and "goat-y." Makes a good cheese stuffing for a fig
Morbier: Semi-soft cheese with a vegetable flavor; Gray line in the middle made of ash; pungent and aromatic. Best on potatoes and sandwiches
Blacksticks Blue: British Blue cheese colored orange by ground up annotto seeds; earthy flavor. Tastes good with honey or a sweet apple
Beechtree Mountain: A strong Swiss Cheese; has an assertive flavor that makes the roof of your mouth tingle; Best on its own or in a sandwich
Munster: Made in France, with a stronger taste than your typical brand; tastes meaty. Often used in quiche
Persille de Tignes: Made from goat milk with a citrus taste. Great to cook with or by itself
Valdeon: Blue cheese from Spain; blends cow and goat milk, wrapped in chestnut skins; tastes tart. Tastes good in salads.
Langhe la Tur: Made from a combination of sheep, cow and goat milk; soft and spreadable with a buttery texture. Good in a cheese plate
North Andover, Mass. — We are in the midst of a revolution — albeit a yummy one.