We blame it on the jelly. The year following the gifting of the most maligned food-of-the-month club, jars of blueberry, grape, hot pepper, and apricot pile up in the cabinet, unappealing and useless for all but as a spread on your morning toast (supposedly for those rare days you skip the oatmeal or omelet – besides, who can eat that much jam in a month?). It doesn't have to be that way. From rare craft beers to out-of-this-world salumi, food subscriptions can introduce delectables that you won't find in even your most discerning grocery store. As cousin Eddie said of Clark's Jelly of the Month gift in 'National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation,' "It's the gift that keeps on giving the whole year." Here's to making that statement actually true.
Pastoral Artfully American Series – Cheese of the Month Club
For years now, American cheese makers coast-to-coast have been perfecting their craft by producing stateside variations of old-world favorites like Gruyère and Brie, as well as uniquely American creations like Monterey Jack. But if you're tired of yet another hunk of Humboldt Fog or Maytag Blue, there's a good chance that even the most discerning cheese lovers among you will be pleasantly surprised by the offerings in the "Artfully American Series" cheese-of-the-month club, available from Chicago's Pastoral. Featuring two new cheeses shipped overnight every 30 days, the club serves as an exclusive, guided tour of the latest innovations from the artisanal American dairyland – and we're not just talking Vermont or Wisconsin, but some real finds from Midwestern states like Illinois and Iowa that aren't typically known for their cheeses. These examples are so exclusive and so new to the market, and made in such small quantities, that they are not even available at Pastoral's three stores.
"Subscribers to the series are part of an inner circle," says Greg O'Neill, owner of Pastoral, and soon-to-be president of the American Cheese Society (as of August). "They have the opportunity to be part of our most recent discoveries trying cheeses that have not yet been introduced to stores nationwide." In the past, the club has included delicious creamy cheese gems like the Camembert-style Little Bloom on the Prairie (from Prairie Fruits Farm in Champaign, Illinois), which is now available at other fine cheese emporiums like Murray's and Beecher's, but previously was only known to Pastoral's customers. In addition to experiencing two cheeses a month, club members also get a mini lesson: The items arrive with information providing all the necessary contextual background – where they are from, why they were chosen that month, and how they can best be enjoyed.
The mailings also include examples of cheeses from better-known East and West Coast cheese makers, including piquant blues like Jasper Hill Farm's Bayley Hazen Blue (Vermont) and goat's milk offerings like Rivers Edge Chevre's Up in Smoke (Oregon). Also: Bel Canto, an ash-ripened goat's milk cheese made exclusively for Pastoral by Soyoung Scanlan of Andante Dairy (California).
When it comes to the hotter months, Pastoral sticks to the harder cheeses that can best withstand the delivery. As a result, they arrive in great condition, as if you had purchased them directly from their store. For June, the package includes two distinct firm raw cow's milk cheeses from the Midwest: Cottonwood River Cheddar, from up-and-coming cheesemaker Jason Wiebe in Durham, Kansas, and Forest Alpine, from Marcoot Jersey Creamery in Greenville, Illinois. The former is aged for eight months, resulting in a crunchy texture with savory protein crystals. (That's right, those little white dots are delicious and edible bits of protein, not mold.) The cheddar has just the right amount of pungency, which makes it not only delicious on its own, but also melted on a burger at a Fourth of July barbecue. The latter cheese has a longer, sharper finish and is produced in an Alpine style, which means that it tastes like a Swiss Gruyère (and gives quite the distinctively rich bite to a cheeseburger, too).
Although plenty of cheese shops, including New York's Murray's and San Francisco's Cowgirl Creamery, offer some sort of monthly subscription, Pastoral is one of the few that uses its program as a platform for emerging cheese makers. While educating your palate, you can stay up-to-date with the newest American cheeses that trend-chasers on either coast have never even heard of.
More information: Packages start at $99 for a three-month subscription, up to $399 for a 12-month subscription; shop.pastoralartisan.com