Archive for the ‘Cheese’ Category

1867 – Joy Road


Joy RoadOn a recent [amazing] trip down to the Slow Food Canada national meeting, I happened to end up in a restaurant for dinner in Penticton, Cam and Dana happened to be there as well, and the restauranteur happened to introduce us. They’d just been back from foraging, and had a van full of watercress and nettles destined for the dinner the following night for the Slow Food national delegates. Already had 2 shoots booked the following day, but couldn’t not slide by to visit them in between to interview them while they prepped.

Anybody, especially those in industry, that takes the leap into local producers and organics, makes their own charcuterie, does artisan baking, raise laying hens and hogs, and forages their greens for a posh dinner gig = super cool in my books. I have time for these kinds of folks, all day long.

The Okanagan food scene is changing. Fast. I spent a fair bit of time down there a few years back and loads of what I saw at the Slow Food conference – artisan bakers, cheese makers, foragers, etc – didn’t seem to be around back then. A lot of twenty-and-thirty-somethings are making a major dent in improving the burgeoning food scene, thank god for that. The wine scene seems to be maturing as well, with more consistently higher quality bottlings, and the price points to go with. Having just spent some time in Napa & Sonoma, I will bravely admit to vastly preferring the Okanagan. Wine critic extraordinaire Jancis Robinson once wrote something to the effect that the Okanagan is only behind New Zealand for most epicly beautiful wine region on planet Earth. Add a wicked food scene to that? Joy Road are in the pack making that perfect storm happen.

From Local Farms – The Cheesiry


I left the Cheesiry feeling strangely like I’d just visited an old-world producer – and not simply because of the old-school pecorino they produce. There’s a wonderful vibe from the cheesiry being built into the heart of the family farm’s old cow dairy facilities which on a hot day offers a cool and patina’d experience – and stepping into their boutique where Rhonda will guide you through her creations certainly adds to the experience. Having decided at age 30 that it was time for a change, she uprooted and ended up in Tuscany making pecorino: sheep cheese. She’s carried the techniques – even her gear is custom built to replicate what she came to know at the Tuscan farm – back to Alberta’s sparse artisan cheese scene.

Rhonda and her husband Brian have a lot going for them. Youth, for one, but also the tremendous opportunity to carry on Brian’s family’s farming traditions in their own way. Takes guts. Their marketing is slick, their product oozes character and quality, and they have great help and support including an Austrian cheesemaker colleague helping in the Cheesiry, and an Aussie well versed in sheep husbandry helping them with their flock. The lot of them are in the process of changing our local food culture, one wheel of cheese at a time.

Would You Buy This Cheese?


This cheese entered my life as a gift. It’s an aged Bressan from Smoky Valley Goat Cheese, and Holly figured the mottled molds atop it would make it unsuitable for sale. She also claimed that this particular batch was so good that if she kept it for herself, she’d eat yet another lovely wheel of it by herself. I’m no doctor, but I’m wagering she’s right that eating multiple wheels of cheese back-to-back is unlikely to bolster health. So I accepted her gift designed to save herself.

I will agree on one of her points – this is indeed one of the best cheeses I’ve tasted from her. It really reminds me of a fine dry aged cheddar or something along those lines, and there will be no problem exceeding my own quota of cheese consumption as a consequence.

But on her other point, I disagree. I think folks would be happy to buy cheeses with mottled zany molds, especially once they got their palate on some properly matured cheese. So I ask you: would you buy this cheese? Would you pass it up based on appearance? I’m curious.

It’s exciting to me to see our local artisan cheese scene take shape, and I dearly hope that those interested in good food are adventurous enough to buy cool cheeses that encourage our local talent to explore the possibilities of our local cheese.

My Palate and Sinuses will Recover, Honest.


In 2006, a more than fledgling foodie at the time [and the year I started blogging], my wife and I spent a month traveling through western and eastern Europe, seeking regional food specialties. On that trip, having felt I knew cheese well, I went to France for the half-dozenth time, and had a major cheese awakening. Overall, their cheeses, even their brie de meaux – were raunchy. Barnyard, stinky, rich kind of raunchy. The French must come here, eat our ‘brie’ or ‘camembert’ from the box store and wonder what the heck we did to it. It’d be like the wonder bread of its cheese type. It’s true. What you know of as french cheese here is not representative of the norm there. When it comes to cheese, the French do ‘intense, earthy’ and we do ‘plastic, toilet paper’.

On that same trip, while in London, I stopped by Neal’s Yard Dairy to check it out [amazing], and asked [oops] for their raunchiest cheese. I figured I was all brave and stuff. Yeah, right. I was offered a cubic centimeter of an innocuous looking soft ripened cheese, a little goopy, and thought ‘really, is that the best ya got?’. I made the mistake of touching my video camera after touching that cheese, and we were many countries into our trip before my camera quit stinking. Lesson learned.

Because I gave them some of my time helping their business, Holly hooked me up with some wheels of goat’s cheese to cellar. This is the wheel of Tomme I acquired in early Oct 2010. It has seen 90+% humidity and temps between 2-7C since then. I’m guessing the moisture content was quite high on this one when made, as it’s still got a very moist texture – almost  havarti-esque. But let me tell you. It’s a shit-kicking on the senses. Pardon the language. But it’s true. It’s a concentrated pile of aroma and flavor – mostly nut driven, with a pile of complexity slammed up your sinuses and down your palate. You still taste this bad boy lingering in your head a half hour later. It is a cheese the French would stamp with their approval. Admittedly, it’s  a touch OTT for me. My pansy Canadian palate is still not accustomed to this pile of experience intensity. But I know many would feel otherwise.

So I now have about 1.5 kg of sense-pummeling-palate-mosh-pit cheese. Time to hook some raunchy-cheese-loving friends up, as there’s no way I can pile through this much crazy cheese. What’s amazing to me is that a cheese that can taste like a mild cheddar young, can go to vastly different places with some age. Such fun research.

Chocolate Espresso Chevrecake


This was an innovative-idea-to-me, but I googled it and apparently others have already discovered it. Oh well. Originality is not my m.o.

Chevrecake. Cheesecake happens to be my all-time-favorite-dessert, and a few years  back I spent some time mucking about with an individual [ramekin] sized chocolate espresso cheesecake recipe that I love dearly. It’s my birthday choice. And having recently discovered how substitutable Holly‘s chevre was for cream cheese when making icing, I figured I must give it another dessert-go via cheesecake.

My current guess is that the chevre in my CSA package this week had a higher moisture content than cream cheese from the store, as the ‘batter’ was looser than I’m used to and it took considerably longer to set. No big. I’m also going to wager the fat content is lower as it lacks the creamy-silky mouthfeel I’m used to. But make no mistake, those are small shortcomings given my newfound ability to put on an extra few pounds by eating too much chevrecake.

2 packs chevre [450g or so], 150 sugar, 2 eggs, 2 tsp vanilla, 1 oz chocolate, 1 oz espresso. 325F for an hour or until set.

On Building an Urban Cellar


Over the past year or so I’ve been asked by more folks than I anticipated about how to tackle building their own cellar. And the more I find my winter writing heavily dominated by cellar-related adventures, the more I’ve realized that I’ll need to offer a resource about how to actually build a cellar if information about how to put one to use is to be of any value. If you have a home with a basement and live where it gets bloody cold in the winter, read on.

THE PREMISE The goal is simple: create a space with specific temperature and humidity. That’s it, really, so keep your focus there. How you reach that end will depend on the specifics of your situation, so your creativity and intuition should most definitely be engaged. If you have a spare corner of your basement, even a small one, you should be good to go.

Your first problem to solve is to figure out what you’re going to use the space for. Different food items have different needs, so the temp and rh [relative humidity] range you’ll need to shoot for will depend on your intended use. For example, many root vegetables store best at temperatures close to 0C, and 90%+ humidity – conditions only necessary from fall through spring when storing veg. If you want to geek-out on the details, check out resources like this. Wine, on the other hand, stores best closer to 13C and 60-80% humidity – and stability is important. Canning and onions need cold and dry. What to do? I’ve found a practical solution in building a single long room divided in half by an insulated wall and door. When you enter my cellar, it’s first, the root cellar. Its conditions are practical for root vegetables, hanging animals prior to butchery, cold stabilizing batches of wine, and general use as a walk-in fridge. Inside the root cellar is the door to the adjacent wine cellar. Although originally intended exclusively for wine, it is now sharing half the space with dry cured meats and cheese aging setups – two items that I discovered happily enjoy similar environments. With some ingenuity, the two spaces are accommodating all of my needs.

MANAGING TEMPERATURE Because you need cool-to-cold depending on your use, it’s considered optimal to site the cellar in a north-east corner, opposite the house’s furnace, clear of duct work or other heat generating items. Although mine is sited optimally, I get the feeling it would still be effective if sited in a variety of locations in my basement. So if optimal is a choice, perfect, if not, don’t sweat it, at least not this far north anyway.

Bare foundation walls provide good access to cold, but counter-intuitively do not insulate well and therefore also let in a good amount of summer heat, especially above grade, and especially if the sun hits it. A surprise to me in my research is that your summer cold source, important for wine/meat/cheese is actually the floor below your feet. The shade of your house and depth of soil keep that soil cool year-round. So my wine/meat/cheese cellar is essentially an insulated box, open on the bottom to capture heat from the cold floor. Imagine a cooler flipped upside down on your basement floor, upsized. It’s insulated with polyextruded styrene boards – effective in high humidity – and also a vapor barrier, sealed with tuck tape. It keeps cool in in the summer [peaks at about 15-16C in August briefly], and captures any humidity I introduce into the space – that’s its job.

My root cellar has quite different properties. The foundation wall is not insulated as summer heat is not a problem [not storing any veg then] – the rest is insulated the same as my wine cellar. Where things really change is that it’s vented to the exterior, allowing cold air in the fall to get into the space, cooling it down quickly, and allowing in seriously cold air in during the winter to get temps down near 0C with ease. In fact, at -20C outside or so, I have to plug the vents to prevent the room from freezing. I used the former window to build a setup that would allow a hot air vent at the top, under which is a cold air return that’s diverted diagonally across the room and to the floor to create circulation and draw.

MANAGING HUMIDITY We live in a dry climate, and managing humidity is a bit of a dance with nature. But I can tell you that my cellar would be at 20% humidity or less in the winter if I didn’t regulated it. Some folks use electronic humidistats that trigger ultrasonic humidifiers to very good effect – most often in re-purposed small fridges. I use a pail, old cloth diaper, and salt water. I let it drip off a shelf onto the floor, where it pools, and drags the humidity upward dramatically. So much so that when I put up large batches of meats to dry cure, I have to disengage the water setup to avoid exceeding 75%rh. In mid-late summer, the cellar’s at 75% rh or so naturally. I’ve tracked it for years, have geeky spreadsheets and charts, so you can trust me on this one.

MY SETUP. At the time I built my cellar [2009/10] my priorities were wine and root vegetables.

I built my wine cellar based on Richard Gold’s book. It has 2 foundation walls insulated with 4″ of polyextruded styrene boards [insulation proved to be the most expensive part of the build] and 2 walls built with 2X4 wood construction and pink insulation. The only tricky part is the custom insulated door, which I’ll leave to his book to describe. At 6X6X8′ it can hold about 40-50 cases of wine, a few hundred pounds of dry cured meats, and quite a few kilos of cheese. I wouldn’t want it bigger. It has bins 1′ deep on either side and an aisle just over 3′ wide down the middle. You can see some detail on the dry cured meat hanging setup here. I do find it a tad cold in the winter, 3-4C this winter, now that the root cellar is functional [it used to bottom at 8C pre-root cellar being finished]. I’m considering running some cold air ventilation out from the wine cellar into the adjacent unheated storage room. On the plus side, I’m also anticipating it now being colder in the summer simply due to residual cold.

My root cellar is slightly larger than my wine cellar, and size here isn’t king either. At 6x6x8 I figure I could put up about 2000lbs of vegetables at full capacity. You likely don’t need larger either. I built shelves out of 2X10, two deep, and have bins and tubs to accommodate food. 1″ shelves are not even close to strong enough. I tried and failed. Although I know others have done it, my ventilation setup is something I’ve never seen before – most people use a single hole to the exterior, which works. I’d wager mine provides better ventilation through the space. I can tell you that white plastic sewer pipe is cheaper than black plumbing ABS when running the cold air return. I put two threaded eye bolts into the joists overhead to be able to hang animals.

YOUR SETUP Although my setup works and I love it, I’ve since come across an idea that I would use if I had to do it again. Eliot Coleman [see recommended reading below] suggests using cinder blocks as your framing material. Genius. It has loads of thermal mass, and more importantly, will not rot in a high humidity environment. My wood setup will eventually be compromised by nature. Cinder blocks will not. Coleman takes a bucket of water down to the cellar when getting veg, splashes it on the walls and floor to retain high humidity,  and uses the bucket to collect veg. That guy’s a genius.

So if you’re serious about building yourself a cellar, get the books below out from the library, give them a read, figure out your needs and space, and before you know it, you’ll be rocking. If you have questions after reading the books, drop me an email.

Recommended Library Reading: How and Why to Build a Wine Cellar, Richard Gold; Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits and Vegetables, Mike & Nancy Bubel; Four Season Harvest: How to Harvest Fresh Organic Vegetables From Your Home Garden All Year Long, Eliot Coleman.

Valencay Epiphany


Well as it turns out, it took me a week or so to get to those brownish, fuzzy, kinda brutal looking Valencays that I aged in my cellar for a couple months. And as it turns out, I was wrong. They were not dead, bad, or past. They were SUBLIME.

The reason I was cellaring these was to see where they go with age – whether there are benefits to the aging, and if so, what they are. Pretty straightforward. When I cut into this, it smelled of pungent but gorgeous blue cheese – like a stilton. It had a texture akin to a buttery mature soft cheese like a rich camembert. No runniness or oozy texture – very even creamy/buttery throughout. It was stunning, and nothing at all like the cheese when it was young. I went from a dry, soft, subtle, dense creaminess young, to a unctuous, gloriously stinky, mushroomy, blue-cheese-brie-esque funk with age. I was blown away. Beautiful stink and delectable texture – a marriage of stilton and camembert. It’s worth noting that the aged St. Maures I’ve tried had a hot acidity almost similar to chili to them – these did not.

So there you have it. Cheese awesomeness due to proper aging. Not dead. Awesome. I’m pleased.

Holly the cheesemaker’s thoughts: “Interesting that you find your Valencay in great form. This batch of Valencay must have went through a successful ripening process. Each step in the process of making St. Maure & Valencay (from draining and drying to ripening) determines the moisture content and therefore affects the ripening process and ultimately the finished product. As I have mentioned in the past, our ripening rooms are manually controlled and the humidity is most often affected by the weather and by the quantity of cheese in the ripening room (as the cheeses can put out a considerable amount of moisture and heat) and makes the control of the ripening process very difficult. Next year, I will be reducing the amount of St. Maure & Valencay that I make as these products take great care and observations to dry them to the correct amount of moisture and maintain the correct humidity around them in order to prevent losses (runniness under rind), short shelf life or inconsistencies in products. But like you mentioned before, this is what makes our products unique and each batch an interesting surprise!”

Cheese Cellar Porn


You take milk. You make cheese. And you stick it in your cellar for months. Food preservation methods like this astonish me. My cheese cellar is low-tech and passively cooled and humidified. No gear. No electronics. No energy consumption. Old-school. Currently holds 90+% humidity and temp is a bit low at 5-6C.

I took these photos because Holly asked me to. She was curious to see the current state of the microflora my cellar endowed these cheeses with. Both are goat, one her ‘Tomme’, and one her ‘Farmer’s’. You can see what they looked like nearly two months ago here. Every time I handle theses cheeses it brings me immense joy, not only because of the soft, beautiful, mushroomy aromas they offer, but also because I never imagined I would have such treasures in my home. Both cheeses were washed yesterday.

The next challenge I will face on this front is how to tackle a cheese – how to seal the remainder once it’s cut into and/or how to get through that much cheese. Apparently cheeses like this freeze well, although that will be my last method of choice, simply as it seems I’d be killing the cheese’s life, rather than prolonging it for my satisfaction. Sounds kinda mean either way when I put it like that…

Tomme: a great brain-like pattern on the orange-on-white top

Tomme: An interesting lip on the edges

Tomme: Wide shot. You can see it's lopsided in this shot.

Farmer's: Shot of the palette of colors on the surface

Farmer's: brown-grey in side grooves, orangy-white top

Farmer's: wide shot

Holly’s comments on the state of the cheese: Your Farmers looks great! Similiar to mine, but mine has a bit more different flora going on in the ripening room so a bit more colour. I dry brushed this batch after the first month which allows different molds to attach (less washing which tends to control the surface flora). Your brainy surface on the Tomme is the Geo at work…. Washing more frequent at the beginning will eliminate this. I add Geo, B-linens and Mycodore (ripening agents) to my Tomme with the bacterial culture but only B-linens to my Farmers. Geo is great for preparing the surface for other molds but left unchecked can develope the wrinkly surface (soft rind but hard cheeses don’t get slip skin usually). Other than that, your Tomme looks just like mine and the rind will stiffen up!”

Goat Cheese Post Mortem


My email this evening to Holly Gale of Smoky Valley Goat Cheese who’s consulting on my cheese cellaring project.

“Finally hit an aging hurdle. These Valencays went in there in mid October, so nearly 2 months. They looked like this when they did. They held up really well until the last week or two.

What’s interesting is that they seem to have dried considerably,  but not softened. And that brown mold simply does not look friendly. I’m going to cut them open to do a post-mortem on them and see what the inside is like tomorrow when I have some good light to take pictures.

Any thoughts?

The rest of the cheeses in that case show no sign of this. There’s a chance it was because I crack the lid to allow humidity to escape on the opposite side of where these are – perhaps resulting in too much humidity on their side of the case [95%+]?

Look forward to hearing whether you’ve seen this or not, and what you figure it is.


“Wow, looks interesting! I’ve never had/seen anything like that before but I wish I could achieve that brown color on my Tommes. I’m taking a wild guess that it is some kind of oxidation as the micro flora is coming to an end. With the Valencay becoming too dry it probably is not sustaining it well enough??? Also, I use a Geo 17 for my St. Maure & Valencay. This particular Geo has a short life span and may have also contributed to what I think looks like oxidation by-product. I wonder if the Tommes were left long enoug that the Mycodore (white felt mold) would die off too and create more of a brownish rind – Holly”


Cellaring Cheese


One of my goals this year was to start to get my feet wet at making cheese. I failed. I have not made cheese.

But what has happened is a very happy thing: I’ve become good friends with cheesemaker  Holly Gale and have had the opportunity to help their farm in a variety of ways – in exchange for cheese. All of these cheeses were made by Holly, and are being aged by me [with Holly's consultation] in my cellar. I’m learning that aging cheese can be a dynamic affair, and here are some photos from my first washing [done between sausage-making projects on Sunday... it was a busy Sunday], and follow-ups a couple days later.

Goat Tomme on the left after a couple weeks in my cellar, after 3-4 months of age from Holly’s aging room. Since it arrived in my cellar it developed a white coat, underlain by browny orange, and soft orangy blotches atop it all. Young goat tomme on the right – I received this one at 2 days old, and all that fuzz developed in my cellar. Note the wire racking, atop water. They were rusting, so Holly hooked me up with the cheese matting you see in the other pictures.

The aged tomme post-wash [wiped with new cloth & 2% salt brine]. Check out that color!!! The cheese aging setup had such optimal conditions – currently 12C and 90+% humidity – that I decided to commit some of my soft cheeses to the same conditions to further mature them. 3 St. Maure in center, 2 Valencay on the right. Holly was having a hard time with dry conditions, so the bloomy rind hadn’t taken over atop the ash on the Valencay like it should. So these soft cheeses went from the wrapper in the fridge, to here.  You can see that the wire rack is gone, and I now have a paver about 1″ thick on the bottom, under the matting. It’s got salted water like a moat around the masonry. A lid goes atop this all, opened ajar to bring down humidity as required.

The young tomme post-wash. Holly says it’s looking good, so presumably all those blotchy molds are friendly, desirable molds. Whites, blues, browns, rust-colored, different shapes, patterns, patches – this cheese is pretty dynamic. I have to admit that it’s still counter-intuitive to be embracing, even encouraging mold formation on food – I certainly grew up in a different era/paradigm. But it is indeed exciting – feels a bit like playing with fire. Yummy smelling fire though.

The aged tomme and soft cheeses – 2 days later. I washed Sunday morning, and this was Tuesday morning. I am shocked how quickly the white molds developed [check the Valencays 2 photos above - they're mostly black 2 days earlier]. I had hoped they would get their white-mold on, but thought it would take more time than that. These soft cheeses are destined for some research on how maturity impacts flavor and texture, although I’m also on watch [on Holly's advice] to watch that they don’t mature too quickly, or they get runny under the rind.

The young tomme, 2 days post-wash. Already getting quite the dynamic blotch pattern with some white skiff of mold. Looks friendlier than before. I suppose that it’s worth noting that the milk was inoculated with mold cultures prior to cheesemaking – so there is some predictability as to what molds may dominate, etc, but the specific color palette and nuance of flavor will be driven by the microflora and conditions in my cellar. Very exciting stuff.

Aging cheese, for me, right now, is worth the maintenance if for no other reason than smelling their glory when I go down there. It smells BEAUTIFUL. It will also be a dream-come-true to head down to the cellar to grab fresh, mature, dynamic, funky cheese rather than reaching for the fridge – which stunts the growth and is too cold and too dry for them to do their thing.

Still a cheese newbie – but workin’ on it.