My focus on cheese started as a joke when I asked my wife what C food I should blog about this week. Her answer – cheese. Everything is better with cheese on it. This is true for all who live in our household at present; we are all cheese lovers. Growing up, we rarely had cheese in the house. My mother kept Kosher, at least for a significant part of our lives, and so we never served dairy and meat at the same meal. Periodically, she would offer up a cheese tray and remind us that even King David was served cheese. She was, of course, careful to ensure that all the cheese she put on the tray was marked as Kosher. As a result there were numerous types of cheeses we were never exposed to as they are made with or contained non-dairy ingredients such as rennet. This not only applied to cheese, but to anything which you could find in the dairy section such as yogurt or butter.
I no longer keep Kosher and over time, eating cheese has become one of those experiences that can bring me to a spiritual space I have never been before. There are those cheeses that have lost their mind altering ability (i.e. American, Cheddar, Muenster, Monterey Jack, etc). However, there are cheeses which I am still discovering which can take your taste buds to a place they have never been before.
I remember my first experience with mascarpone cheese. it was blended with a few threads of saffron and some fresh corn. I had ordered the dish because of the scallops, but I remember it because of the mascarpone corn. The amazing thing about mascarpone is that it is not something one normally hears about unless you are watching the food network or grew up in an Italian family. It is so easy to make that often times people make it at home versus buying it a grocery store. It is thickened cream that has not yet become thick enough to become butter. Had my mother known about it, it would have been one of those cheeses that would have fit in nicely in a Kosher home as the only ingredients are heavy cream and lemon juice or cream of tartar.
Then there are those cheeses that transport you to another country. For me, the three that always take me to Mexico are Cotija, Oaxaca, and Chihuahua. I fell in love with Cotija when one of the migrant workers I used to teach English too years ago handed me a piece of grilled Mexican corn. The combination of the mayonnaise and the cotija cheese sprinkled on top of grilled corn is something that defies description. They were also the ones who taught me how to make chile rellenos by combining these three cheeses and stuffing them inside roasted poblano peppers. They were then lightly breaded and fried and served with a cheese sauce made with this amazing three cheese combo and roasted green chiles.
With over 650 different kinds of cheeses from 60 countries in the world, they have the ability to help us experience life from a multitude of perspectives and help us to understand the legacies and rituals of other times and places.
Samuel Markussen, a world renowned chef, once reflected on his connection to ancestry through food. Having spent most of his time in his Swiss heritage, he realized that most of his connection to that part of his heritage was through cheese-based or related dishes. This included a family recipe for fondue, raclettte (which they do not even have at our local gourmet cheese store), or a diversity of cheeses from the Alps (Gruyere, Emmenthaler, Vacherin, Tilseter, and Tomme Vaudoise ), which were served with Sunday breakfast if bread and preserves.
When I close my eyes and allow myself to experience the cheese of another of culture and heritage, I know I have experienced something which was created and formed over time and passed down as a gift to be shared with all of humanity. In that moment, I know I am blessed.