Now that spring is ineluctably advancing upon us, it's time to celebrate the death of winter, another season that failed to extinguish our fragile civilization. And what better way to welcome the return of life to earth's bare surface—and to exhibit our contempt for winter's failing, icy, gray grasp—than with cheese wrapped in the earth's green and leafy bounty? Alright, I realize that maybe wild, frenzied, nude dancing in sylvan glades or a maypole or something might be a better celebration, but I'm doing what I can with cheese, here.
Chestnut Leaves, Sassafras, Cabbage, Oh My!
Cheeses have probably been wrapped in leaves as long as cheese has been made. The wrapping offers a consistently moist, protected environment for the cheese to mature in, and the leaves can lend their own flavor to the cheese.
Leaf-wrapped cheeses tend to be young, tender cheeses, which, when ripe, are ideally soft, buttery, and yielding. The leaves often provide a measure of the cheese's ripeness: as they dry out and turn yellow or brown, the cheese is at its peak of ripeness. Here're a few that are easy to find and delicious.
Banon is a French cow's milk cheese from Provence. It's wrapped in chestnut leaves which have been briefly soaked in brandy or marc. Banon is usually mild and creamy, with nutty, bitter notes from the chestnut leaves. If you like Banon, it's worth checking out its American cousin, O'Banon, produced by Capriole Dairy. This version is slightly larger than the French original, made with goat's milk, and its chestnut leaf wrapping is soaked in bourbon, giving it an inimitable, raw, American edge.
St. Pat, Cowgirl Creamery
St. Pat, by Cowgirl Creamery, is a cheese I'm intimately familiar with. It's wrapped in stinging nettles which have been frozen to remove the sting, giving is a powdery grey-green appearance and artichoke and river-stone notes. The nettles are incorporated into the cheeses rind and so are meant to be eaten, unlike the coverings on many of these other cheeses. St. Pat is a whole-milk cheese, and so is less rich than Cowgirl's flagship Mt. Tam and Redhawk cheeses, which are triple-creams, with a firm paste and grassy aromas.
Hoja Santa Goat Cheese, Mozzarella Company
Paula Lampert's offering to the world of leaf-wrapped cheeses is the uniquely Southwestern Hoja Santa, named after the leaf it is wrapped in. The Hoja Santa plant, also known as yerba santa or rootbeer plant, is used in traditional Mexican cooking. It has aromas of root beer, licorice, and black pepper, in large part because of a high concentration of safrole, the characteristic odor chemical of sassafras. The young goat cheese, wrapped in these aromatic leaves, becomes subtly sweet and spicy, with a crumbly paste and pale, thin rind.
Robiola, an Italian soft-ripened cheese made with the mixed milk of cows, goats, and sometimes sheep, is well-known for it's mild-but-funky flavor, square-shape, and "ruddy" appearance. Less known but more interesting, perhaps, is Robiola Incavolata (lit. "in-cabbaged"), a Robiola which is wrapped in cabbage leaves when just-formed. The cabbage leaves (perhaps luckily) don't impart any flavor to the cheese, but the thick, rubbery greenery helps the cheese maintain an extremely moist paste and thin rind. When the cabbage leaf yellows and the cheese is perfectly ripe, Robiola Incavolata is almost spreadable, with a rich, mushroomy, earthy aroma. If possible, look for pure goat's milk Robiola, but the mixed-milk can be delicious as well.
Jackson Farm Cheeses
Sally Jackson makes three different leaf-wrapped cheeses on her small farm in Oregon: goat's milk, Guernsey cow's milk, and sheep's milk. The cow- and sheep-milk cheeses are both matured in chestnut leaves, while the goat's milk cheese is aged in grape leaves, which enhance the natural tartness of the cheese. All of the Sally Jackson cheeses are relatively large for leaf-wrapped cheeses, weighing in at 2 to 3 pounds each, which gives them, during their long ripening, a chance to develop real nuance of flavor.
So pull out a leaf-wrapped cheese, sit out on the porch, and celebrate the return of greenery to the world. Are there any spring-themed cheeses I'm leaving out? Share them in the comments.