Wednesday, January 26, 2011

By God, Lord Beaverbrook, You Were Right, Old Chap!

 “I don’t ask for much,” Woody Allen once wrote, “but what I do get should be of very high quality.”

Yesterday we finally got around to tasting a couple of Stilton cheeses that Kelby had procured at his favorite fancy food purveyor in Boston. You know the kind of place – customers there are either insanely wealthy and pick up stuff to eat and drink all the time, or they are like you and me, and go there once or twice a year as a special treat. The common thread is that this establishment caters to people who are super serious about food and wine.

The cheeses they stock are only offered when they’re at their peak of ripeness, which in some cases means that they’re soft, runny and pungent. (We’re not in Kansas anymore.)

Our first cheese, a beautifully ugly wedge, was called Stichelton. They keep it under the counter and sell it to their best customers only. A pound will set you back about thirty bucks. Being made from raw milk, it cannot legally be called Stilton, because some time ago it was decreed that all cheeses with that name had to be made from pasteurized milk. Never mind: it’s Stilton.

Because we’re winemakers and we smell stuff all the time, it was de rigueur for us to plant our noses over the cheese before tasting it. The Stichelton delivered a faint hit of ammonia, which is technically an indication of over ripeness, but in this case it just added some nice complexity. Most of all we picked up the beautiful pungent aroma profile typical of a blue-veined, full fat cheese. A small taste delivered a parade of flavors and textures: salty, tangy, buttery, bacterial, slightly gritty.

Our second cheese, called Colston Bassett, retails for $28 a pound, though as with the Stichelton, a good time can be had with a much smaller quantity than that. Here we had a slightly less necrotic looking wedge that delivered the very silage and barnyard aromas that many people find so off-putting in cheeses of this ilk.

The Colston had a more cheddar-like texture, being a little firmer than its partner; and seductive hay and clover flavors dominated, along with the pungent creaminess we expected. Fascinating.

Then it was back to work.

Well, not quite. After securing permission from our bottling line manager Peter Howe, we decided to delay a return to the day’s real order of business to see what we could learn about one of the world’s most fabled food and wine pairings: Port and Stilton. I located a library bottle of our Fine Old Tawny, the longer-aged of the two Ports we make, and the one that is chronically out of stock.

The long and the short of it is that these two commodities deserve every bit of their reputation for playing well together in the sandbox. Tricia, Kelby and I tend to exhibit a streak of iconoclasm in our approach to food and wine, preferring empirical discovery to accepted wisdom. (Using this approach, we’ve concluded that another well-known wine/food duo, Vin Santo with Biscotti, is downright stupid: sweet and sweet provide no tension or resolution, even if one is liquid-sweet and the other crunchy-sweet. The more diplomatic Tricia might call this match ‘overrated’.)

But oh my goodness: Port and Stilton. Tricia, our deepest thinker about Port, was uncharacteristically quiet during this tasting, making only the occasional satisfied grunting noise.

There was certainly a lot to ponder and enjoy here. The really interesting thing was that the two cheeses, as close in style as they were, nevertheless brought out different flavors in the wine.

A taste of the Stichelton, followed by a thoughtful pause, followed by a taste of Port, yielded flavors in the wine that started out as bright red fruit. A full ten seconds elapsed, and then we were slammed with a burst of rancio, that difficult-to-define flavor that I promise to write more about sometime soon.

The other cheese, the Colston Bassett, had a way of making the Port taste more classically like a tawny: the flavors were all about raisins and toffee, more harmonious, and superlatively tasty.

Surroundings Fit For A King
Two Stiltons and one Tawny Port?  Escoffier eat your heart out!

As you can see from the photo, we were not very successful at creating the classic setting for this kind of escapade, namely a dark room with some overstuffed leather chairs, hunting trophies and a roaring fire. So we’re not a Gentleman’s Club! No one was complaining.

- by Peter Bell, winemaker

Music of the Day:
  • Julie Fowlis - Mar A Tha Mo Chridhe (As My Heart Is); "Mo Bhean Chomain" (Singer Julie Fowlis comes from the remote Scottish island of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. She sings in her native Gaelic):

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