Lucky me. Just yesterday, I happened to bump into a friend with a supremely ripe wheel of Harbison, Jasper Hill Farm's newest cheese offering. I tasted the cheese for the first time about five months ago and have been meaning to write about it ever since, but there was something about this wheel in particular that made me realize that I couldn't wait one minute longer.
I held the small puck in my hand and could tell from the bulging interior, which gave way beneath the slight pressure of my fingertip, that the cheese was perfectly ready to go. When ripe, Harbison is irresistible. It's like an eggy, salty pudding, as easily devoured as an ice cream cone of your most favorite flavor.
Consider Harbison the bloomy-rinded version of Jasper Hill Farm's Winnimere. It's slightly smaller, and more mild, too, which lets its rich, buttery flavors shine. Truly, it tastes like buttered popcorn: slightly nutty, sweet like heavy cream, aromatic and toasty. The name honors Anne Harbison, considered to be the grandmother of Greensboro, the Vermont town home to Jasper Hill.
There's quite a bit to the cheese that makes it so unique. Most overtly, it's the spruce bark binding around the cheese that will catch your eye. Strips of bark are harvested from white spruce trees on Jasper Hill's property, then dried and boiled to become malleable enough to circle the cheese. The bark isn't just for show, either. This binding serves a unique technical and gustatory purpose: Without it, the oozing paste might split the delicate rind and escape. No good. The woodsy wrapping also gives a distinct smokey, earthy flavor that pleasantly tastes of pine. Again, quite similar to Winnimere.
Harbison is a bloomy rinded cheese, though. Winnimere, on the other hand, is a washed-rind cheese, which means that the rind is literally bathed. In this case, it's a Belgian-style lambic ale, which encourages the growth of a bacteria that makes the cheese taste ever so slightly funky, like munster or taleggio. Harbison tastes more mushroomy and earthy, like brie. It's downright, ridiculously tasty.
Best of all is its presentation. Because of the spruce wrapping, you can literally slice off the top and dip into the paste. The oozing texture is perfect for spreading, and you should treat the cheese as you would fondue: Break out the cured meats, cornichons, and bread. Or if you want to go for something a little different, some local cherries worked well, too.
Nora Singley used to be a cheesemonger and the Director of Education at Murray's Cheese Shop in New York City. She is currently a TV Chef on The Martha Stewart Show.
(Image: Nora Singley)