Saturday, December 20, 2008

Some Cheese, Wine & Beer Blogging

For the few people still hanging on: apologies for the relative silence. Of late, most of my blogging energies went into the Shine anthology weblog. Expect some major announcements and fresh developments on that soon.

Also, it was very busy at the day job: I was having nothing but back-to-back training sessions from the Summer onwards, with barely a day or two to recover in between.

OK: let's start with some wine. From my employer I got two bottles of Grande Visière. I tried it last Thursday, and didn't like it. I tried it again on Friday, and it still didn't work. I tried it the last time today: I guess it's OK as table wines go, but it just doesn't have any character: a middle-of-the-road red that is just a little bit too sour and too plain unremarkable to make any kind of impression. A 3 on a scale of 10, or a 1.5/5 as Wineass has it.
Since I'm at it, a Wineass-like Twitter review: Grande Visière French table wine: sour, dull. Like transmission fluid without lubricating properties. Free, 1.5/5, use only in emergency.
I actually threw it down the drain after tasting the Lehman: with wine I just can't be bothered with second class products (nothing to do with price: some cheap wines can be very good).

Then in the local Gall & Gall liquor store (where a very good friend of mine works) I bought a Spanish wine called Celeste (a 2005 crianza from Ribera del Duero), which I haven't opened yet (so expect a report later on), and a Peter Lehman the futures shiraz from 2003, which I opened.

According to Sylvia (my good friend at the Gall & Gall store) 2003 was one of Australia's best wine years, and it shows: I think it's divine. This is shiraz as it is meant to be (at least, according to my preferences): a red so deep it's almost black, rich forest fruits and plummy overtones, heavenly herbs and superb spices, subtle, fine grained tannins and a lingering, deep & complex aftertaste, like angels bleeding on your tongue.
Twitter review: 2003 Lehman the futures shiraz: fair dinkum. Forest fruits, plums, heavenly herbs & Superb spices. Angels bleeding on your tongue: €15, 5/5.

The cheese: I did some cheese shopping at Fons van den Hout, a delicatessen shop specialised in cheese in Tilburg. It's the closest shop (it involves a 20 minute train ride) where I can get the single Dutch truffle cheese: more than worth the short trip. I bought two cheeses there, and two from my local AH (Albert Hein) supermarket.

Also, I have the habit to put those -- sometimes expensive -- cheeses on LU (this is the brand name) crackers of the 'salt & pepper' variety: I find they combine real well with certain cheeses. Obviously, YMMV.
  • A gorgonzola piccante from Ballarini (from my AH supermarket);
  • A blue stilton which is the Christmas special in Albert Hein: you're supposed to drink port with it, but I have tried port several times (I have colleagues in Portugal who bring port, and I've tried it both in Portugal and Andalucía, but it just doesn't work for me. A matter of taste);
  • A mountain cheese from the Elzas (from Fons van den Hout);
  • A Dutch truffle cheese (ditto);
The blue stilton is both extremely crumbly and very smelly, and so blue-veined that mushrooms almost start to form: it's an aggressive cheese that takes no prisoners. Still, there is a certain complexity behind the near-overwhelming fungal and almost sickeningly sour attack on your taste buds. Definitely one for advanced cheese aficionados, and not one for the faint of heart. Strangely, I find it combines surprisingly well with Leffe Brune (see below).

The Elzas mountain cheese, on the other hand, doesn't make much of an impression on a first look: a plain cheese, halfway between soft and crumbly, with no fungal veins or speckled additives. Only the brown crust marks it somewhat. I tasted a piece of it in the shop, and it didn't immediately make much of an impression: this might also be due to the fact that it was very busy in the shop (good for them: they deserve the clientele) and that I was still slightly hung over from the office party of the night before.
However, after returning home and a refreshing shower it slowly reveals its hidden subtleties: a salt'n'mustard tang that works great with the almost sandy texture, combining the suaveness of a younger cheese with the character of an older one. Definitely a keeper, and a perfect accompaniment to the Lehman futures shiraz.

The gorgonzola piccante is an old favourite: when I do a four-cheese plate, I try to make a 50/50 mix of new and known. I tried the mild gorgonzola, but found that it was a bit too cowardly for my tastes. The piccante combines a certain tang with a certain smoothness, a bit like a very charming kid doing something naughty but getting away with it.

The Dutch truffle cheese (picture above): this one is the most difficult to describe for me. It combines the taste and texture of a 'belegen' cheese (in Holland this is a classification system to determine the amount of time a cheese has ripened: 'jong' -- young -- is up to four weeks; 'jong belegen' is 8 to 10 weeks; 'belegen' is 16 to 18 weeks; 'extra belegen' is 6 to 8 months; 'oud' -- old -- is 10 to 12 months; and 'overjarig' -- overaged -- is 16 months and older) with the phenomenal taste of truffles. How does a truffle taste? Well, this is a minefield: not only are there several types of truffles (black and white, summer and winter, and many others), and I suspect that this Dutch cheese uses the black truffle (the least expensive variety). Also, truffles are very pungent, so can easily dominate the palette.
However, when used in just the right amount they give extra depth, complexity and a certain suave smoothness to a dish (this can be a meat dish, over a pasta or a salad, or indeed in specialty cheeses). Think of the king of all mushrooms with a very earthy undertone and tangy, twangy, maybe even funky overtone (OK: it is undescribable. Do try it, if you get the chance). Restraint is the true mastery in combining cheese with truffles: too much truffles and they totally dominate the palette (if you want that, you might as well eat them pure, even if that's an expensive experience), too little and their complex suavity doesn't shine through.

Also, the very helpful lady in the shop in Tilburg gave me something extra: a dip (or sauce) to use with the cheeses: this is an orange marmalade-like concoction that I find works nice with more plain cheeses, but kills the complexity of the more advanced cheeses. So I'm only using it when in dire need (read: if I can't afford the real good stuff).

Now, I'm one of these drink multitaskers who think it's no problem to drink both a great beer *and* a fine wine during dinner. In some connoiseur circles this amounts to blasphemy, but since it's perfectly fine to have a seven (or more) course meal with a great diversity of dishes I don't see why I can't have the same diversity with drinks (and yeah, I know there are endless varieties of wine: I just like to have both beer and wine).

In summertime, I prefer wheat beers like Hoegaarden, Brugs Wit, Dentergems or a good German Heffe-Weissen. In wintertime, though, I prefer more heavy beers (apart from the Hertog Jan lager I drink year-round) like Leffe Brune and Corsendonk.

Leffe Brune
is the beer of choice tonight: a great complex darkly malted beer with caramel overtones: packs a good punch without knocking you out straightaway (in the manner a lot of triples do).

I also bought a Leffe beer glass: I think this is close to the perfect beer glass, an near-spherical bowl on a thick pedestal, think a wine glass for beer.