The photograph above was not taken from my visit to the Quixote Winery in Napa last Sunday, but it is because of that day that I made sure to stop by the abundant cheese department at Whole Foods on Wednesday and make a selection. And while my initial pairing of wine and cheese was not perfect, it made a delightful interlude for my husband and I to enjoy while the Thanksgiving turkey finished roasting and before we began the traditional feast with our family.
Janet Fletcher, the author of Cheese and Wine; A Guide To Selecting, Pairing. and Enjoying has converted me. I will no longer walk wistfully past the cheese department, waiting for a special occasion to prompt a purchase. Much of the European world (France, Italy, Spain, Greece) where milk and grapes are abundant, enjoy a daily ritual of wine and cheese, and it is my pleasure to join them--with Janet's blessing and guidance.
I had the good fortune, along with a group of other food bloggers, to meet Janet at the Quixote Winery and to enjoy her intelligent pairing of three distinctive cheeses to accompany the Petite Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon we were tasting. She chose a Zamorano, a Pecorino di Grotta, and an Erhaki (which sounds like "air hockey", making it easy for me to remember!)
Each cheese was delicious, a festival of textures and flavors, creating a kind of dance on the palate as I nibbled and sipped back and forth between the cheeses and wines.
It was pretty much Nirvanna for the taste buds, and I privately vowed to stop neglecting these powerful opportunities for pleasure in the future. Life is too short to drink crappy wine and dull, uninspired cheeses, I thought. Not when these affordable luxuries are so close at hand.
At the Quixote Wine tasting, we were also gifted with a signed copy of Janet's latest book (named in the title of this post), which delivers on its promise to guide and educate the reader who, like me, can be overwhelmed and bewildered by the array of offerings at a well stocked cheese counter.
Janet Fletcher can be your guide too not only through her books, but through her weekly column on cheese published through the San Francisco Chronicle. (Here is the url for her Cheese Course article archive. You won't want to miss her current article on Splurgeworthy Selections for the Cheeseboard). Her advice and writing has been awarded two James Beard Awards, and has been featured in magazines such as Food and Wine, Bon Apetite, Fine Cooking and Metropolitan Home.
What I appreciate about Janet's book is her very straight forward, informative style of writing that is precise and helpful in its descriptions of the character of the various cheeses, as well as pertinent information on why a cheese would work better with some types of wine and not so well with others. Her introductory chapter is richly inspirational but quickly moves on to instruct on how to store, serve and enjoy cheese in a variety of settings. Cheeses are categorized in terms of milk source (cow, sheep, goat, or mixed), how they are made (fresh, aged, pastuerized or not, and other such considerations) and other relevant details to quickly orient the consumer. The book is well indexed, and each cheese profile is accompanied by a simple icon to indicate milk source (cow, sheep, goat, etc.) as well as a pronunciation guide for foreign words which I find enormously helpful. Finally, Cheese and Wine is gorgeously illustrated with photographs by Victoria Pearson of cheeses, wines and serving pieces and makes it an absolute delight to turn the pages. In short, it makes me want to eat the book. (Memo to holiday gift givers: this book or others by Janet would be welcome under the tree).
In my foray into the cheese department at Whole Foods, not having yet read Janet's book, I chose a sheep pecorino stagionato, which was a safe choice because I already knew I enjoyed pecorino. Then I went to the wine section and, at the advice of the head of the wine department, chose a Loosen Brothers 2006 Riesling from Salem Oregon to enjoy at Thanksgiving dinner.
At home, I turned to the page in Janet's book on "Pecorino Toscano" and learned that this is an Italian sheep's milk cheese that has been produced for 2,000 years. The kind I bought, "Stagianato", is a type of pecorino that is aged for at least four months in a cellar. I found it to be buttery, chewy, dense and salty, and very delicious.
The wine I chose was also very good, although a bit sweeter than I prefer, and perhaps too sweet for the pecorino. The wine was juicy and tasted brightly of the grapes, exploding in the mouth. The finish was brief and added to the sense of surprise, as the sweetness and acidity of the wine both spoke at the same time with each swallow. This is a low alcohol wine, slightly over 8 percent, a very light straw yellow in color. In the future I would probably prefer to pair it with a fruit dessert after the meal.
I served the pecorino with a rather unremarkable brie. Incidentally, Janet's book suggests that instead of chopping off the tip of a brie as it is consumed, (as I did with the one pictured above), one should slice off thin wedges along the edge in order to preserve the triangular shape of the brie. That's just one of many helpful suggestions that Janet makes in order to enhance to pleasure of eating cheese, even though it doesn't affect the taste per se.
Sitting next to Janet at the cheese and wine tasting, I told her I am the grand daughter of dairy farmers on both my mother and father's sides of the family. I was born in Cuba, New York, home of the locally famous Cuba Cheese Shoppe, and I have always wondered if my grandparents' dairy products provided the source of milk that the cheese makers used. On many occasions Cuba Cheese has been a coveted Christmas gift, mailed out to we in the family who migrated west. Now I want to taste it all over again and learn more about it. (My favorite is the white cheddar).
Tasting the cheese and wine last Sunday, and in the days since then, has felt like coming home to me. Coming home to my heritage in a new way, and to a recovery of pleasures lost and rediscovered.
Not a bad way to celebrate Thanksgiving. Not bad at all.