European cheeses: holiday entertaining with the taste of travel

European cheeseI work part-time in a cheese shop, and I’m also a contributing editor at culture, a consumer cheese magazine. I can’t help noticing that, despite a still-sluggish economy, people don’t want to do without their cheese. Especially if they’ve fallen for a specific type during their (usually European) travels.

Not everyone who bellies up to the counter is a globetrotter or a cheese geek, but they’re all eager to try new things and learn about the animals and cheesemakers responsible, and what, if any, cultural role certain cheeses play in their country of origin. It got me thinking: why not show Gadling readers how to do a bit of armchair travel to Europe via their local cheese shop?

Cheese has long been associated with revelry, in part because of its cozy compatibility with beer, wine, Champagne, and certain spirits. With the holiday season upon us, I put together a list of some delicious, versatile, affordable European imports that will make any small party more festive. The best part? You don’t need to be any kind of cheese wunderkind to put together a banging cheese plate (suggestions coming up).

[Photo credit: Flickr user cwbuecheler]

European cheeseI usually allow about an ounce of each cheese per person, assuming there’s more food. If you’re throwing a big party, it may not be financially feasible to purchase certain products (and there’s nothing wrong with serving a mass-produced Gruyere or Gouda). Note that some styles of cheese are less dense than others, so depending upon price, you can get more dairy for your dollar.

If you can’t find these cheeses at your nearest grocery, Whole Foods (which have generally excellent cheese departments), or specialty shop, try online sources Murray’s Cheese, Cowgirl Creamery, Formaggio Kitchen, and Artisanal Premium Cheese. Click here for a national cheese retailer directory by zipcode.

In addition to picking some of my own favorites, I turned to one of culture’s co-founders, cheesemonger Thalassa Skinner of Napa’s Oxbow Cheese Merchant, for advice:

The Cheeses

France
Langres (cow): Traditionally served with Champagne poured over it (those decadent French!), this well-priced washed-rind is a little bit stinky, with a dense, creamy interior and tangy lactic finish. From the Langres plateau in the Champagne-Ardenne region.
European cheese
Holland
Ewephoria (sheep): Nutty, rich, with a hint of crystallization, this butterscotchy Gouda will convert even the ambivalent into cheese aficionados.

Switzerland
Appenberger (cow): This buttery Alpine-style cheese from the Schweitzer Mittelland region has a faintly grassy tang. A surefire crowd-pleaser.

Italy
Robiola due latte (a blend of cow and sheep or goat’s milk): A rich, mold-ripened number with a slightly sour, mushroomy finish, from the dairy-rich Piedmont and Lombardy regions. Top imports include those by Perolari due Latti, Robiola Bosina, and Robiola delle Langhe.

Spain
Leonora (goat): A loaf-shaped, mold-ripened cheese from the northwestern village of León. Creamy, tangy, and delightful, with a blindingly white, dense, chewy interior.

Portugal
Azeitao (cow): Yeasty, full-flavored, with a slightly bitter finish; a beer-lover’s cheese. From the village of the same name, in the Arrabida Mountains, near Lisbon.European cheese

England
Stilton (cow): Colston-Bassett makes perhaps the finest version of this historic, earthy blue cheese. It’s a classic British holiday treat, produced in Derbyshire, Leicestershire, and Nottinghamshire. Stichelton is the equally delicious, raw milk version; it’s a bit more fruity and crumbly. But for another British tradition, go for a robust Cheddar. Keen’s (cow) is buttery, with a horseradishy bite.

Ireland
Coolea (cow): This dense, buttery, Gouda-style from County Cork has a sharp, grassy finish. Unusual and delicious.

Belgium
Wavreumont (cow): A smooth, full-flavored, monastic-style washed rind. Trappist beer, anyone?

Cheese Plate 101

K.I.S.S.: This is a fun little acronym I learned in culinary school. It stands for, “Keep it Simple, Stupid.” A foofy, cluttered cheese plate with too many accompaniments just detracts from the headliner. You can keep sides as simple as some plain crackers or a baguette, or add toasted almonds, walnuts, or hazelnuts, and some preserves, or honeycomb or dried frEuropean cheeseuit or grapes or slices of pear or apple (in summer, use stonefruit such as peaches or cherries, or berries).

You can also go the savory route with dry-cured or green olives (Picholine are my favorite) and some salumi (add grainy mustard, cornichons, and a hearty rye bread for a winter supper). Forget the sundried tomatoes, pickled onions, pepperoncini, artichoke hearts, tapenade, stuffed peppers, or whatever else the local deli has in its antipasti bar. It’s overkill.

Stick to three to four cheeses that increase in intensity of flavor. You can do whatever you want: all blues, or all goat cheeses. For a diverse, well-rounded plate, try: One creamy/mild; one semi-soft or semi-firm with some kick, or a washed-rind/ surface-ripened; one hard-aged; one blue or something really punchy (taste this last, because the stronger flavors will obscure your palate). Your cheesemonger can help you pick things out and explain these terms to you, or click here for a glossary.

When pairing cheese with beer or wine, a rule of thumb is to match the intensity of flavor of the cheese to that of the beverage. The following are some suggestions for some of the more tricky, assertive cheeses.

Goat cheese: A good rosé will almost always work, as will a light German beer like Hoegaarden.
European cheese
Big, stinky washed-rinds: Pair with sweet bubbly; the effervescence will help cleanse the palate and won’t compete with the flavor of the cheese. If you’re drinking beer, go with a light pilsner or lambic.

Blue cheeses: Go for a sweet dessert wine (not Port) or Lambic beer with fruit, such as framboise.

For additional cheese plate ideas, click here.

[Photo credits: Neal’s Yard, Flickr user foodmuse; Gouda, Flickr user manuel/MC; cow, Laurel Miller; grapes, Flickr user lakewentworth; goat, Laurel Miller]

Daily Pampering: Chauffeured rides ensure royal treatment at Napa’s Milliken Creek Inn & Spa

Why worry about getting from point A to point B when your luxury hotel can do that for you? Milliken Creek Inn & Spa, an intimate luxury boutique hotel in Napa Valley, is offering “Your Carriage Awaits” package – a romantic, two-night travel package that allows guests to tour the region without having to lift a finger.

Upon arrival, guests will be taken to one of the Inn’s 12 individually designed, spacious suites where oversized hydrotherapy bathtubs await. After a quick soak and change, roundtrip chauffeured transportation to dinner in downtown Napa will be provided. Upon return, indulge in the chocolate-covered strawberries, candles and rose petals that complete your turn-down service.

Spend the next morning at the spa before hopping into the chauffeured four-hour wine tour to visit three Napa wineries before heading off to dinner.

The cost of this pretty pampering? A mere $930 per couple per stay. For full details, visit Milliken Creek Inn’s website or call 800.822.8418 and request offer code “CARRIAGE.”

Want more? Get your daily dose of pampering right here.

Daily Pampering: Destination Cellars takes wine lovers behind the scenes in Napa Valley

Ever wonder what goes on behind the scenes at the finest Napa Valley wineries? Destination Cellars, the wine club for luxury palettes, is offering its club members a “backstage pass” to meet the rock stars of the wine world.

The event is being held Sept. 23-26 and is limited to only 10 couples, so you’ll have to act fast if you’re interested. You’ll get:

  • Room at The Carneros Inn – rated the “Top Romantic Getaway” by Travel & Leisure Magazine
  • A meet and greet with Destination Cellars Estate Sommelier Sean Meyer, who will serve as your guide throughout the tour.
  • Welcome Reception at Signorello Estate, complete with Neapolitan style pizzas from the wood-fired oven.
  • Lunch and a behind the scenes tour of Vineyard 29 with Chef Sarah Heller, formerly of Bouchon and The French Laundry
  • Dinner at Ma(i)sonry, a 1904 stone manor home covered in priceless art and surrounded by the exceptional wines of Blackbird, one of the most coveted wineries in the region.
  • And so much more.

The backstage pass main event is sponsored by Hourglass Wine Company. In its sixth annual event, the company aims to raise $500,000 for the St. Helena Unified School District.

Total cost of this pampering: $6,000 per couple. A chance to taste some of the rarest wines in the region: Priceless (and delicious!)

Want more? Get your daily dose of pampering right here.

Aloft Hotels seeks next big music act

Now that American Idol has ended what will aspiring singers do? Never fear superstars, Aloft Hotels has you covered (if you can sing).

Aloft is launching “Project Aloft Star” in an effort to find the next great musical artist.

Project Aloft Star, which kicks off June 7, will be a virtual battle of the bands with one winner kicking off the main stage at “Live In The Vineyard” in November alongside bonafide stars including Lily Allen, Jason Mraz, Colbie Caillat and Macy Gray. Additionally, Aloft will send the winning artist or band on a tour of Aloft hotels throughout the United States.

The contest will take place on Facebook and the top three bands will be chosen based on a combination of votes from Facebook fans, Aloft guests, and Live In the Vineyard artists. Think you have what it takes to rock the hotel world? Sign up on Aloft’s Facebook fan page and submit a video of an original acoustic performance. The first round of voting will take place during the submission period, from June 7 to July 31. After the top three vote-getters are determined, a second round of votes will happen from August 10 to September 10. The final winning act will then be announced on September 15, and will go on to play at the “Live in the Vineyard” concert the weekend of November 13.

Aloft is the 2010 presenting sponsor for Live in the Vineyard, which takes place in California’s Napa Valley every April and November. Before you dismiss the event as an amateur karaoke night, take another look: performers include the likes of Melissa Etheridge, Train, Tonic and VV Brown.

20 great bike rides

For many travelers, the default mode of transport is a plane or a car, but they’re certainly not the only options. Have you ever considered adding a bicycle ride to your next trip? Riding a bike has a number of advantages over other forms of transportation. You’ll move slower, no doubt, but with that slowness comes an increased awareness of your surroundings, a chance to get some fresh air and exercise and the sense of accomplishment that comes with a great ride. Whether you’re looking to ride across the USA or simply take a leisurely pedal around a nearby town, Gadling has compiled the following list of 20 great bike rides. Take a look below!

Mackinac Island, Michigan
Straddling the divide between Lake Huron and Michigan, Mackinac Island transports bikers to the simpler days where horse drawn carriages and bicycles were the main modes of transportation. Not having to worry about sharing the road with motorized vehicles, with the exception of emergency and service vehicles, this island is a cyclist’s haven. With 3 bike rental outfits to choose from, anyone can enjoy this National Historic Landmark filled with Victorian charm on 2 wheels and after a visit here, you will not want to return to the hustle and bustle of the 21st Century.

Newport, Rhode Island
It is understandable that images of the renowned Newport Mansions are the first to come to mind when you hear “Newport, Rhode Island.” Admittedly grand on the inside, riding by these mansions from the outside and through the surrounding parts of town are just as breathtaking. Take the path passing by the Newport Harbor, Brenton Cove, Ocean Ave, and of course Bellevue Ave where you get a feast for the eyes with the famed Marble House, The Elms, and Chateau sur Mer, among other grand homes and before long, you can understand why the rich chose this location as their summer playground.

Monterey Bay, California
California’s Monterey Bay is filled with many options for a scenic bike ride. The famous 17 mile drive meanders through Pebble Beach but those who prefer skipping the entrance fee can be rewarded with an equally scenic ride on what some dubbed the “Poor Man’s 17 Mile Drive”. Drive down to the Asilomar State Beach where parking can usually be found and ride along the coastline through the town of Pacific Groves where in the spring you may come upon the harbor seal pups lounging on the sand and frolicking in the ocean. Do not forget to bring binoculars for those otter sightings as you bike through Monterey and Cannery Row.

Haleakala, Maui, Hawaii
When one thinks of Maui, biking is probably not on the top of the list. However, they would be missing one of the best bird’s eye view experience. Although Haleakala National Park eliminated commercial downhill bike tour operations a few years back, bikes are still allowed. Those wishing to bike downhill from the summit can rent bikes from Haleakala Bike and experience unparalleled views of the island itself as they bike down. Two tips for riders: Have someone drop you off at the summit so you will not have to ride back up to pickup your car and wear layers that you can peel off as you descend from 40 degree temps at the top to 80s at the bottom.

Napa Valley Silverado Trail, California

Although not along a coast or body of water, the Napa Valley Wine Country is a beautiful place for a scenic bike ride. Start in picturesque Yountville and take the less crowded Silverado Trail that parallels CSR 29. You will find yourself surrounded by the yellow mustard fields in the spring and vineyards that stretch for miles that for a moment, you might think you were in Tuscany. You can not go wrong with a bike ride here any time of year. After an invigorating ride, you can enjoy a leisurely picnic and a wine tasting or two at a choice of wineries, including Duckhorn and Rutherford Hill.

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

South of the famous Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming’s other gem, Grand Teton NP offers hundreds of miles of hiking trails but biking paths are harder to find. Since accessibility is limited in areas, joining their “Scenic Guided Bike Ride” would be the best and safest option. The bike tour will have you riding through open prairies, under the peaks of the Teton Mountain Range, and through sagebrush flats where you may spot where the buffalos roam.

Sausalito/San Francisco, California
Marin County’s Sausalito is reminiscent of a coastal Mediterranean town with its colorful houses clinging to the hillsides and houseboats along the north end of town. Riding through downtown will offer you views of the SF skyline and the bridge in the distance and those who are on a mission to chase that mirage can ride across the Golden Gate Bridge and back or through San Francisco and return by ferry.

Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts
New England’s Martha’s Vineyard south of Cape Cod is a popular spot for celebrities but knows how to retain its low key atmosphere. With over 44 miles of bike trails and roads available, there are options for beginners and advanced riders alike. The “down-Island” route is mainly flat, great for beginners and families while the “up-Island” route is for more experienced riders. Either way, you will get to experience the versatility of this place with its changing landscapes from the gorgeous waters and beaches to the meadows to the red Aquinnah Cliffs. Before long it will seem like everything is a vista point.

Lake Tahoe, California
Tahoe, known for its ski slopes and casinos may find that it may still be a hidden gem for mountain biking. Northstar Ski Resort opens up its lift access for downhill mountain biking adventures in the summer. Just purchase a lift pass and you can take the lift up and bike down. For those less adventurous, get a “pedaling only pass” to access the park and cross country ride for free from a choice of beginner to advance trails all with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains and trees.

Coronado, California
San Diego County’s picturesque coastal community offers a village atmosphere with a downtown filled with shops, restaurant, and theaters. With many bike friendly areas to choose from, you are treated to ocean views, architecture, and history including the home of Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum. He was so in love with Coronado, many erroneously thought his vision for the Emerald City must have stemmed from the Hotel del Coronado. Erroneous or not, anyone can see how a place like Coronado can be so inspirational.

— The above was written by Joyce Zee, Seed contributor.



Rock Creek Park Trails, Washington DC (5-50 miles)
Suggested starts: N. Pitt St and Second St. in Alexandria or Dupont Circle in DC

There are so many great bike paths in the DC area, but this is one of my favorite rides, from Alexandria’s Old Town with its many federalist buildings, along the Potomac River, past Reagan National Airport and Arlington Cemetery, across the river at Memorial Bridge to the Lincoln Memorial, and then into Rock Creek Park. There are a few tricky transitions, particularly around the Lincoln Memorial, and the path is very popular on weekends. Parts of the Rock Creek Park roads are bikes-only on weekends. You can take your bike on Metro for the return trip too.

Mississippi River trail to Chain of Rocks Bridge, St. Louis Missouri (20 miles)
Suggested start: Commercial St. and Carr St., downtown St. Louis

St. Louis is my hometown now and this is a frequent route because it is relatively flat and has some great views both of the River and the industrial side of the city. You can see the Arch at many points along the river, as well as pass multiple levees and locks. It ends at a bridge that is closed to car traffic and figured prominently in the movie “Escape from New York”. There are links to other trails that cross the river and you can return on the Illinois side, for some variety. Few services along the way, bring lots of water.

Brooklyn Bridge, New York City (5 miles)
Suggested start: Park Row and Centre Streets, New York City, across from City Hall

This is the one iconic ride in Manhattan that anyone can do, and while packed on the weekends (and you share the path with pedestrians), during the week it can be very enjoyable. It is a bit of a climb too. Finding the path on the Brooklyn side can be a challenge, and if you want more than the bridge ride you can travel across Chambers Street in Manhattan and connect with the path along the Hudson River along the West Side Highway.

Crater Lake Rim Road, Oregon (33 miles)
Suggested start: Rim Village parking lot

This road circles Crater Lake, a volcanic caldera that contains almost pure water of the most amazing color blue. The road is only open during July and August since at more than 7,000 feet it is snowed in the rest of the time. There is light auto traffic but the views are unparalleled of the lake and the surrounding mountains. If the 33-mile ride isn’t sufficient, you can hike down to the lake in one spot too. Only attempt this if you are in excellent shape and have ridden at altitude before.

St. Michaels to Easton, Maryland (36 miles)
Suggested Start: Courthouse on Washington St. in St. Michaels

This part of Maryland is completely flat and very picturesque. You will be near water and boats and biking on very rural (meaning little traffic but plenty of ruts) roads. There is even a short ferry to take across the Tred Avon River that runs frequently. There are numerous historic buildings that date from colonial times and dozens of B&Bs and restaurants to take advantage of when you are done biking. Some of the roads are in poor condition so better to use a heavier mountain or hybrid bike for this trip.

Shelter Island, New York (10-50 miles)
Suggested start: Greenport, NY ferry terminal/Long Island Railroad train station

Shelter Island is a small island that is nestled between the two forks of Long Island, and is a biking paradise. The roads are well maintained, there is hardly any traffic, and while it has hills, you are never far from water and great views of the Peconic Bay . You can do many trips in the area, including a circle one that takes in both ferries, but starting in Greenport is best for the variety of services, restaurants, and places to stay nearby. Plus, you can take your bike on the Long Island Rail Road to there too.

Saltspring Island, British Columbia, Canada (~30 miles)
Suggested start: Sydney, BC ferry terminal

This trip will take some planning but is worth it because you have virtually no traffic once the cars leave the ferry, have lots of interesting places to visit, and you’ll be biking through some of the most spectacular scenery in North America. There are dozens of small islands that are perfect for biking and BC Ferries and the ferry from Sydney is a good place to start. Saltspring Island is one of the bigger islands in between Vancouver Island and the mainland, and you can take other ferries to other islands as well as Vancouver Island to continue your exploration.

Santa Monica to Manhattan Beach, California (10-40 miles)

Suggested start: Dockweiler Beach State Park

The best beach bike path is very crowded in summer, but great the rest of the year. You visit the Venice Boardwalk, go around the Marina Del Rey’s many boat docks, underneath the flight path of LAX airport, and past many surfers to end up in trendy Manhattan Beach. Parking is difficult, and finding your way around the Marina can be a challenge.

Death Valley, California (10-100 miles)
Suggested start: Furnace Creek Visitor Center

There are no water views on this ride but you are traveling between two lovely mountain ranges with hardly any traffic. Skip the summer months, but this ride is great the rest of the year when temperatures are more moderate. You can go up to a century to Jubilee Pass (1300 foot) or more moderate distances. The road is a bit rough in spots and no shoulders.

Paradise, Mt. Rainer, Washington (40 miles)
Suggested Start: Nisqually Entrance of the park

This is another trip for very experienced cyclists. You are riding on narrow mountain roads with no shoulders and at altitude, and this route will rise more than 3,000 feet in the 20 miles it takes you to get to Paradise. The good news is that the return trip will take no time at all and it is a breeze. The best time to do this ride is in late August or September. Weekends can be crowded with cars. The views of the mountains are unparalleled.

— The above was written by David Strom, Seed contributor.

Need more inspiration to get outside? Keep reading!