One of the qualifying factors for a cheese to be considered a “celebration cheese” is its availability. I’ve talked about some cheeses that are more difficult to get because of how they are imported, and I have mentioned that other cheeses are only seasonally available.
When you eat what is in season, when it is in season, there is always a sort of excitement that stirs from the sudden availability of something that you couldn’t get last month (or if you could get it, it wasn’t that good—like strawberries in December). That goes for things like blueberries, asparagus, apples, and zucchini—but also for cheese.
There is one cheese in particular, at least in the US cheese scene, that causes a lot of hoopla when it suddenly comes to market late each autumn. That cheese, because of its seasonality, its limited availability within the season, and its damn-goodness, makes it onto this list.
The Celebration Cheese for week seven is Uplands Cheese Company’s Rush Creek Reserve.
We are now nearing the end of “Rush Creek season,” as it’s called in the cheese community. I actually just picked up my wheel this week. It’s not a cheese that I sell, but I know of three places around Seattle that do; I make a pilgrimage to Pike Place Market to buy my wheel from De Laurenti’s cheese counter each year.
This is not a cheese you can get everywhere, and it’s not one you can get often. But when you can get it, you should.
Rush Creek Reserve is one of two cheeses that sustainable Wisconsin creamery Uplands Cheese Company makes each year (the other cheese is Alpine-style Pleasant Ridge Reserve, a Beaufort-style cheese made only with spring and summer milk). Both cheeses are made seasonally, with milk from cows that are milked seasonally, and when the wheels are sold out for the year, they’re gone.
Made during the end of the milking season in the fall with raw milk, Rush Creek Reserve is a soft-ripened cheese that is wrapped in bark. It is similar to Jasper Hill’s Harbison, which won best-of-show this year at the American Cheese Society’s cheese competition. Both of these cheeses are made in the style of Vacherin Mont d’Or, a French cheese that is made seasonally in the Jura region.
Both Harbison and Rush Creek Reserve are exceptional cheeses.
Uplands Cheese only makes wheels of Rush Creek Reserve in September, October, and November. The late-season milk they use is higher in solids like fat and protein, so it is ideal for a soft, buttery cheese. The curds are stirred and ladled by hand, and the wheels are hand-flipped and hand-wrapped in a strip of spruce bark.
The bark has been soaked in a solution that includes yeast and mold that will be encouraged to grow on the surface of the cheese. During aging, the cheese is also washed with a “mother culture” solution of brine, yeast, and bacteria to further encourage those flora to grow on the rind.[i]
Each wheel comes with a note about the mold growing on its bark and how that growh is normal; this year, the Uplands Cheese Company website notes that there is blue mold growing on the wheels because of the higher-than-normal amount of rainfall they had in Wisconsin this fall, which led to moister conditions in the aging rooms:
“The white cheese molds typically seen on Rush Creek were joined this year by a smattering of blue and green molds. These colorful molds are commonly found in blue cheeses and other natural-rinded cheeses, and on Rush Creek their presence is a sign of a thriving ripening room.”[ii]
Since it is a raw-milk cheese in America, Rush Creek Reserve must be aged for 60 days before it can be sold.
Opening a wheel is like opening a little present that you can eat. The wheels come wrapped in white paper with the Uplands Cheese logo printed on top. Once you unfold the paper, you are confronted with a chubby little bark-wrapped wheel that is four inches in diameter and weighs about a pound. The spruce is coated in white mold, and the cheese’s rind is a pinkish shade of orange that is dappled with white growth.
Like all cheese, you want to eat Rush Creek Reserve at room-temperature, after it has been sitting out for at least an hour. Using a knife, you slice the top off of the wheel. Get a spoon, then dip it into the buttery colored, smooth paste within.
The cheese smells mushroomy, meaty, woodsy, with notes of asparagus and cream. In your mouth, it is smooth, gooey, and supple. I like to eat the rind I cut from the top, too (waste not, want not); it is chewy, and buttery as soft leather, its flavor more intense than that of the molten paste within.
This is a very complex cheese, thanks to the quality of the milk and the way that the cheese is aged to encourage you to be able to really taste that hay-fed autumn milk. At first, the cheese tastes smoky, brothy, milky, and a little bit vegetal. I get notes of shitake mushrooms, black pepper, pork broth (think good ramen), artichokes, cauliflower, moist earth, and sour cream.
I want to eat this cheese with bacon, or to dip French fries into it, or drink it with the type of bold, dark ale I guzzle like crazy at this time of year. But even just eating the cheese plain, with a spoon, straight out of the rind, is a wonderful experience.
With each bite, there are new flavors to notice, new layers of savory, umami meatiness; it is a gift that keeps on giving.
[i] Culture Magazine. “Rush Creek Reserve.” Cheese Library. Culture Magazine, culturecheesemag.com/cheese-library/rush-creek-reserve. Accessed 19 December 2018. <<https://culturecheesemag.com/cheese-library/rush-creek-reserve>>.
[ii] Uplands Cheese Company. “Rush Creek Reserve.” Uplands Cheese Company. uplandscheese.com/product/rush-creek-reserve/. Accessed 19 December 2018. <<https://www.uplandscheese.com/product/rush-creek-reserve/>>.