You meet the nicest people when writing about food and you get the occasional delectable perk like being invited to special tastings. Recently, Sapphire held a cheese and wine tasting for 5 Spoke Creamery, a new, small, artisanal producer of organic, raw milk cheeses from New York State. Sapphire Pantry is currently the only venue in California where it can be purchased.
The charming and enthusiastic Alan Glustoff, the cheese maker, was a former food scientist who worked on developing such things as Cool Whip and Pudding Pops at General Foods. His lifelong interest in food changed direction and he became a specialty food broker and more recently a cheese maker.
He launched 5 Spoke Creamery because he wanted to bring packaged, hand-made, small batch cheeses to the supermarket in order to "bridge the great divide between the perceived qualities of cheeses found in the supermarket dairy and deli sections and those cut to order at specialty food shops."
On his small farm in Port Chester, New York, he raises grass-fed Holstein cows that are free of pesticides and hormones and are certified kosher.
With a very particular idea in mind of how he wanted the raw milk made into cheese, he set off one day with a map of the Pennsylvania back roads and went from door to door with the hope of finding someone who would make the cheeses in the style he envisioned. He finally located an Amish farmer in Lancaster who made cheese, but only for his own family. Glustoff knew he had found the right man for the job but it took him two years of working on the relationship to convince this farmer to agree to make cheese commercially, from Glustoff’s cows’ milk.
What are the differences between raw milk cheese and the pasteurized factory variety? Raw milk cheeses develop more pronounced, richer flavors and their texture is much smoother. "Flavors of living grasses, herbs and wildflowers are evident in every bite," says Glustoff.
In addition to great taste and texture, there are numerous health benefits from raw milk. It has the enzyme phosphotase intact, which allows the body to digest lactose and absorb greater amounts of calcium. One ounce of raw milk cheese contains 300 mg of calcium but its absorption rate is three times that of pasteurized cheese.
It fights allergies with a cortisone-like factor present in the cream and strengthens the immune system with its beneficial bacteria and lactic acid. It is also one of the few foods that have a perfect balance of omega 3 and omega 6 fats. In addition, raw milk cheeses have five times more conjugated linoleic acid than grain fed cows. CLA is among the most potent cancer fighters found in almost any food!
But what difference does any of this make if it doesn’t taste good? Sitting on the patio at Sapphire on a lovely early autumn afternoon, we were treated to the Red Vine Colby, an incredibly smooth, creamy semi-soft cheese with a light but distinctive taste and a spectacular lingering mouth feel. It was served with an Alsatian Pinot Gris.
The second cheese, Redmond Cheddar, was rich and buttery with deep cheddar flavor and a hint of salt. This was served with a Felton Road Pinot Noir from New Zealand.
Our third taste was an aged cheddar (8 months) called Tumbleweed. This semi-hard cheese was not aged long enough to become sharp but just enough to intensify the flavor. It was served with a spectacular wine, a Spanish tempranillo called Condado de Haza. Not thin or tannic like most tempranillos it had a full-bodied, rich flavor that lingered on the palate. We must admit we had more than a taste. It was also a brilliant pairing of wine and cheese.
As an extra treat, Azmin Ghahreman, Sapphire’s chef, had prepared some mini-grilled cheese sandwiches with Serrano ham, sage and the Redmond cheddar on brioche. The compelling combination of flavors left us punch drunk with pleasure.
All the goodies we have mentioned are available at the Sapphire Pantry, except the grilled cheese sandwich, but you can certainly buy all the ingredients there and then make it at home.
After the tasting, Starr, the charming cheese monger, took us into the pantry to show off some of the new treats. She has already expanded the cheese selection and has been filling requests for cheese boards and baskets to go. She says, "If you bring me the basket, I will fill it."
As promised, they have now expanded their prepared food selections to include a number of new cold salads: green and white asparagus with artichoke hearts; shrimp, orzo, yellow squash and green beans; bok choy and tofu; grilled chicken with beans and arugula and teriyaki salmon with Asian slaw. They also have sliced grilled sirloin, rosemary chicken, roasted potatoes, sautéed spinach and Jerez sherry marinated mushrooms. The selection changes frequently as they expand in this new area.
On the hot side there is a daily soup: on this occasion mushroom cappuccino. Also, Star has invented a 10 cheese Mac‘n cheese topped with breadcrumbs that are made from the delicious cheese bread they serve in the restaurant; an abundance of riches and richness.
In addition to the prepared food, they carry a small amount of fresh produce, locally grown in our own Laguna canyon by Keith Gregg. Spaghetti squash, butternut squash, baby romas and lemon cukes were there on the day we visited but the selection varies frequently.
No matter how many times we drop by, there is always something new and interesting happening at the Sapphire Pantry, 1200 S. Coast Hwy, (949) 715-9888.
Elle Harrow and Terry Markowitz owned A La Carte for 20 years. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org