By Justin Dolezal, Foodable Contributor
Seasonality in menus is a trend that has been growing in the restaurant industry for a while, and for good reason. The push against having a consistent, concrete set of menu items has created an exciting new dining world, in which restaurants have embraced the challenge of tailoring their menus to whatever tastes best at that moment. And while it is easy to think of seasonality primarily in terms of produce, exploring what's in season in other categories and using that to your advantage can give your restaurant an edge. Case in point: cheese. While many restaurants are quick to pick up fresh ramps in the spring or tomatoes in the summer, these same restaurants will maintain a consistent cheese board year round. This is a shame, as not all cheese is created equal, and certain varieties will be at their peaks at different times of the year.
Though it may not feel like it in most of the country, the end of winter is imminent. And though warm, sunny springtime weather may still be a few weeks away, your restaurant can get a jump on the competition by looking for the following styles of cheese and highlighting them on your cheese boards.
The Winter Holdover: Vacherin Style
The first step in understanding cheese seasonality is to see cheese as an agricultural product. Historically, many cheeses that are world famous today were first produced in order to take advantage of the milking schedules of the animals that produced the cheese.
Vacherin, a style popular in both Switzerland and France, is one such cheese. Cows that produce famed Alpine style cheeses like Comte and Appenzeller are brought down from their mountain pastures in the winter, and their milk output decreases to the point that firm cheeses like Comte cannot be made (the lack of mountain grasses that contribute so much to these firm cheeses flavors is also an obvious issue). The solution: Vacherin. These soft, irresistibly gooey washed rind cheeses are made in small disks which are wrapped in spruce bark. When ready to be served, the cheese is removed from its packaging and the top rind is removed, with the soft interior eaten like fondue. Though classic French examples are made with raw milk, thermalized or pasteurized versions can be found in the U.S., and are a must for the adventurous cheese eater.
Vacherin cheeses are produced and sold between fall and the spring. Though thermalized and pasteurized Swiss examples can be found, restauranteurs would do better to serve some of the phenomenal, raw-milk examples being produced in America. Uplands Cheese Company in Wisconsin produces Rush Creek Reserve, a raw milk version of the French classic, for a limited amount of time each fall. Similarly, Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont annually produces Winnimere, an amped up version of their beloved spruce-wrapped Harbison, each winter. Though both of these cheeses aren't easy to come by, versions tasted in the spring will have had slightly more time to mature, and will possess fully the rich, funky complexity that cheese lovers die for.
The Lighter Side: Springtime Chevre
While cows must be moved inside to produce winter milk, the lactation cycle of goats keeps them from producing winter milk altogether. And while modern food technology, including the use of frozen curds, has made winter fresh goat cheeses a possibility, they lack the nuance and complexity that makes fresh chevre so great. Luckily, fresh milk chevres start to become available around April, and they're a must for any spring cheese plate. Classic French examples are a great starting point. Selles-sur-Cher is just one of several delightful Loire Valley goat cheeses that you can be proud to serve, and though the pasteurized versions that get to America lack some of the complexity of their French counterparts, they still retain the fluffy consistency and slightly sweet and tangy flavors that make them perfect for pairing with light fruits or dry white wines (pair with wine from the Loire for a double dose of terroir goodness).
As with Vacherin styles, fantastic American interpretations of French goat cheeses exist, and are also worth seeking out. Southern Indiana's Capriole Farms has been at the forefront of American goat cheese making since its birth, and their Wabash Cannonball or Sofia both make exquisite additions to any plate.
While it makes sense to approach seasonal cheese seeking by looking for cheeses that are fresh in the spring, don't forget to consider aged cheeses in the equation. The previously mentioned Alpine styles, such as Comte, Gruyere, and Beaufort, are all made during the summer, when cows are able to graze on wild mountain grasses and flowers, all of which contribute to the cheese's flavor profile. But like a fine wine, these cheeses need time to reach their ideal state. Cheeses made the previous summer are starting to reach their peak maturity in spring, and their funky, fruity, savory flavors make them crowd favorites.
Pair them with a light, fluffy goat, and a rich Vacherin, and you'll have a spring cheese plate that will make your customers swoon, at least until the summer seasonal cheeses arrive.