By Caitlin Miller
Zingerman’s: you just can’t stay mad at it for too long, can you? It’s like an adorable puppy that you love unconditionally, even if it occasionally pees on your carpet.
What I mean to say is, Zingerman’s has redeemed itself in the huge sort of way that thoroughly erases all memory of bland grilled cheeses.
My lovely editor Emma and I had had Zingerman’s Hard Cider & Cheese Tasting on the books for a while. After a long day of Thursday classes and a much-needed nap, I hopped on my bike and headed down to Zingerman’s snazzy new events space, located in the beautiful building once occupied by Eve. Surrounded by exposed brick, inlaid archways, and rustic finishes basking in the soft glow of several overhead lamps, I felt as though I had been teleported to Williamsburg. In a way that only it can, Zingerman’s made the space feel simultaneously elegant and inviting, chic and relaxed. I walked inside and was immediately greeted by two extremely friendly Zing employees who offered me a yummy apple-vinegar spritzer. Drink in hand, I took my seat at one of three long tables decked in white linens and a GLORIOUS looking cheese plate for each guest. I couldn’t contain my smile. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.
Zingerman’s brought their A-game for the Hard Cider & Cheese Tasting. I had been to an event at their Creamery my freshman year that wasn’t so much a cheese tasting as a five-course meal comprising such light fare as squash burrata and goat cheese cake: after that night, I never wanted to look at another piece of cheese in my life. Thankfully, this latest event was more along the lines of a traditional tasting. After telling us about his prolonged experience with sickness, our affable host Chad opened with: “I was almost dead and I thought, if I’m well again, I’m getting into cheese. I love cheese. I’m obsessed with cheese.” Chad also believes cheese to be a miracle. Hi, are you reading my mind? He just recently returned from a journey through England, Ireland, and France that can only described as the Homeric cheesequest of my dreams. Chad not only met premier cheesemakers whose families have been in the cheese biz for so long it practically flows in their veins, he got to participate in the process by making the good stuff himself. And I’m not talking about cooking up sketchy tubwater cheese in a basement in Manchester, but the real deal – Stilton Blue, baby, the British godfather of the variety.
Chad then proceeded to bring it on another level with his instructions on cheese consumption. Like a Jedi he informed us it is not enough to taste the cheese; you must become one with the cheese by completely smushing it between your fingers to feel its texture (somewhere, a Frenchman is crying). Did you know that those “crunchies” in certain cheeses, mainly cheddars, are actually amino acids? James Joyce famously said cheese is the corpse of milk – well excuse you James Joyce, Chad is here to tell you that cheese is alive and delicious and gets more and more protein-rich as it ages. You are literally crunching up proteins as you eat the cheese. Fifty gold stars for Chad and his Obi-Wan-level cheese wisdom.
But, onto the cheese. We worked our way through a Wisconsin cheddar, French Camembert, Swiss Nufenen, a goat cheese from Zingerman’s own creamery, and, lastly, an extremely pungent blue cheese. The standouts for me were the Wisconsin cheddar (my witty, eloquent notes: “sooooooooooo good”) and the spectacular alpine Nufenen, a creamy but sharp cow’s milk cheese the extras of which Emma and I actually stuffed into our pockets on our way out the door.
Here’s the thing: I’m a bit of a cheese purist. I like my mozzarella plain and my grilled cheeses undecorated. But the most important takeaway I learned at the Hard Cider & Cheese tasting is that pairing a cheese with a drink – in this case, cider – can make an enormous difference. For instance, I’ve never been a huge fan of blue cheese: to be more specific, the smell of Gorgonzola makes me physically sick. But – and this was not the cider talking – when the blue cheese was paired with the dessert cider, I was actually able to palate its harsh flavor and, to my great surprise, I enjoyed it! And this wasn’t just a question of making otherwise revolting cheeses taste sweet. The Nufenen also dramatically improved its paired cider, and vice versa: the cheese sweetened the earthy drink, and was in turn softened by the cider. When something tastes so good by itself, it is easy to willfully resist the belief that an added component can make it even more delicious. In the case of cheese and hard cider, however, there can be no question of this fact: so honor the miracle of cheese with a cider and cheese tasting of your own, and celebrate the coming of winter with the perfect pairing of cheese and Michigan’s favorite fall drink.