Any cheese geek worth their weight in curd know’s that Laura Werlin is one of the nation’s preminent cheese writers. The author of Cheese Essentials, The New American Cheese, Mac & Cheese, Please, and Great Grilled Cheese (among others) is also a culture contributor and regular on the seminar circuit at events like the FOOD & WINE Classic in Aspen. Laura lives part-time in Aspen, which has provided her with a front-row seat to the Rocky Mountain region’s booming farmstead cheese scene.
I also live in the area, and like Laura, I’m a longtime proponent of our state’s cheesemakers. My travels, cheese writing, and love of the mountains have also sparked a fascination with the high-altitude, “what grows together, goes together” ethos when it comes to cheese and beverage pairings (something Lassa and I cover in our book, Cheese for Dummies).
When I heard that Laura was doing a globally-focused “Mountain Cheese and Wines” dinner at The Little Nell hotel’s Element 47 restaurant in Aspen, I was thrilled. With the help of the Nell’s new wine director, Master Sommelier Carlton McCoy (at 29, the youngest to earn the distinction) and executive sous chef Mike Daley, a luscious alpine meal featuring esoteric cheese and wine came together. Last night, we gathered in a private room at the restaurant to learn more about the nature of mountain cheeses and experience the most unconventional pairings most of us had ever experienced.
Although I write about food for a living, I find it difficult to decribe meals or pairings, because I fear readers find such details intimidating or obnoxious. I’ll be the first to admit I loathe the snobbery so often found in the food and wine industries. One reason this dinner was such a joy was the utter lack of pretense. That’s partly because of the people and property involved, and partly due to a new generation of chefs, cheesemakers, winemakers, sommeliers, et al who are working to erase those negative connotations.
The history of high-altitude cheeses
If you love the anthropological and sociological aspects of cheese, it’s important to understand how hard, or aged, cheeses evolved. Since its discovery sometime around 2000 BC, fresh cheese has been a way to use surplus milk. The process of aging cheese is actually one of the earliest methods of food preservation, and it provided vital protein and other nutrients during the winter months, when certain species of ruminants (cud-chewing mammals with four-chambered stomachs) aren’t lactating.
This is why fresh (unaged) cheeses such as mozzarella, chevre, and ricotta were traditionally only available during the spring and summer, when dairy species like cows, goats, and sheep began their lactation (depending upon various factors, it can last into early winter). Some of our favorite aged cheeses such as Cheddar, Gruyère, or Parmigiano-Reggiano were developed to be consumed during the lean winter months. At higher elevations, where growing seasons are extremely short, cheese was, literally, a lifesaver. This is still true in parts of the world today; the nomadic, high-altitude cheesemakers of Central Asia often air-dry or smoke their cheese until it’s rock-hard so it can be sucked on for hours/
Four courses of unconventionality
Back to the point at hand. The dinner consisted of four courses, each paired with a wine and cheese from the same region. The first dish featured a cheese none of us had heard of—Gorria. Even Laura had never tried it, but after discovering it was available from Spanish importer Forever Cheese, she seized the opportunity. Gorria is a semi-soft Spanish Basque cheese made from the milk of the Laxta sheep. It’s lovely: creamy, buttery, with a faint hint of toasted nuts and a thin, grayish natural rind. Paired with charcuterie, pickled carrots and radishes, and Colorado’s famous Palisade peach preserves (all made in-house) and a crisp, minerally 2010 Avanthia Godello Valdoerras, the Gorria was a happy discovery for everyone.
The second course featured whole wheels of oozy Vacherin Mont d’or (it was French, although it’s also made on the Swiss side of the Jura Mountains). Each diner was also served a delicate, buttery Vacherin tarte with fines herbes and shaved Perigord black truffle, and a salad of roasted fingerling potatoes and wild mushrooms. The wine pairing provided the second revelation of the evening. Carlton’s pick was a 2011 Domaine Tissot Poulsard Arbois, which he described as as a “fresh, yeasty” red wine not meant for aging. Tart and refreshing with juicy berry notes, it was the ideal palate-cleansing pick to pair with a high-butterfat cheese like Vacherin.
The main course highlighed Piedmont, Italy, by showcasing Castelrosso, a soft, mild cow’s milk cheese reminiscent of a less tangy, more luxurious feta. Crumbled atop a succulent breast of poulard (a spayed—really—specially-fattened hen) and accompanied by roasted salsify, Meyer lemon, and a winter squash puree, this was my favorite dish. The balance of textures and flavors, and rich, milky cheese were set off by a surprising pairing: Barbaresco. Old-school wine-think states that cheese and red wine aren’t compatible, but nothing could be further from the truth. The 2008 Deforville Nebbiolo was full-bodied and fruit forward, and it really showed how seemingly off-beat pairings can and do work.
For dessert, Laura and Carlton brought it home, literally, by featuring Avalanche Cheese Company and Sutcliffe Vineyards. Wendy Mitchell, cheesemaker at Avalanche, lives down the road from me in Basalt, where the creamery is located. The goat dairy is on the other side of the McClure Pass in Paonia, known as Colorado’s “banana belt.” Sutcliffe Vineyards is in Cortez, near Durango, in the far southwestern “Four Corners” area of the state. Daley took slices of Cabra Blanca, a delicate, semi-soft natural rind cheese with citrusy notes, and topped them with bruleed persimmons, shaved dried cranberries, and a drizzle of Balsamic. Paired with a juicy red 2007 Cinsault, this was another unconventional pairing that worked beautifully.
I firmly believe that food—be it cheese, beer, or a street taco—should nourish the soul as well as the mind. Last night’s dinner was a reminder that even if you can’t afford a dinner at the Nell (and I don’t mind admitting that I can’t), you can still embrace the simple joys of a humble wedge of cheese and glass of wine. Cheers to that.