From Steve Millard, Master Melter / Bleecker Store Director
Bread: Use either really good thick cut bread, like sourdough Pullman cut ½â€ thick. Or go the other end with really cheap sandwich bread.
Butter: Butter is paramount to a superb grilled cheese sandwich. I recommend Vermont Butter and Cheese sea salt butter. Let the butter sit at room temperature for at least an hour to soften. Spread an even coat of butter on the bread — not too much to make it greasy, and not too little to not even matter.
Cheese: Any cheese will melt, but not every cheese will make a delicious grilled cheese. Look for alpine-style, melting, cheddar styles – here are a few great ones. Generally speaking, blue cheeses do not make for good grilled cheese sandwiches. Hard, Grana-style cheeses will work as an added flavor, but should not be the main cheese. If you’re in a hurry, soft cheeses like Brie and any cheese that you first shred will take less time to melt.
Think in terms of flavor combinations and what sort of grilled cheese sandwich you want to make. You can add meats, vegetables, caramelized onions, roasted peppers, jams, relish, pickles, etc. to any grilled cheese.
Method: Cook on a flat surface. A panini press works the best at about 400 degrees. A flat surface griddle will also work â€“ just use some weight (such as another pan) to press the sandwich on the griddle. Whether you’re using a press or a griddle, flip the sandwich half way to ensure even toasting. The bread should be adequately toasty and not greasy. Don’t rush the sandwich: 4-5 minutes will make for a sublime grilled cheese that will have wonderfully melted cheese and perfectly toasty bread.
Add-ons: Chips, tomato soup and a crisp, bubbly beverage. I love GuS Dry Soda — soda helps cleanse the pallet and make each bite the more enjoyable. Of course, beer is a perfect combination, I like a Pale Ale with a nice hoppy kick.
The mountains of the Northeast may not approach the altitudes of the Alps or Pyrenees, but cheeses crafted in the nooks, crannies, and foothills of the Green Mountains and Adirondacks stand tall next to their European forebears. American cheesemakers are in many ways still blazing a trail for hand-crafted cheese, free from many of the same constraints that shaped European cheese tradition. Today the peaks and valleys of the American countryside yield some of our favorite farmstead cheeses– traditional Alpine wheels made from raw Jersey cow’s milk, terroir driven goat tommes, and luscious mixed-milk triple creams.
Spring Brook Farmâ€”Reading, VT
While Alpine agrarians cooked and pressed the curd for their hefty wheels of Gruyere out of necessity (who wants to schlep a hundred balls of soft burrata down a mountain slope instead?), today you’ll find Alpine-style Tarentaise from Spring Brook Farm made an expansive Vermont meadow, where a herd of 100 doe-eyed Jerseys (prized in the cheesemaking community for their rich milk) get their fill of lush grass in fields surrounding the cheese house. The terrain might not be Alpine, the process certainly is: cheesemaker Jeremy Stephenson heats curds in traditional copper kettles, and finished wheels are washed and turned for months, all the while developing the characteristic Alpine flavors- a kick of pineapple, followed by a savory nuttiness akin to hazelnut butter.
Twig Farmâ€”West Cornwall, VT
If meaty washed rinds like Forsterkase and Vacherin Mont d’Or are more your speed, trek 60 miles across the Green Mountains to Twig Farm in West Cornwall, Vermont, where Michael Lee and Emily Sunderman milk a small herd of Alpine goats for their raw milk cheeses. Twig’s Soft Wheel peaks in these mid-winter months, the buttery late-season milk redolent of wild grasses and wilder flowers, with a characteristic brightness. Soft Wheel, aptly named, is washed in whey brine, which encourages its healthy pink rind and enhances its depth of flavor.
Nettle Meadow Farmâ€”Warrensburg, NY
At Nettle Meadow Farm in the southern Adirondacks, cheesemakers Lorraine Lambiase and Sheila Flanigan have embraced their rich, expressive milk and fashioned Kunik, a triple cream dream worthy of a picnic at any elevation. Though bloomy rinds reign the coastal regions of France, we think New York’s Kunik fits right in nestled in wooded, sloping terrain. Made from the milk of Nettle Meadow’s herd of browsing goats, with an added dollop of cream from neighboring Jersey cows, Kunik is an unmistakably peanutty butter bomb, an edible testament to a balance of traditional skill and American ingenuity.
This month try all three in our American Mountain Trio – click here to learn more.
Every two years, Slow Food’s hometown of Bra, Italy, in the region of Piemonte, holds its annual cheese festival, and purveyors and buyers of fine cheese flock from all over Europe to come and taste and buy. Back in ’99, I got a call from a friend asking me if I’d like to come and teach some classes there on American farmhouse cheeses. I said yes and they put me up in a charming apartment in the old town for a week. There, I got to know the wonderful staff of Slow Food, and especially the visionary founder Carlo Petrini.
Two years later, I was out for a morning run in downtown Manhattan where I live and work when the planes struck the towers and I watched as the terrible events unfolded from a few blocks away. When it was clear the hospital in my neighborhood was not going to see much action, and did not need my help, I flew to Italy to help in the first-ever American cheese booth. The day of the opening ceremonies the few of us who’d made the trip over were sitting in the front row of the town square as the officials gave their opening ceremony speeches. We were introduced in Italian and when we turned around we saw the crowd of a thousand standing and giving us an ovation simply because we were the Americans and had the world on our side. The greatest tragedy of the decade is that this intense feeling of goodwill did not survive.
Since the Wall Street Journal presented our dispatch from the festival — our top 5 cheese picks (and trust me â€“ you don’t want to miss â€˜em) — I instead present my top 5 moments from Cheese:
-Visiting with Carlo Petrini, who bought us a lunch of tasty bombette, little pork snacks from Puglia and arranged for us to visit the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo.
-Catching up with old friends Zoltan Bogathy, who opened Culinaris in Budapest many years ago; Mama Gisella, my self-proclaimed Italian Mamma, who took me around Italy when I knew no one and knew little about Italian cheese.
-Seeing Murray’s alums Zoe at Jasper Hill and Tom and Staci at Rogue Creamery in Oregon, and the founding mothers of cheese like Allison Hooper and Mary Keehne.
-Eating Favorites: the fabulous vitello tonnato at Floris in Turin; the Nebbiolo Risotto at Agrifoglio, also in Turin; the delicious gianduja gelato at Riverno; and the feast celebrating the american cheesemakers at the fabulous Ca’ del Re at Castello di Verduno, where we’d had such a memorable meal six years earlier.
-The American Cheese booth! We were there with Vermont Butter and Cheese Creamery, Cypress Grove, Rogue Creamery, the Cellars at Jasper Hill, Uplands Cheese Co. and Cowgirl Creamery.
Aaron Foster works in the Buying Department at Murray’s Cheese and is always on the hunt for the next delicious experience to share with our customers. This year Aaron attended the American Cheese Society conference to learn about what it takes to make the nation’s best cheese, and to taste a few dozen himself.
As a first-time American Cheese Society Conference attendee, I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I’ve worked in cheese for over 9 years, but somehow I’d never actually made it to the main event. The conference is a moving target, one year in Louisville, another in Chicago, the next in Seattle, and so on. Having resolved to finally attend, as a representative of Murray’s Cheese, I lucked out with this year’s destination: Montreal. Now, I hear you say… isn’t it called the American Cheese Society? Indeed, it is. This is the first year that the conference was held outside of the continental US. I’m guessing Canada gets a pass because of a parenthetical “north”, as in (North) American Cheese Society.
In any case, I was excited to travel to Montreal to meet some of the great minds of our industry, and to introduce myself to the cheese luminaries whose books I read and whose names have been synonymous with American dairy since before I was born. I arrived in Montreal late in the evening on my birthday, August 3rd, and joined the crew from the Cellars at Jasper Hill for dinner. Part of what is so amazing about the conference is that it pools together cheesemakers, retailers, distributors and enthusiasts, to share their views and insights with one another. Dining with the cheesemakers from the Cellars, I was able to explain how their cheeses are received by actual people, customers who buy Bayley Hazen Blue or Cabot Clothbound Cheddar from our cheese counter. It’s almost silly to imagine, but cheesemakers rarely interact with the people who are eating their cheese most of the time. On the flip side, we as retailers and cheese consumers often don’t fully understand the challenges and work that happens at the farm.
The American Cheese Society conference is made up primarily of lectures, seminars and panel discussions which happen throughout the day. Some are very technical, geared towards cheesemaking minutiae. Others are historical or cultural, say – the history of monastic cheese in the US. And still others concern themselves with issues of regulation and safety. As a retailer and a diehard cheese-lover, I made sure to attend as many different seminars as possible.
I started with a lecture on starter cultures… the beneficial microorganisms added early in the cheesemaking process to help acidify the milk and develop flavor in the cheese. Suffice it to say the bulk of this talk was way over my head, but I took away two points – that cheesemaking is usually more science than art, and that even small variations or inconsistencies can make for wild variations in the end product. Cheesemakers need to keep extraordinarily detailed records of their process, and need to replicate that process to the T; a make at 92 degrees F might yield a cheese with perfect texture and depth of flavor, whereas a make at 88 F could result in a cheese that’s barely recognizable. I don’t envy cheesemakers – that’s a pretty narrow margin for error.
I attended another talk on food safety from farm to fork. From a food safety perspective, cheese is a relatively safe, although perishable, product. But from cow to cheese vat to aging room to distributor to wholesaler to retailer to consumer, a given piece of cheese passes through many hands. We all have a duty to take every precaution to ensure the safety and preserve the quality of the cheese.
My next seminar was a tasting workshop, on identifying flavor in cheese. It’s not as easy as you think! We practiced by tasting candy while holding our nose. What tasted only sour and sweet with our noses pinched was actually a very strong mint once we could smell again. This exercise was meant to demonstrate how much taste is actually a function of smell. We also smelled covered containers of six different scents, and had to guess what they were. I got three out of six (butter cookies, black pepper, onion powder), but missed a gimme like sauteed mushrooms. The point is that we unwittingly depend on visual cues to help categorize what we’re smelling and tasting, and to be more conscious of this when evaluating flavor in cheese.
But the best talk I attended was on the microbiology of cheese rinds, called Growing Mold Gracefully. Led by cheese rockstar Sister Noella Marcellino of Connecticut’s Abbey of Regina Laudis and Harvard microbiologist Rachel Dutton, the panel treated the diversity and complexity of micro-biomes in cheese rinds. The rind of a cheese is an exceedingly complex conglomeration on molds and bacteria that exist in a delicate and unique symbiosis. Every cheese in every batch is different; and while cultures may be added to guide rind development, Rachel and Sister Noella agree that the influence of indigenous microrganisms is far more important. Rachel is using state of the art gene sequencing techniques to develop a taxonomy of organisms found in cheese rinds. She has already discovered that cheese rinds exhibit some species that have also been found in Arctic sea ice, Norwegian fjords, and Etruscan tombs!
The conference ends, as always, with a tense announcement of the winners of the cheese contest, punctuated by the Best in Show award. This year, there were 1,676 entries across 99 different cheese categories. I certainly don’t envy the judges for their tasting duties… the judge who tasted the least amount of cheese still tasted nearly 100 varieties. This year, Rogue River Blue from Rogue Creamery in Central Point, Oregon took Best in Show. A lovely leaf-wrapped, raw milk blue, this seasonal beaut of a cheese will be available from Murray’s in a few short weeks. And finally, comes the Festival of Cheese – the attendees’ opportunity to taste the myriad entries, and to get a true lay of the land for the American cheese industry. I probably made it through 50 different cheeses before giving up… perhaps I’m not quite fit to be a judge yet.
All in all, the American Cheese Society conference was a fascinating and rewarding experience, enormously valuable to cheese professionals and enthusiasts alike. I won’t miss another one any time soon.
Stephanie Butler was the grand prize winner of our Facebook contest for a trip to Vermont to attend the VT Cheesemakers Festival. She was gracious enough to contribute this blog post about her experience on the trip. Thank you, Stephanie – we’re glad you had such a great time!
If you’ve never eaten a half-pound of cheese on a tour bus in a McDonald’s parking lot in Nowheresville, Massachusetts, then obviously you’ve never gone on a trip with the Murray’s Cheese crew. I was lucky enough to win two tickets to the Vermont Whey-cation, and my boyfriend and I spent a whirlwind 40 hours tasting cheese, smelling cheese â€“ by Sunday night I think we were even exuding the stuff through our pores.
Our trip started with a tour of Spring Brook Farm’s Cheese House. Lead cheese maker Jeremy Stephenson took the time to guide us through each aspect of the 18-month-long process it takes to create one wheel of their tasty Tarentaise. Their cheese caves were something to see: twelve rows of wooden shelves with hundreds of cheeses waiting their turn to be washed and rotated. After the tour we got some time to sightsee around the beautiful grounds, where I met and fell in love with a sweet Jersey named Daisy.
On to dinner at Bluebird Tavern, where we were treated to a feast of Vermont’s finest foods. Allison Hooper, the founder of the Vermont Butter and Cheese Creamery, joined us for the meal, where each dish included one of her cheeses as an ingredient. My favorite had to be the whole roast pig on grilled bread with baked goat cheese and pickled blueberries, but the heirloom tomatoes with basil and mascarpone were certainly a close second. I washed everything down with pints of Hill Farmstead Brewery’s Edward, an American Pale Ale I can’t wait to try to track down here in Brooklyn. Add some banana pudding with whipped goat cheese in individual jelly jars for dessert, and I slept that night like a bump on a Vermont log.
We awoke the next morning eager to truck off to our ultimate destination: the Vermont Cheesemakers’ Festival at Shelburne Farms. I expected the festival grounds to be gorgeous (it was originally a summer home for the Vanderbilts), but I really didn’t have any idea just how beautiful it would be. Right on the shores of Lake Champlain, with the hazy Adirondacks across the water, I was ready to make plans to move to Burlington right then and there. The festival more than lived up to the setting, with cheese makers sampling their wares next to truffle makers, beer brewers, picklers, and bakers. Non-cheese highlights for me were the Vermont Smoke and Cure booth, which gave away generous samples of delicious pepperoni (available at Murray’s!), Red Hen Baking Company’s yummy wholegrain loaf (we bought the last one), and the kind ladies at the Vermont Maple Foundation booth who gave us tastes of maple cheesecake. As for cheeses, I loved the creamy ricotta from Narragansett Creamery, Vermont Shepherd’s rich and tangy sheep cheeses (ed. note: Vermont Shepherd cheeses will be available this fall), and just about everything from the Cellars at Jasper Hill.