A sincere thank you goes out to the folks at Cherry Grove Farm. Cheese maker Sam Kennedy and Marketing Associate Stacey Gentile visited us last Friday for a wine and cheese experience featuring our current portfolio of dry red wines and some of the cheeses they make on their 230-acre certified organic farm and creamery in Lawrenceville, NJ.
I visited the farm in early October to taste the cheeses so that I could develop a pairing menu for the event. I wanted to find cheeses that would present a range of flavors and complement the new vintage of dry reds released in the past two months. The summer of 2010 was warm and dry with long, sunny days that ripened grapes evenly, gave the skins great color and concentrated flavors leading to bold, dark, flavorful reds that have a lot of depth and structure. I needed cheeses that were rich enough to stand up to their boldness but mellow enough not to overpower, but enhance their fruit.
When I arrived, Stacey was setting out the cheeses in the cutting room of the creamery. This was central with doors leading to the aging rooms and the farm store. In another room that could be viewed from the store, the first stage of the cheese making process was taking place—the making of the curd.
Curd is the basic element in the making of cheese. The milk from the cow is separated by enzymes into two parts—the liquid part, or “whey” and the solid mass, the “curd”. The whey is generally fed to the pigs while the curds are pressed into what will eventually become a finished product—cheese. The curds are seasoned or left plain, then pressed into wheels. Those wheels are washed if the cheese maker wants one type of rind or left alone to form a natural rind during the aging process.
At Cherry Grove they also set some of the curds aside and put them through a cheddaring process. A popular misconception is that cheddar is a flavor, akin to the powder on Doritoes. Not so. It is actually a process based on a basic cheese recipe. Other cheese recipes, or styles, employed at Cherry Grove include Tomme, Jack and Brie. They are also working on an asiago that will be available in December. In all five, the cheese starts as curd. Due to their newness and lack of aging or pressing, little air bubbles get trapped inside bits of cheese curd, so if you have ever had a chance to eat 2 or 3 day old curds you may notice a telltale squeak when air bubbles trapped inside them are broken by your teeth.
Stacey took me on a tour of the property to show me around while the cheeses settled and warmed up for the tasting. Cherry Grove Farm has a herd of 50 cows that produce the milk that is made into cheese, giving them the designation of “farmstead” cheeses. They also raise goats, chickens and pigs.
A stream cuts through the farm, which has been owned by the same family for many years. It received its organic certification 9 years ago when it was established as Cherry Grove Farm. The creamery has been operational for 6. Unlike cheeses made using large scale industrial processes with lots of heavily pasteurized, processed milk, the lands that the cows graze are integral to the taste and character of farmstead, artisanal cheeses. Nutrients and other elements in the grass, which change from the beginning of the growing season to the end, can be seen and tasted in the finished cheese. The cheese finishing process also determines the consistency and taste of the rind and constitutes another big part of the flavors in the cheese.
We started with the Buttercup Brie, a soft cheese with a bloomy, white rind. It is Cherry Grove’s only pasteurized milk cheese because it is aged only 40 days, below the 60-day, FDA-mandated minimum aging time for raw milk cheeses. In order to keep the sweet character of the cream and preserve its flavors and nutrients, the milk is slowly pasteurized over a ½ hour so that it still has some complex flavor elements.
I thought that we would try Cherry Grove’s Somerset next, a cheese made from the first milking of the season after the cows have fed on hay during the winter months. The cheese that results from hay fed milk has an earthier texture, is more pungent and has a lighter color than cheeses from later in the season when the cows are eating grass. It is released after the first milking in spring. For this reason, although we still had some at the winery, it had already sold out in the creamery. Stacey said she was looking forward to tasting it at the winery as she hadn’t had any in a few months.
Instead, the next cheese was the Toma, a traditional washed rind cheese with big flavor. The milk for the toma comes once grass feeding is underway. The toma has a distinctly orange tint because grass has beta carotene in it. Cows do not process beta carotene well so it comes out in their milk. Toma has a creamy texture and a strong, tangy flavor resulting from a special wash.
Herdsman is a natural rind cheese, aged for a minimum of 3 months. It has a chalky yet chewy texture and is medium-firm with nutty flavors and aromas.
Garlic Peppercorn Jack is a pungent, semi-firm jack style cheese, 2-months aged. Very flavorful and fragrant, it is seasoned with garlic and whole peppercorns. Full Nettle Jack is Cherry Grove’s other jack-style cheese. Fragrant and medium-firm, it is seasoned with nettles, a strongly flavored herb that is also known as a stinging nettle but loses the “sting” when cooked or frozen. It is typically used to enhance the flavor in salads or cooked leafy greens.
Great tasting. Great time. Now I was ready to plan the menu.
Even though we don’t carry it at the winery, I added Cheddar Cheese Curd to the tasting. I thought it would go well with the introduction to the cheese making process and make a nice match for an introductory first wine of the evening, the 2010 Unoaked Chardonnay. Next up was the Buttercup Brie to begin the reds. Usually, tastings are conducted with the young wines preceding the older vintages. Due to the fragrant, light-bodied character of the 2009 Trio, I chose it to start the red portion of the tasting, adding a sweet note of Asian pear slices. 2009 was a cooler growing season than 2010, leading to wines with lighter body, lots of delicate fruit and fresh acidity. Trio’s blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Cabernet Franc and 20% Merlot is not crisp, but bright enough to balance the creaminess of the brie.
Next up, Somerset, wasn’t too firm to outdo the 2010 Merlot, accompanied by comice pears. The Merlot is velvety and not so tannic but has lots of fruit against the pungency of the Somerset. The Toma has less over reaching flavor than the Somerset but, 3-months aged, is slightly firmer. I paired it with the slightly more tannic and peppery Cabernet Franc, which has a lot of cherry notes that were brought out more with the addition of dried sour cherries. The Herdsman is firm and, at 3 months, has more nutty overtones than the previous cheeses. Paired with the very rich 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, which has the most tannic backbone of the vintage, the rich cheese mellowed the tannins while an accompaniment of marcona almonds brought out the Herdsman’s nutty overtones. Pairing the very rich, very plummy 2010 Chambourcin with the Garlic Peppercorn Jack was a way to balance a firm, hearty, very flavorful cheese with an equally bold counterpart. I added slices of honeycrisp apple to freshen the pairing, lending to some of the spice notes in the Chambourcin reminiscent of the apple pie notes in our spiced Hot Mulled Chambourcin. Last but not least, something bold and something sweet. I paired the 2010 Trio with the pungent Full Nettle Jack and a spoonful of honeycomb.
Of course, not everyone is a fan of dry red wines. Fortunately, Case Club member Joyce Hayes, there with her husband Jim, was kind enough to jump in as our sweet wine reporter for the night. Joyce enjoyed the cheddar cheese curd with the Vignoles and Just Peachy Sangria with the Toma (“Very tasty!) She found the marcona almonds, “Fantastic!”, daring to break out of the sweet mold and savor the Cabernet Sauvignon that was part of the full tasting. Although she admitted that she is not a “Merlot person” she liked it with the addition of the cheese and the comice pear. The honeycrisp apple also added the perk that she needed to work with the Chambourcin. At the Full Nettle Jack, she returned to sweet wines and found that cheese a good match with Crimson Sky. Thanks so much Joyce for showing us the versatility of these cheeses and their adaptability with wines dry or sweet.
Cherry Grove Farm is just off of route 206, easily accessible by I-95, I-295 and the NJ Turnpike. If you want to see the beautiful animals and countryside visit the farm this weekend for the Great Meadows Cow Parade on Sunday, November 6th from noon to 5. The festivities will include activities for kids, local foods and inventive cheese pairings with local jams and jellies. Their farm store is open daily from 10-6 and sells Cherry Grove cheeses as well as farm-raised beef and pork, Jersey Fresh products and local treats. Find out more information and directions at www.cherrygrovefarm.com.
If you have discovered an exciting wine and cheese pairing or need some help pairing wines with your favorite cheeses, don’t hesitate to get in touch. Stop by the winery or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.