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Eating All The Cheese At Acanto

By Melissa McEwen in Food on Dec 5, 2014 4:00PM

Photo by Erika Kubick

“We’ll take all the cheese. Yes, all of it” I said gleefully. We were sitting at the bar at Acanto (18 S. Michigan Ave.), where the cheese list had caught my eye with its weirdly intriguing descriptions. It told a tale of cheese infused with goat’s milk caramel, of seaweed harvested off the Sonoma Coast, of herds of sheep and water buffalo. Yearning to try it (all of it), I came back with Erika Kubick, Chicagoist writer/cheese expert extraordinaire.

The bartender informed us that this was the only place outside of California where you could regularly get these cheeses, which come from Bohemian Creamery in Sebastobol, California.

“This is one of the best artisanal cheesemakers in the US,” says Acanto’s Executive Chef Chris Gawronski. He met farmer and cheesemaker Lisa Gottreich while he was doing a stage in California and she was delivering her cheeses. “Can you bring your cheese to Chicago?” he asked.

He says he proudly based the cheese program on them and serves every single cheese she wants to send them. The menu varies based on what’s in season.

A cow’s milk cheese called Cowabunga had caught my attention for the inclusion of cajeta, a delectable goat’s milk caramel, which Gawronski describes as “genius.” It’s described tantalizingly on the menu as a “miniature cheese cake-like surprise.” The veins of golden caramel weren’t overpowering, they blended in perfectly. It was clear this was not a dessert, this was cheese at its salty creamy earthy best with an added bonus. Kubick described it as “surprisingly funky, with an ardently sour tang and a slightly bitter candidum-geotrichum rind that boasts a soft, soil-like earthiness.”

I called Bohemian Creamy to talk with Gottreich about this beguiling cheese. “Sometimes ideas come to me when I’m either inspired or by sheer necessity. There are four months of the year [in the winter, when goat milk production dies down] I don’t milk the goats and so I don’t make the fresh goat’s cheese, but chef’s were asking for it. So I thought I guess I’ll make it out out cow’s milk. But making fresh cheese isn’t the most exciting thing in the world. I wanted to do something different, not so easily done and make it interesting to me too. I milked down [the goats that were producing] and it gave just enough to make cajeta. It’s symbolic of how precious goat’s milk is in the winter.”

After snacking on some delicious concord grapes, we then moved on to the Caprocino, a savory older goats milk cheese aged between eight to ten months with an astonishing spectrum of flavors. “Though some older goat cheeses are often powdery in the mouth feel, this one is bready and rich. It melts on the palate with the consistency of pudding. Flavors are reminiscent of a sage-infused mac and cheese, lemon, and cotton candy” Kubick noted.

The next cheese, Capriago, was a smooth and nutty young goat milk cheese with what Kubick described as a “surprising hard texture, clean and moist with sweet violet flavors that scream for a fruity rosé. The rind is kissed with a wild blue mold, creating a subtle and nutty funk.”

Boho Belle was a cowsmilk cheese with a curdy quality that made it one of my favorites of the selection. Kubick noted the “paste is quite rich, due to the high fat content of Jersey milk, with a remarkably creamy texture, supreme umami, and aromas of orange zest. The rind imparts strong mushroom notes and the cheese finishes with a tangy lactic kick.”

“The cheese is reminiscent of a dewy morning in the forest, with notes of pine in the nose. The moment it hits your tongue, it melts into a fondue-like consistency,” Kubick said about Holy Moly, a goat milks cheese. This one ended up being another favorite of mine, reminding me of freshly churned butter.

“Quite mineral and salty, with notes of rocks on the beach. The paste is sticky at first, then melts into a velvety dream. It’s nuttiness and fat content reminds me of cashew butter,” Kubick waxed about Bo Peep, a sheep’s milk cheese. I picked up notes of pistachio and black walnut.

Bovoncino, the most aged of the cheese we tried at a year old, was a Jersey milk cheese redolent of California olive oil. “The cheese smelled sweet, like yeasty cookie butter. The flavor was quite mild, nutty and buttery and the texture was quite toothsome and mouthwatering. It’s a simple cheese that helped rest my palate” said Kubick.

The bartender warned us that a table nearby had just sent one of the cheeses back— the Aqua Bufazola, made with genuine water buffalo milk, which Gawronski says is hard to find in the United States. When it came to the table it was clear the innocuous description comparing it to gorgonzola on the menu was deceptive.

“The cheese smelled like a garbage-filled back alley with a faint hint of ammonia that stung the nostrils. It reminded me of a bat-infested cave or a dingy basement staircase,” Kubick noted. I wrote “sharp notes of body odor” in my reporter’s notebook. Gawronski says “once you get past [the odor] and keep eating, it’s unbelievable.” You’ll be rewarded with rich deep flavors of the flowers and herbs that grow on the coastal pastures where the buffalo roam. “It’s for the most adventurous of cheese lovers, but if you’re into it, it’s kind of amazing” said Kubick.

But you’ll only find these cheeses on the cheese plate. “It’d be a waste to cook with them” says Gawronski, “they’re just so darn special.”

We delusionally believed it would be a start to an actual meal, that we’d order one of their pizzas or pastas afterwards. But after eight cheeses we felt perfectly full and weirdly woozy. Is it possible to be cheese drunk? Maybe if it’s cheeses as magical as these. And Gawronski agrees there is some magic to them, “the best things you find by happenstance, serendipity is one of the best and most beautiful things.”