You remember the days. You would look forward to one for weeks; you would wake up early out of excitement; you got to miss class, take the bus with your friends, and hopefully get some sort of special food (or maybe that was just me).
Field Trips. The iconic glory of grade school. What was better than an interruption to the daily grind? Than the promise of adventure? Or the chance to explore and learn something entirely new – and not in a classroom? It is a tradition imbued with excitement and anticipation, completely deserving of idiomatic status.
So imagine my delight when I found out that this semester, as a college junior, I would be taking not one, but two field trips. Within a week of each other. Completely and unabashedly food-related.
The first took place two Fridays ago, on April 1st. My dear friend Chloe Zale (dare I say she’s a bestie; see for yourself) arranged a tasting for our class at Murray’s Cheese in New York, where she worked last summer. It was awesome. I came early to help her set up because I’m eager and that’s how I express my excitement. Liz Thorpe, the Vice-President of Murray’s and Yalie of the not-so-distant past, took us on a tour of the different caves where they age their cheeses from all over America and Europe. It was so cool to learn about the different molds and which cheeses they create, the various processes they use, as well as seeing cheeses of all shapes and sizes on the cave shelves.
After our tour, we went upstairs to the classroom for a guided tasting. We tried six cheeses, along with bread, nuts, and dried fruit.
The first was called Haystack Peak from Haystack Mountain in Longmont, Colorado. It’s a fresh goat’s milk cheese, akin to a young Valençay with its ash rind and pyramidal shape, with a bright white, fluffy, moist interior, a lightly floral scent, and its distinctive tangy bite. We also tried this one aged; it had formed a bloomy rind, like a sort of goat brie, with a definite cream layer and smoother, softer interior. It was a little more pungent and deep than its fresh cousin.
The third cheese we tried was called Tomme Crayeuse. A raw cow’s milk cheese from Savoie, its complex aging process involves multiple caves, temperatures, and humidities, creating a crusty rind, a thick outer layer, and a dense, chalky interior (hence the name “crayeuse”). This cheese had an incredible complexity of flavour: very earthy and woodsy, buttery, yet never too robust. Its textural variety was also impressive – the roughness of the rind, smoothness of the outer layer, and dense interior created an immensely pleasurable and interesting mouthfeel. And the natural yellow mottling on the rind, created from the cellulose int he cows’ diet, made it visually beautiful to boot. Likely my favourite of the tasting.
Next, we sampled the inimitable Epoisses. This big-leaguer from Burgundy has been a French favourite for ages (notably for the likes of Napoleon I and Louis XIV). It is small, smelly, and utterly decadent. This washed-rind, cow’s milk cheese, when ripened, has a thick, voluptuous texture, bold salinity, and a stickiness that satisfies the inner child (despite its very, how shall we say, ‘adult’ aroma). Its rind reminded me almost of an orange brain, or inari, while its smell, reminiscent of ammonia, was actually, in a certain way, attractive. Simply put, it was delicious.
Fifth, we come to what is quickly becoming a classic American staple: Cabot’s Clothbound Cheddar. Made in Vermont from the milk of just one type of cow (in contrast to Cabot’s more large-scale operations), this cheese is wrapped in 35-pound wheels and aged to produce a cheddar of unmistakable quality and consistency. It has a lovely shale-like texture, a characterful medium-yellow/tan colour, and is dense, with a slight crystalline crumb. It smells nutty and vaguely fruity, with a flavour that is bold but not overly sharp. It is a great contrast to more traditional English clothbound cheddars, which tend to have more vegetal, ‘barnyardy’ notes. But Americans do love a sweeter, more candied flavour profile, and this cheese definitely finds that mark of sophisticated approachability.
For our last cheese, we were treated to a Colston Barrett Stilton — a laudable, mild blue from England. Made from cow’s milk and traditional animal rennet, this cheese was a delight to finish with. It had a small blue speckle, sometimes veined, with a crusty rind. Its interior was soft and smooth, slightly grainy, and with a beautiful smear; very spreadable. What’s more, it was not too pungent, and its fruity, complex flavour mellowing into a buttery finish with a slightly smoky quality in the rind sealed the deal on its exceptionality.
After our immensely satisfying tasting, I helped to pack up the leftover cheese, bread, fruit and nuts (C, A, and L would be in for a treat that weekend), and we walked to Soho to the French Culinary Institute. It was beautiful. We were given a tour by none other than Chef Alain Sailhac, veteran of Le Cygne, Le Cirque, 21 Club, and the Plaza Hotel, among others (n.b.: he invented crème brûlée. invented.). He showed us around their kitchen classrooms, including the fifth floor which had just opened the previous night.
He even took us to their bakery, where they insisted we take all their bread. Being polite people, none of us said no. It was supremely fresh, flavourful, spongy, crusty; everything a good loaf should be.
We went to a couple more stores after that, but by the end of the day I was pretty tired, so after a quick espresso at Roasting Plant I made my way to the East Village to deposit my loot and rest.
As for the second field trip? Well, that requires a whole post of its own.