Down a Dark Portland Alley

Ok, obviously we didn’t actually have to trek down a dark alley to visit The Cheese Bar in Portland (as you can see by the sunny picture of me behind the sign below), but it’s not exactly centrally located.

On a Wednesday afternoon, to a couple of big city kids, it felt downright desolate. Note the lone, half-naked human running behind me. Jasmine at The Cheese Bar

It’s a bit of a destination.

But inside you are rewarded with super friendly, knowledgeable cheesemongers, a menu full of tasty sandwiches, and an array of local cheese that I would call downright vast.

The Cheese Bar's vast selection

My favorite Oregon cheese:
207“Hannah” from Ancient Heritage Dairy in Oregon. I’m a sucker for sheep. Hannah is a cow/sheep mix and is one of those super nutty, fatty, warm-tasting aged cheeses that goes awesomely with barely-cold beer, slices of salami, and pickles.

I somehow failed to get a picture of the actual cheese we purchased. In my defense, this was the first stop in our round-the-world trip and I was both insanely giddy and also on some serious painkillers following a rough week moving out of our San Francisco apartment (I wound up nearly crying when we pulled the bus stop cord too late and I had to limp back to the shop a few blocks–I fell through their door like a woman who braved the desert to get there).

In addition to giving you samples of any cheese, they’ll give you samples of any beer on tap. It was gloriously hot out those few days and we bought a sandwich to share along with a few chunks of cheese to sit outside and enjoy the very beginning of our adventure.

 

Czech Cheese

The bar at StrahowJoe and I are public transportation people. We take trains instead of renting cars. We only take cabs if where we’re going to or from is dangerous or only accessible by miles of walking. We never owned a car in San Francisco.

Which is why we are so deeply hurt by Prague. We were leaving the castle, tired, thirsty, and with my knee aching like crazy. We had one more destination and I (incredibly) figured out how to get to the tram stop closest to us from the castle maze. There was no ticket machine at our stop and I remembered reading that when you took a bus you could buy a ticket from the driver, it would just cost you more.

We got on, exact change in hand. The tram driver was behind a door–no way to buy a ticket from him. Then we saw a person with a machine in the back of the tram. We went up to her and said, “Please. We would like two tickets.”

What we got was a big fat fine.

No amount of begging, insisting, promising or showing the money in our hand would convince the transport officer and her non-English-speaking partner to let us out of this fine. We were on a tram. We did not have tickets. End of story. 800 crowns ($40) in cash each immediately please. It turns out that there was (probably) a ticket machine across the road at the other stop.

Joe did manage to convince them to only levy one fine instead of two. I sat on the corner and cried. By the time he got back, it was pouring rain.

Prague is not in my top ten list of favorite cities.

Strahov

Luckily the stop they made us get off at to get cash was the one we were heading for anyways, so ten minutes later, when the waterworks stopped, we both had a beer in our hands at the Strahov Monastic Brewery.

One of the greatest things that Europe does that America mostly fails at is the small pour. All the beers came in half pints, so we had all four–an IPA, dark lager, amber, and unfiltered wheat. All of them drinkable and delicious, though not terribly remarkable.

This made me stupid happy.

This made me stupid happy.

Even better, we wound up sharing a table with Chris and Ellen,  a honeymooning couple from Macon, Georgia. After sharing a few tales of traveling woes (between Warsaw and Prague, they’d had even more troubles than us), Chris pushed one of their cheese plates towards us. “We accidentally ordered two instead of one, so please, seriously, help yourselves.” After being told a few more times, we did.

There was a nice swiss style, something that appeared to be a medium Provolone or aged mozzarella, and a nice sweetish blue. Then there was something that looked like a chevre round that had been left out in the sun for two days.

It's the half round at about 3 o'clock here, much lighter color than other pics you'll see online.

It’s the half rounds at about 4 o’clock here, much lighter color than other pics you’ll see online.

It was an off-white, almost yellow, like nicotine-stained teeth. The center was dense and lighter colored, while the outer ring was translucent, almost with the appearance of those candy orange slices, all shiny inside where your teeth scraped away the sugar. That’s the only way I can describe it. Do not let this make you think it was sweet in any way.

When I took a bite, the texture was firm–you could crack the little disc into triangles. It starts out rich and minerally, the way hot springs smell, like limestone with a hint of sulfur, then finishes with such a cow-barn kick that you’ll swallow and wonder if you liked it or not.

I just kept trying and trying, unsure.

Finally I asked the waitress what it was. It was the first time she smiled at us. Either she was happy we were taking interest in a very Czech cheese, or the faces American make when they taste this cheese is one of the great joys in her day. ” Olomoucké tvarůžky,” she said. Ok, I admit that I didn’t know that that’s what she said at the time, but I have since figured it out. “Czech people,” she continued, “we like to eat it with some butter, and also with nakládaná zelenina…pickles.”

So we all spread some butter on a piece of bread (we didn’t have pickles) and tried it again. The butter tones down the hay-and-manure notes into a more pleasant grassy funk and leveled out the shattered texture. If you can get your hands on it, try it, in a slow and pondering kind of way.

We also had onion soup with cheese toasts–Pragians are sort of obsessed with their toasts. I think it was blue cheese mixed with some garlic. Super tasty, and another comfort-food tear-stopper.

Toast, with soup

I would love to visit the Czech countryside one day to hunt down more of these cheeses, but I have to say I might be done with Prague itself. I suspect that everyone who claims it is the most beautiful city in Europe has never been to Bruges.

 

The Best Use of Milk

It’s perhaps controversial (or even unwise) to make an early post on my cheese blog about how ice cream is better than cheese.

But it is.

The fact of the matter is that I am a sugar fiend. I would eat dessert for every meal if it wouldn’t make me sick (and it does. I’ve tried). So while I think ice cream may be the greatest thing on the planet, I do realize that in practical terms, cheese is a better everyday use.

My one request while my husband explores the Delaware beer scene this week was to go to Woodside Creamery. My sister and brother-in-law brought us there 4 or 5 years ago, but since we usually visit in the winter, we haven’t been back since.

On a cool and cloudy Sunday evening, the line for this ice cream in rural Delaware was about 40 people long. It felt like I was in San Francisco again…

But it’s a pleasant wait. You’re basically in the farm family’s front yard, with a giant tree, picnic tables and sugar-jacked kids running around to play. The chill Jersey cows graze on a hillside just behind you. And they post the flavors partway down the line so you can start dreaming.

Now, the best ice cream I’ve ever had in my life was at John Taverna’s organic farm in Marin. It’s a bit unfair, because I had just finished hugging the cows and touring the farm and meeting John who may be the most Norman Rockwellish farmer still alive today. He made the ice cream himself, peach and chocolate. Jersey cows, you should know, are the brown ones with the sweet, ladylike faces. The milk they give is higher in fat than most other breeds. John’s milk is so rich it’s actually pale yellow. This can actually cause some troubles in cheesemaking, but when it comes to ice cream, it’s perfection. I imagine the Woodside Farms Jersey milk comes out looking similar.

I had Chocolate Thunder and Cappuccino Crunch. They don’t serve the ice cream too cold, which is perfect, and it costs 53 cents a pound, so you can have as much or as little of any flavor as you like–no restrictive one-scoop-one-flavor or only-kids-get-kid-sized rules.

And then you sit outside, enjoying the moment with your family. Check and check.

sarah_woodside

American Cheese Society Conference 2013

The above title post, however accurate, is also a little boring. Much like the conference itself. Thoughful. Useful. A little dull. Which is a shame, since half the fun of working in cheese is the silly and un-snobby nature of it.

The difficult thing is that I have been to many, many conferences–except all the rest of them have been science fiction and fantasy based. ReaderCon, WisCon, WorldCon, FogCon. And so at ACS my brain is continuously slightly disappointed that we are not discussing Jo Walton and fairies or Greg Bear and gene hacking. I have trained it to associate bad hotel ballroom carpeting and hard red felt chairs with talking about nerdy books.

And while the panelists were all knowledgable, and while I adore cheese and learning about it, the sessions left me a bit cold. Maybe it’s that “Striving for a Successful FDA Inspection” can simply never compete with “Mars Wants Our Genitals” (both real panels at real conferences I went to). Plus not a single person was wearing a cape or a corset. Not even a single funny cheese hat.

It has now become my belief that you should always be tasting as you’re learning. Otherwise the whole thing takes on a tone of We’re Sooo Sooper Serious Here. To me, things like cheese and beer and science fiction, while all being incredibly hard things to make well, are meant to be light-hearted and rowdy the rest of the time.

The one time I really enjoyed myself (other than the previously noted Cheese Curd Tasting, of course) was actually during a rather long and arduous volunteer shift. I was a Station Caption for setting up the Festival of Cheese and I had a blast. By the time we were done, I could barely stand, but that will always stand out as my favorite experience there. It meant I got to be hands-on, work with cool cheesemongers/makers, and to feel again like what I was doing–making the competition cheese beautiful–was really helping cheesemakers and farms.

So next year I hope to do it again if we land back in the Bay Area, since it will be in Sacramento. I’m not sure if I would bother to buy a day pass. I’ll just volunteer again and do my thing behind the scenes as usual. But maybe this time I’ll wear a funnier hat.

Cheese Curd Tasting

What better way to kick off Curds & Words than with a recap of the cheese curd tasting I went to last week?

It was my first American Cheese Society Conference this year. I finally decided to go because it was in Madison, my alma mater, and because my parents still live in northern Wisconsin.

I was only going to volunteer, since tickets are exorbitantly expensive (do they put bricks of cheese in the welcome bags? Free massages in the exhibition hall? Hand out gold plated cheese knives? None of the above. I’m still confused) but after agreeing to a somewhat long and arduous volunteer shift on Saturday, my former boss gave me a free Friday day pass.

The only tasting not sold out by the time I signed up was the cheese curd one–and it never did fill up. Why? It turns out most people still think of curds as a byproduct, or a processed food, or just low-quality cheese. So wrong. So, so wrong.

Curd Close and Personal

Curd: Close and Personal

Sure, eating cheese curds vs. slicing off delicate curls of aged Pleasant Ridge Reserve may feel like cramming fistfuls of chocolate chips in your mouth rather than waiting for your chocolate soufflé to set up, but can we all agree that both joys are necessary in this life? Most good Wisconsin curds are made from the same milk as all those cheddars winning awards and topping your meals.

Curd lineup

At the tasting, we tried curds from Hennings, Clock Shadow/Cedar Grove, and Decatur. I was especially excited about Decatur, since on my Great Cheese Curd Tour of 2011, I declared Decatur my favorite of all the ones we tried. Unfortunately Decatur only brought their jalepeno and buffalo wing flavors which I consider a crime against nature. So did Steve Stettler, the cheesemaker, as far as I could tell. Oddly enough, he seemed to have the same attitude about curds as most snobs. To him, they just seemed to pay the bills.

My favorite of what we tasting were the Hennings–two colors of the same curd. They were the most classic and had the best salt content, I believe. One of the interesting things the panel pointed out is that they sometimes try to tweak their recipe depending on who will be eating them. One panelist said that for Northern Wisconsinites, you have to salt them more since most people will be eating them in a bar with beer. Maybe that’s why these all seem undersalted to me, a born and bred Northwoods girl. I enjoyed the Clock Shadow and Cedar Grove ones as well. They are two branches of the same company. Same recipe, different cheesemakers, and different milling techniques. See how huge the Clock Shadow curds are? That’s because they mill them by hand in an old press, rather than mechanically.

This was the first year (!) that the American Cheese Society creating a category for cheese curds. I realize they are difficult to judge fresh, but I consider curds an American original and I’m glad to see them in finally. I’m horrified it took so long. The winners were: 1st, Springside Cheese Corp; 2nd, shared between Arena and Carr Valley: and 3rd, Jisa Cheese (in Nebraska! Who knew? Time for a road trip…). I haven’t had any of these, so I look forward to tracking them down to eat warm, straight from the bag, as God intended.