BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Cheese is an agricultural product designed to reach distant markets. When made with sensitivity, it gives the opportunity to taste places we have never been.
If choosing the perfect cheese leaves you mystified (not to mention how to pair it with wine), Bronwen and Francis Percival are coming to your rescue via Chicago lectures November 7 and 8 at Eataly, Local Foods, and City Winery.
Their monumental new book, Reinventing the Wheel: Milk, Microbes and the Fight for Real Cheese, is both scholarly and sensory, describing cheese production in comprehensive detail along with stories of the cheese farmers who are at the heart of it all. The Percivals say their goal is to unite the farmer to the flavor; to underscore the sense of terroir or “placeness” found with fine wines.
The buyer for Neal’s Yard Dairy in London, which features artisanal cheeses, Bronwen founded the biennial Science of Artisan Cheese Conference. Francis, who writes for the World of Fine Wine in addition to the Financial Times and Decanter, won the Louis Roederer Best International Wine Columnist award.
The couple will host a tasting of Italian cheeses on November 7 at Eataly from 6:30 until 8:00 pm. On November 8, Bronwen will conduct a tutored wine and cheese tasting at Local Foods from 6 to 7:30 pm. Francis will do the same at City Winery from 7 to 9 pm. Tickets are available to the public.
Our friend Rick Shepro, symposiast, lecturer, and Chicago lawyer who met the Percivals at the Oxford Symposiun on Wine & Cookery, made our introduction, and I spoke with the Percivals recently in London. “They are simply the finest cheese experts in the world,” Rick said.
With Rick’s encouragement—and that of his wife Lindsay Roberts, who like Bronwen is a Wellesley graduate and an Oxford symposiast—we asked the Percivals to tell us more.
From Vermont to the France, Australia to Wisconsin, the Percivals have sampled the best in show. Their encyclopedic knowledge of American cheese goes back to 1623 when two cows and a bull arrived from Devon, England, to Puritan New England to become the original bovine Americans.
Bronwen will be highlighting Uplands Cheese in Southwestern Wisconsin, makers of Pleasant Ridge Reserve and Rush Creek Reserve, at the Local Foods tasting. Pleasant Ridge is loosely based on French Beaufort.
We imagined an elaborate board of numerous cheeses following a salad course as the way the Percivals sampled cheeses at home. Bronwen helped set us straight:
“We actually enjoy trying just one or two cheeses at a time as we are preparing dinner as opposed to a cheese course. And a simple wine pairing might be a goat cheese with champagne—you pair an acidic cheese such a chevre with a high acid wine such as champagne or a dry Reisling.”
And for their family, now living in California, they have begun a cheese tradition:
“The experience of eating cheese directly links the consumer with the landscape and practices they are sustaining. Tasting it makes it real. Last Thanksgiving, we served, without fanfare, a piece of salers from Auvergne, during the course of the meal. It was strikingly different from the cheese to which our extended family was accustomed. It was a cheese from another planet.
“But from puzzlement came curiosity: Why did the cheese taste as it did? The mountain pastures of central France had never impinged on our family’s consciousness before, but now we were experiencing firsthand a sudden visceral thrill.”
Bronwen’s fascination with cheese began with two pet goats, Natasha and Ginger, whom she showed at 4-H fairs in her native Southern California. She couldn’t resist trying her hand at making goat cheese as a little girl: “It was off white, gelatinous in texture, sour in taste, and I remember my father saying, ‘How wonderful, but I think I will try it later.’”
Working as a health volunteer with the Peace Corps in Senegal, she rediscovered her childhood interest in farming. At Oxford, her master’s thesis became the topic of a presentation at the Oxford Symposium where she and Francis met.
“You might say that ours is a relationship based on ‘European Union Food Law,’ which was the title of her paper that day. I grew up as a city boy who loved to eat and dreamed of being a chef as well as a food writer.
“At university, Sir John Plumb, a code breaker at Bletchley Park during the war and an academic master of my college, was determined that 19-year-olds should taste old wines that they would probably never be able to taste again. After I worked as a line cook and a fishmonger for some years, I began to write food articles. Bronwen and I worked a harvest with friends to produce a wine in Burgundy. The market for the wines in Burgundy explicitly values the work of the farmer-producer.”
Francis and Bronwen shared some advice for those who want to have more of a heady cheese experience.
Where do you go to insure you can buy the best cheese?
Buy where lots of people buy. The faster the cheese moves through the stock, the better the cheese’s condition. The moment cheese is cut it begins to deteriorate. Its surface starts to dry and oxidize, and its flavor becomes less distinct. You are likely to find a great cheese at a shop that rockets through a large amount of a few well-chosen cheeses.
The quickest way to evaluate a cheese counter is to look at the rinds. First, are there any rinds or have cheeses been matured under plastic or wax?
Where can you get cheese recommendations?
Shop from cheesemongers. Like museum curators, they are eager to discuss their collections. They will offer you a taste. Cultivate these relationships and ask any awkward or challenging questions you might have.
One of the great advantages of buying from cheesemongers is their ability to relay information back to the producer and be an advocate for an ongoing conversation. This is selective ecology in practice.
Tell us your general recommendations about what types of cheese we should buy.
Buy cheese made by farmers. The pinnacle of what a cheese achieves is dictated by the quality of milk used. Cheese farmers start their cheese-making decisions in their pastures and in their breeding programs, and they see the consequences directly in the vat. We need to honor their efforts.
Buy unadulterated cheese. If a cheese maker hides behind added ingredients, whether smoke, fruits, spices, or strong adjunct cultures, it is either a tragedy that they are masking the inherent potential of their cheese or the milk was devoid of character in the first place. Good goat’s milk is packed with inherent interest, for example. Also: embrace complexity in cheeses.
Reinventing the Wheel thoroughly describes milk and microbes and encourages the reader to choose raw milk cheese. What is the advantage?
Mature raw-milk cheeses are more complex and intense in flavor than their pasteurized counterparts. Raw-milk cheese demands impeccable practice at every step, and we, of course, are talking about it in the cheese context, not liquid raw-milk.
The key point to remember is that cheese—made from raw or pasteurized milk—is an extremely safe food. Pasteurization kills any pathogens that may be present in milk, but pasteurized and raw milk cheese are both susceptible to contamination later on in the process if the producer is careless.
Likewise, it is possible to ensure that there are no pathogens in milk by pasteurizing it, but it is also possible to avoid the presence of pathogens in raw milk through conscientious farming and milk practices and by verifying this on a continual basis by testing the milk and the finished cheese. Food safety is all about maintaining good systems, not adopting blanket rules.
The best bit of advice? “Eat a cheese because it gives you joy.”