Despite living in San Francisco for a year, my track record for visits to Napa is pretty dismal. As part of my New Year’s push, I decided to go beyond San Rafael and visit a cheese shop. Not just any cheese shop, the Oxbow Cheese Merchant, managed by none other than Lassa Skinner. I wanted to meet her and her crew, check out the locale, and get away from the office.
I’ll be honest, I probably don’t go to cheese shops as often as I should. I find myself more at cheese or gourmet food events. I sure was glad to go to Oxbow, though, and this visit confirmed that I do need to get out more. As soon as I arrived there, cheesemonger Josepha Bertolini greeted me with the type of open smile that comes from true enthusiasm. She guided me through the shop, and I could only marvel at what I saw around me. Everything is neatly organized and carefully curated. The cheeses are all in pristine condition–their faces are perfectly clean, everything is cut at right angles, the plastic wrap is tightly folded to showcase the cheeses beneath. Lassa sure trains her cheesemongers well. Plus, they are mostly women, with the exception of the buyer Ricardo.
Because Valentine’s Day was around the corner, there was a large stock of soft, creamy French cheeses out on the shelves or in the walk-in all perfect for tasting with sparkling wine. As Josepha pulled out one large chunk of cheese after another, I found myself turning a bit nostalgic for my cheesemonger days. Cabot clothbound cheddar, chunks of Parmesan, Langres, Munster, and others all sat ripening on the shelves, waiting for their moment of glory on someone’s cheese plate.
At Lassa’s suggestion, Josepha then flew off to find some cheeses for us to taste. What follows is a bit of a speed tasting session! I’m going to break it into two posts. We ate seven cheeses in about 20 minutes.
We started with the Casatica di bufala. I just loved how Josepha effortlessly sliced off a piece for me, then expertly re-wrapped everything so perfectly! The Casatica was remarkably clean tasting, like freshly-pressed linens. There was a bit of a lemony tang, and I imagined it would go well with strawberries and some bubbly. The mouthfeel was decadently lush and full, thanks to the high fat content of buffalo milk. If you want to look for it in the shop, keep an eye out for a bloomy-rind cheese that weighs about 2 lbs. It’s got a bone-colored paste that looks like someone might have sat on it for a bit (i.e., it is flattened). The cheese paste has small eyes throughout.
Cheese 2 was the strongest of the seven cheeses–a perfectly ripe and runny Brie de Nangis. This is one of the classics of fine cheese, and seeing it in such a perfect incarnation at Oxbow was a treat! It was luscious and full of umami, with an earthy, barnyard, mushroom flavor. This is the kind of diva cheese that needs a big white wine to pair–try a buttery, oaky Napa chardonnay.
Cheese 3 was a cheddar called Mount Mazama hailing from Rogue Creamery in Oregon, one which, surprisingly, I had not yet tasted (I harbor much love for all their cheeses, especially Caveman Blue!). The mix of goat and cow milk produced a laid-back tasting experience. It was nutty and fruity, yet mild. Texturewise, it was a bit crumbly, a little bit flinty. If you’re looking for a good snacking cheese, or one to add to your mac n’ cheese recipe, I’d vouch for Mount Mazama. It comes in blocky rectangles, and the Oxbow cheesemongers cut it to order. In keeping with Rogue Creamery’s tradition of naming cheeses after local landmarks, Mount Mazama is named after a destroyed volcano in Oregon. Josepha suggested a delicate red wine to pair with this cheese–syrah or a pinot noir.
Cheese 4 was decidedly local. There is a vibrant Basque community in Northern California (Thank you, Basque brother-in-law for sharing your culture with me!) that actively herds sheep and makes Basque-style sheep cheese. This particular one, Txiki, which means “little” in the Basque language, is made in Marshall, California, by Marcia Barinaga of Barinaga Ranch. It is made with raw milk and aged for sixty days. Is it actually little, weighing about 1.5 lbs. I guess the meaning of “little” depends on much you eat at one time. Josepha also showed me a wheel of its big brother, Baserri. The flavor of Txiki was nutty, fruity and only slightly sheepy. It was all in all quite delicate, with a smooth and velvety mouthfeel. Like the Mount Mazama, I would choose a delicate red to go with this one, a pinot noir most likely. I tend to pair Basque -style cheeses with blueberry or boysenberry jam, following the traditional Basque pairing.
To be continued . . .