Cheeses, seasonal? How can that be? Cows, goats, and sheep eat year-round, don’t they? Well, yes, they do, but not the same stuff. They give birth in spring and produce milk until winter, when pasture grazing ends. That milk, from lush summer grasses, is sweet and complex. Some farmers breed their stock during winter, but hay and grain just can’t compete with summer pasture. Think of an August backyard tomato compared to a January gas-ripened one. Same deal.
Larger and commercial producers have the means to provide cheese throughout the year. Curds can be frozen, additives can preserve, powdered milk can substitute. It’s all about supply and demand. We want our chèvre for New Year’s just as we want it for July 4th. If chèvre is on your holiday season table, it’s most likely from frozen curd. Fresh-curd chèvre won’t show up again until April. And artisanal producers wouldn’t have it any other way. Sally Jackson’s Washington State tomme, its chestnut-leaf wrapping having peaked in mid-fall, won’t be ready until early spring. Vermont’s soft-ripened brebis has been off the shelves since November.
So what is freshly available for your deep-winter cheese plate? Plenty, it turns out. Washed-rind cheeses, whose alcoholic baths incur moisture-retention, are at their height right now. Burgundy’s Epoisses (great with Chardonnay) and Canada’s Madawaska (try with Merlot) are pungent—okay, stinky—examples. Raw-milk cheddars, aged 18 months, are in their prime, as are Brie-style, soft-ripened cow’s-milk varieties. Natural-rind blues like England’s Stilton are perfect now, especially accompanied with a port or Sauternes. Hartsdale Cheesery (215 E Hartsdale Ave, Hartsdale 914-723-6859: cheesery.com) recommends three of them: Colston Bassett, Tuxford, and Tebbutt. At Pound Ridge’s Plum Plums (72 Westchester Ave, Pound Ridge 914-764-1525), two of the top-selling cheeses are a six-month-aged Spenwood, a nutty, sweet, raw sheep’s-milk cheese that shines with a glass of Sangiovese, and Oregon’s Rogue River Blue, a cow’s-milk cheese wrapped in grape leaves and soaked in pear brandy. Larchmont’s Auray Gourmet (144 Larchmont Ave, Larchmont 914-833-2274; auraygourmet.com) suggests an earthy, tangy Alsatian muenster or creamy French raw-milk raclette, its pasty texture traditionally melted and scraped over potatoes or bread accompanied by cornichons, pearl onions, and a glass of Merlot.
And then there’s the holy Alpine trinity of Gruyère, Appenzeller, and Emmentaler, melded in that pot-wielding apotheosis known as fondue. Auray’s Matthew Peretz cautions against using more than three cheeses: “Their flavors will get lost; it’s like mixing colors.” So tear up some bread, pour a Riesling or Merlot, gather some friends, and light that Sterno. The warmth will permeate more than the cheese.
Classic Cheese Fondue
Courtesy of Auray Gourmet
(Yields 6 main servings or 10 appetizer servings)
1 clove garlic, halved
1 cup dry white wine
¾ lb Gruyère, grated
¾ lb Emmenthaler, Raclette, or
1 ½ Tbsp cornstarch
1 to 2 Tbsp Kirsch liqueur (optional)
Kosher salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Ground nutmeg (optional)
For dipping: Crusty bread cubes; steamed broccoli/cauliflower florets; carrot, celery, or fennel sticks; apple cubes; seedless grapes; cubed cured meats such as kielbasa; roasted chestnuts
Rub cut side of garlic clove on inside of large Dutch oven or heavy saucepan (preferably cast iron), rubbing the bottom and halfway up sides. Add wine and bring to simmer over medium/high heat. Meanwhile, in large bowl, toss cheeses with cornstarch. Add a handful at a time to simmering wine, stirring until first handful melts before adding the next. Reduce heat to medium, stirring constantly until cheese is completely melted. Add Kirsch, if using, and heat until bubbling, 1 to 2 minutes. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg, if desired. Transfer to fondue pot set over a flame. Serve with crusty bread and other accompaniments.