It’s not just the toasty coziness of the image or the chill of sweater weather that makes me dream January dreams of French onion soup with a thick layer of gratinéed Gruyere. There are reasons to get excited about specifically winter cheeses.
For one thing, soft, oozy cheeses are rich with winter milk (more concentrated than voluminous spring and summer milk, it’s full of wonderful butter fat). Think glorious small wheel oozing out of its spruce-bark wrap. Meanwhile, hard Swiss-style mountain cheeses that have been aging 6-8 months are at a peak: the wheels they’re now rolling out of aging caves bear the flavors of abundant spring and summer milkings. In the Alps, in a centuries-old tradition called “alpage,” shepherds lead their flocks to follow the line of fresh earth as they walk along the slopes as the snow recedes, nibbling new grasses, spring onions, and flowers (such a lovely mental image!).
So either way, you win.
I talked with Marco Villegas at Scardello on Oak Lawn. They’d run out of Cowgirl Creamery’s Devil’s Gulch already (all you California transplants, you remember awaiting that release). They’re carrying Rush Creek Reserve from Uplands Cheese in Wisconsin. A cow’s milk, washed-rind cheese wrapped in spruce bark, it’s modeled on the most famous of all winter-milk cheeses, Vacherin Mont d’Or (which they’re also carrying at Scardello) an oozing beauty so runny and gorgeous, one of the best ways of eating it is cutting the top of the wheel and scooping into it (the greatest party trick; best if you have friends). Uplands hasn’t made Rush Creek the past few of years, Villegas says: they only do so when the milk is where they want it in terms of richness. Take advantage now. (Villegas said they had six wheels of Rush Creek when I spoke with him. A few more of the Vacherin (a wheel will set you back about $35-40; with the Rush Creek, you can go in smaller increments)).
They’re also carrying more mountain cheeses in the case. Those are the Gruyeres, Contés, Raclettes, and others that are best this time of year. Three to call out: a Gruyere aged by Rolf Beeler, a master affineur known affectionately as the Pope of Swiss cheese. A Basque country farmstead cheese modeled after Osso Irati (they’re calling it Brebier Fermier). And Challerhocker, a wonderful, rich, nutty, washed-rind cheese.
Don’t wait. Get your cheese on now.
[A final note: Molto Formaggio brings in Vacherin Mont d’Or every year, but only on pre-order and they’re already sold out. Put those orders in Oct/Nov. They usually bring in 40-60 in two shipments. (And, for the record, who are you people who snapped up those wheels? I want to party at your house!)]