My mother is a cheese-a-holic. Even though she is convinced that, if she could just give up cheese, she would be as slim as Barbara Walters, she still eats cheese with everything. I figure she knows that, if she gave up cheese, she would also have to give up beer. She can eat cheese without beer, but she absolutely cannot drink beer without eating cheese. I cannot imagine a 62-year-old woman being asked to make such a sacrifice.
My mother is no cheese connoisseur, but she’ll try anything once. Like most other Americans, she eats a lot of cheddar, preferably the really sharp variety, from New York. When we lived in Delaware, her father, Altonanother confirmed cheeseheadmade occasional shopping trips to the Farmer’s Market in Kennett Square, Pa., where he picked blocks of the excellent cheddar made by the Amish in nearby Lancaster.
My grandfather liked cheddar, but his favorite was Limburger, the German cheese with the distinctive smelly rind. The odor would send his grandchildren running from the kitchen with shrieks of disgust.
I thought of my mother and my grandfather when I was invited to attend An American Cheese Dinner at the Corner Market a month or so ago. The affaire de fromage was sponsored by The Cheesemakers Marketing Fund of the American Cheese Society.
Guests at the dinner were treated to tastes of four award-winning handmade artisan cheeses, accompanied by some lovely wines with unpronounceable names. Try ordering a bottle of Weinberghoff Fritsch 1993 Grüner Veltliner Donauland without sounding like a complete rube.
Jim Yonkus, cheese buyer and manager at The Corner Market, bemoans the perception among Americans that the only good cheese is imported cheese. “There is an entire generation of Americans who are familiar with only two types of cheeseimports and Kraft,” says Jim, who notes that, despite all the wonderful British, Italian, French and Spanish cheeses out there, “some great cheeses are being made here in America, and I want people to get to know them.”
The tasters at the cheese dinner were introduced to Capriole Farms’ Old Kentucky Tomme, a 1994 award-winning goat cheese. A semi-hard, naturally-rinded, cooked-curd cheese, it is aged for three to four months and has a rich texture and a mild flavor.
Judith Schad of Capriole Farms also brought her award-winning Wabash Cannonball, introduced in 1994. The memorable thing about these little goat cheese boulets is that they are coated with ash, then with a white mold rind.
The other cheese I really loved was Vermont Shepherd from Major Farm in Putney, Vt. It would almost seem that Cynthia and David Major were born to make cheese. Her father was in the dairy business; his family owned a sheep farm. When they married, they pooled their resources and began making cheese in 1990.
“It’s a pretty complicated process,” says Cindy. “It’s not like making brownies. We made a zillion mistakes for a couple of years. Finally, we sat down and decided we either had to stop making cheese or start doing it right.”
To perfect their craft, the Majors decided to go to the Pyrenees region of France. Accompanied by a friend who spoke fluent French, they spent an intensive two weeks soaking up centuries’ worth of cheese-making techniques. The Majors produce about 7,500 pounds of cheese annuallynot a large amount but enough to earn plenty of recognition for the Vermont Shepherd, including awards from The American Cheese Society. While it does not affect the taste, Vermont Shepherd is packed in hay, which leaves a really lovely, earthy scent that seems to promiseand then deliverswonderful things.
Along with the cheese and wine, we were treated to four mini-courses prepared by New Orleans chef Susan Spicer. Spicer, who owns Bayona, was a finalist for the James Beard Best Chef in America award and won Best Chef honors in her region. Her career and menu have been chronicled in House & Garden, Bon Appetit and The New York Times. Food & Wine named her one of the 10 Best New Chefs in America in 1989.
On this particular evening, she prepared Caribbean stuffed shrimp with pepper jelly sauce; an incredible apple and chicken phyllo tart, the taste of which still lingers; and an intense little venison and marrow burger on a shiitake bun. “We use marrow in our classic bordelaise sauce at Bayona,” Susan revealed. “It’s not an easy process. You take center-cut veal shank bones, blanch them in boiling water for about a minute, then push out the marrow.”
Last April, Sunset Grill’s Randy Rayburn, along with his just-hired chef Will Greenwood, Belle Meade Country Club’s Tom Allen and Belle Meade Brassiere’s Robert Seigel, went on an eating tour of New Orleans, visiting Emeril Lagasse’s eponymous restaurant on Tchoupitoulas; the very hot Nola, whose chef is Bowling Green’s David McCelvey, former sous-chef at Sunset Grill; and Bayona on Dauphine. Invading the kitchen after dinner, the group invited Spicer to come to Nashville as guest chef for Taste of the Nation, the annual eating orgy that benfits the nationwide Share Our Strength fundraiser. Most of the proceeds from the Nashville event, which takes place April 14, 15 and 28, will go to four local organizationsSecond Harvest Food Bank, Nashville’s Table, MANNA and the Tennessee Hunger Coalition.
On April 14, Sunset Grill offers a champagne brunch from noon to 3 p.m. Eight local chefs will prepare a six-course meal to accompany a champagne tasting. Tickets are $100 per person.
On April 28, more than 40 of Nashville’s restaurants and vendors will offer an assortment of food and beverage tastings from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Regal Maxwell House Hotel. Kathy Mattea, country music star and noted gourmand, will make an appearance, and Gadget Guru will host a silent auction. Tickets for “Sunday’s Best” are $35 in advance; children under 16 are admitted free, if they bring a donation of canned food.
The pièce de résistance takes place Monday, April 15, when Chef Spicer will direct almost 20 Nashville chefs in the preparation of a six-course meal in J.D.’s Chophouse atop the Regal Maxwell House. The Preview Dinner begins at 6 p.m. with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. Dinner and wine, selected by the “Rhone Ranger” Randall Graham of Bonny Doon Vineyards, gets under way at 7 p.m. Seven video monitors, stationed throughout the restaurant, will allow diners to watch the action in the kitchen.
Here’s Susan Spicer’s menu for the preview dinner: wild mushroom and American Artisan cheese tart; oyster stew with leeks, potatoes and garlic croutons; mustard-crusted salmon with lemon thyme sauce and vegetable ragout; apple-celery salad with Trou Normand; goat cheese-stuffed lamb loin with risotto cake and Zinfandel sauce; and lemon-ginger crepes with crème frâiche ice cream.
Tickets for the preview dinner are $150 per person or $1,300 for a table of 10. Tickets also include admission to the “Sunday’s Best” event. Information about all events is available at participating restaurants or by calling 251-7772 or 383-3663.
♦ It has come to my attention that a supposedly witty comment by my friend Ed, reported in last week’s review of Boscos restaurant, may have been taken seriously by some humor-impaired readers. Let me assure you that there are absolutely no petroleum by-products in the chocolate calzone or any of the other desserts served at Boscos. Would I lie to you?