These Local Cheeses Are Curated to Be an Edible Experience
Antonelli’s, Vino Vino, Il Bruto, and La Matta think beyond the palate
"When you use the word 'cheese' it sounds very focused, but there can be a thousand different flavor profiles you can choose from," said John Antonelli, owner of Antonelli's Cheese Shop. Opened in 2010, Antonelli has since expanded to a private event space, a small restaurant in Downtown marketplace Fareground, and a warehouse/cellar where all of the cheese is stored.
As the demand for higher-quality ingredients has gone up, people are eating more artisanal cheese. From his point of view, cheese boards have become extremely popular for a first or second course, but have struggled to be a dessert item. The focus on eating local has had an impact on the way Austinites are consuming cheese as well.
"Domestically, I think that we're going to continue to see an increase in cheese consumption, especially of American-made products. The cheesemakers throughout the country are amazing people, and the more you hear their stories, the more you want to support them," said Antonelli.
Joaquin Avellan, of Dos Lunas Artisan Cheese, has been making cheese for almost 10 years in the Austin area. Avellan learned cheesemaking on his father's farm in Argentina. He makes the cheese in Schulenburg, then ages it in his facility in Manchaca. "When I make the cheese, I have to start at midnight to get through it all, and I'm normally there until 8pm the next day," said Avellan.
"It's been a whole process – not just trying to put the cheese out there, but to educate people as well. A lot of people are afraid of raw cheese," Avellan said. Dos Lunas uses raw cow's milk (never pasteurized) for its cheese, which was once the only option for cheesemakers. Following World War I, there was a dramatic increase in the amount of large-scale cheese production, and drawing milk of different ages from countless local farms meant the milk had to be pasteurized to prevent outbreaks. These days, raw milk cheese must be aged a minimum of 60 days, per FDA regulation.
Despite making a unique product, Avellan still struggles. The regulations on the milk itself make it difficult for Avellan to produce his cheese without sacrificing quality or integrity. "I wanted to create a cheese for the American table, for families in Austin, Texas," Avellan said.
"Cheese is a big part of what people experience Vino Vino as – a wine and cheese bar," said Ben Schwartz, executive chef at Vino Vino. For his selection process, he looks at milk type, aging process, style, weather, and geography, and tries to create a balance without alienating styles or palates. Schwartz gets to showcase some Austin favorites, like the triple cream Délice de Bourgogne, along with wild cards like a Wisconsin bleu or a firm goat cheese.
"I like to give people the option of choosing what they want, and learning about it, but also just creating a really beautiful board with accompaniments that are all house-made," said Schwartz. At Vino Vino, there is a global approach to cheese: Chefs gets to work from anywhere in the world, selecting what they feel best fits their menu.
Across town, chef Erind Halilaj of Il Brutto and La Matta takes a different approach to cheese. Focusing on only Italian cheeses, Halilaj wanted to showcase what he grew up eating. The overwhelming majority of cheeses produced in Italy are not deliberately pasteurized: Some are semi-pasteurized (exposed to higher temperatures during the cheesemaking process), but most are still raw.
"I come from that world, and what I love about those cheeses is that they are always different. I am reminded on the first taste, but every time that I taste them, they are different. They have little differences, and that is the beauty," said Halilaj. To best taste these nuances, Halilaj puts heavy focus on what else is served alongside the cheese. Sweet and salty components like jam, honeycomb, fig, apple, and nuts recalibrate your palate and provide a contrast of textures and sensation as you move between the different cheeses.
With cheese, Halilaj prefers a white or wheat bread, with as little extra salt as possible. He explained, "This way, you're not adding more salt to the cheese. The goal is to have breads that are delicate, that have a good percentage of water, and that are not very dense so you have the carbs to help taste the cheese, but not overwhelm it."