As Josepha cheerfully cut and wrapped cheeses at the Oxbow Cheese Merchant, I sneaked a glance around the shop again. Oxbow has a formidable condiment selection, all perfect for pairing with cheeses. They favor local honeys, jams, crackers, and their customers love them for it. As we were chatting, a woman at the counter said she had driven up from the Peninsula (south of San Francisco) to spend a day in Napa and visit Oxbow. That’s about a 90 minute drive!
We pushed on with the tasting. Cheese 5 was called Ottavio, and it hailed from northern Italy. A slight rarity in the cheese field, it is made with thistle rennet, so it is vegetarian. It is also a washed-rind cheese, washed in barley beer. You can even see barley in the paste itself. I was surprised when I smelled it because there is hardly any of that pungent aroma characteristic of most washed-rind cheeses. For this reason, it could be a great introductory washed rind. Just don’t tell the person before she tastes it, and see what happens. I thought Ottavio’s rind was beautiful, mottled and natural, dark and earthy. Its flavor was mild, yet earthy. This is the kind of cheese that needs a beer, not wine! If you can find a barley beer, it would complement the barley wash nicely. I couldn’t find any information about this one other than what Josepha relayed, so if anyone has anything to forward to me, I’d love to take a look.
Cheese 6 was an American take on the traditional French Raclette. This one hails from Spring Brook Farm in Vermont, and is called Reading Raclette. You can, of course, make a raclette with it, which is always tasty and filling. You could also just eat it as it is, and munch on it amongst friends on a lazy Sunday afternoon. I’d drink a white ale with it; others might choose a red wine. If you are looking for it in the cheese case, seek out a kind of spongy-looking cheese with a bright orange rind and bony-colored paste with eyes. The original wheels are 14-20 lbs., but are likely to be cut into large wedges.
We finished our tasting on a gentle note. Cheese 7 was the Tomme Brûlée, a sheep’s milk Pyrenees-style cheese from France. What sets this apart from, say, a P’tit Basque or Ossau Iraty is its charred rind, torched just after the aging period, hence the “brûlée” in the title. The result is a richly marbled rind with streaks of black, white, and all shades in between. I loved the mouthfeel here-it was deliciously soft and creamy, deserving of a smooth, delicate red wine. The flavor was delicate as well, hardly showing any of the woolly aggressiveness of other well-known Basque cheeses, like the Abbeye de Belloc. I’d put this one early on the cheese plate, and definitely show off that gorgeous charred rind.
Thank you to Lassa Skinner for welcoming me into her shop, and cheesemonger Josepha Bertolini for showing me around the cheese case! I can’t wait to return.
If you would like to visit the Oxbow Cheese Merchant, here is their address and telephone number:
610 First Street (in the Oxbow Public Market)
Napa CA 94559