This Month's Cheese Feature -- 3 milks, 3 countries, 3 cheeses

stack of cheeses.jpg

This month we're featuring three classic cheeses from the milk of three different animals who graze in three different countries in Europe.
Americans have always had lots of pasture and lots of room for grazing milk cows, so we mostly grew up with cow's milk cheeses from our mostly English heritage (like cheddar).   In the Middle East and the Mediterranean area, though, where humans first domesticated animals for milk, the animals of choice were sheep and goats. These tough little critters could wander about, seeking the best forage and moving with the seasons from the high pastures of summer to the lower, warmer areas of winter. It was probably several thousands of years ago that shepherds and goatherds discovered if they carried the morning's milk in a kid's stomach bag, the milk curdled. If they used a grass basket to press the liquid whey out of the curds, they ended up with a cheese that could be aged and needed no refrigeration...the first portable protein.
Pecorino Toscano Fresco (Tuscany, Italy) $12.50/lb
The Italian word for sheep is "pecora," thus "pecorino" cheese. This is Tuscany's most famous cheese and the name "Pecorino Toscano" is a “Denominazione di Origine Protetta” (DOP) granted only to 100% sheep's milk cheese made between September and June and aged a certain way. It's your guarantee that you're getting the real thing. Tuscan pecorini are usually smaller and milder than other sheep's milk cheeses. The cheese is mild, sweet and melt-in-your-mouth smooth with just a hint of saltiness.  Cut strips of it to go on a salad of fresh greens, melt it on pasta, or for a dessert treat drizzle it with honey and serve with a sweet bread.
Drunken Goat (Jumilla, Spain) $15.95/lb
This cheese is a great introduction for people who think they don't like goat cheese because they think the cheese will have some kind of "goat-y" taste. Not! This is a pure white, semi-hard cheese made in the traditional round "basket" shape. So far, it's very like its sheep milk cousin, Manchego. But the red-wine drinking folks of Jumilla (who-ME-ya) soak the finished cheese in their Monastrell wine for 2 or 3 days, giving the finished cheese an edible purple rind. And it's no suprise that a piece of this cheese pairs well with a plate of Spanish olives, some chorizo and, of course, a big red Monastrell wine like our Juan Gill or Altos de Luzon. This is one of our favorite "wine & cheese" cheeses.
Raw Milk Morbier (MORE-bee-yay) (Jura, France) $14.35/lb
Summertime in the high French alps, up on the border with Switzerland, is the time for the area's cows (you know, the ones with two long legs and two short from grazing on the steep hillsides) to feast on fresh grass. The rich milk they give is made into the classic Gruyère de Comté. Morbier was originally made with left over cheese for personal consumption by the cheesemakers. At the mid-day break the cheesemaker would take leftover curd from making Gruyère de Comté and press it into a mold. To keep it from drying out and to keep the insects away, he would top it off with a little ash. In the morning he would add any additional afternoon curd on top of the ash and you had Morbier. Today they make it from a single batch of milk and add a harmless vegetable product to give it the same appearance. A raw cow's milk cheese that is aged 4 months, it has a washed rind with a fresh hay aroma and tastes a bit like nuts and fruit. It's a "strong" cheese in that it really tastes like cheese. You can tell this is not an industrial's real cheese. You can serve it with crackers and a glass of white wine, but it is great on sandwiches and melts well, so you may want to try it in a grilled cheese sandwich.