The holiday season brings out the sort of specialty cheeses one rarely finds during spring or summer, and this time of year, all of my favorite cheeses have something to do with bark, booze, or flames.
It's the season of Vacherin Mont d'Or and its American cousin, Rush Creek Reserve - two bark-bound cheeses that appear only in winter. Both are best heated gently, then turned into plunge pools for new potatoes. Then there are boozy winter finds, like Grand Marnier-infused Brie and craggy Pecorino packed in whiskey-soaked barley. The latter looks and tastes like an adult sticky bun. And finally, for a man gift that's better than cologne, there's Tomme Brûlée - a grapefruit-sized wheel of sheep's milk that's been torched, giving it a tarnished appearance and killer burnt-sugar overtones.
If you want to create a special cheese board that conjures winter campfires in the absence of snow or woods, try picking one hunk from each of these categories. Or, pluck just one and pair it with a bottle of something sexy for a memorable host or hostess gift.
Here is a list of rustic treasures to warm you through Christmas and into the new year.
You might wonder how anyone would conceive of wrapping spruce bark around cheese, but the answer is simple: Bark is to a gooey wheel what an embroidery hoop is to needlepoint. The wooden band literally holds these fragile cheeses intact, and there's an added bonus: Spruce bark imbues the rind with woodsy flavor.
Pair these creamy dreamies with Belgian ales, hoppy beers, bubbly, or savory white wines.
Rush Creek Reserve: Award-winning cheesemaker Andy Hatch uses autumn milk from his herd at Uplands Cheese Co. in Dodgeville, Wis., to produce this outstanding winter temptress. Serve it like dip, with celery and toasted baguette rounds, then cut the remains into quarters and gnaw the spruce bark as you would ribs.
Vacherin Mont d'Or: Vacherin is so goopy it needs a balsa-wood box to contain it. Serve this seasonal cheese from Switzerland with new potatoes and cornichons, or give it with a bottle of Deus Brut des Flandres, a Belgian strong ale. To serve, simply peel back the rind and dip or scoop. It's best at room temperature or heated in foil (box and all) at 250 degrees F. for 20 to 30 minutes, or just until warm.
Tomme de Pyrénées A he-man-sized belt of bark girds this hefty wheel - a perfect choice if you want just a sliver (the other cheeses in this category are sold whole) or if you favor a fudgy hunk with dialed-back funk. Tomme de Pyrénées, from Basque country, tastes like spring onions and cream.
The earliest booze-infused cheeses hark back to monks who discovered, centuries ago, that washing cheese with beer or spirits encouraged beefy flavors to develop, a taste they yearned for given their simple, meatless diets. Then along came the Italians, who began hiding cheese wheels in barrels of wine when the tax man came around, leading to Ubriaco cheese (literally "drunken" cheese) and other variations.
Drunken cheeses pair well with festive holiday ales and hefty wines.
Grand Marnier Coupe: Forget buying ordinary Brie. This one, infused with Grand Marnier, is the ultimate Creamsicle. Molten and boozy, it's the cheese everyone at the party will devour first. Pair it with sparkling wine, and try serving it with cranberry bread and candied orange peel.
Epoisses: Give a wheel of Epoisses with a bottle of marc (barrel-aged grappa from Burgundy) and you've just earned your bonus. Ripe and funky Epoisses also pairs well with rich whites, like Meursault, or a bottle of Trappist ale.
Testun Malto d'Orzo: Here's another easy pairing partner: This sturdy mixed-milk cheese from Piedmont is packed in whiskey-soaked barley malt. Its sweet, peaty notes make it a no-brainer after dinner. Set out your snifters and lay bare your liquor cabinet. If you can't find this, look for Testun al Barolo, packed in grape must.
Rogue River Blue: From Oregon, this raw-milk blue is only made between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. Grape leaves soaked in local pear brandy contribute sweet complexity, making even the blue-cheese novice caterwaul - this is boozy, bluesy joy at its finest. Pair with roasted chestnuts and barley wine.
So many smoked cheeses are one-note; good ones are subtle enough to allow you to taste the dairy. If you have a smoky lover on your list, give him or her one of these treats along with cured meat, like Surryano ham or smoked Mangalitsa (air-cured ham from a woolly pig), and a bottle of Scotch or smoked beer. Include plenty of olives, nuts, or dark chocolate in the mix to avoid overkill.
Tomme Brûlée: This blackened sheep's-milk cheese from southern France should be your substitute for coal in this year's stocking. Pick up a wheel and carve off hunks all season (it keeps well) and try serving it with a different spirit every night, from ice wine to bourbon to pinot noir. The taste is sweet, nutty, and lightly smoky.
Fiore Sardo: The recipe for this craggy sheep's-milk cheese dates to the Bronze Age, making it an excellent grandma cheese. Dry and salty with just a wisp of smoke, it's perfect for grating over pasta or nibbling alongside martinis and Marcona almonds. Give it with a nice bottle of gin, bourbon, or gewürztraminer.
Smoked Birchrun Blue: Talula's Garden smokes this local blue and sells it next door at their cheese counter in the Daily, on Washington Square. What a treat to nibble Sue Miller's gorgeous raw-milk blue smoked over apple wood. If you can't find it, seek out Rogue Smokey Blue, from Oregon. Pair either with nuts, candied bacon, and shots of real maple syrup.
Look for these selections at area cheese counters Claudio's, Talula's Daily, Downtown Cheese, Salumeria, Wedge and Fig, Di Bruno Bros., Whole Foods, and Wegmans.