Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Gateway Drug of Cheese

If Master Cheesemaker Sid Cook at Carr Valley Cheese was required to wear every medal, carry every trophy and don every ribbon he's ever won for making specialty cheeses in the state, he wouldn't be able to move under all the weight. Clocking in at more than 200 state, national and international awards in the past five years alone, the man officially is a cheese genius.

The inventor of at least 50 American Original cheeses -- that means he simply made them up, such as an author writing 50 works of fiction -- I like to view Sid's cheeses as the gateway drug to the artisan and specialty cheese world. While each cheese is a masterpiece in its own right, taken together in a wine and cheese pairing, for example, they can often change the mind of someone who is convinced they don't like goat, sheep or "those artisan frou frou cheeses."

While I've always been a fan of several of his cheeses, including Cave Aged Mellage - a blend of sheep, goat and cow milk, as well as Mobay - Sid's whimsical take on the famous French cheese, Morbier, with a layer of sheep milk cheese and a layer of goat milk cheese separated by a layer of grape vine ash and pressed together -- I often discover a "new" Carr Valley cheese that I've never heard of before, and then I find out he's been making it for three years.

Take Chevre Au Lait, for example. Yes, say it out loud and you'll hear an example of Sid's sense of humor. Behind its silly name, however, is a complex, aged, crumbly goat milk cheese, with just the right amount of flavor kick. The piece I had last week was 1-1/2 years old, and it was at its peak. Pair it with a light bodied red wine, and you've got yourself an excellent conversation starter.

While Sid has legions of fans, he also has his detractors. There are those who complain about how many awards he wins at the annual American Cheese Society, and those who insist his American Originals aren't artisan cheeses because he doesn't make them in super small batches. I would tell those folks to visit his factories in LaValle and Mauston and watch any and all of his cheeses still being made in open vats, with cheesemakers boasting more than 50 years of experience still putting their hand in the curd to decide when it should be cut.

Sid and the men and women working for him are some of the most knowledgeable cheesemakers in the world. They deserve each and every ribbon they win, and instead of resting on their laurels, are crafting brand new cheeses every year. It sometimes just takes me a while to discover each and every one.

3 comments:

Bill Anderson said...

At the risk of being politically incorrect, I will say that I am one of the detractors Jeanne's talking about.

Don't get me wrong... Sid does make some very good cheeses.

But my biggest complaint about Carr Valley is that the cheeses that win competitions (the good ones!) are not always the same cheese that you get when you go to the store, even if it is (supposedly) the same cheese that won the medal. This is partly understandable, because once a cheese wins a medal, there is a very high demand for it, and so it sells out very quickly. But rather than take the time to properly age and produce the same cheese that won the medal, Carr Valley will produce a bunch of the cheese, and quickly turn it around when it is much much younger. It is a totally different cheese than the cheese that won the award.

There is something to be said for consistantly producing high-quality cheeses, even when the cheese isn't being judged in a competition. Unfortunately, Carr Valley falls short in this regard. But it does make for an interesting challenge as a cheesemonger -- trying to be ahead of the curve and figure out which Carr Valley cheeses are in their prime and are likely to win medals next year, BEFORE the mad rush once they win an award.

4fish said...

Maybe that explains it. The first time I had Black Sheep Truffle I was blown away, but the last one I had was pretty ordinary. I put it down to holiday overload, but maybe it wasn't really the same cheese.

roger said...

Artisan cheese is a beautiful thing because it changes with the seasons. A cheese made in the spring will taste quite a bit different than the same cheese made in the fall.

As a retailer, I steer people to what cheese taste good on that day. Artisan cheese flavors changes month to month. The only time I would expect a cheese to taste the same all the time is when I buy a generic cheddar from the commodity cheese case.

Sid rules... he deserves every award he gets for the sheer fact for what he's done for American cheese.