Reading about the array of local specialty food stores in Jonathan Schuler's story, "Eating It Up," in last week's Wednesday Journal once again made me realize just how appealing it is for a chef to live in this fashionable, quality-minded community.
The level of quality we've come to expect from our independent shopkeepers like Penzeys Spices, Hayes' Coffees, Great Harvest Bread Company and Prairie Bread Kitchen is the main reason why they long ago acquired my business. And now we have Eric Larson and his Marion Street Cheese Market.
Once described by author Clifton Fadiman as "milk's leap toward immortality," cheese is one of our most basic, nourishing and satisfying foods. It's found in nearly every part of the world and in enormous variety. Almost everyone has a fondness for at least one type of cheese or another, and right now artisan cheeses are enjoying a surge in popularity unlike anything I can recall in my long experience in the food industry. And yes, I have my favorites, too.
Some months ago I had the pleasure of attending a luncheon hosted by the Midwest Cheese Society at one of Chicago's trendier restaurants. The meal featured a memorable selection of artisan cow's milk cheeses. It was a culinary revelation that with each and every bite led me closer to an understanding of the distinction made by Giles Schnierle, cheese expert and owner of The Great American Cheese Collection, when he said, "Good cheese satisfies; Great cheese gratifies."
True enough. Familiar (and admittedly satisfied) as I was with many of the "industrial" cheeses that I've experienced over the years, none of them (including imports) elicited the "wow" that I voiced after my first taste of farmstead Gordawnzola, a blue cheese lovingly handcrafted by Dawn Boucher in Green Mountain, Vt.; or better yet, the incredible Wild Rice Gouda from Eichten's Hidden Acres in Center City, Minn.
We are now in an era where the art of cheese making in America has reached a new stratum. The level of love and dedication by cheese artisans typifies a commitment to excellence that has resulted in a new designation of cheeses called "artisanal."
Artisanal cheeses are made from raw milk, without growth hormones and in small quantities. Milk is collected in the cow's normal milking cycle, rather than from cows that have been artificially inseminated. The type of feed used (organic) and the cows' grazing conditions are key factors that contribute to the subtle and complex flavors and textures that are exemplified by artisanal cheeses.
But most importantly, artisan cheese makers will take the time to make sure that their cheese gets to market the way they want it to be, at just the right stage of maturity. The term for that is l'affinage (the art of aging cheese), an important new buzzword to drop if you want to move from casual cheese enthusiast to fromage fanatic.
Drop it on Eric Larson, and try some great artisanal cheeses at his Marion Street Cheese Shop.