I would like to take back any negative statements I may have made in the past regarding the Rainbow Grocery's cheese department. It's a very good cheese department, with many cheeses I've only seen at Artisan, like mimolette and Sally Jackson aged sheep's milk, wrapped in chestnut leaves. On Saturday night there was a very friendly staff person behind the counter, ready to answer any questions. And he gave us free samples of marcona almonds, very tasty. I think my real problem with the Rainbow is not its cheese department but its status as a vegetarian collective and how in other places there would be an alternative to Whole Foods where you could buy bacon and lamb shanks or even a can of tuna for god's sake, but here in San Francisco there is no such place. Portland, Madison, they all have Rainbow-esque stores with MEAT. So it's not the cheese department per se, but shopping while surrounded by people who don't even eat cheese, let alone bacon. I always feel like a majority of Rainbow shoppers don't even particularly like food.
This is a raw-milk British cheese, firm and aged yet with a smooth, creamy texture. Like George Clooney. According to the folks at Artisan Cheese, it has undertones of smoky bacon and according to Doug (who also resembles George Clooney), it tastes really good with beer. I think it has all those qualities and it also tastes like pineapple, which is kind of freaky at first, and combined with the undertones of smoky bacon, makes it sort of the hawaiian pizza of the artisan cheese world. The other funny thing about the Poacher is that when Katrina and I sampled it, she thought the name meant Poacher as in to cook in water, as opposed to illegally shooting someone else's game. My references to Danny the Champion of the World, Roald Dahl's definitive text on pheasant poaching, didn't really clear things up for her, either.
This cheese is reputed to be King of the Blues, edging out Roquefort for the title of the strongest, sharpest, most pungent blue cheese in the world. At the urging of the nice lady at Artisan Cheese, Katrina and I sampled the King on Friday. Cabrales is a dark, gritty gray in color, with bumpy veins of purple-ish blue. It looks like gravel. Sadly, it tastes much the same. Imagine gravel on the side of a busy highway, home to roadkill and trash. Eating cabrales is like having your taste buds molested by an old man. The feelings of repulsion and disgust take years to go away. Cabrales is a cheese that lingers on the palate. 20 minutes later there will be some entirely new nasty taste in your mouth. No me gusta.
I think macaroni and cheese is the dish that first introduces you to how good cheese can be, and how much better good cheese can make something taste. Call it what you will — shells and cheese, mac 'n cheese, quattro formaggi, — the combination of baking pasta and cheese together is one of the best uses of cheese in the world. It's also a good way to use up any cheese you might have sitting around in the cheese drawer. I made it this weekend using fiscalini aged cheddar reserve, mixed in with a little cave-aged gruyere and some reggie. MMMMMMMMMMMMM.
I've been intrigued by this cheese for a while now. It's a barrel-aged cow's milk cheese from Italy that has hay pressed into the rind. At the store, where the pre-cut pieces sit on top of the giant wheel, you can see the long strands of hay in the rind. Needless to say, vento d'estate has more than a whiff of the barnyard. It's tasty, with a little tang and a little sweet summery goodness. It makes you feel like you are some pampered Italian cow, grazing in some magnificent field right below a cathedral.
Italian for "trufflicious" (Venetian dialect) or "magically delicious" (Tuscan dialect) or "as good as crack" (Corsican), caciotta dei boschi is a homely looking cheese. Its yellow-beige flesh is spreckled with brown truffle bits, giving it the appearance of say, a quail egg. Imagine, for a moment, the misty forest, and the trees that grow there in the black earth, and the roots beneath the trees, crumbling and damp, making a home for the hunted Truffles, brown fungal babies of the perpetual night. Anyway. Caciotta dei boschi has a dank, briney bite that lingers. The sheep's milk base combines with the magic truffle bits to co-host an earthy, smoky, yummy party in your mouth. One can almost feel the warm moist pig snout pausing to caress its truffle quarry before rousting it from its sub-arborial cubby. C. d. B. can be eaten for dinner, followed by Girl Scout cookies, while watching Rounders starring Matt Damon and Edward Norton on cable. No crackers necessary.
I've always been a proponent of civilized living (and I think we are all agreed that cheese is the bedrock upon which civilization is constructed) and today, after an unextremely uncivilized wait at the post office to turn over things that already had postage on them but weighed more than a pound and were only going to two separate addresses but were in six separate packages (why can't the intern ever grasp the difference between international and domestic mail? why?), I realized I needed a good dose of civilized living. So I went to lunch at Metropole and had a nice sandwich. More importantly, I had a glass of wine with my lunch. Why are we not drinking wine or beer or cocktails at lunch? Because Specialty's doesn't serve them? What has happened to the heyday of the three-martini lunch? Here's the thing—it really took the edge off, that glass of wine. Civilization is ending (it feels like the entire known world is hurtling towards apocalypse) and so maybe we ought to be taking advantage of as much as the civilized world can offer us—drinks with lunch, an entire cake of Humboldt Fog to ourselves, the consolations of High Life.
This cheese is like that boy your mother wants you to marry—safe, reliable, a little bit predictable. you know it's always going to treat you right. you hold the idea of it in reserve like an extra ace tucked away. when you've been burned by flashier, sexier, more exciting cheeses—what a good idea brescianella seemed like at the time!—cave-aged gruyere is there to pick you up the morning after. it doesn't ask questions, doesn't press its agenda, it's just there, solid and dependable. it knows the tortoise always wins the race in the end.
An aptly-named aged-goat cheese so playful and salty that it brings to mind the Great God Pan cavorting around a field with his pipes, surrounded by half-naked nymphs. I've only seen this once at the Rainbow (the cheese, not Pan—I doubt Pan would grace the vegetarian aisles of the Rainbow, unless it were to wreak some merry mischief with his pipes) and more often at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Like Pan, capricious can go either way—it can be full of whimsy and charm, or it can cross the line from mischief to malice without warning.
Last night at Delfina I sat by myself at the counter and made a new friend: mezzano, a playful mix of cow and goat milks. It's from Friuli, one of those Italian mountain areas, and it tastes the way you would expect—like cows and goats grazing on tender grass at a high altitude, surrounded by rocky outcroppings. It's tangy and creamy, yet has a strong, rugged character, just like a mountain range. You taste it and you think of Giorgione's shepherd, standing watch over the storm. It's not unlike a mancheog; Delfina served it with quince paste. It's the kind of cheese that makes you glad you're sitting at the counter, just you and mezzano, rather than sitting at the table next to you, where the man keeps stroking his goatee as he bores his companions.