You may have caught on Twitter and Instagram that I’ve partnered with Cracker Barrel Cheese for a series of “culinary experiences,” uncovering some of the most exciting things happening in the world of wine, cocktails, chocolate, flavor pairings and, obviously, cheese. The first one happened last week when I joined a handful of other bloggers from around the country on a gastronomic tour of Chicago, and oh my goodness, this city completely blew my mind. I’d been to Chicago once before on a quick weekend with Adam, but this trip elevated it to one of my new favorite cities – there are so many incredible things happening in the food scene there, plus the people couldn’t have been warmer and the city was just beautiful – I even caught a little snowfall! Have you ever had a taste experience that opened your eyes to something new or revolutionized the way you thought about an ingredient? This trip was full of those little moments, and I’ve been dying to share the highlights…
We started at Cracker Barrel’s test kitchen, with a full-fledged “cheese bootcamp” on the art of cheese making, tasting and judging. Did you know that cheeses are judged on an international level using stringent tests of aroma, appearance, smoothness, flavor and texture – similarly to wine? Our teacher happened to be one of the prestigious judges at this year’s U.S. Championship Cheese Contest, where Cracker Barrel’s Sharp Cheddar placed best in class for its category among 1,704 entrants from across the country.
Next up, we had a crash course in cheese pairings by the brand’s resident chef. (In other words, where the real fun – eating – began!) I happen to love any kind of tasting experience that encourages me to slow down, really taste the flavors and savor the textures of what I’m eating, considering how one food or drink balances another. The main takeaways from this one? (1) The importance of aroma. Chef Mike taught us that 80 – 90% of flavor sensations come through the nose. (2) Although there are no “rules” when it comes to pairing, when in doubt, serve white wine with cheese. The crisp, floral notes are often a great complement. (3) The term for a lover of cheese? Just call me a Caseophile.
That night, we had one of the most amazing dinners of my life at The Little Goat, renowned chef (and Top Chef winner) Stephanie Izard’s new place. We headed to the upstairs event space to find a huge farm table beautifully set with stoneware dishes and glassware as far as the eye could see. Yep, we had some major wine tasting in store. Out came the courses and wine pairings, each one incredibly delicious and totally unexpected – a 2-hour flavor adventure. Seared tuna, pickled peppers and marcona almonds paired with a 2011 Clos du Caillou Rose; scallops with brown butter kimchee, hazelnut rapini and avocado with a 2008 Movia Lunar (my first experience with “orange wine.” Yeah, it’s a thing.) The wines were poured by sommelier Jeanne Stiles who made the experience eye-opening and educational, but most of all so fun with her rich descriptions and unpretentious approach to tasting. And of course it was such a treat to have Chef Stephanie herself in the open kitchen, sharing the details of how she created each dish.
The next day we kicked off a grand gastronomic tour of Chicago, starting at the legendary Webster Wine Bar with – you guessed it – more wine pairings. It was interesting to hear some of the same words of wisdom shared by multiple sommeliers: white (especially sparkling) goes great with cheese, there’s a major trend towards biodynamic and natural winemaking, rosé is misunderstood but awesome, and most of all: throw out all the rules and be adventurous in your pairings! Webster Wine Bar served up some really delicious morsels (can you say bacon-wrapped & almond stuffed dates?) with even more delicious wine, and I loved the say the sommelier took us on a bit of a “taste journey” to the different wine regions where he sourced his selections. He encouraged us to think about the symbiotic relationship with the traditions and cultures of a place and it’s wine – after all, most wine was originally created to pair with its homeland’s regional food.
The next stop was kind of a dream: the flagship shop of Chicago-based chocolatier Vosges. I’ve been a major fan of the brand’s inventive flavor combinations for years, and I’ve got to say that this was the first cheese and chocolate pairing I’ve ever participated in. And yes, it was as amazing as it sounds. Just in case we hadn’t had enough decadence for one day, we capped off our visit with piping hot cups of “drinking chocolate” (basically, hot cocoa on crack.)
I’d been kicking myself for having never experienced a legendary Chicago hot dog, and fortunately this was my moment. Our trolley made one final stop at The Haute and the Dog, a quirky-charming little joint that serves up dogs piled high with gourmet ingredients. I, of course, went with the classic and managed to polish off my entire poppyseed bun loaded with beef, spicy peppers, and weirdly neon green relish (I was told this is traditional?) Worth every bite.
Many thanks to Cracker Barrel Cheese for arranging a trip that made me fall in love with Chicago, totally re-whet my appetite for travel and discovering the flavors of different regions — and then bringing that knowledge home and adapting it in my own cooking adventures! And for those of you who have some entertaining on the agenda (Easter, perhaps?), I highly, highly recommend kicking things off with one of Cracker Barrel’s delicious cheddars paired with some great bread or crackers, fruity jam or chutney, and a handful of great nuts like marcona almonds or caramelized walnuts. It’ll be a winner, every time.
*photos by Camille, except the 2 from Cracker Barrel test kitchen which are by Todd Rosenberg for Cracker Barrel. As noted, I’ve been selected by Kraft Foods to be an ambassador for Cracker Barrel cheese. While I have been compensated for my time, all opinions and tales from Chicago are my own.