Image by: (WT-fr) Regiondesaintjeansurrichelieu at French Wikivoyage [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Often applied to wine, the French word terroir refers to the environmental factors – climate, soil quality, sunlight, and local wildlife – that can affect a food’s appearance or taste.
Ed Reynolds knows all about terroir. As a part-time Whole Foods employee, he has logged more than 4,500 hours of cheese experience. On Saturday, November 10 from 1 pm – 3 pm, he led a talk at Whole Foods’ Marlton, New Jersey location for their free Flavors of the Moment cheese tasting, an educational event that taught me a lot I didn’t know about cheese. Reynolds’ passion for all things cheese shone as he introduced the word terroir – as it relates to cheese – at the start of the tasting.
“What grows together, goes together,” he explained to our small group of eager cheese samplers. In general, when foods – like honey and cheese – are grown or produced in the same geographical area, they tend to complement one another. Before the presentation, Reynolds and the rest of the Whole Foods’ cheese team used the concept of terroir to pair several varieties of cheese with the accompaniments that complemented each.
The History of Cheddar
The tasting began with a sample of Keen’s Cheddar, a mild, unpasteurized cheese. Keen’s Cheddar is a “farmstead” product, a label given to cheese produced on the same farm where the cows are raised to make it. Producing farmstead cheese is a terroir practice that lends cheese unique properties depending on where it is made.
Reynolds and his team served the cheddar with a side of Cremenelli Tartufo Salami, an uncured Italian meat lightly dotted with black truffle. Beta-carotene lends Keen’s Cheddar its deep yellow color as a result of the cows’ grass-fed diet. While cheeses made from goat’s or sheep’s milk are often grass-fed, their cheeses do not produce as vibrant a color because goats and sheep do not secrete beta-carotene in the same way cows do.
Cheddar cheese originated in the village of Cheddar Gorge in Somerset, England, where cheesemakers used caves to mature it. Since 1899, Keen’s has produced cheddar and the farm remains in the same family today. They are one of only three farms still producing raw-milk cheddar in Somerset. The taste was decidedly mild and distinct from the mass-produced varieties of cheap shredded cheddar I often toss into my family’s scrambled eggs and tacos.
Sweet Italian Cheese
Next, we sampled a pecorino-style Italian sheep’s milk cheese called Moliterno al Tartufo, a sweet, salty cheese that contains black truffle. For Reynolds, Moliterno al Tartufo recalls memories of growing up in Philadelphia eating salted pretzels with sweet ice cream.
We sampled the cheese with a drizzle of a raw Italian honey called Mitica Acacia, which Reynolds called “low-glycemic,” ideal for people who are watching their sugar intake. (I was unable to find an online source that verifies this claim.) Boasting a long shelf-life, this light-bodied honey rarely crystallizes. Mitica Acacia comes from an acacia tree, which is native to Bulgaria but also grows in Italy.
Steps to Cheese Tasting
As we sampled, Reynolds talked about the process of professional cheese tasting. Professional cheese tasters practice what is called ‘retronasal breathing,’ a practice that uses exhalation during the swallowing phase to aid the perception of aromas in the back of the throat.
Because professional tasters, such as competitive cheese judges, often sample hundreds of cheeses in a single weekend, they don’t always eat all of the cheese they judge. Instead, they use other senses – like smell – to judge the quality of the cheese.
Reynolds also discussed the importance of food temperature in relationship to taste. Few foods, he said, are meant to be eaten cold. The temperature of a cheese, for instance, can alter the cheese’s entire taste profile. Reynolds argues that most cheeses should be consumed at room temperature, a belief shared by many other experts – like the team at Serious Eats.
Sweet Partners: Jam and Cheddar
The Whole Foods team brought out Chandoka cheese from La Clare Farms Family Creamery in Wisconsin next. Like Keen’s, La Clare is a farmstead cheese producer, and they have been in business since 1978. Aged inside a cave, this cheddar cheese is mixed-milk, meaning it contains both cow’s and goat’s milk. The team paired it with a sweet jam called Bonnie’s Jams’ Bourbon Berry Jam, popular with Whole Foods customers.
Stilton: “Gateway to Bleu”
Next up was an English Stilton, a cheese that can only be produced in the British counties of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, or Leicestershire. Candied pecans accompanied the Stilton. Reynolds called Stilton the “gateway to bleu cheese” because Whole Foods’ employees often suggest this mild, beginner cheese to customers who are new to the world of bleu.
Types of Rennet
Most cheeses are made using rennet, which is traditionally obtained as a byproduct of veal. Today, the vast majority of today’s cheese producers are moving away from animal-based rennet and instead using a genetically-engineered, vegetarian rennet grown in a lab. In fact, about up to 90% of the world’s cheeses are now made with lab-grown rennet, which Reynolds says is “100% identical” in chemical composition to its animal-based counterpart.
Dessert at Murphy’s Market
Unfortunately, I was unable to stay for the rest of Whole Foods’ informative presentation. But later that day, I took my son to Murphy’s Markets in Medford for their free Taste of the Seasons sampling event. (I like free samples, okay?)
We sampled Lars Swedish Ginger Snaps with Murphy’s pumpkin dip, which Murphy’s often has available for sampling throughout the season. The dip, which is made at Murphy’s, is a creamy, delicious blend of pumpkin puree, sugar, and cream cheese. I’m not usually a big pumpkin-spice gal – despite my love for all-things-fall – but this one had me reaching for more.
Murphy’s also had out a basket of their brownies to try (pictured above). This chewy, enticing brownie has become locally famous, and if the crumbs on the floor were any evidence of their popularity, I’d say a lot of people enjoyed them on Saturday.
My son’s favorite Murphy’s sample was the caramel cranberries – fresh cranberries dipped in gooey caramel, which would make for a delectable, light Thanksgiving appetizer or dessert. We also tried several of Murphy’s seafood spreads and dips with crackers, including their buffalo chicken dip.
My experience at Whole Foods and Murphy’s gave me a lot of ideas to think about for Thanksgiving dinner – cheese grazing boards, desserts made with locally-grown cranberries, imported Italian meats. I might think twice next time I reach for the cheap shredded cheddar at Wal-Mart.
But I think even processed cheese has its rightful place, and no one was complaining this weekend when I used Target cheese on my homemade empanadas. If you ever make empanadas, be sure to use this dough recipe from Laylita’s Recipes. I used frozen butter, and the result was a flakey, buttery crust. I stuffed mine with shredded chicken, canned corn, canned tomatoes, and Mexican spices (chipotle, smoked paprika, salt, and chili powder).