I tasted this cheese two days ago at a dinner party with former cheese colleagues and it stopped us all short. It's always killer, but this time was different.
No better excuse than this week's column, I thought, to investigate why. I called Cowgirl Creamery and spoke with Vivian Straus, of the Straus Family Creamery, from which the milk comes exclusively for the making of Red Hawk. It's her family's milk, actually, that makes Red Hawk one of the best cheeses in the country at any time of the year, period.
I explained the reason for my inquiry, and was left with a familiar sentiment: It's pretty elusive stuff, cheesemaking.
I asked Vivian what it could be about this particular wheel I'd tasted, and she told me much of what I already know about the cheese. It's made with the certified organic milk from her family's creamery. It's the b-linen bacteria that makes the cheese what it is. It's made on a small(ish) scale, with great attention paid to detail, quality, and flavor. Anyone would know that just by tasting it.
But I didn't know that it was by mistake that this award-winner came about, as those b-linen bacteria are naturally occurring in their Pt. Reyes, California location. They were able to cultivate those ambient bacteria by washing the rind of their other famous cheese, the triple creme pleaser Mt. Tam, and letting the bacteria develop on its own. While most cheesemakers have to purchase the b-linen culture — and there's nothing wrong with that — Cowgirl doesn't need to.
Thus spawned Red Hawk, the only triple creme washed rind that I know of.
But still, I prodded. The make process doesn't really explain why that wheel was so much more epiphanal than others I've tasted in the past. And over the years, I've probably tasted this cheese dozens, if not hundreds, of times.
We rewound a bit, imagining that the cheese was made about six weeks ago, in the middle of November. We speculated that perhpas it was the very beginning of when the cows are off pasture, inside for the winter, and that the change in their diet altered the character of the milk — milk does tend to be more fatty and rich (as if this triple creme needs more of those two things).
Vivian concluded that sometimes the cheese "is just different in the winter," which to me still offered no explanation for why that 8-ounce wheels left a gaggle of cheese lovers in awe just two nights ago. I've eaten the cheese plenty of times during the winter. For all I know, I've tasted it last year, the year before, and the year before on the exact day I tasted it this year. Its milkiness was sweeter and more pervasive, and the wheel itself was perfectly ripe, with a cream-cheesey quality at its center and an oozing, runny creamline towards the rind. It may have just been the wheel, or the exact hour or temperature that we consumed the cheese. Or, for all I know, the company I was in.
I suppose in the end I'm drawn in by the romanticism of it all, the intangible explanation (or non-explanation) for what makes something better one day and not the next. And so for now, I'll be content with the unknown, the musings, and the inexplicable, and will accept that even the people behind a particular cheese sometimes can't quite understand it.
Nora Singley is an avid lover of cheese, and for some time she was a Cheesemonger and the Director of Education at Murray's Cheese Shop in New York City. She is currently an assistant chef on The Martha Stewart Show.
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(Image: Cowgirl Creamery)