Contemplating Cheese Seasons While Waiting Out a Snow Storm

February 2, 2011 at 11:39 am

Eating locally means eating in season. I’m from California where there’s only hot weather. Eating locally there is a lot easier since everything is in season all the time. My dad started his garden in September and was eating tomatoes grown from seed in December. He calls to tell me he’s eating Caprese salad outside in the sun over and over as I sit here in Chicago eating root vegetables and meat, freezing to death and trying to remember what lettuce tastes like. But I digress…

Eating in season is important, not only for the local food movement and all that entails but also because eating something at the peak of it’s freshness makes it extra delicious. I worked for Tomato Mountain Farm for a summer and I never told anyone that I didn’t like tomatoes. One day we had a meeting at the farm to try some of the product and see how everything was going. Having carefully avoided the taste tests all day, I found myself in one of the hoop houses cornered with a Juliet tomato being shoved in my face. With nothing else to do but eat it I took a bite and hoped my face didn’t give away my secret. But as I was chewing I realized it didn’t taste that bad. I don’t think I had ever eaten a fresh, in season tomato. The moral of the story is, don’t judge a food unless you eat it in season.

All that to say, there are seasons for cheese too -seasons when it’s best to eat it and seasons when it’s best to make it. Here in the Mid-West we are so lucky to be in the heart of cheese making country –although we all know we can make our own cheese at home wherever we live. When we go to the farmers market we can find all the best small batch cheeses in season but what happens when we get our cheese from a cheese market or at the grocery store? How do you know what’s in season?

Basically the best tasting cheese is made with milk from when the cows eat the freshest green grass. If it’s a fresh cheese like mozzarella or goat cheese (most goat cheeses are not aged) it’ll be best in the spring or early summer. Brie and Camembert are made with unpasteurized milk and usually only take one or two months to ripen which means that they’ll taste best in September or October. Comte and Gruyere take a little longer – five or six months – so they’ll be best right now in January or February.

You can buy all these cheeses whenever you want and out of season they will still taste good. It’s just that when cheese is made in winter it means that the cows are living in barns  and eating fodder and not fresh grass. The different foods and different living situations of the goats, cows or sheep all affect the taste of the cheese. In wine this is called terroir but cheese connoisseurs use this term for their dairy as well.

There are a few cheeses that taste virtually the same all year round. Parmigiano-Reggiano for example. This cheese should age for at least a year before eating it so it is made in every month and the taste does not change much depending on when you eat it. Some people say they can taste a difference but it’s very hard to tell.

So while we’re all being buried in snow right now, soon we can tunnel our way out and get some delicious in season Gruyere for a nice French onion soup*. Of course Gruyere implies French of Swiss cheese but we  have several great Gruyere style cheeses produced right here in the Midwest.  Probably the most famous cheese made in Wisconsin, Upland’s Pleasant Ridge Reserve is an Alpine style cheese similar to a Gruyere.  Monroe Wisconsin’s Roth Kase makes stellar Gruyere. 

*Just in case you wanted a recipe for this soup, I got it!

4 tbs butter
1 tsp salt
1 tsp white sugar
3 large sweet onions, thinly sliced
14 oz beef broth
salt and pepper to taste
4 thick slices of French bread
4 slices of Gruyere, room temperature

Melt the butter in a large sauce pan. Drop in all the onion rings on top of the butter and sprinkle them with the salt and sugar. Cook the onions on low heat until caramelized and soft. Meanwhile start heating up the beef broth in a separate pot and preheat your oven to 350. Once the onions are done drop them into the broth and simmer for a few minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Ladle out soup into four large bowls. Place a piece of bread on top of the soup in each bowl and settle it into the onions. Place a slice of cheese on top of the bread. Place the bowls on a sheet pan and bake until the cheese bubbles. Let cool for a few minutes and then devour.

Stay warm!