Cultured artists find their muse at the fromagerie: Who drew my cheese?

Photo by Dean Hurst

Cheese: We love to smell it, eat it and dream about it. In addition to enhancing our culinary experiences, cheese provides a muse for the world of art. From paintings to sculptures and photographs of rinds, cheese is the model turning heads in galleries across the country. Learning to appreciate where our food comes from requires an understanding of its living beauty, and many artists draw inspiration from what they love to eat and the animals that provide sustenance.

Local artist Ginger Shaw’s whimsical creations are the stuff of dreams. This talented interior designer from Naples (she now lives in Tampa) developed an affection for food when she started working in the restaurant industry to help pay for her degree. The subjects of her paintings range from abstract tributes to animals we consume everyday to animated vegetables one might find on the pages of Alice in Wonderland.

Photo by Dean Hurst

Photo by Dean Hurst

Shaw’s most recent painting, “Wine and Cheese Dreams,” represents her passion for the titular food and drink. This stunning work embraces the euphoria that both wine and cheese inspire (especially together). Shaw playfully incorporated recycled materials and cheese labels into her painting, the art creating feelings of freedom, warmth, sleepiness, exhilaration, excitement and pure bliss. Her painting transfers to canvas the feeling of contentment one has after pairing the perfect bottle of wine with a chunk of expertly made cheese. This work currently resides on the wall of the main dining room inside SideBern’s restaurant in Tampa and is available for purchase.

Photo by Dean Hurst

When asked about her inspiration for the piece, Shaw said, “Cheese takes on the characteristics of the land in which the animal that produced the milk grazed, just like wine. Why not produce artwork showcasing and celebrating cheese? It’s an essential piece of our whole entire world!”

Artist Ginger Shaw, photo by Dean Hurst

Chocolate and cheese, please: chocolate and cheese make a tasty pairing!

Fiscalini Cheddar and Taza Chocolate

Have you ever sunk your teeth into a dense custard of cocoa and bittersweet chocolate whipped into cream cheese with sugar, eggs and sour cream? Doesn’t ring a bell? Maybe because the entire recipe was baked into crushed graham cracker crumbs and topped with chocolate sauce before you coated your taste buds with its decadence. It’s pretty clear: cheesecake proves cheese and chocolate really do go well together. Now up the ante and go artisanal by daring to accompany your cheese with chocolate this year.

To start things off right, crumble up a bit of Fiscalini Bandaged cheddar from California and let it rest next to a bar of Vosges Creole chocolate! The almond and sharp, dried-grass flavors of this perfect American cheddar harmonize in jazzy perfection with the New Orleans-style chicory coffee nuances of the bittersweet chocolate. Little bits of cocoas nibs blended into the expertly crafted bar of goodness will (as is stamped right on the chocolate) make you “close your eyes.”

If you know Vosges Haut Chocolat, then you know they concoct pairings that will blow your mind. One of their unique truffles encases Italian Taleggio cheese with a dark chocolate shell, walnuts and Tahitian vanilla beans. They lovingly call this culinary treat the “Rooster.” If you are putting together a chocolate gift for someone special soon, make sure you include this truffle. The “Rooster” is sure to wake up the senses, and who doesn’t want a little Taleggio from their loved one?

The next best pairing of cheese and chocolate has an elegant twist. Coupole from Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery works amazingly well with sweet chocolate. This cheese is a charmer on its own, with a punch of goatiness and a smooth mouth feel. Lake Champlain Chocolates makes a raspberry truffle dark chocolate bar with a ganache center that enhances the allure of Coupole. The comforting cocoa butter, vanilla and heavy cream (which Lake Champlain expertly includes during the chocolate-making process) ties the combination into a perfect bow. The natural raspberry flavor of the soft center matches the intensity and texture of Coupole’s charm.

To round out the chocolate fun, add a sheep’s milk cheese to your pairings. With a satisfyingly oily, meaty and smoky flavor, Idiazabal fits the bill. This rustic Spanish cheese was once hung in shepherds’ chimneys to drain. The absorbed smoke imparted a real meaty character — like gamy lamb chops. I’ll take a mole sauce with that! This cheese will really shake up your next mixer. Throw down a chunk of dark spicy Aztec organic chocolate also from Lake Champlain next to Idiazabal and watch things get really caliente. The slow burn from the cayenne pepper works well with the earthiness of the sheep’s milk. The vanilla and cinnamon in this chocolate recipe cools the palate while the crunch from the pumpkin seeds creates a textural twist.

While you have the Idiazabal out, pair it with Taza’s ginger Mexicano stone-ground chocolate, too. The grainy texture of this 70 percent dark chocolate and the lingering memory of ginger on your tongue make an exciting and unique combination sure to be the talk of the cheese board. Taza makes an impressive lineup of chocolate flavors based on the traditional Oaxacan method of stone-grinding beans. Orange, salt and pepper, guajillo chili, and salted almond are just a few examples of the flavors available from this simple artisan chocolate producer. Still scared to pair cheese with chocolate? Start easy and mix one of these chocolate discs into a hot pot of milk for an authentic Mexican hot chocolate.

Just “close your eyes” and take the plunge.

Bellisimo Tre: three Italian cheeses to fall in love with

Pretty Pecorinos

When one talks of Italian cheese, several staples come to mind: mascarpone, asiago, parmigiano-reggiano, taleggio and Gorgonzola. In reality, the list of cheeses made in that beautiful country proves as extensive as its wines, and only the cheeses of France rival the complexity and history of Italy’s. Herds found exclusively in the Italian Alps provide milk for some cheeses; and when tourists ask for Pecorino while visiting Italy, they’re likely to see puzzled expressions on the locals’ faces, as each region has its own version of Pecorino with a unique twist added by the cheese-maker. As such, there are too many selections of Pecorinos for us to ever see their full range in the United States. The same is true for three of my favorite Italian cheeses, which sometimes get lost in the mass of cheeses available.

Casatica

Originally used to plough marshes until the Roman Empire fizzled and land sat abandoned, water buffalo played an important role in Italian history. Several centuries later, records show the first documentation of buffalo milk and its use in cheese-making. Buffalo thrive in the south, making northern Italy an unusual location for buffalo milk production, yet Alfio and Bruno Gritti established a large herd near Bergamo. Today, Northern Italy produces a buffalo milk cheese called Casatica. Different than Mozzarella, Casatica has a thin, white and soft-ripened rind with a creamy interior. The supple paste with small holes (known as “eyes” in the cheese world) delivers a silky texture and sweet milky flavor profile. This occurs because of buffalo milk’s 21-percent fat content, high calcium, protein, vitamins and mineral salt. Buffalo milk is also easy to digest and, like goat and sheep milk, can sometimes be tolerated by individuals who suffer from an inability to digest lactose. A big wine can overpower Casatica’s mild flavor, so keep it simple and enjoy with an Italian Pinot Grigio.

Burrata

Burrata is a fresh cow’s milk cheese similar to mozzarella in style. Both are pasta filata, or stretched cheeses. The stretching technique used to create Burrata allows the outside of the cheese to remain pliable while encasing a filling of wet curds and whey in the middle. The buttery aroma and sweet flavor help Burrata live up to its name, which translates to “buttered.” When you cut into burrata the center filling oozes out slowly, escaping the slightly firmer shell. This cheese shines with fresh produce like rich avocados, salty sea beans, and tangy tomatoes or earthy cured ham.

Nuvola di Pecora

An award-winning sheep’s milk cheese called Nuvola di Pecora stole my heart at first taste. Nuvola di Pecora (which means “sheep cloud”) has a thin, bloomy rind and firm-to-supple texture, depending on its age. The soft vegetal notes and milky sweetness of this cheese make Nuvola a dreamy treat. (You’re bound to start counting cheese instead of sheep.) Most sheep’s milk is aged to become firm and crystalline, making the thick custard-like texture of Nuvola di Pecora unique.

Accentuate its richness with a creamy Pinot Noir and imagine yourself in the Emilio-Romagna region of northern Italy where Casatica is born. Casatica, Burrata and Nuvola di Pecora deviate from the typical traditions of Italian cheese-making. However, the history, geography and culture of the region are obvious in the quality of these bellisimo cheeses.

From the Ashes: the use of ash in cheesemaking

Tradition! We use the important ritual of cooking and preparing food as a way to pass down a sense of our heritage. Although recipes evolve over the years, they often tell stories of the past and allow us to better understand a certain time period’s struggles and strengths.

The original use of ash in cheesemaking protected layers of curd that had to wait patiently for more milk before becoming cheese. The charcoal ash used in ancient times kept flies and other critters away while the animals made the next day’s milk. Over time, cheesemakers who raised goats realized the ash also neutralized the acidity of their curds and rounded out the flavors of their cheese.

Today, the visual impact of ash layers and rinds spur the tradition. Most cheesemakers now use dried vegetable ash instead of wood or charcoal ash; the odorless, tasteless ash provides the stunning color contrast they desire while offering a hospitable environment for the molds they want to grow.

Valencay

The French have mastered the use of ash in cheese making. One of the most stunning and delicious goat’s milk cheeses hails from the Loire Valley. This eye-catching cheese, called Valencay (vah-lehn-SAY), has various producers. A salted, charcoal ash rind blankets the moist paste. The center of this cheese exudes flavors of clean lemon and sweet hay. Legend tells of Valencay receiving its flat-topped pyramid shape when Napoleon was angered upon looking at it. Its original pointed pyramid shape reminded him of his Egyptian defeat, and off came the top of the cheese with an angry swipe of his sword.

Sofia

For a perfect indulgence, you must meet Sofia, a pretty little goat’s milk treat from Capriole Farms in Indiana. The use of vegetable ash in this recipe provides an alkaline balance to the acidity of the milk. The ash aids in showcasing the essence of the animal without the goaty flavors emerging too strongly. Sofia’s tangy personality pairs with so many fresh ingredients. Young, tart berries and crisp greens make Sofia’s list of favorite companions. As Sofia ages, honeycomb and nuts become her more mature suitors (who love residing next to her on a cheese plate due to the beauty of her ash-marbled paste).

Eclipse

Eclipse Paste

For a truly seasonal treat with surprising flavor, Eclipse from Goat’s Leap Dairy in California will simply make you smile. This dairy only uses the milk its animals produce while roaming the fields between April and October. Eclipse’s silky paste has a fine line of ash running horizontally through its center and a piece of Star Anise resting on top of its rind. Star Anise is the seedpod of a southwestern evergreen that tastes a lot like licorice. The Star Anise crown imparts some subtle flavor to the bright, citrusy goat milk. Make sure you have the right wine handy to pair with the dense and flaky texture of this barrel-shaped treat.

Most goat cheeses that incorporate ash pair well with grassy Sauvignon Blancs. The zing from the wine’s acidity refreshes and invigorates like the gigantic splash at the end of a long waterslide. Sauvignon Blancs pair with the citrus notes of this cheese style while cleansing your tongue of the rich, lactic residue good goat cheese leaves behind.

Now you can stop mistaking ash for bad black mold and bring a little tradition home with your next cheese selection.

Siesta Cheeses: Spanish favorites paired with meats

Jamon Serrano

No group knows a siesta better than the Spanish, whose talent for relaxing is topped only by their talent for producing fantastic cheeses, wines and hams. Mahón cheese, made on the tiny island of Menorca, has a history as colorful as its birthplace. Menorca has sustained many invasions throughout history, but its final British occupation in the 18th century provided the islanders with the Friesian cow, whose milk is now used to make Mahón. This cheese has peachy and grassy notes, as well as a touch of salt as if the sea breeze had gently kissed its rind. The sharp bite to the finish causes your mouth to pucker in unexpected delight. Islanders traditionally enjoy this cheese as an appetizer drizzled with olive oil and topped with rosemary fresh from the garden. I also add a slice of Jamon Serrano, the dry-cured ham’s robust gamey flavor accentuating the earthiness of the cheese while its honey sweetness balances Mahón’s saltiness. Remember to let both your cheese and ham come to room temperature so you can savor all their nuances while they transport you to the Balearic Islands.

Idiazabal

Idiazábal is a sheep’s milk cheese and hails from the mountains in Pais Vasco. When Spanish shepherds traveled with their animals to the high pastures in the summer, they stored their cheese in the rafters of huts. This caused the cheese to take on a smokey flavor from the nightly cooking fires. To duplicate this characteristic, Idiazábal now gets smoked over beechwood. Although made year round, the best production happens in May when the sheep graze on spring pastures. Idiazábal smells of soft smoke and fudge, has a sharp acidity and pairs perfectly with the finely marbled, hard-to-acquire Jamon Iberico, a delicacy that’s only produced in Spain and became available in the United States in 2008. Real Iberico has a smooth texture and rich savory taste due to the high consumption of acorns in the diet of the Pata Negra (black-footed pigs) used to make this ham. Do not let inferior products fool you; if you find Jamon Iberico in a specialty store or restaurant make sure the label reads Bellota before paying top dollar.

For the perfect sipper to accompany both of these Spanish selections, choose a cava rosé (rosado). This bubbly pink treat will help you relax with refreshing notes of berries and herbs that pair well with both Mahón and Idiazábal. The zippy acidity and occasional dryness of this bright wine sing with the saltiness of both lactic treats.

Don’t get stymied by the doldrums of everyday tasks. Pull yourself away to buy a bottle of cava rosé for your cheese and charcuterie selections and electrify your taste buds.

Käses (Cheeses of course)

Bavarian Blue on a sweet onion tart with confit tomatoes, arugula & aged balsamic

“O’zapft is!” – the cry used every year to open the festivities for Oktoberfest (as if anyone needs permission to begin consuming large quantities of beer in a giant tent). It means – “It’s tapped” and seems a fitting commencement for a kegger that has occurred for 201 years. A party this big must consist of more than just beer drinking, right? Of course! This celebration has it all: music, dancing, horse-drawn carriages, tight bodices, roller coasters, Ferris wheels, horse racing and shooting games (I still haven’t figured out how that works). The culinary delights run the gamut too consisting of roasted oxen, bratwursts over half a meter long, schnitzel, pork stews, whole slow cooked chickens and even braised pig’s knuckles. A beer festival with all these dishes must have cheese to be complete. So, in honor of this German holiday, I picked three käses, or cheeses, sure to appear at such an event.

Let’s start with the scariest and most well known, Limburger. Although its roots remain firmly grounded in Belgium, Limburger’s popularity created a need for production to increase during the mid 1800’s. Now a majority of this cow’s milk cheese is made in the Allgäu region of Germany. Washed in bacteria, the rind is sticky and brownish orange. If you want to know the aroma of what the floor of the beer tents will smell like once Oktoberfest is over, take a whiff of this baby. As with most washed rind cheeses, Limburger has a mild taste. That’s not to say it isn’t meaty and barny. This cheese is traditionally paired with potatoes, onions and dark pumpernickel bread. Sounds like the perfect breakfast for day two of Oktoberfest! Although Limburger pairs well with several styles of beer, it has an undeniable charisma with the acidic sourness of a Belgium Lambics.

Bavarian Blue

The next salute goes out to Bavarian Blu also produced in the Allgäu. Although considerably milder than Gorgonzola, reminiscent of the latter blended with Camembert. Bavarian Blu is made with rich cow’s milk and has a subtle, spicy finish. This cheese often appeals to non-blue fans because it is more about the cream than blue mold veins. I love to partner this one with fresh fruit and Riesling. They make an awesome threesome. In light of the holiday at hand, try it with an Apfelwein (Germany’s version of a hard apple cider). The cloudy fermented apple juice cuts through the unctuous paste of Bavarian Blu.

Now on to something obscure to us yet quite beloved in Germany. Altenburger Ziegenkäse is a soft and creamy cheese flecked with caraway seeds. This delightful goats’ and cows’ milk creation comes from Eastern Germany. As a protected cheese, Altenburger is only made at two Eastern dairies. Since reunification it has seen a comeback all over the region. During Oktoberfest you would most likely catch this delicacy drizzled with sweet mustard resting next to a stein of Kölsch. The honeyed tang of the mustard and notable hoppiness of this top-fermented beer accent the caraway seeds without hiding them. Try a Früh Kölsch from the Cologne region if you can find one.

Hope you are salivating due to the imagery of German cheeses and not German girls’ Oktoberfest costumes. Even more sincerely, I hope you are lucky enough to experience this holiday as it was intended. This Oktoberfest is sure to be the party of a lifetime – as long as you don’t forget the cheese.

Are You Ready For Some – Real Cheese?

Football season brings with it the promise of Kraft single cheeseburgers, cheese balls, cheese dips and even cheese cubes. All are wonderful accents to the first official parties of Florida’s transition into fall, and let’s face it; artisanal cheese doesn’t stand up to a hot room full of chanting beer drinkers like the processed stuff does! So, as your favorite college and pro teams take to the field, raise your drink to cheers your family and friends while you enjoy all the glory mass manufactured cheese has to offer. Now that you’ve got that out of your system, lets cut to the real cheese.

Pierce Pt. & Apricot Jam

Pierce Point from Cow Girl Creamery is a beautiful California cow’s milk cheese you can find on line at cowgirlcreamery.com. This seasonal cheese is only made for a short period each year. It is lovingly spritzed with a white wine and then rolled in dried coriander, fennel, juniper berry, bay leaf, lemongrass, lemon balm, red clover, marigold, chamomile and oat straw. The result is a decadent, semi-firm cheese that is a real treat. Pierce Point’s creamy and sweet characteristics make it the perfect cheese to pair with a tart apricot jam. This unique accompaniment is a recipe of dried apricots, honey and cinnamon. The crisp, fruity notes of the apricot enhance the already complex Pierce Point.

For another domestic choice, occasionally available at Bern’s Fine Wines & Spirits, St. George is a unique option. The Matos family in California makes this cow’s milk cheese. The intense, cheddary depth provides a rich full-flavored treat. As this Portuguese style cheese coats your tongue, dive into a late summer corn, basil and olive oil salad. Just mix to taste. The combination is refreshing, sweet and sexy!

An imported selection perfect for this season is Garrotxa (gar-ROACH-uh), a goat’s milk cheese from Catalonia, Spain. This firm, aged cheese has a velvety paste with a mild tang. The nuances of nuts, fresh flowers and sweet grass will arouse your palate and remind you of the days of summer’s past. Cherry Preserves from Harvest Song is a shimmering match to this gem. The simple mixture of tangy sweet-and-sour cherries creates a flawless ode to Garrotxa. Just stop by Publix Greenwise Market and pick up the pair. If Garrotxa isn’t available, ask their expert to pick an aged goat’s milk that they like.

Sottocenere, Almonds & Truffles

Italy has a list of cheeses as long as its selection of wines. That being said, if you love truffles you must indulge in a wedge of Sottocenere (SO-toh-CHEH-nay-ray).  You can find this raw cow’s milk cheese at Whole Foods Market. Literally translating to “under the ashes” the name stems from the tradition of preserving cheese in ash. The rind of Sottocenere is an aromatic coating of nutmeg, clove, coriander, cinnamon, licorice and even fennel. The most exciting element of this cheese is the flavor that comes from the bits of white and black truffles in the paste. Grab a bottle of sparkling wine like Prosecco and devour this one without any accompaniments. It’s that amazing!

Clearly, all cheese has a time and place. Enjoy your football celebrations and the appropriate cheeses that go along with it. Remember to stop by your closest artisanal cheese store when your palate desires the upgrade that is sure to follow!