Midwest Cheese Plate: An Introduction

July 1, 2012 at 8:49 pm

Editor’s Note: We are pleased to introduce Adrienne Stone on cheese.  Adrienne, like anyone growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, looked to Zingerman’s for career inspiration.  That inspiration led her to local cheese emporium, Pastoral, and now to us to share her love for a good plate.  With this post, Adrienne introduces herself and a good plate of local cheeses.

If only we could always introduce ourselves with cheese, I think the world might be a friendlier place overall, and I’m fortunate enough to do this for you with an inspired plate of locally made cheeses.  It will give you an idea of how I got into cheese, which, if you haven’t heard, nobody really plans on doing.  This plate has 3 cheeses on it: one cow’s milk, one sheep and one goat.  I also added some local honey because, as you will discover later in the post, pairing is at least half the fun of enjoying how you’re eating what you’re eating.  So here they are, my locavore champions.  Lovely to meet you!

Pleasant Ridge Reserve:  Uplands Cheese Company: Dodgeville, WI

This cheese holds a special place in many a monger’s heart.  For me, there are a few reasons.  I grew up working at Zingerman’s Delicatessen, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I learned that you can make bad things with great ingredients, but bad ingredients will never make something great.  For me, this means that simple beginnings can lead to the greatest discoveries.  Andy Hatch and the folks at Upland Cheese Co. live this in their craft.  Their Jersey cows receive royal treatment of delicious grassy diet and the milk is tested for protein and fat content (both flavor & mouthfeel contributors) daily.  I must also mention that this wheel of this cheese is included on my plate because it was one of the last of the batch that I was lucky enough to help select at Uplands last year.  Pastoral is fortunate enough to be able to select a batch of Pleasant Ridge Reserve every year and lay claim to all of it.  Which gives us (and our customers) the unique opportunity to taste a cheese with the same beginnings, the same history, over time.  To watch the kids grow.  When I went to Uplands we tasted through 8 or 9 different batch dates, which Andy had selected for us beforehand.  I remember being astonished at the flavor differences in the cheeses made from milk merely days apart.  Notes of pineapple and tropical fruit in this wheel, savory onions and beef broth in the next.  We went with something a little in the middle: a dense, brothy batch with hints of browned butter, dried pineapple and marcona almonds, which finishes with the unmistakable childhood memory of buttered popcorn.  It was truly a learning moment.

Dante:  Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Co-Op: Plain, WI

Some cheeses I’m just drawn to.  I put this on my plate because to me, this cheese is my first taste memory of seasonality.  Because we get wheels from different batches year round, it is my veritable box o’ chocolates. This sheep’s milk cheese is oft described behind the cheese counter as a marriage between Manchego, that classic aged cheese from La Mancha, Spain, and Pecorino.  Always rich and tender in mouthfeel, with a finish so long that it carries into the next bite, it is sometimes reminiscent of ginger and lychee, sometimes mutton and wet earth.  The range of aging on the wheels we get takes us from a firmer grating cheese that makes me crave hot pasta, to slightly more moist and oily, which I love with the biting acidity of balsamic vinegar.  The concentration of fat in sheep’s milk is a buoyant vehicle for these ranges of flavors.

Fresh Chevre:  Prairie Fruits Farm: Champaign, IL

New employees at Pastoral are required to attend a basic pairings class, not only a level setting for gaining familiarity with individual elements, but all about transforming components into something else, exposing a 3rd ‘higher’ flavor, an opportunity for renaissance between 2 (or 3 or 4 or 5) different elements.  This opportunity to note previously undiscovered nuances and new textural experiences is a nod to each ingredient.  It’s about recognizing diversity in products we taste every day.  One classic pairing that we tried at the class I attended as a new employee is a fresh goat cheese with a saison-style (French farmhouse-style) beer.  We had Prairie Fruits Farm fresh chevre, no more than 3 days off the farm, with Saison Dupont, one of the most acclaimed saison-style ales.  The chevre is rich and creamy with a distinct acidity that stops just short of a ricotta-like puffiness in mouthfeel.  The flavor is all fresh cream, sweet and milky as a baby’s breath.  The beer is crisp and refreshing, lending to the cheese a stronger lemony element typically found in goat’s cheeses with a bit more age on them, and washes the cheese off the tongue in a wave of mild malty effervescence.  This was my pairing ‘aha’ moment.  The 2 came together on my palate, and something clicked.  Something irreversible.  On my plate I pair it with an herbaceous honey to highlight the fresh grass and clover notes, and the spongy, springy texture of the curds.

At the end of the day, the best cheese plates are the ones to be shared.  But having an all-star cast available to us in Illinois certainly doesn’t hurt anything, either.  Until next time!

Look forward to more introductions to the world of local cheese from Adrienne.  Adrienne Stone is from Ann Arbor, Michigan.  She happened into a world of slow food by attending high school next door to Zingerman’s Delicatessen, where she began to work at age 14.  She has been in Chicago for 3 years and is currently the Assistant Buyer for Pastoral.  Her three favorite foods are bacon, cheese and whiskey and she loves to read, do yoga, cook and spend hours at the beach.