If you live in or around Boston and haven't visited one of Formaggio Kitchen's two locations (244 Huron Ave. in Cambridge and 268 Shawmut Ave. in the South End), you're missing out on foodie heaven. One could spend an entire afternoon browsing their selection of gourmet imports, wines, small production specialty foods (like Taza Chocolate), baked goods, delicious prepared foods, and most mouth-wateringly, their deli case of fine cheeses and charcuterie. The friendly and expert staff is always more than helpful in assisting customers navigate their well stocked deli case, making shopping at Formaggio something of a learning experience. They're so good in fact, that they offer fantastic classes in wine, cheese, and charcuterie geared towards novices and aficionados alike. The popular Cheese 101 course always books up quickly. Of course, the only way to learn about food is to try it, so as much as these classes are educational, they all take the form of tastings that more than justify Formaggio's nominal fees.
Formaggio takes cheese seriously, sending buyers on trips around Europe to bring back the best and most interesting selections to Boston, but sometimes the best cheese comes from just a few hours away. Earlier this month, Formaggio brought in Zoe Brickley from the Cellars at Jasper Hill and Sean Hill from Hill Farmstead Brewery for a tasting in their warehouse-classroom near Fresh Pond. Both are based just two miles from each other in Greenboro, a small Vermont town of 800 people. We enjoyed six cheese and beer pairings that were extraordinarily fresh, rich, and flavorful. As much as I'd like to recommend them, Hill Farmstead's beers aren't readily available around Boston, actually you can barely get them anywhere. And although Sean is admirably enterprising, he maintains a, shall we say "relaxed" attitude towards his business that will probably keep these delicious brews from becoming available anytime soon. So, I'll stick to the cheese mongers here.
Mateo Kehler and Andy Kehler started Jasper Hill Farm in 1998, when other small Vermont dairy farms were going under. Instead of building a business model based on growth and increased production--where the quality of the cheese would likely suffer--they created the Cellars at Jasper Hill. Basically, the Cellars is a large underground cheese aging facility that they've opened up to other small Vermont cheesemakers that can't afford (or aren't interested in) building and maintaining a cheese cave and setting up an operation to handle wholesale selling and distribution. Currently at 30% capacity, the Cellars are a huge success and are now housing cheese from six small creameries, plus a popular cloth bound cheddar from the dairy behemoth Cabot. If they're paying attention, you know Jasper Hill is on to something.
This business model means that they can continue to produce cheese just as they've always have, in small batches with milk from only about 40 cows. Jasper Hill likes it this way, and even though they could, they don't plan on buying more cows, but rather providing the facilities and distribution system to push the New England artisanal cheesemaking industry forward in a sustainable way designed to last for generations, not fiscal quarters.
Here are some of my favorites from the tasting.
Made from Jasper Hill cow's milk, this soft brie-like French style cheese is only aged two months, giving it a young, buttery taste. The sample we tasted had only been aged forty days making it particularly fresh.
Beer washed and packed in spruce bark, this fondue-like Winnimere has a smoky, woodsy quality. Jasper Hill has drawn from a historical tradition of French cheesemaking, where these briefly aged soft cheeses were made quickly in the wintertime, while the Comte and Gruyere aged.
Cabot Clothbound Cheddar
This is the cheese that put Jasper Hill on the map after being voted the best American cheese by the American Cheese Society. The milk is sourced from a single Vermont farm in the Cabot dairy cooperative known for its high quality product. It's aged for 10-12 months in Jasper Hill's cellars--practically a luxury hotel for cheese. They bandage it in muslin, wrap it in linen, and rub it with lard. It tastes milky and bold and the few bites I had filled my palette with perfectly matured flavors.