I’m no expert in the world of cheese. Attempting to acquire the pallet of a cheese gourmand is a daunting and expensive task, which is why many of us usually opt for our usual Cracker Barrel’s and tiny logs of $3 goat cheese instead of venturing into the unknown, unpasteurized world out there. These varieties are certainly delicious, but they hardly represent the true nature of most cheeses: stinky, strong, and exquisite.
I started my journey as most people do: at the supermarket. Ideally I would have driven 40 miles to the nearest dairy farm, but as a matter of curiosity I wanted to see what the most exotic variety stocked at the grocery behemoth down the road was. What I found was Port Salut.
Nestled between the Stilton and Muenster, this semi-soft cheese presented an orange rind and a French flag on the label, boasting its imported status among the relatively local Wisconsin varieties. I quickly paid for it, took it home, removed its airtight plastic binding, and just stared at it. It resembled Gouda based on its size and color, but the inside glistened and smeared my cheese knife almost like soft brie. Normally I would research my new wedge extensively, trying to pair it with whatever wine or fruit I had on hand, obsessing over its nuances before I even tried it. This time, however, I was blind. I tasted it plain, not wanting to spoil it with expectations.
I was instantly hooked.
It’s moments like this when you really question the word “cheesy”. This cheese was creamy and decadent to be sure, but exhibits none of the nutty sweetness and gooeyness of our usual varieties that wear the name. It’s smooth like a brie or Neufchatel-type cheese, but carries and acidic, tart aftertaste that reminded me a lot of Gorgonzola. It was such a unique pairing of the innocent soft texture, and the addictive briny taste it left on the tongue.
Smitten with my selection, but also realizing I probably shouldn’t eat the entirety of this cheese on its own (or in one sitting), it was time for a little research before I started cooking. Thank you to the lovely Wikipedia and www.cheese.com for this information.
- This cheese is named after the Notre Dame du Port du Salut in Entrammes, France. It was originally made by Trappist monks who fled there from Paris during the French Revolution to avoid persecution.
- Today this cheese comes from Brittany, in the Loire Valley in France.
- It is one of the few cheeses that it is recommended to be served with red wine (ideally Burgundy or Pinot Noir).
- It is made from pasteurized cow’s milk.
- It packs a hefty 72.7% fat content (yikes!)
Now it’s time to eat! It seemed sacrilegious to spread Port Salut, with all its political history, over a Ritz cracker. The lovely people at http://www.Cheese.com recommended this as a companion to broccoli and asparagus, so I decided to make crostini.
RECIPE: Balsamic Asparagus Crostini
First, I thinly sliced some fresh whole grain bread and spread a good amount of cheese over it. I then popped it into the toaster oven for about 5 minutes, while I toasted a few asparagus spears (if you have a gas range, just wrap them in foil and throw them on the fire for a few minutes). I chopped the lightly charred asparagus and lay the pieces on top of the melted cheese, drizzled them with balsamic vinegar, and added a pinch of freshly ground sea salt and pepper.
The crunch of the bread was a perfect contrast to the creaminess of the Port Salut. Asparagus was a perfect choice, snappy and just a little burnt, enhancing the French-ness of the cheese adding some darkness to the sweet balsamic vinegar. One thing changed though, and that was the acid of the cheese. Just like many blue cheese, Port Salut loses a bit of its tang when it is melted. It was certainly there, and added a distinct flavor to the crostini, but it wasn’t the same cheese I puzzled over before. This got me thinking. This cheese would actually be a great addition to a Panini or sandwiches, because it would offer an unusual bite without overpowering the other ingredients.
This morning, remembering the intriguing character of this cheese, I decided to try it in a sweeter, breakfast preparation. I used the same bread as yesterday’s crostini but I wanted the briny aftertaste, so I didn’t melt the cheese onto the toasts. After toasting the bread, I spread a generous layer onto the two slices and topped them in two different ways.
On one I added fresh strawberry slices, and drizzled honey on the other. I was a little apprehensive about adding sweetness to a cheese that thrived as a salty, savory masterpiece. In general, it felt so wrong to experiment with something that tasted so good on its own, unadorned by other bold flavors that masked the subtlety of this creamy delight…But this will definitely be my breakfast until all my delicious Port Salut is gone. The savory undertone of this cheese is actually enhanced by the freshness of the strawberries, and the warm, woody flavor of honey. Since I didn’t melt the cheese, the pungent aftertaste was still there, but didn’t ruin the other flavors at all.
These were simple recipes that by no means pushed the boundaries on the cheese world. But honestly, this cheese doesn’t need it. I have a lot of Port Salut left, and I’m sure I’ll experiment a little more (maybe even combine the strawberry and balsamic, as many culinary pundits are encouraging), but this stuff is just too good on its own to slather other flavors on top of it. Most likely this week I will just sit on my back porch with a glass of Pinot Noir, Port Salut crostini, and ponder all the cheese adventures to come!