Are you mystified by cheese? Do you see a cheese plate and instinctively think that it’s an expensive dessert? Have you ever taken a cheese class? Would you know that cheese goes really well with spirits?
If your answers are yes, no, no and no, then you’ll probably be hungry – and hopefully thirsty by the time you finished reading. Why? Because cheese is not pretentious, nor is it only for dessert! In fact, cheese is something that is made by hand in the same manner as it has for hundreds of years- and cheese is created by farmers! There are certainly machine-made cheeses, but for the intent of this article, all the cheeses in the classes at the French Cheese Board in Manhattan are made by hand in the ancient fashion of the cheese maker. So, you should not be mystified.
Far from mystified, what is needed to truly TASTE cheese is to cut off your ability of smelling the cheese first. There are many taste receptors in our mouths that are incredibly sensitive, but unfortunately most cheese is tasted with our noses first. And if you can close your eyes while you are tasting cheese, there is another whole set of senses that are fooled by your visual sensibility.
Located in the trendy-eastern fringes of SoHo, where the old city collides with Nolita, the French Cheese Board in its handsome and sleek space. It is filled with ample sunlight and is a very friendly place indeed. This outpost of French culture in the Big City, seeks to demystify cheese by taking cheese out of its usually pretentious context completely. Instead of merely snacking on cheese, they suggest carefully tasting cheese, but not overwhelming the plate with superfluous parts. Instead of a grilled-cheese sandwich, serving a small cheese slice- served simply with dried fruit, plain crackers (so not to overpower the delicate flavors) and perhaps some rugged coins of dry baguette will more than suffice as an accompaniment.
Cheese served simply on a cheese board become a compliment to dinner, not solely a means to an end after dinner when you are already full.
The ancient style of making cheese, on a cheese board, or alone- Goat Cheese is a fine way to start a meal. I tend to prefer a combination of old and new goat cheeses, carefully rolled into a log and then further aged in straw- in a special cheese cave. This amalgamation of funky and sweet calls out for a number of liquid accompaniments. Many of the liquids that I suggest for goat cheese are not wine. Goat cheese, especially aged (chalky and funky in the somewhat barnyard nose) takes to the more botanical style of gin with a tongue in cheek sense of humor. There is nothing that I enjoy more in the summer months than a gin and tonic with a nice crumbly goat cheese between my fingers. For the gin component I’d suggest the Barrel Aged Barr Hill Tom Cat (style). A couple months in new American oak translates to a richening and deepening of the already sensuous quality inherent in each sip of Barr Hill Gin. A touch of vanilla, toasty oak and raw honey reveal themselves into a tangle of sweet and tangy across the palate. Couple with that a cane sugar tonic water such as Q-Tonic (from Brooklyn no less), a hunk of lime and you have the next wave of cheese sophistication. This is the way I want to start my next meal, with elegance and candor.
A firm, well aged, mountain-style cheese from the French Alps calls out for a whisky from Japan that mimics in its own inimitable way the magnificent Scotch Whiskies from the other side of the globe. For a firm, yet oily cheese such as these highly expressive examples from the extreme altitudes of the Alps, a richly textured whisky provides back-bone against the creamy firmness of the hand-made cheese. The Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky is distilled drop by precious drop from a Coffey still dating to the early 1960’s. A Coffey Still is a type of Pot Still made of copper. It makes richly textured liquor that has a warm nutty flavor in its approach. Similar on the flavor wheel to the earthy quality of the French- mountain cheeses. A fine match for stimulating the palate before or even after dinner.
Francois, the gregarious and ever-smiling “Professeur de Fromage” comes from a long line of cheese makers. His studied and conversational flair for history is filled with humorous narratives and beneficial hints to the history of cheese. All of these made even more interesting because of the ultimate enjoyment of the finest cheeses available and he does this without any pretentiousness. He demystifies the different varieties, goat, sheep, cow- and breaks each one down into its unique components of flavor. Sour, sweet, tangy, umami- what? What is that? I think it’s the indescribable flavor. The one between here and there. Confusing? Perhaps it is- but after taking a most basic class at the French Cheese Board you’ll certainly be less confused, and considerably more knowledgeable in the art of cheese as more than a metaphor.
Getting back to how flavor is revealed, Francois offers you a mask to cover your eyes with a and your nose is closed with a kind of swimmer’s nose clip. This is to encourage textural feeling the surface of the cheese through your fingers, neither smelling the cheese, nor viewing it.
Is the cheese dry, soft, grainy, crumbly, wet, sticky, polished…?
The list of textures goes on and on.
French cheese comes in all forms, from hard, used for grating, to liquefied and unctuous, meant to be spooned and savored. There are many varieties and no, cheese is not just for dessert. It makes for an incredible aperitif with slivers of black footed Spanish Iberico Ham, meant to stimulate the thirst and the appetite.
For nibbling on Iberico Ham and Washed Rind Cheese I would suggest a slightly salty “Fino” Style Sherry such as the Bodegas Grant “La Garrocha” Fino Sherry NV (Andalucia, Spain) The crisp and aromatic nature of this nearly bone dry sherry will cut the fat both of the cheese and the pork flesh with alacrity.
Sure, you can enjoy cheese without a blindfold on and certainly without a nose clip blocking your passage to the ability of scent. But isn’t it interesting to dismiss most French cheeses because they may be overly assertive in aromatics. That is certainly a fact of life when dealing with washed rind cheeses and still others that turn into liquefaction through aging and cannot be eaten without a spoon, it would just be too sloppy! But delicious!
Cheese and the study of cheese is as easy as taking a walk down to the French Cheese Board, conveniently located at 41 Spring Street in Nolita. Bring and open mind and taste yourself into another way of being. One that embraces the passion for hand-made cheese!
Cheers from all of us at