Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Cheese Tuesday at L'Espalier

"Cheese is milk made immortal."
--Spanish writer Ramón Gómez de la Serna (1888–1963), inventor of the greguería (surrealist aphorism)

Why is the "Donut Guy" making cheese in Vermont? I'll provide you an answer shortly.

In an informal poll on Twitter, I asked people if they would rather have a sweet dessert or a cheese plate. Overwhelmingly, people opted for the cheese! It is obvious that people, including myself, love cheese and want more of it. What are the good local restaurants which offer compelling cheese plates?

One top choice is L'Espalier, a restaurant which really needs no introduction and hosts numerous events including their montly Cheese Tuesday. This event features a three course dinner, paired with wines, ending with a cheese tasting. In addition, cheese is usually used in all of the dinner courses. Fromager and mâitre d’ Louis Risoli hosts the evening and sommelier Erich Schliebe discusses the wine pairings, both who do a fine job during the course of the evening.

Last week, I attended Cheese Tuesday, as a media guest, and the cheeses of Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery were showcased, the third time they have presented at the restaurant. L'Espalier and the Vermont Creamery have had a relationship extending back at least 20 years, and their butter has been on their tables for all that time. Maybe 40-50 people attended this cheese event, and we all sat in a private dining room. As expected, L'Espalier impressed with their quality food and impeccable service, and made sure the event was fun, not stuffy or pretentious. If you love cheese, then I strongly recommend you check out L'Espalier's Cheese Tuesdays.

Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery was founded in 1984 by Allison Hooper and Bob Reese. Allison spent time working on a goat farm in the Loire of France and that is where she learned how to make goat cheese. It is also the reason many of her cheeses now are very Loire in style. Vermont Creamery started out as a farmstead company, which meant they raised their own goats, but that is no longer the case and they now purchase their goat milk from a network of local farms.

In the 1980s, few local people knew much about goat cheese so it was an arduous effort to try to sell them. Most restaurant owners and chefs only wanted to carry French cheeses. Allison though persevered, bringing her basket of cheeses to many different restaurants. Once the chefs and owners tasted her cheeses, then they became believers and her business grew over time. Currently, though their main emphasis is goat cheese, they do make some cow milk cheeses as well. They are also in the process of purchasing a farm to use for educational purposes, to teach people what they do, to get people more in touch with nature, animals and such.

At the dinner, Karen Daseke, their Boston Sales Director, spoke about Vermont Creamery and later presented Joey Conner, the Aged Cheese Team Leader (pictured above). Joey started as a chef, trained at the Culinary Institute of America, and eventually noticed an ad in a local Vermont newspaper for a position as a manager of an aged cheese division. This intrigued him so he applied for the job and received it. Since then, he has immersed himself in the cheese making business, bringing plenty of passion. He has become affectionately known as the "Donut Guy," after the hardworking guy depicted in the old Dunkin' Donut commercials. It is also said that Joey brought the "wrinkles" back to their cheese, the wrinkled rind generally being a sign of aging.

Before dinner began, we were served fresh bread, focaccia and a cheddar cheese topped roll, with Vermont Creamery butter, which was lightly salted. Though I enjoyed both breads, the cheese rolls were superb, with a crusty layer of cheddar atop a light, airy roll. The servers continued to offer more bread throughout the course of the dinner. This is a restaurant that truly understands the allure of fresh bread, and as such, occupies a special place in my heart. I recently talked with a couple friends about this very issue, how so many restaurants have cut back on serving bread, which I think is a shame. A great bread can really enhance one's dining experience.

Our first course was an Apple Street Farm Beet Salad with quark, cranberries and walnuts. Quark is a soft farmhouse cheese, kind of a German version of cottage cheese, though it is smooth and creamy. It has a mild, creamy taste and it will make you wonder why you need lumpy cottage cheese. This was the fitst time I have tasted quark, but it certainly won't be the last. The rest of the salad was fresh with some tart apple slices and the walnuts added a nice texture as well. The salad was paired with a delicious NV Lucien Albrecht Brut Rose, Cremant d'Alsace, which was crisp and clean with delicious red fruit flavors and plenty of minerality.

The second course was Pappardelle with roasted butternut squash, duck confit, creme fraiche and fromage blanc. The perfectly cooked pasta served as a fine palette for the combination of creamy cheese, earthy duck and sweet squash. The pairing was the intriguing 2007 Movia Veliko Bianco, a blend of 70% Ribolla Gialla, the rest being Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris. The wine maker is very noninterventionist, adding no sulfur, and relying often on the lunar calendar. Plenty of acidity, with a fascinating blend of lychee, pineapple and dried fruit flavors. Not a typical white wine, and that is a good thing.

The Roasted Loin of Lamb was superb, tender and flavorful, and was accompanied by a sausage stuffed Apple Street Farm pepper and some feta cheese. The spicy sausage went well inside the crisp pepper while the feta, mixed with chopped olives and lime, was compelling, a pleasant crunchiness emhancing its creaminess. An excellent course! This was paired with the 2010 Amadieu Romane Machotte, Gigondas, a blend of 80% Grenache and 20% Syrah. A fine Rhone wine, with nice cherry and spice flavors, as well as a bit of an earthiness. It is a more subtle wine with a lengthy and satisfying finish, a very good choice for the lamb.

The final course, the pièce de résistance, was a Cheese Sampler with five cheeses from Vermont Creamery, including Creamy Goat Cheese, Cremont, Bijoux, Coupole, and Bonne Bouche. The Creamy Goat Cheese, a fresh cheese, was combined with honey and black pepper and was quite enticing, a nice combination of sweet, creaminess and a bit of a spicy kick from the pepper. The other four cheeses were all aged cheeses, with only the Cremont being a mixed milk cheese, made from both cow and goat milks. All four were compelling, creamy cheeses, each with their own unique character, which any cheese lover would enjoy. Vermont Creamery impresses with their cheese and butter products. The cheeses were paired with gthe 2010 Boulay Clos De Beaujeu Sancerre, a crisp, dry with notes of lemons, grapefruit and minerality.

It certainly was not a stuffy evening, especially as they ended the dinner with a rousing song, Cow-Goat-Sheep, which is sung to the tune of Do-Re-Mi from The Sound of Music. Their upcoming Cheese Tuesday dinners will be on November 27, French Favorites, and December 18, An Italian Holiday. The cost is $85 per person, which includes a four course dinner with wine pairings, and I feel it is a good value based on the quality of the food and wine, as well as the fun experience itself. Call L’Espalier at 617-262-3023 to make reservations for the upcoming Cheese events.

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