If i could only give one piece of advice in regard to camping cheese, it would be this: avoid cheddar. the worst is the cheap, generic cheddar, which turns to moist, crumbly shag carpeting after about 18 hours. when i was camping in washington this summer, i brought a pound of fancy wisconsin three-year cheddar because i thought it would be dry enough to withstand three or four days of hiking. wrong! the cheese experienced a major malfunction sometime during the morning of day 2, and i miserably choked and gagged on it for the next week. the best camping cheeses are the parmesans and dry goudas. why didn't i bring them? who knows? it maybe had something to do with the fact that i was wickedly hungover when i was shopping. there are some within the backpacking community who believe that the cheese argument has been moot since the creation of individually wrapped mozzerella sticks. i would like to point out that (a) i can't find any documentation proving that those sticks are actually cheese and not some partially hydrogenated facsimilie, and (b) they have this nasty, flaccid, rubbery quality that is un-food-like and frankly repulsive. as far as the best camping cheeses: argentine parmesan is cheap and not too crumbly like its sister the reggiano. old amsterdam is clearly packed with the sweet sweet sodium that i crave on the trail. any of the asiago family are reasonable; i'm 'bout em, even if they're not as tangy or tasty as the others. remember, avoid cheddar. avoid it!
Flor di capra is an organic, aged goat cheese from Italy. I bought it at the Rainbow the other week in part because I had some Capricious (organic, aged goat cheese from California) at home and wanted to compare how they taste. Leslie participated in a similar tasting last week at Buffy. Flor di Capra is very tasty, but it smells and tastes amazingly like grass. It literally taste how lying in a field of grass smells. And at the rind it tastes like dirt, the way grass at the root tastes of dirt. And the Capricious, as noted here elsewhere, tastes like salty sea air. This made me think a lot about the concept of terroir, and how I wish there was a word for this in English, both because saying something in French always makes it sound pretentious and stuck-up, as opposed to a sound and true principle, and also because the fact that there's no word for it in English points to the fact that we don't think it's important. And it is. Isn't it a piece of basic common sense that things taste like where they are grown, or made? If goats live by the ocean and eat grass that grows in salt air, and then their milk is made into a cheese that is then aged in a cave by that ocean, doesn't it make sense that it tastes like the salty sea in a creamy milk-based form?
Now, I know that this is a forum for talking about cheese, but I want to take a minute and talk about cheese's great friend, bacon. Bacon's role in the downfall of many a vegetarian regime has been well-documented elsewhere, and that is not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about the recent article in Food and Wine about Captain Bacon, which features a tour of artisan smokehouses with the man who owns the Grateful Palate, which features more than one kind of Bacon of the Month Club. Instead of having a book club, why don't we have our own Bacon of the Month club, where we eat bacon and discuss its subtleties of flavor?
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.
I liked smoked cheese because it reminds me of the smoking destruction often wrought by my favorite basketball team, the Kansas Jayhawks. Each winter, I ingest a healthy cross-section of smoked food — from Cyclone flambe to charred Sooner, from grilled and skewered Missouri Tiger on a bed of greens to tenderly fricasseed Cornhusker with a side of roasted Aggie. This spring's offerings were unusually plentiful and toothsome; during an epic late March weekend, I was treated to slow-roasted Blue Devil a mere 48 hours before feasting upon seared Arizona Wildcat. The Wildcat, I must admit, was especially delicious considering the cruel, terrible, ruthless, unforgettable surprise grilling he had administered on a legendary Jayhawk team in the round of 16 in March 1997. In comparison to these smoky delights, Spanish Idiazabal hardly merits mention. Yes, it is much nicer than many smoked Jacks and goudas that have unceremoniously paraded through my little cheese drawer, but still, compared to the deep, rich smokiness emitted by a Kansas State Wildcat torched by indiscriminate aerial assault by Kansas guards, it might as well be Cheez-Whiz.
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.
After a long sunny Sunday spent assembling bee hives and running, I sampled Slide Ranch Steve's latest cheese effort, a tangy, salty cheese spread made from adding rennet to the milk of Slide Ranch goats. Most farmer's cheese is made with archaic methods that often require a bit of brute force. For instance, I often made cheese by heating up a few gallons of goat milk on a rickety old gas stove and adding a bunch of vinegar just before it boiled. This method works, sort of, but you get what you pay for. The milk heats unevenly, so you waste lots of curd; the milk on the bottom often burns, making it taste, well, burnt; and the milk near the bottom gets too hot and makes the rest of it taste sour. Steve made his by adding rennet to fresh goat milk and then spicing it with a little salt and chili powder. The result: a safe, satisfying cheese that would never, ever offend. Meg Ryan in cheese form. Fluffy, creamy, easy-going. Highly recommended on nacho chips. Best enjoyed during the late afternoon of sunny, breezy Sundays while sitting on rustic cabin porches. Absolutely must be eaten while drinking Black Butte Porter.
All those froofy-sounding French gruyeres tend to inspire patriotic disgust for the very sincere self-importance of everything French, even though they rarely disappoint, taste-wise. My problem with this gruyere is that it demands too much from me. I look at it in my little cheese drawer, and it practically demands that it be served in a particular way, at a particular time of day, with a particular attitude, on a particular platter: "Eh! Monsieur! You're not going to slice me on zis cutting board, are you? The one on which you just sliced zat apple?" Umm, yeah, I didn't buy you so that you could make me feel inadequate. What is preventing me from grating you into a fine powder and feeding you to the yappy American mongrel with which I live? Eh? Eh? In any case, I sometimes appreciate the extra work involved in making this cheese happy. So what if it doesn't go well with Lagunitas Dog Town Pale Ale and MTV 10-Spot shows?
This cheese is the When Harry Met Sally of high-end cheese — white-bread, straight-forward, and adequately satisfying for 63% of men and women between ages 27 and 46. You can bring it to a dinner party full of strangers, and satisfy both the cheeserati and the cheese-oblivious. You can also mention its name at that same dinner party, and have an adequately interesting conversation perhaps punctuated by mild witticisms and/or mediocre analogies. Many of us may have a soft-spot for Dutch Parrano, and we may be ashamed of it. But at the same time most are quick to point out its undeniable — though not overwhelming — strengths. It's pleasantly salty. It nips at the tongue, slightly. One can place it on a fancy cracker, or a melt it inside a quesadilla, or eat it by itself. It doesn't mind. It's easy. Sometimes, we like easy things. Dutch Parrano reminds us that it's okay to like easy things, and to freely discuss them with strangers, and to save our energy for the more challenging things, like complicated, demanding French cheeses that have been aged in caves.