Artisan cheese: A vegetarian’s guilty pleasure

Cherry Grove Farm cheese

Guest blogger and vegetarian Sue Gordon writes for Bucks County Taste and Hunterdon County Taste on eating vegetarian in Bucks County and nearby.

by Sue Gordon,

More than a decade ago, on a trip through the unspoiled Aude region of southern France, we were fortunate enough to stumble upon the tiny village of Fontcouverte (covered fountain) and its charming family-run hotel, Le Château. This being France, Le Château is an actual château, not a modern reconstruction, with only 4 guest rooms simply but elegantly furnished, and a table d’hôte to die for. Dinner was served outside at a linen-draped common table under the trees. Our fellow guests included an Irish couple on their honeymoon, a German family with several children and a strikingly attractive French woman “of a certain age” as the French say, and her charming husband. Dinner progressed from course to course, delicious local wine flowed and pretty soon, it didn’t matter what native languages we spoke, all were engaged in lively conversation.

Remembering back to that magical evening, I haven’t a clue what we ate, only that it was wonderful. But I do recall that the meal ended, in Continental fashion, with a cheese plate. My husband and I selected several different kinds, and then passed the platter to our French companions, who waved it on with barely a glance. Given French fondness for cheese, I found this quite odd, until my beautiful neighbor leaned over and whispered in my ear …”supermarket cheese,” and flashed a mischievous, and knowing smile.

At the time, that seemed a tiny bit snobbish because the cheeses set before us didn’t look like any of the ones I was seeing in American supermarkets. But now, 12 years later, with scores of artisanal American cheeses turning up at farm markets, specialty stores and fine restaurants, I completely understand. There is really no comparison between hand crafted local cheese and the dull, additive-filled blocks of industrial cheddar or gouda that sit for weeks in a refrigerated case. Even fine imported cheese loses flavor if not handled correctly during transport. And many of the best European varieties are made with raw milk, and therefore prohibited for sale in the US if they have not been aged more than 60 days.

Bobolink farm house

As a vegetarian, cheese remains my guilty pleasure, and I am a strong advocate for local cheese production. Cheese makers who manage their own dairy farms are much more likely to treat their animals humanely or buy milk only from other small family farms which do likewise. And fortunately, those of us who live in and around Bucks and Hunterdon Counties have access to a number of local cheese makers (see Bucks County Taste’s food map, Local Cheese Makers).

Another way to sample a variety of the best regional cheeses is to visit local restaurants that feature exceptional cheese plates, hand-selected by knowledgeable chefs. Here are three of my favorites:

Golden Pheasant Inn in Erwinna

WHAT: The Inn’s lavish Seasonal Cheese Platter is sourced from local purveyors like Bobolink Dairy & Bakehouse in Milford, NJ and regional stars like Old Chatham Sheepherding Company in NY. Chefs Blake Faure and Jon Ramsey also complement the local selections with their favorite imports from France. Diners can choose either 3, 4 or 5 cheeses for $18/$22 or $25 respectively. The exquisitely presented platter includes accompaniments like raw local honey, nuts, pureed fruit and triangles of toasted farm bread. A favorite of mine from Old Chatham is Ewe’s Blue, a Roquefort-style sheep’s mild cheese that pairs perfectly with fruit and a soft, fruity Red Zinfandel or a Ruby Port.

Golden Pheasant Inn cheese plate

WHEN: The cheese platter is available on both the Tavern and Dinner Menus from 5:30 pm, Wednesday – Saturday, and from 3:30 pm on Sunday. Reservations: 610.294.9595; www.goldenpheasantinn.com

Golden Pheasant Inn patioBONUS POINTS: With warmer weather right around the corner, I want to point out that the Golden Pheasant offers one of the most comfortable and beautiful al fresco setting in Bucks County. Or, if hunger strikes when you’re out for a bike ride on the towpath, stop in the Tavern for a Portobello Mushroom Burger, grilled with a tangy balsamic reduction, topped with micro greens and served on a whole wheat bun with a side of house-made cabbage slaw.

Maize in Perkasie

Maize RestaurantWHAT: Since opening in 2009, Maize, a tiny storefront BYOB in Perkasie’s historic district (Old Town) has become a pilgrimage site for Delaware Valley foodies. Chef/owner Matthew McPhelin’s creative take on farm-to-table dining is simply extraordinary, and there are always vegetarian offerings available on the ever-changing menu. Above the restaurant’s doorway are two blackboards: one lists all the local farms that supply Maize’s larder, and the other lists artisan cheeses from nearby creameries in Pennsylvania and New York. For $12, you can sample three gorgeous cheeses, accompanied by local honey, preserved figs and nuts.

WHEN: Maize only serves dinner, Tuesday through Saturday from 5 pm to 10 pm. Reservations are a must. Phone: 215.257.2264; www.maizeonwalnut.com

BONUS POINTS: Fragrant, herb-seasoned popcorn, a sign of hospitality among the former Leni Lenape inhabitants of our region, is presented to every table at the start of the meal. The kitchen also whips up the best buttermilk biscuits ever – piping hot from the oven, served with sweet whipped butter and local honey. Yum.

Agricola Community Eatery in Princeton

WHAT: Agricola, as its name suggests, is all about farms–the local kind–and taking the raw materials they produce to create dishes that pay homage to our nation’s culinary heritage with a modern intensity and broader flavor palate. This sophisticated, cutting-edge eatery in the heart of Princeton is a beehive of activity, with a lively bar and a palpable buzz surrounding the food. The good vibrations extend to the restaurant’s Artisan Cheese Board ($15) which offers award-winning cheese from two local farms, Valley Shepherd Creamery in Long Valley, NJ, and Lawrenceville NJ’s Cherry Grove Farm, just down the road.

Cherry Grove Farm cheese

Selections likely to appear on Agricola’s board include Cherry Grove’s creamy Buttercup Brie or their mildly tart Herdsman, two raw milk cheeses that rival any French variety I’ve tasted (and I’ve tasted a lot!). Be sure to watch for Valley Shepherd’s Carameaway, a mellow gouda-style cheese with a hint of spice, made with both sheep and cow’s milk and flavored with caraway seeds. Fans of blue cheese will relish Valley Shepherd’s Crème de Blue, a silky, salty, not too pungent variety also made from a combination of sheep and cow’s milk. Agricola garnishes their cheese boards with house-made zucchini crackers, house-made chutney and fresh local honeycomb.

WHEN: Agricola’s Artisan Cheese Board is available on both the lunch menu (Monday – Friday, 11:30 am – 2:30 pm) and dinner menu (7 days a week). Reservations strongly encouraged: 609.921.2798 www.agricolaeatery.com

BONUS POINTS: Agricola’s menu is organized for grazing with first and second courses, and extras to share like the Shibumi Farms Mushroom Flatbread, baked in a wood fired oven and topped with a farm fresh egg. Outstanding. As are the hand crafted cocktails that vary seasonally to pair with the food. A “Ruby Rose” (rosemary-infused gin, grapefruit, lime, maple syrup, bitters) anyone?

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