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The new American cheese December 30, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Food Drinks News.
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The fragrant, rich pungency of a washed-rind, the creamy bite of a blue, the gentle sweetness of a sheep’s milk ricotta, all are types of fabulous artisanal cheeses being produced right here in the U.S. Long overshadowed by the venerable cheeses of Europe, domestic artisanal cheeses are growing in popularity and variety. Judging by the varieties we sampled, they well deserve the spotlight.

These cheeses have undergone a renaissance in the U.S., due in part to the increased awareness of the local food concept and the growing popularity of food media coverage such as Scripps’ Food Network, says Marilyn Wilkenson of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.

As opposed to using a mechanized process, artisan cheeses are handcrafted and produced on a small scale. Julie McAskin of Murray’s, the renowned New York cheese shop, noted a further distinction of “farmstead” cheeses, they are sourced and produced entirely on site.

In Europe, McAskin continued, cheese making is an established tradition; channels for production and distribution have been in place for centuries, and much of production is even government-subsidized. In the U.S., however, this infrastructure and financial support is lacking, so American cheese makers must rely on their own acumen. The unexpected benefit, however, is that they are freed from the bounds of tradition and thus, more open to experimentation and innovation leading to some truly stunning cheeses.

Fiscalini Farms’ San Joaquin Gold, for instance, was actually created by accident, a “gold medal mistake,” says cheese entrepreneur John Fiscalini. He was trying to follow a recipe for a Fontina cheese, but the proper infrastructure and experience with the aging process was lacking. The surprising result of the first cheese he attempted to produce, however, was a hard cheese with a perfect balance of creaminess and salty tang. It was named after California’s San Joaquin Valley, where Fiscalini Farms is located, and continues to be one of their most popular cheeses. 

Fiscalini Farms is owned by John Fiscalini, a third-generation dairy farmer, along with his mother, Marie, and two sisters, Joanne and Dolores. His grandfather started the dairy in 1914 in Modesta, Calif., and Fiscalini grew up milking the herd of 200 cows along with his father.

When he inherited the very successful dairy in 1992, Fiscalini was somewhat bothered by others’ assumption that he was just being handed the family business. A desire to innovate and to set himself apart from the family tradition led him to cheese production in 2000.

He’s quick to point out, however, that this desire had to be realized on a more intense scale than he ever imagined, suggesting cheese making is about as similar to running a traditional dairy farm as shipbuilding is. Rather than a natural extension of dairy farming, cheese making requires a completely diverse distribution chain and sales plan from those for liquid milk.

One benefit of cheese making vs. selling liquid milk is its profit potential. As a dairy farmer, Fiscalini’s profits were at the mercy of milk price fluctuations. As a cheese maker, conversely, he has increased control over the price of the final product.

The biggest impetus for Fiscalini, however, was a sense of pride in his product. Liquid milk, he explained, is sold to a company or distributor, but what happens to it afterward is out of his control, it may end up as milk, or butter, or another ingredient in a food product. A desire to follow and maintain the quality of the product in its entirety sparked his entry into the cheese-making business.

Today, Fiscalini Farms maintains a herd of 1,500 Holstein cows for its entire dairy operation, and about 5% to 8% of the milk is used for Fiscalini Cheeses, the separate company he owns with his three children, Laura, Alaine and Brian. To grow and survive today, cheese makers must be businessmen above all, Fiscalini maintains. “My son Brian, a junior in college, is really eager to get back to the farm,” he says. “But I told him he needs to stay in school and get his MBA first.”

Mateo Kehler, 34, of Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vt., is another artisan, but one who defines himself as a cheese maker who farms, not a farmer who makes cheese. The cheeses from Jasper Hill are produced solely by him, his wife Angie, his brother, Andy, and Andy’s wife Victoria. With just one additional employee, they take care of everything from raising the cows to preparing 40,000-50,000 pounds of cheese a year for transport.

The farm is located in northern Vermont, not a place known for its gentle climate. However, the land is able to successfully support their herd of 30 Ayrshire cows, a hearty Scottish breed. Jasper Hill produced its first wheel of cheese in July 2003, and today its incredibly rich Bayley Hazen Blue variety has quickly sparked a growing contingent of devotees.

Kehler has a nontraditional background for a cheese maker. Originally from Bogota, Columbia, he and his brother moved to Vermont when he was a young boy. Before starting Jasper Hill, he worked on financial development in communities from Asia to Central and South America.

After some years of this, however, Kehler decided to return to Vermont and assess the economic needs of his home community. Ultimately, he was inspired to try to preserve a failing industry: The small dairy farm, once ubiquitous in New England, was disappearing. In establishing Jasper Hill Farm, Kehler has certainly succeeded in his goal of transforming a marginal piece of land into something valuable, in the form of these unique, premium cheeses that fetch a deserved high price.

For the future, Kehler spoke of scaling up the cheese production not by increasing the herd at Jasper Hill, but rather by working in cooperation with other small farms to establish an increasingly extended “microproduction” chain. In this way, the artisanal cheese-making business can expand without sacrificing quality.

Our Picks > Fiscalini Farms and Jasper Hill are just two out of hundreds of artisanal cheese makers. Visit your local cheese shop and ask for any artisanal or farmstead recommendations, or try the selection below for a good starting point. Online resources include the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, the California Milk Marketing Board or Murray’s Cheese.

Cheeses tasted include:
Old Chatham Sheepherding Co. Fresh Ricotta
Consider Bardwell Farms Mettowee
Marin French Cheese Co. Yellow Buck Camembert
Great Midwest Morel & Leek Jack Cheese
Three Sisters Serena
Carr Valley Canaria
Fiscalini San Joaquin Gold
Antigo Stravecchio Parmesan
Jasper Hill Bayley Hazen Blue
Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk

Gather a few different types and a few friends for a tasting of your own. And keep in mind the high prices, up to about $25 a pound, can easily be understood when you realize the skilled craftsmanship that goes into these cheeses. Trust us, they’re worth it.

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A Vodka with a Twist December 30, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Drinks & Beverages.
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Isadora Duncan once said, “I would rather live in Russia on black bread and vodka than in the United States at the best hotels.”

However, times have changed. A few enterprising individuals in the United States are beginning to take vodka to a level that would lure even Ms. Duncan away from her beloved Russian classics.

Vodka, which many of us associate with burly chested men and college drinking games, is now being served in the U.S. alongside gourmet cuisine or sipped next to fine wines at holiday parties. This change in status can be attributed to a growing number of enlightened vodka connoisseurs, all of whom are helping to take the drink beyond its stark roots.

Swedish Roots > Although vodkas have been flavored for centuries, starting with monks in central Europe allegedly flavoring it for medicinal purposes, Sweden has been making its own niche product since the 1400s.

Hailing from the “vodka belt” (a crescent of northern European countries from Russia to Norway), Sweden native Hakan Swahn opened the revered Aquavit restaurant in 1987 in response to a dearth of world-class Scandinavian restaurants in Manhattan. Swahn soon found his patrons enjoying Sweden’s unique, aromatic vodkas or aquavits.

Aquavit is Latin for “water of life,” but to Swedes, an aquavit is any vodka naturally flavored with dill or cumin. To Swahn, however, any flavored vodka is an aquavit. “My background with aquavit is the same as every other Swede,” said Swahn. “You saw it when you were a kid and drank it with family at holidays.”

Swahn fondly remembers the Christmas buffets of his youth, where three or four flavors of aquavit, which nicely cut through the rich Swedish cuisine, were as essential to holiday cheer as a roaring fire. And don’t take out the cocktail shakers when drinking aquavit. According to Swahn, “You drink it neat, in a pointed glass, and cold.”

When first starting out as a restaurateur, Swahn noticed a lack of exceptional vodkas on the domestic market. The flavored vodkas being produced in the 1980s were unexceptional on their own because they often used artificial products to add flavor, explains Swahn. So Swahn set to work with the help of master Swedish blender Henrik Facile, who embraced the challenge and began concocting exciting new flavors au naturale. A completely natural product makes all the difference, insists Swahn.

And the ultimate test? “The key … is that we have to be really happy with the taste of the product,” Swahn says. “If it doesn’t stand on its own, we’re not going to do it.”

At Aquavit, which serves up 15 to 20 different aquavit flavors daily, customers order scintillating varieties such as lemon-pepper, dill, raspberry-lime, orange blossom, coriander and even horseradish, surprisingly, one of the top sellers. After some coaxing, I sampled the famous horseradish flavor. It was delightfully spicy, but smooth.

Raise a Glass > Vodka is the fastest-growing spirit in popularity in the U.S., and flavored vodkas have piggybacked off this growth. According to Swahn, Absolut’s Peppar vodka was one of the first flavored vodkas to appear in the U.S. in the mid-1980s, followed by Smirnoff in the late 1990s. Now, Aquavit and other brands such as Hangar One are beginning to offer naturally flavored, handmade boutique vodkas as part of this steadily growing trend.

Jamie Gordon, brand ambassador for Absolut vodka in New York, said Absolut’s release of its Citron flavor in 1988 helped to establish a trend. “Everybody has been releasing more and more flavored vodkas lately,” he says.

Aquavit restaurant has offered its own infusions of its signature spirit for years, but in 2005, Swahn spun off Aquavit’s primary new spirit, Aquavit New York. A Manhattan deli provided the inspiration for this metropolitan variety. Swahn wanted a clear product that would be better for mixing, and when he spotted a bottle of white cranberry juice on a bodega shelf, he knew he had found the perfect solution in a classic New York flavor.

Aquavit New York, produced by a small distiller in Sweden, retails for about $30 a bottle in stores, bars and restaurants in New York City, or online. Although Aquavit is not a big liquor presence so far, its white cranberry flavor is disappearing off the shelves. “They try it, and people are sold,” said Swahn.

West Coast Sips > Former software company owner Melkon Khosrovian’s fiance, Litty Mathews, a foodie with a classical French cooking education, equated drinking vodka with food with drinking gasoline. She had always avoided flavored vodkas because they tasted like kitchen cleaner. In response, Khosrovian began infusing flavors into his own vodkas so Mathews could participate in his Armenian family’s customs. Marital bliss ensued.

Soon, the pair were inundated with requests from family and friends. To meet growing demand, they started Modern Spirits in 2004 from their home in Southern California, and today their collection is sold across the country.

“If you look at almost everything we eat or drink, it’s gone through this transition from artificially made to handcrafted,” Khosrovian points out, citing trends in tea, cheese, chocolate, wineries such as Mondavi and even food retailer Whole Foods (WFMI).

“All categories of spirits are just starting to go through the same transition from industrial to handmade, and we are just one of the few companies in this trend,” says Khosrovian. “Almost everywhere you go now you see small distilleries and spirit makers recreating traditional spirits … with modern techniques.”

Further, American food is becoming bolder and spicier, another shift that is pushing demand for an accompaniment stronger than wine, but still gentle on the taste buds. “Vodka cuts through fat and protein and cleans the palate,” Khosrovian explains.

Like Swahn’s aquavits, Khosrovian makes his vodkas with natural ingredients to control their flavor. “We have to taste every ingredient that goes in at the beginning,” he says.

The lavender used in one of the top sellers, pear-lavender vodka, is grown on the premises. Khosrovian even receives overnight shipments of truffles from a forager in Oregon for his black truffle vodka, which he claims is the only one of its kind on the market. And Khosrovian and Mathews’ passion for flavor shines through, one sip of the candied ginger will fill your mouth with a lingering sweet and spicy taste.

Modern Spirits vodkas are also available in other flavors such as chocolate-orange and grapefruit-honey ($25 to $40 a bottle) at liquor stores, upscale bars and restaurants or online. Swanky gift packs featuring four of the most popular flavors displayed in a festive cigar box are also available at select retail stores at around $100 a perfect warming holiday gift. Drink up!

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Unearthing the Truffle December 30, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Food Drinks News.
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In ancient Greece, the historian Plutarch claimed that they hailed from lightning striking the Earth. A century ago, French writer Alexandre Dumas said, “They can, on certain occasions, make women more tender and men more lovable.”

The famous French gastronome Brillat-Savarin called them “diamonds of the kitchen.” At an annual auction in Alba, Italy, on November 12, a Hong Kong property tycoon paid $160,406 for a mere 3-pound specimen.

The source of this mania? The truffle, an underground fungus with an ethereal taste. Truffles are an unusual member of the mushroom family, growing completely underground in a symbiotic relationship with tree roots. They typically range in size from about a marble to a medium potato, in colors including white, brown, gray and black, and have been consumed by humans for thousands of years. But most significantly, truffles taste and smell like nothing else: a slowly unfolding combination of deep, earthy richness with a pervasive, musky fragrance.

It’s impossible to forget your initial encounter. When I first picked up a white truffle, I was taken aback at how a knotty, diminutive tuber could emit such a heady perfume, redolent of absolutely nothing I’d ever encountered before. This experience comes at a price, however. Truffles currently retail for a few hundred to a few thousand dollars per pound, depending on the type and time of year.

One of the causes of truffles’ exorbitant price is availability, today’s production is one-tenth of what it was a century ago, and the fact that there is no reliable or quick way to cultivate them.

Further, unearthing the truffles that are out there is quite labor intensive. For centuries, humans have relied on the superior olfactory senses of pigs and dogs to sniff out the treasure. As ripe truffles release a scent similar to that of a porcine pheromone, pigs are the most sensitive hunters; however, their short legs do tire easily requiring them to often be carried and they can, wisely, be possessive of the treasures they find.

With dogs, hunters do not have to fight for the bounty, but the animals must be painstakingly trained to pick out the scent.

The two primary types of truffles are the white or Alba truffle, which is found in the Piedmont region of Italy, and the black or Perigord truffle, hailing from central and southwestern France.

Varieties also are found in the deserts of North Africa, southern China, and in the Pacific Northwest region of the U.S., notably the Oregon white truffle. These domestic truffles are often, somewhat unfairly, disregarded in the industry as far less fragrant and flavorful and therefore not “true” truffles.

Forest ecologist Matt Trappe, of the North American Truffling Society (NATS), offers an explanation. Truffle culture is far younger and less advanced in the United States than in Europe, and American harvesters usually gather them with rakes, not pigs or dogs. Therefore, immature specimens that haven’t had the time to properly develop the signature, deep aroma and flavor are often collected and sold.

Compounding the problem, American truffle buyers, often, the restaurants directly, may lack the practiced palate of their European counterparts, so they don’t demand mature, superior specimens from the sellers.

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