I have known Clark Wolf since 1980, when I wandered into the new Oakville Grocery in San Francisco. Without a greeting, he said, “Here, try this,” and stuffed a dried tomato in my mouth.
Clark was irrepressible then, and still is today. Unlike many food and wine professionals, his sharp wit somehow lacks a meanness gene. He is amused by life. I mentioned the dried tomato incident the other day over lunch at Hayes Street Grill, a restaurant that dates from that same era. “Is it too late to apologize?” he deadpanned, looking sincerely chagrined.
There was no need for apologies. That dried tomato was the first I ever tried, and I won’t forget how it tasted like concentrated sunshine. When Clark ran the store he could not wait to share the latest food find, especially cheese. When he saw me coming, he would unwrap the latest illegal, unpasteurized Brie, or offer my first taste of dry, aged Gouda.
As his career developed, he moved to New York and became a food consultant and freelance educator in great demand for high-end retail and restaurant clients in the U.S. and elsewhere. But he never lost his passion for fermented milk. He championed homegrown U.S. cheese as this country began to develop a critical mass of makers, some of whom now rank with the world’s best.
Thus it was with barely contained enthusiasm that I opened his new book, American Cheese: The Best Regional, Artisan, and Farmhouse Cheeses (Simon & Schuster, $25, 274 pages). Several very good tomes exist that cover the subject, but knowing Clark I expected his book to deliver the real skinny. Or butterfat, as it were.
The book offers excellent, pithy advice on how to approach buying and caring for cheeses after you buy them. It includes a wonderfully amusing account of his own earnest attempts to make fresh mozzarella, and engaging photos by his partner, Scott Mitchell.
Although he doesn’t rate them, the cheesemakers he features read like a who’s who of the American scene. In these profiles, he shows a writer’s eye for the clever moment. We get to know the people. Clark’s personality leaps from every page. But I was disappointed that he seldom offers good descriptions of the cheeses themselves. In far too many of his recommendations, he fails to tell us how they taste, what makes them distinctive, what they have that stands out from the rest.
It’s not as if he can’t do it. His article on Green Mountain in Vermont describes the Vermont Blue thus: “It’s a tall cylinder in the style of a Fourme d’Ambert: tart, sweet, creamy, and a little nutty, like any good meal companion.” The book needs more specific descriptions like that.
Although he’s not averse to talking about wine with me, the book sidesteps any recommendations for wines with cheese. “The end of a long, happy evening,” he writes, “is not a time to struggle with deep thinking or big choices.”
I am with him on that, as far as it goes. But why not share with the world the insight so many cheese and wine lovers have reached in recent years, that white wines match up with far more cheeses than do reds? He believes it. He told me so over lunch.
To conclude the short item on accompaniments, he subtly suggests that it might be better to drink the wine, then have some cheese. “When I have a truly great bottle of rare wine to enjoy,” he writes, “I try to make sure that at least some of it is quaffed without competition, on its own, for some singular moments of glory. Then on to the cheese!”
Jon Bernardoni — Illinois — January 27, 2009 2:04pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — January 27, 2009 2:31pm ET
Andrew Bernardo — Halifax, Nova Scotia — January 27, 2009 4:03pm ET
Paul Osborne — San Luis Obispo, CA — February 17, 2009 1:48pm ET
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