A Way With Curds By Virtue Of The Breadth And Depth Of His Artisan Cheese Finds, Ramon Charves Has Helped Make Fresh Fields One Of The Area's Top Cheese Retailers.

Posted: January 26, 2000

Ramon Charves is passionate about cheese.

So much so that he took a detour from his theater major, singing and songwriting to shape a food career.

"My first time in Europe did it for me," said Charves, 32. "That's when I found my niche. And since I couldn't stay and live in Europe then, I decided to surround myself with as much of the flavor of Europe as possible.

"Still, I have been known to break into song while behind the cheese counter," the head cheese honcho at Fresh Fields' 20th Street store quipped with a twinkle and boyish grin seemingly cloned from look-alike actor George Clooney.

Charves joined Fresh Fields six years ago in his hometown of Providence, R.I. His initiative in studying cheeses and wines earned him a transfer to and increasing responsibility in that department.

Three years ago Charves was brought in to set up the cheese department in the new Philadelphia store, where his staff has grown to eight. He also helped set up cheese departments in the new sibling stores in Jenkintown and Marlton.

The breadth and depth of his artisan cheese finds secured the store's place among the area's top cheese retailers. Such recognition is important, as cheese is a growing business. Sales were up 3.7 percent nationally last year and an additional 5 percent increase is projected for 2000 - much of the growth attributed in part to more interest in natural cheeses.

The pending Super Bowl fast-food fest is the acknowledged peak of annual cheese sales, with viewers gorging on giant pizzas, nachos, and other cheese-slathered snacks. But the higher-quality cheeses appeal even to health-conscious diners, many of whom have weighed the subject of saturated fats and cholesterol and opted to enjoy small but satisfying amounts of this high-protein food.

Combined, the two approaches have pushed our per capita cheese consumption to 30 pounds a year.

While cheese can be a satisfying part of a balanced diet, moderation is key. A one-ounce snack serving of most sliceable cheeses adds 80 to 110 calories, 6 to 9 grams fat, and 20 to 30 milligrams cholesterol.

To the good, each ounce provides 5 to 10 grams of protein.

Charves estimates his expanded stock now at 375-plus different cheeses along with complementary lines (gourmet crackers, nonalcoholic organic wines, and such).

That makes the choice of three or four cheeses to be served before or after a meal a challenge. They might be different styles from the same country, or variations produced from the same animal milk. You may have your own favorites.

Perhaps a soft goat cheese such as Laura Chenel's popular California Chevre, plain or herbed (8 ounces, $6.99); or a recent addition, her Select Norwegian Chevre made with imported curd (4 ounces, $3.99).

Adventurous tasters may savor the ash-veined chevre - Humboldt Fog ($18.99 a pound) - from Mary Keehn's Cypress Grove farm in McKinleyville, Calif.

"Laura Chenel is the grande dame of American goat cheese and has built up a wonderful following," Charves says of the woman credited with inspiring a generation of artisan cheesemakers in America through the '80s.

Meanwhile, Chenel jokes that her business, begun in 1979, is really a way to justify keeping pet goats, most of whom she knows by name.

True blue lovers may crave the tang of a blue-veined Stilton or the creamier style of Blue Rathgore, a goat's milk blue cheese from the 150-year-old Woodside Dairy in Finaghy, Northern Ireland.

Such cheeses are best served with crusty, artisan breads of comparable quality, wine and/or crisp tree fruits, melons or berries.

A Dairy Industry Association poll matching fruits with cheeses shows green grapes favored for Gouda, Brie, Camembert, Neufchatel and cream cheeses. For the flavors of bel paese, brick, Colby, Gorgonzola, Port du Salut and provolone, pineapple is preferred. And green apples are deemed the best match for caraway, Cheddar, Edam, Muenster and Swiss cheeses. Add pears and honeydew to the mix and you have the top fruit pairings for most cheeses.

To expand your knowledge of and taste for fine cheeses, sample new types, if not weekly at least each month. Two to three ounces per person is enough for tastings, or try testing in a recipe or two.

Charves suggests starting with natural rind cheeses, those with a wrinkled, cream-colored "skin" that holds in moisture to prolong the life of the cheese.

When you get it home, re-wrap it in waxed or greaseproof paper and refrigerate in a crisper drawer or loose bag. Use very soft cheeses within a few days. Hard cheeses may keep for up to one month.

When you find one you like, jot down the name or save the label.

Chalk-white chevre (French for goat) with its mild flavor and soft texture, is easy to spread and blend into recipes. Among more unusual goat cheese types, Charves favors Boilie, an Irish import of small balls marinating in sunflower oil with fresh herbs (8 ounces, $8.99); and the French Carre du Berry, a milky sweet chevre coated with anise, fresh herbs and peppercorns ($19.99 a pound).

Or compare the rich flavors of a natural cheese with its commercial counterpart. Bring to mind, for instance, the contents of that green shaker can laced with calcium chloride and other chemical agents.

Those pseudo-cheese granules most of us call Parmesan are to the fragrant Parmigiano-Reggiano of Italy's Emilia-Romagna region, what an inky goo of processed lumpfish roe is to the glistening grey orbs of Royal Beluga sturgeon caviar.

A good Parmigiano can be savored alone with a full-bodied red wine.

Says Charves, any fresh Parmigiano is preferable to the dead pre-grated stuff. His favorite, handcrafted on a farm in Montova, is rich and nutty with fruity undertones and the lingering light taste of pineapple ($13.99 a pound).

"Customers are always asking me my favorites, and that is certainly one of them," said Charves.

Here's a short list of other artisan cheeses Charves rates among his favorites, with commentary:

Sottocenere (so-tow-CHEN-eray). A fungus-flecked, semi-firm cow's milk cheese from Italy, this unique fresh offering is coated with "cinders" of cardamom, cinnamon, flax seed and cloves, hence the name "under ashes." Perfect with pasta or to start off a seafood meal. $17.99 a pound.

Ubriaco del Piave (ooh-bre-AH-co del pea-Ah-vay). This aged "drunken" cow's milk cheese from Italy's Lombardy region is soaked in the musts from five different wines. Its sharp yet fruity flavor pairs well with fruits and stands up to heavy red wines. $15.99 a pound.

Talleggio (tahl-LEJ-e-o). Subtle and buttery, this young, semi-firm, Italian cow's milk cheese has a lingering, slightly salty finish. A perfect dessert cheese paired with ripe strawberries. $8.59 a pound.

Saenkanter (sahn-canter). A rare find. Rich, caramel-like and naturally sweet, this super aged (4-year) Gouda from Holland is a sharp contrast to buttery chardonnay. A fine ending to a meal. $11.99 a pound.

L'Edel de Cleron (lay-DEL d clehr-on). "The best contender for dessert cheese I have discovered in recent years," says Charves. A soft-ripened French chevre, it is rich and creamy with a lingering, earthy flavor of birch bark from the rind. Perfect with pinot noir and fruited, dark-grained bread. $13.99 a pound.

Brin d' Amour. A soft to semi-firm fresh Corsican sheep's milk cheese. It is washed with rosemary, herbes de Provence, juniper berries, and mild chilies. "I love to serve it soaked in my favorite cognac and garnished with raspberries," said Charves. "Or, if I am playing the purist, I'll serve it as is with a wonderfully dry, crisp champagne or Spanish cava." $19.99 a pound.

Manchego (man-SHAY-go). A staple in Spain, this sheep's milk cheese is aged six months to a year to develop its mildly salty, yet fruity finish. Shave it liberally over endive, drizzle with clover honey, and top with walnuts. $10.99 a pound.

Monje (mon-HEY). An intensely flavored, high-moisture Spanish blue. A cow's milk cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves. Bold enough for a rich red wine. $10.99 a pound.

(Note: Food and Drug Administration restrictions require that raw-milk cheeses be aged at least 60 days to come into the U.S. Some illnesses and deaths were attributed to bacteria found in a few raw-milk items - domestic and imported. Thus seniors, children and any with impaired immune systems are advised to avoid raw-milk products.)

* The following recipes are from French Country Light Cooking (Putnam, $15.95) by Evelyne Slomon.

HERBED CHEVRE SPREAD

WITH SLICED CUCUMBERS

AND LEMON-HONEY DRESSING

6 ounces goat cheese

8 ounces nonfat cream cheese

1/4 cup nonfat plain yogurt

2 cloves garlic, peeled, crushed

1 teaspoon fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1 tablespoon chopped chives

Salt and pepper to taste

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon honey

1 medium seedless cucumber, sliced thin

A few hours before serving, combine goat cheese, cream cheese, yogurt and garlic in processor (with metal blade). Fold in thyme and chives. Do not overmix or spread will turn green. Season with salt and pepper, spoon into crock or serving bowl; chill 4 hours or until slightly stiffened. To serve, mound cheese in center of a small plate. In small bowl, blend lemon juice and honey. Surround with cucumber slices in overlapping circles. Drizzle dressing over cheese. Sprinkle with pepper. Makes eight servings.

Nutritional data per serving: Calories, 121; protein, 10 grams; carbohydrates, 6 grams; fat, 6 grams; cholesterol, 24 milligrams; sodium, 10 milligrams.

* This spread utilizes leftover bits of cheese, as the French do.

FROMAGE FORT

1 pound leftover cheeses, at least 3 kinds

3 cloves garlic, peeled

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

Trim and discard any rind or hard spots on cheese. In processor, chop garlic, add cheese, wine and pepper. Process until soft and creamy, adding more wine if needed. Transfer to a crock or bowl. Cover and chill. Makes 16 servings.

Nutritional data per serving: Calories, 109; protein, 6 grams; carbohydrates, 3 grams; fat, 8 grams; cholesterol, 25 milligrams; sodium, 251 milligrams.

CRISPY CHEESE WAFERS

1 pound aged Asiago or Parmigiano cheese

1 to 2 teaspoons olive oil

Grate cheese; set aside. Brush a thin film of oil over bottom of a large, nonstick skillet. Heat skillet on medium-low. For each wafer, sprinkle 2 tablespoons grated cheese into skillet forming a 2- to 3-inch round. Cook 3 to 4 minutes, until cheese melts and edges are crisp and golden. Press flat with spatula occasionally until they set. Turn gently with spatula; cook 1 minute more. Transfer to paper towels and blot lightly. Serve as cocktail nibbles or with salad. Makes about 20 wafers.

Nutritional data per wafer: Calories, 105; protein, 9 grams; carbohydrates, 0.8 gram; fat, 7 grams; cholesterol, 18 milligrams; sodium, 422 milligrams.

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