Highlights from the California Artisan Cheese Festival 2016

Recently I had the good fortune to attend one of the most entertaining events in this business: Petaluma’s annual “California Cheesin'” event, part of the annual California Artisan Cheese Festival, now in its 10th year.

This highlight offers regional (northern California) restaurants plus purveyors of wine, beer, and cider — and let’s you go to town on dozens of cheese-inspired small bites. Some two dozen restaurants and cheesemakers were on hand this evening along with another 20 or so beverage companies. The idea: Taste through everything and pronounce a winner amongst the restaurants at the end of the night, following the visitors’ votes. (Beverage companies don’t get prizes, sadly.)

My favorite bites came from Carneros Bistro, whose Red Hawk arancini are perennial festival winners; The Girl and The Fig’s ricotta sorbet mini-cones; and Rustic at Francis Ford Coppola Winery’s asparagus and morel risotto. But the restaurant that got my vote was from a food truck outfit called Croques & Toques, whose truffled cheese croquette as a delightfully sharp and savory dish. (Though one other voter wondered whether it was cheating to use truffles!)

On the wine and beer side, a number of standouts: Estate 1856’s Petit Verdot was fragrant and lively; Goldschmidt Vineyards Fidelity Zinfandel was racy with green olive overtones; and the soft Pinot Noir from Fogline Vineyards was an easy sipper. Favorite wine, however, had to go to Pennyroyal Farm and its lightly earthy Pinot Noir — I’ve passed this place many times en route to Mendocino and never even knew they produced wine at all.

Best beer: Lagunitas Equinox, a pale oat ale, offering the best of two distinctly different worlds of brewing.

As always, it was a fantastic event on a beautiful evening in Petaluma. I look forward to checking it out again in 2017!

Review: Matthews 1812 House Bourbon Desserts

blondiesBourbon’s not just for drinking — the good folks at Matthews 1812 House are putting it to good use in all manner of desserts.

Recently we received some delights from the company, all made with an infusion of bourbon. The Bourbon Blondie Bar ($32) is easily the highlight — a very rich, very dense blondie infused with Kentucky bourbon. You can taste the rich vanilla notes of the bourbon — though it is isn’t overpowering — though a little of this dessert goes a long way. It was so decadent that after a week we had barely finished a third of the 28 oz. blondie brick. It’d be a great choice for entertaining, though.

We also received Matthews 1812’s Chocolate Bourbon Sauce ($14.50)and Caramel Bourbon Sauce ($13.50), both of which can be used as toppers for what-have-you on your dessert tray. Both are quite dense and are more akin to pastes than sauces or syrups, so you might need to warm them before serving. Again, both are the real deal, and the subtle kick of whiskey gives them a slight edge you won’t find in a can of Hershey’s.

The company has even more whiskey-infused products on tap. Give them all a spin!

1812house.com

Review: GourmetGiftBaskets “Happy Hour” Cheesecake Sampler

Happy-Hour-Sampler-Whole-Cheesecake_largeBooze and dessert have always had a special relationship, and the folks at GourmetGiftBaskets are taking it one step further by baking bar delights straight into their “Happy Hour” Cheesecake Sampler. It’s a little off the beaten path for Drinkhacker to review cheesecake, but I feel the cocktail connection is strong enough for a discriminating drinker to appreciate.

We recently received a sampler with a variety of cheesecake flavors, including Amaretto, Irish Coffee, Margarita, and Strawberry Margarita varieties — at least in the version I received. All were good, though the lime character of the two Margarita flavors is quite understated. I wouldn’t have thought they were particularly citrus if I wasn’t told they were supposed to be. The Irish coffee flavor has a bit of a peanut butter character (and consistency) to it, but the Amaretto is pure almond from start to finish. All told, they’re all very good (though perhaps a touch dry) — but if I had to pick one, I’d go for the flavor-packed Amaretto.

Note: While there is alcohol in the recipes for the cheesecakes, the cooked and finished products contain virtually none (if any at all), so be sure to bring your own.

B+ / $35 to $50 (depending on size) / gourmetgiftbaskets.com

Nocciolata Spread Meets Partida Tequila?

nocciolataTo the guy gal who said he would stop reading the site if I kept covering unrelated food items, hear me out.

Nocciolata — an Italian (and slightly creamier) version of Nutella — wants you to pair its chocolate/hazelnut spread with Partida Reposado tequila. And they sent us a bit of both to give this oddball pairing a whirl.

I won’t belabor the point: Gooey chocolate pairs pretty well with just about anything. Consider whiskey, rum, vodka, or your favorite liqueur, and it will pair well with Nocciolata. As for the Partida, it’s a nice match too, adding some peppery notes to the silky, decadent sweetness of the chocolate spread. The vanilla in the tequila is a great companion with the chocolate, too — though I doubt any quality reposado or anejo would fail you here.

If you’ve ever had a hot chocolate spiked with tequila, you know what you’re in for. Give it a go!

about $10 per 9.52 oz jar / nocciolatausa.com /  [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

Review: Clif Organic Trail Mix Bars

cotmb_ca

Sure, trail mix bars are a little out of our domain, but Clif really wanted to send these new bars made from organic ingredients for us to review, so we figured, why not? Think of them as bar snacks when you’re camping or are at the beach. They’ve got lots of nuts in them, just like that bowl on the bartop.

I guess it’s not that weird. We do write have a whole section devoted to bars after all, right?

Some quick thoughts on 7 flavors follow.

Clif Organic Trail Mix Bar Dark Chocolate Cherry Almond – A bit high on the cherry component, but it’s got a nice gooey chocolate backing that makes it fun to nosh on. B+

Clif Organic Trail Mix Bar Dark Chocolate Pomegranate Raspberry – A drier bar with a heavier nut element than you’d expect from the ingredient list, but still easy to munch. B

Clif Organic Trail Mix Bar Wild Blueberry Almond – The name says it all. Juicy blueberry paired with crisp, nutty almond. Good combo, with clear blueberry notes in a slightly drier, slightly sticky bar. Very nutty finish. B+

Clif Organic Trail Mix Bar Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter – Not as delightful as you’re expecting, a very firm and crumbly bar that’s more peanut brittle than peanut butter. Even the chocolate isn’t as compelling here. Bummer. B-

Clif Organic Trail Mix Bar Cranberry Almond – Quite boring. Very tough to gnaw through, with an overwhelming focus on tough almonds. C+

Clif Organic Trail Mix Bar Coconut Almond Peanut – An indistinctly nutty bar, with musty coconut overtones. Distinctly lacking in flavor, it’s the only bar in the bunch I didn’t finish. C-

Clif Organic Trail Mix Bar Dark Chocolate Almond Sea Salt – Saving my favorite for last, which shouldn’t be a surprise since this is the most candy bar-like of the bunch. Plenty of chocolate here, and the nuts take on a nougat character, which is fun. You get a nice bite from the salt, too. A-

each about $2 / clifbar.com [BUY THEM HERE]

Pairing the Sixth Taste: Fat

Bitter. Salty. Sour. Sweet. More recently, umami. The tastes science has blessed. This week researchers branched out, publishing findings in Flavour: Fat is the sixth taste. (Not to be confused with the Sixth Sense, which flattens substantially once the surprise is over.)

Chefs and bartenders beat science to the bench — we’ve seen a resurgence of fat in high mixology and haute cuisine, luxuriating in bacon fat and coconut oil melted into cocktails; of pig’s tails and chicken skin pressure-cooked to crispy perfection. Remember: the right alcohol offers counterpoint to every fatty extravagance.

Charleston chef Sean Brock, featured on the PBS series The Mind of a Chef, captures this essence in an episode exulting the best of southern indulgence when he wraps up with the steps to make a Rattlesnake cocktail, a “boozy slushie” of bourbon, lemon, absinthe, egg white, and ice. It’s the edge to rejuvenate the palate.

The next time you pull a bottle off the shelf or pour a brew into a glass, consider the fat to accompany it. A few suggestions:

  • Cajun popcorn (popped on a stovetop, served heavy on the butter and Old Bay) – ideal to accompany an Imperial IPA. (Ballast Point’s Grapefruit Sculpin is my early forerunner for favorite IPA of the year.)
  • Dark chocolate with caramel and black sea salt – more than just the fat in the chocolate and caramel, the salt adds is an extra note against the bracing glory of an Islay or other heavily peated Scotch. (Not to knock Scotland, but India’s Amrut Cask Strength Peated Single Malt is the top choice on my shelf right now.)
  • Purple Haze or other herbal goat cheese topped with lemon curd – sweet, tart and leaves a luxurious film on the tongue, which exaggerates the jammy notes and tannins in a good port. (I’m fond of Bogle Petite Sirah Port as an accessible, affordable dram.)

What are your favorite sixth taste pairings?

When J. Lohr Chardonnay Met Lindt Chocolates

J. Lohr Estates Riverstone ChardonnayChocolate and wine are a classic match — but which chocolate, and which wine? Chocolatier Lindt and California winemaker J. Lohr have been working on figuring that out, and they think they have it down, now.

Among the half-dozen pairings they have devised, the duo sent this one for me to try out for myself: 2013 J. Lohr Chardonnay Riverstone Arroyo Seco Monterey paired with Lindt Excellence Dark Chocolate with Pineapple.

At first I didn’t think these two were going to pair well together. Chardonnay is not a natural companion with chocolate, but many white wines do feature tropical notes that might pair well with pineapple. The J. Lohr, however is a more traditional California style Chardonnay, with notes focused on vanilla, wood, and fresh apples, with very little tropical character to it at all. But surprisingly the wine does do an admirable job of really enhancing the pineapple in the chocolate. I am not sure if it’s the acid and fruit in the wine, or merely the presence of a liquid to help separate the chocolate from the fruit embedded in it, but I did find the pineapple and other citrus notes were much more powerful — and longer-lasting on the finish — when taken together with the Chardonnay. Neat trick. Give it a whirl.