Dining al fresco: A cheese dish picnic perfect

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In the almost 10 years I worked at cheese counters in the Berkshires, the most fun I had was when Yo-Yo Ma came into the shop with some friends from Paris, who had flown in for Yo-Yo's daughter's wedding. It was early fall and I was still able to carry a broad range of cheeses before I had to be much more careful about such perishable inventory, as business would dramatically slow very soon.

It was not uncommon for Yo-Yo to be a customer, on one occasion even bringing in his cello, so as not to leave it in the car. We had built up a sort of familiarity and were on a first-name basis at least. But, even as truly thoughtful, generous, humble and as approachable as he is, he is still a formidable presence. He is, after all, Yo-Yo Ma, recognized as one of the greatest musicians to have ever lived.

After some brief introductory conversation, I began to bring out the best of our local cheeses, knowing full well virtually no one from France would ever turn down cheese when offered. I wanted to show them we had come a long way in our domestic cheese quality in a relatively short amount of time. We spent the next 15 minutes or so tasting and talking about cheese. At that point, Yo-Yo decided we needed wine with the cheese, so he bought a bottle of Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon and had me open it. As I'm sure you can imagine, everyone became more relaxed and animated as the wine flowed. I was having such a good time sipping wine and tasting cheese, I had to keep refocusing, do my job and cut and package their order properly.

Yo-Yo's Parisian friends were as amiable and engaging as Yo-Yo, business was otherwise quiet, the front door next to the cheese counter was open to the outside and it was a lovely early fall day in the middle of the afternoon in a classic New England town. Where else would I rather be?

At one point, while this was going on, the owner came in and looked, with a mixture of surprise and annoyance, at the open bottle of Caymus sitting on the cash register counter. It would be highly unusual to have a wine of that caliber randomly sitting out mostly empty. His expression changed when he saw with whom I was talking. Yo-Yo and his guests ended up buying more cheese than I ever sold to walk-in customers at once.

Although I have been fortunate enough to meet some lifelong friends during my time working the cheese counters, my everyday experiences were not always so exciting. It involved a great deal of cutting, wrapping and displaying cheese and keeping the area clean. Hauling around quantities of cheese, such as 80-pound Parmigiana Reggiano wheels, and constantly cutting cheese is hard physical labor. There were times that production demands and individual customer service demands were difficult to maintain simultaneously. I had to be able to answer questions and provide advice under many different circumstances.

If my time was somewhat flexible and could be devoted to possibly spending as much as a half-hour with an individual customer, I would often begin finding out about my customer with, "What sort of cheeses do you like?" With that simple question, there was a good chance a conversation would ensue. I would offer tastings as we journeyed through the joys of cheese.

I really enjoyed it when people were genuinely interested, and I had the time to devote to them. If I had less time, I might have shown them a selection of what was particularly good at that moment and in the style they might have been looking for, providing tastings when asked. If I was really pressed for time, I might have pointed them in the direction of a cheese that was out for tasting and said, "I really like that cheese." and hope they did, too.

My favorite season in the Berkshires is Tanglewood picnic season. I come darn close to serving more cheese on the lawn at Tanglewood than I do the rest of the year at home. I find it almost impossible to settle into my lawn chair with my lovely partner, Lois, by my side and not have cheese with my meal while waiting for the BSO to begin its concert. I am, as always, anticipating another season at Tanglewood of thoroughly enjoyable wine, great cheese, excellent company and brilliant music, some of which provided by Yo-Yo Ma.

BRUSCHETTA TWO WAYS WITH MONTEREY CHEVRE

This recipe is in part an homage to the delightful, ground-breaking powerhouse, Susan Sellew. She is the owner and virtual one-person show at Rawson Brook Farm since 1984. She has lovingly provided the best fresh chevre I've ever had to thousands of cheese lovers from all over the world. She has changed gears this year and cut her production more than half. Her Monterey Chevre is only available at her farm, the Great Barrington farmers market and a limited amount at The Big Y in Great Barrington. I used to talk with her every week while giving her my order or, at some times of year, she'd tell me what I was allocated. Our conversations would often spin off into other areas than cheese. I miss our conversations. Although I've never found a fresh chevre as good as hers, an excellent quality fresh chevre log may be substituted in this recipe.

The other thing about this recipe is that it's so good in its simplicity and so right for a picnic. It's all I need to make me very happy on the lawn at Tanglewood or any other spot I can relax on a summer's evening with a simple green salad, some olives, maybe some p t or salami with additional bread and a nice medium white wine, such as a Vernaccia di San Gimignano. I hope you feel the same way, too. If you do, don't forget to raise a glass to Susan!

Serves 4

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INGREDIENTS:

8 slices ciabatta or baguette sliced on the diagonal about 1/2-inch thick. (Berkshire Mountain Bakery bread is recommended)

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 clove garlic, minced

2 plum tomatoes, cut in half lengthwise, cores and seeds removed

Salt (preferably Maldon salt) and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 cup diced strawberries

1/4 cup good quality Balsamic vinegar

7 ounces Monterey Chevre, plain, room temperature

1/2 cup chiffonade of basil leaves

Additional basil sprigs for garnish

DIRECTIONS:

Preheat oven to 450 F. Mix the olive oil and garlic. Place the bread and tomato slices on a parchment paper lined sheet pan. Lightly brush both sides of the bread and the top of the tomato slices with the olive oil and garlic mixture. Place the pan on the middle rack of the preheated oven. After 5 minutes, remove the pan and turn the bread slices. After 5 more minutes remove the toasted bread from the pan. Cover toasted bread with plastic wrap after cooling to avoid becoming too dry, if preparing in advance. Place the pan back in the oven for 20 to 25 more minutes or until the tomato slices begin to caramelize. Season the tomatoes with salt and pepper. Approximately 20 minutes before assembling, reduce Balsamic vinegar by half and allow to cool 5 minutes. Working with room temperature cheese that has been mixed to soften, spread the cheese on the toasted bread slices. Combine the diced strawberries and reduced Balsamic vinegar. Place the roasted tomato slices on half the toasted bread and the diced strawberry and Balsamic vinegar mixture on the other half. Place the bruschetta on a serving platter and cover until ready to serve. When ready to serve, remove the wrap and sprinkle all the bruschetta with the chiffonade of basil and garnish with reserved basil sprigs.


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