Rob’s Top Picks from the Cheese Festival

Every two years, Slow Food’s hometown of Bra, Italy, in the region of Piemonte, holds its annual cheese festival, and purveyors and buyers of fine cheese flock from all over Europe to come and taste and buy. Back in ’99, I got a call from a friend asking me if I’d like to come and teach some classes there on American farmhouse cheeses. I said yes and they put me up in a charming apartment in the old town for a week. There, I got to know the wonderful staff of Slow Food, and especially the visionary founder Carlo Petrini.

Two years later, I was out for a morning run in downtown Manhattan where I live and work when the planes struck the towers and I watched as the terrible events unfolded from a few blocks away. When it was clear the hospital in my neighborhood was not going to see much action, and did not need my help, I flew to Italy to help in the first-ever American cheese booth. The day of the opening ceremonies the few of us who’d made the trip over were sitting in the front row of the town square as the officials gave their opening ceremony speeches. We were introduced in Italian and when we turned around we saw the crowd of a thousand standing and giving us an ovation simply because we were the Americans and had the world on our side. The greatest tragedy of the decade is that this intense feeling of goodwill did not survive.

Since the Wall Street Journal presented our dispatch from the festival — our top 5 cheese picks (and trust me – you don’t want to miss ‘em) — I instead present my top 5 moments from Cheese:

-Visiting with Carlo Petrini, who bought us a lunch of tasty bombette, little pork snacks from Puglia and arranged for us to visit the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo.

-Catching up with old friends Zoltan Bogathy, who opened Culinaris in Budapest many years ago; Mama Gisella, my self-proclaimed Italian Mamma, who took me around Italy when I knew no one and knew little about Italian cheese.

-Seeing Murray’s alums Zoe at Jasper Hill and Tom and Staci at Rogue Creamery in Oregon, and the founding mothers of cheese like Allison Hooper and Mary Keehne.

-Eating Favorites: the fabulous vitello tonnato at Floris in Turin; the Nebbiolo Risotto at Agrifoglio, also in Turin; the delicious gianduja gelato at Riverno; and the feast celebrating the american cheesemakers at the fabulous Ca’ del Re at Castello di Verduno, where we’d had such a memorable meal six years earlier.

-The American Cheese booth! We were there with Vermont Butter and Cheese Creamery, Cypress Grove, Rogue Creamery, the Cellars at Jasper Hill, Uplands Cheese Co. and Cowgirl Creamery.

Prairie Breeze Mac and Cheese

Prairie Breeze Macaroni and Cheese   Serves 12

(Adapted from Martha Stewart’s recipe)

It’s often said that a dish is only as good as its ingredients, and that’s never more true than when you’re making something simple like mac and cheese.

Our newest cheddar, Prairie Breeze, is loaded with flavor, hitting just the right balance of sweet & sharp. It also melts like a dream, which makes it a great choice for cooking. This recipe makes enough to serve a crowd and calls for a hefty helping of cheese – we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Ingredients

  • 6 generous slices rustic white bread, crusts removed, torn into 1/4- to 1/2-inch pieces
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, additional for greasing baking dish
  • 5 3/4 cups milk
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg (freshly grated is best, if available)
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 4 1/2 cups (about 18 ounces) grated Prairie Breeze cheddar
  • 2 cups (about 8 ounces) grated Gruyere
  • 1 pound elbow macaroni (or other pasta shape like Rustichella Trenne)

Method

1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 3-quart casserole dish; set aside. Place bread pieces in a medium bowl. In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons butter. Pour butter into the bowl with bread, and toss. Set the breadcrumbs aside. In a medium saucepan set over medium heat, heat milk. Melt remaining 6 tablespoons butter in a high-sided skillet over medium heat. When butter bubbles, add flour. Cook, stirring constantly, 1 minute.

2. Slowly pour hot milk into flour-butter mixture while whisking. Continue cooking, whisking constantly, until the mixture bubbles and becomes thick.

3. Remove the pan from the heat. Stir in salt, nutmeg, black pepper, cayenne pepper, mustard, 3 cups cheddar, and 1 1/2 cups Gruyere. Set cheese sauce aside.

4. Cook macaroni following manufacturer’s instructions, but cook 2 to 3 fewer minutes than instructions on box, until outside of pasta is cooked and inside is underdone as it will continue to cook in the oven. Transfer the macaroni to colander and rinse under cold water, making sure to drain well to avoid watery mac and cheese! Stir macaroni into the reserved cheese sauce.

5. Pour the mixture into the prepared casserole dish. Sprinkle remaining 1 1/2 cups cheddar and 1/2 cup Gruyere; scatter breadcrumbs over the top. If you like, top with a sprinkle of additional cayenne, black pepper or sweet paprika for an extra kick. Bake until bubbling and browned on top, about 30 minutes. Transfer dish to a wire rack to cool for 5 minutes before serving. Bon Appetit!