Bacon Supper

As if we didn’t already know that bacon makes everything better, the folks at the Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference this week set out to take my favorite food group to a whole new level.

Bacon at a cheese conference, you ask? Yes, ma’am. After spending three days talking, breathing and eating nothing but cheese with nearly 100 of the top movers and shakers in the American artisan cheese community, we were all ready to experience a different level on the food pyramid. I suppose we could have had a salad, but really, who needs rabbit food when bacon is on the menu?

To prove my point, Sheana Davis, founder and owner of The Epicurean Connection in downtown Sonoma, hosted a Bacon Supper as the parting gift to her cheese conference attendees this evening. In attendance was Ari Weinzweig who wrote the book – yes, literally – on bacon. It’s called Zingerman’s Guide to Better Bacon and features stories of pork bellies, hush puppies, rock n’ roll music and bacon fat mayonnaise.

While Ari entertained us with bacon trivia (Q: What was the title of people who once shepherded hogs from farm to market? A: Drovers), chefs Duskie Estes and John Stewart, the husband and wife proprietors of Zazu Restaurant + Farm and Bovolo Restaurant in Sonoma County, and owners of Black Pig Meat Company, prepared a four course meal featuring their Black Pig Bacon.

All of Black Pig Meat Co.’s pork is sourced from Pure Country Pork, a sustainable hog operation certified by Food Alliance. The pigs are a heritage breed, raised naturally and allowed to roam on pasture. As Duskie says: “We like to think the pigs really only have one bad day.”

Duskie and John have risen to fame with their Black Pig Bacon, which is dry cured with brown sugar and smoked with real applewood in a process that takes nearly a month. This is compared to most supermarket mass-produced bacons, which are wet cured and injected with liquid smoke in a process that takes less than a day. The difference in taste is remarkable. Black Pig Bacon is salty, smoky and sweet, and its flavor resonated in each of the dishes.

Our first dish was a Bacon Terrine, prepared by Chef Antonio Ghilarducci of The Depot Hotel in Sonoma, paired with Delice de la Vallee cheese and bacon brown sugar jam, prepared by Sheana Davis of The Epicurean Connection.

Three words: Best. Appetizer. Ever.

Next was a roasted brussel sprout and Black Pig Bacon salad with almonds, shaved Lucca, a mild alpine Italian-style cheese made by North Bay Curds and Whey in Tomales, and extra virgin olive oil from Tallgrass Ranch in Sonoma.

Nancy and Tony Lilly, makers of Tallgrass Ranch olive oil, happened to be sitting across the table from me (that’s Nancy, standing up, below). Their farm is on a ridge in the Sonoma Valley overlooking the San Francisco Bay. They began planting their olive grove in 1998 and today hand-harvest enough olives to send between 40 and 100 gallons to market every year.

While I had olive oil producers on one side, on my other side sat Alec Stefansky, brew master at Uncommon Brewers in Santa Cruz. Alec had brought his Bacon Brown Ale – yes, beer infused with bacon. It turns out he had just finished up packing 257 cases of this brand-new beer, which shipped out of the brewery last week and is headed to distribution in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. (Maybe we can smuggle some into Wisconsin).

Next up was the main course. Brace yourselves, bacon lovers: the menu consisted of smoky baby back ribs, accompanied by backyard collards and bacon, cowboy beans and bacon, fingerling and bacon fat aioli potato salad and bacon, and Roelli Red Rock Cheese (from Wisconsin!) cornbread. Let’s break it down in pictures, shall we?

First: ribs, cooked so slowly and amazingly that the meat fell off the bone

Second: backyard collard greens. I have never cared for collards and now I know why: I’ve never had them prepared properly with bacon. For a northern girl who views green food with suspicion, I had seconds and thirds of these babies

Next: cowboy beans — a little on the spicy side, but once they mixed in with all the other food on my plate, felt right at home

And, of course: fingerling and bacon fat aioli potato salad

Finally: bacon and Roelli Red Rock cornbread. Yum!

Put it all together and it looked like this!

For dessert, we had not one, but three amazing treats. First was a bacon and currant rum gelato, paired side-by-side with Sheana’s Creme de Fromage gelato, which tasted even better than cheesecake.

And then, we had a one-of-a-kind “PB & C” chicharron peanut butter cup, made with fried pig skins, crumbled into a peanut butter cup. Here are the chefs themselves, with their amazing chocolate creations:

A huge thank you to Sheana Davis, Duskie Estes and John Stewart of the Black Pig Meat Co., Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman’s and all the folks who prepped and cleared dishes for what was one of the best meals of our lives. Can’t wait until next year’s Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference!

Cheesemaking at Home: Creme de Ricotta

Got 45 minutes to spare? Then you’ve got time to make Creme de Ricotta.

Sheana Davis, California cheesemaker and cheese shop owner extraordinaire, was in town this past weekend, teaching a class at the Carr Valley Cooking School in Sauk City. Over the course of 90 minutes, we got to try five different Wisconsin beers, five different Carr Valley specialty cheeses, consume two stellar appetizer courses, and in between, make a giant stock pot of Creme de Ricotta.

A fifth-generation native of Sonoma, California, Sheana teaches home cheesemaking courses on the West Coast. She’s also the creator and cheesemaker of Delice de la Vallee, an award-winning fresh cheese. And while I’ve been to her Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference the past two years (and just made my hotel reservations for the 2012 conference,) this was the first time I had ever seen Sheana in action teaching a course.

Let me tell you, the lady not only knows her cheese, but also makes a mean Carr Valley Beer Cheddar, Wisconsin Sausage and Beer Mustard Sauce Sandwich on a Pretzel Roll. (Recipe to follow – scroll down past the cheese talk).

When we weren’t drinking beer and eating cheese, Sheana had all of us actively involved in making a batch of stove-top Creme de Ricotta. She’s perfected a recipe that’s all her own, and involves four simple ingredients: whole milk, whipping cream, white vinegar and sea salt (complete recipe follows the narrative).

First, we heated the milk and whipping cream to 200 degrees Fahrenheit, stirring often with a big flat circular spoon to prevent scorching on the bottom.

Once the milk was at 200 degrees, we turned off the burner, and stirring the milk clockwise, quickly poured in white vinegar (this is key, as it provides the acidity needed to curdle the milk) and then sprinkled with salt. The milk starting coagulating immediately, with white curds were already floating in the whey before we put on the lid and allowed to rest for 10 minutes.

While waiting, we lined a colander with 200-count cotton cloth, drank some more beer and ate some more cheese, and once 10 minutes was up, gently ladled the curds into the cloth, starting in the middle of the pot, cutting toward us, and gently lifting them to the side of the cloth-covered colander.

Because we were anxious to eat the cheese, Sheana then gathered the four corners of the cloth and gently lifted, allowing the whey to drain off, while at the same time, gently pressuring the liquid from the cheese. Another option would be to let it drain for up to 30 minutes on its own and then serve, still warm.

Warm and fresh Creme de Ricotta is fluffy, fresh and delicious – kind of like eating fluffy cottage cheese or chunky creme fraiche, only better. Sheana mixed some jam and dried berries into one of the batches, which provided a nice sweet taste. Other options are sprinkling in lemon zest and fresh ground black pepper, or fresh basil and garlic, or even maple syrup and pecans. Go wild and be creative, as almost anything goes with this cheese.

Here’s the recipe:

Creme de Ricotta
By Sheana Davis, The Epicurean Connection

14 cups whole milk
4 cups whipping cream
1-1/2 cups white vinegar
2 teaspoons sea salt

1. Combine milk and whipping cream in large stainless steel stock pot and heat slowly to 200 degrees. Stir often to prevent scorching.
2. Remove from heat. Stir milk clockwise, quickly pour in vinegar and sprinkle with salt. Cover and allow to rest 10 minutes.
3. Line colander with fine cheesecloth or 200-count cotton cloth. Gently ladle curds into cloth. If adding fruit or jam, add now. Allow to drain for 30 minutes or gently lift and allow whey to drain off.
4. Remove cheese from cheesecloth and serve warm on a baguette. If desired, drizzle with desired pairing.

And, as promised, here is the recipe for the appetizer we heartily consumed while waiting for the milk to heat:

Carr Valley Beer Cheddar, Wisconsin Sausage & Beer Mustard Sauce Sandwich Served on a Pretzel Roll
By Sheana Davis, The Epicurean Connection

4-6 links or 1 pound Wisconsin sausage
8 ounces Beer
1/2 cup mustard
8 Pretzel Rolls, sliced 3/4
8 slices Carr Valley Beer Cheddar Cheese, sliced

Over a medium flame, using a heavy bottom skillet, place ingredients and bring to a simmer. Stir together, cover with lid and allow to simmer for 10 minutes or until sausage is thoroughly cooked. Remove from heat, allow to cool, slice sausage, place back in pan and re-heat when ready to serve. Serve on a Pretzel Roll with slice of Carr Valley Beer Cheddar and glass of Leinenkugel’s Honey Weiss.

Last but not least, I have to share a stellar cheese pairing we had at the class. While all five pairings were good, the last was take-your-breath-away perfect. The next time you want to impress your friends, serve this simple pairing: Carr Valley 4-Year Cheddar and Ale Aslyum Madtown Brown. One word: awe—-some.