Cheese: It’s what’s for dinner.
Three cheers for fermentation. It turns grapes into beautiful wines, cabbage into sauerkraut and milk into mellow and delicate cheeses. Commercial varieties are a fine staple, but the world of artisanal cheeses is just as vast and interesting as the universe of incredible wines. The provenance of cheese is as important as the grape and terroir are to a glass of wine. Both products are a serious study of art and science. And both offer a culinary journey of discovery worthy of the trip. If it took the movie “Sideways” to get people beyond Chardonnay and Merlot, it may take a sampling of the village cheesemaker’s products to move beyond Kraft. One of the easiest ways to experiment with cheese is to order the cheese plate at a restaurant with offerings that show the same sophistication as the wine list. At Carpaccio in Hanover (643-8600, www.carpacciohanover.com), owner and chef Giovanni Leopardi offers a cheese plate with selections from the Mediterranean to match the foods he prepares. As is the custom in Italy, he offers the plate as a dessert with honey, nuts and figs. Choices include a rocchetta from Piedmont, a creamy goat aged cheese and a fontina from Val d’Aosta, a raw cow milk cheese with a texture like muenster. In Nashua, Chef Michael Buckley of Michael Timothy’s (595-9334, www.michaeltimothys.com) continues to offer a cheese plate along with 70 wines by the glass. Lately a selection of four cheeses included an Appenzeller, a cows’ milk cheese from Switzerland and a Cantalet, a semi-firm French cheese with a mild nutty flavor. Shannon Drake, owner of 55 Degrees in Concord (224-7192, www.55degreesnh.com) has offered a cheese plate since she opened almost two years ago. She says, “It is our number one seller.” Of course, the small-plate-and-wine-bar concept of her restaurant offers a natural segue into sampling, the best way to experience cheese. If you have ever nibbled your way through a bar of the grocery store product at home, you can appreciate the power of cheese. With fine cheeses with complex tastes, you soon realize that less is more. A precious few slices satisfy. Recently, Drake and Chef Cory Fletcher have teamed with the owner of Butter’s in Concord to broaden the choice of selections. The shelf life of a fine cheese is limited and by splitting a wheel they can both delve a bit deeper into the ever-expanding world of artisanal cheeses. In Hampton, Chef Jason Miller has developed a painless way to introduce cheese to clients. On Wednesday evenings at Bonta (929-7972, www.bonta.net), he hosts a wine and cheese tasting. Buy a glass of wine and the cheese sampling is free. This gives people a chance to try raw cow’s milk and goat and sheep cheeses, and educate their palette with the language of cheeses from around the world. Miller offers a plate that changes every two weeks. The selection is put together by Nancy Briggs Guilmette, owner of C’est Cheese. Guilmette sends a selection that is nicely matched and cheeses that are “ready” — holding cheeses in cold storage until they are ripe and in their prime. This would be a difficult task for a busy chef, so Guilmette’s knowledge and facilities let Miller offer a prime selection. A recent sample included a Vento D’Estate, a cow cheese from Italy with a rich and savory flavor, aged in a wooden barrel. At C’est Cheese (964-2272) in North Hampton, Guilmette offers patrons a selection of European cheese and other jarred food products she has taste-tested, including chocolates, jams and olive oils. Four years ago, Guilmette had enough of catering, and after a visit to Europe decided to open a European-style cheese shop. Since then she has maintained her selection of more than 200 cheeses. And maintenance it is. The cheeses are very “labor intensive” and need to be wrapped carefully and cleaned almost daily. Still, Guilmette claims the danger scale of cheese is “below bread,” and thinks the “package” generation is a bit over-cautious about products labeled “raw” and about moldy cheese. It is the job of cheese to mold, she says. Europeans have a different attitude toward mold. “It is a religious thing over there,” Guilmette says, adding that in France you will find balls of mold-covered cheese. Patrons walk out chewing on the fuzzy ball plopped on the end of a lollipop stick. After all, she says, the mold is obvious in bleu cheese and is responsible for its distinctive flavor. Hmm, maybe mold is the new sushi — a new fuzzy frontier for brave diners. Why does she prefer European cheese? “The milk is just different,” she says. The cows eat differently, and dine all day on fresh grass and grainage that only grows over there. Benedictine Monks in Canada tried to duplicate a Port Salut with the same recipe. They made a fine cheese; it just didn’t taste like Port Salut. They called it Oka. If you prefer to think local, Vermont has developed a serious culture of cheese-making with more than 30 cheesemakers. Here, we have three. Tom and Lisa Merriman of The Sandwich Creamery (www.sandwichcreamery.com) produce distinctive cheddars and several soft varieties made from the milk of their own cows when available. Boggy Meadow Farm (www.boggymeadow.com) has its famous baby Swiss and they’ve recently produced a Tomme de Savoie, a natural rind cheese, cave-aged for more than six months, to create a rich semi-hard cheese. They are no longer using the “Fanny Mason” label. Valerie Davies of Heart Song Farm (www.heart-song-farm.com) in Gilmanton Iron Works produces a superior goat cheese. Local is certainly good here, as the shelf life is only two to three weeks. Most of these local products are available online. Look to restaurants offering cheese plates or quality cheese shops, like Angela’s in Manchester (www.angelaspastaandcheese.com), or Fishtales Fine Grocer in Peterborough for an opportunity to experience a slice of life crafted by a cheesemaker. NH