Assembling the perfect cheese plate for summer picnics, and other life lessons from Kris Horton of K.Horton Specialty Foods
Spring has finally arrived in Portland, soon to be followed by the lingering days of summer. Those of us who live in Maine often rationalize that brutal winters are only the price to be paid for our absolutely idyllic summers. And what more is summer about than spending time outdoors with family and friends, indulging in cold beverages and a delicious cheese plate (perhaps that’s just our idea of a perfect Summer day, but we imagine we’re not the only ones)?
When we think cheese, we think K. Horton Specialty Foods. Owner Kris Horton has been curating an incredible selection of cheeses and specialty foods since she took over her father’s smoked seafood business over thirty years ago. Since then she has been an integral part of the Portland food scene and an advocate of local businesses by supporting opportunities for small food producers to sell their products. This is epitomized by her role as a founder of the Public Market House on Monument Square where her shop is located, which was created to serve as an incubator for small businesses.
Kris has seen the food landscape in Maine change over the years and she is thrilled about how far it has come. “The secret is what Europeans have known for thousands of years that the United States is just beginning to learn: When you go to a place you need to find what’s being made locally and eat that. You’ll learn more about the area by doing that than almost any other way.”
This point is perfectly made by looking inland where farmers allow their cows to graze on grass along riverbanks, as it is the most fertile due to flooding each spring when the mountain snow melts and rushes into the valley. As the snow melts and travels downstream it picks up minerals from the mountain bedrock. As a result, cheeses produced from this milk have distinct mineral notes representative of their region and natural landscape. Because Maine’s cheese makers use almost exclusively raw milk the flavors are heightened and diverse, impacted greatly by the land the cows have grazed.
With that in mind, Kris recommends getting to know Maine cheeses and making them the star of your summer picnic spread. Aim for at least one soft, medium and hard cheese; and always choose an odd number (3-5 is ideal). The Sunset Acres Farm Goat Milk Gardien made by Ann Bossi, is a particularly delicious soft cheese; Kris pairs it with her house-cured gravlax (a secret family recipe) for an herbaceous and tangy treat. Though our top pick is The Lynn by Debbie Hahn of Hahn’s End Farm, a washed rind cheese dipped in Oxbow Brewing Company’s Loretta beer. It has a creamy texture with a little bit of ‘funk’ from the golden moldy rind, and it pairs perfectly with Morse’s mustard pickles, another popular local item sold in the shop.
Here’s a list of additional recommended cheeses to try on your next picnic cheese board:
Soft: Goat Roule from York Hill Farm, Medallion from Lakins Gorgeous Creamery, or Camembert from Silvery Moon Creamery.
Medium: Smoked Blue from Grindstone Neck, Eleanor Buttercup from Hahn’s End Farm or Rosemary’s Waltz from Silvery Moon Creamery.
Hard: Lakins Gorgeous Creamery Opus 42, Silvery Moon Creamery Fore River Tomme or Hahn’s End Old Shiretown
Kris urges consumers not to forget that cheese is a living thing and mold is inevitable…in fact it is a good thing! Without mold the world would be very bland, she says. The best way to keep cheese alive after purchase is to wrap it loosely in wax paper, then place in a plastic bag or container. Cheese doesn’t necessarily go ‘bad’ (even after sitting out for a while), rather it changes over time as new mold develops. Typically though, blue and green molds are delicious where as orange, yellow and red molds are not. If mold develops on your cheese, you can simply shave or cut away the moldy parts until you uncover more palatable layers.
And Kris’ biggest tip for eating cheese? Whatever you do, do not eat it straight out of the refrigerator, “It’s really a crime against yourself!” she exclaims. Kris recommends removing cheese from cold temperatures 1-2 hours before serving to allow it to come to the right texture and flavor.
In her shop you can also pick up a wide range of accompaniments for your picnic spread. Kris’ knowledgeable staff is always busy preparing fresh salads and creating delicious dips and spreads like their new kale hummus, which is hearty yet bright and citrusy. Don’t miss the cooler of “Grab N’ Go” items as well as the selection of dried fruits, olives and cured meats that will round out your cheese presentation. And stayed tuned for our upcoming blog post on wine pairings for your cheese!
For more information on K. Horton Specialty Foods, visit their Facebook page. And for a behind the scenes tasting experience at K. Horton’s and many other local purveyors, sign up for our flagship Old Port Culinary Walking Tour.