Forever Cheese founder Michele Buster talks about her love for Spanish food and wine products, her favorite pro-level cheese pairings, how she got started in this special industry, and her “desert island wine”—and naturally, the perfect cheese to pair it with!
Michele, you have quite an impressive resume: you started Forever Cheese in 1998 to help bring the finest Mediterranean, and especially Spanish, cheeses to American foodies. How did you get your start, and what made you fall in love with the delicious world of exemplary Spanish food products?
There are two parts to this. I started working in the cheese business because I fell in love with an Italian man whose family made cheese for a living, and I changed industries from sports to food when he needed help introducing his family's cheeses into the finest cheese shops and restaurants in the US.
I fell in love with Spain in the mid to late 1980’s and that love was ever-present. That I ended up with an Italian was not a deterrent—it just added a further interesting development to it all. When I decided to leave behind my beloved sports career to discover the world of cheese and later many other wonderful accompaniments and iconic products from Spain, I had one condition for my Italian (Pierluigi Sini)—that if we were successful with his family's cheese, then he needed to let me go to Spain to find what I considered to be great quality Manchego, since I was not satisfied with the offerings currently in the US.
To me, it was all about importing the best Manchego, and yet it was also way more than that—I wanted to help Americans fall in love with Spain like I had. When I moved to New York after finishing the Olympics in 1992, almost nobody knew what tapas were. Everyone thought I wanted to hang out at topless bars. There was no espresso, there was one age of Manchego and not much else. Marcona almonds were known only to a small group of people, and they were generally located on the bottom shelf of a gourmet shop or an ethnic shop. What I loved about Spain was the people, the atmosphere, the Work to Live, not the Live to Work.
And oh how I loved Spanish food—the tapas, and especially the variety of almonds that plagued me for ten years until I learned their name: the Marconas, which were unforgettable. Every food that I source from Spain is meant to represent an artisan, a regional specialty, or some tradition past or present that I wanted to offer to the American public to help them fall in love with my adopted country.
It’s no secret that Spanish cheese pairs beautifully with the country’s world-class wines—after all, “what grows together, goes together.” Where did your appreciation for wines from Spain begin, and what makes their unique flavors so perfect for the unique range of Spanish cheeses?
The same time I fell in love with Spain I started to learn about Spanish wines. Tempranillo was this constant saint, yet at the same time it wore so many hats—it was fruity, sometimes earthy, and I marveled at the careful and lengthy aging of the Gran Reservas in Rioja.
Albariño, too, is one of those purely unique wines with so much depth and yet so much finesse, like a ballet dancer. Enate from Somontano captivated me years ago for its versatility and I fell in love with Monsant before most people knew about it for its great blends that I could afford. Itsas Mendi Txakolina opened my eyes to these wines for their freshness and versatility with food.
Just as there is a vast vast array of dazzling flavors, aromas and textures of wine, there is a cheese we can pair with each since the range of cheeses in Spain is equally vast—from the creamy young Tetilla in Galicia, to the nutty and round Roncal of Navarra, to the dense, citrusy wonder of Leonora Goat Cheese from Leon to the savory, brothy Alisios goat and cow's milk cheese from Fuerteventura and the fun, fruity, mild PataCabra of Aragon.
What do you look for in a wine, producer, or category when you’re looking for or recommending a great bottle, and how does your deep background in Spanish food products influence your thinking?
If we are going to talk wine with cheese, I feel that whites are honestly more versatile—I sell a lot of goat cheeses and so I definitely recommend a dry white or Cava to go with them, as I don't want the cheese to be overshadowed by too many big bouquets or too many tannins.
If I don't need to worry about pairings. . . I have fun sending people to Valencia since it is not often thought of for wine. I continue to delve into Galicia and think there is so much depth there as well. I have always been a supporter of La Rioja and for years carried a smartphone just to have my list of the vintages and favorites from that region handy. When I look for a wine or cheese, I am looking for homogenous flavors. I am not into the natural wine scene where you get notes all over the place, where funkier is better. I prefer the reverse. I like good structure, a balance of acid, fruit, and tannins, and appreciate complexity alongside harmony.
What are some emerging trends in the Spanish food that you are tracking? Any themes foodies should be keeping an eye on?
In cheese, I have been on the hunt for some younger cheeses, searching for products from regions that I don't yet represent like Huesca, for example. Often I don't go looking for a particular item rather just observe and taste until something catches my eye.
What wine regions or DOs in Spain inspire you right now? Where should wine lovers be looking to discover their next favorite Spanish wine?
I have really gotten into Txakoli as I mentioned. I feel it offers so much versatility. I am heartened to see how Jumilla has improved over the years. Valencia, as I mentioned before, had very shaky wines years ago and now produce some terrific ones (I consider my heart Valencian so I think about it alot). Again, I still love Somontano and Ribera del Duero and am still delving into Ribeiro. It’s so easy to find good and great wine in Spain. I do want to mention that if anyone can find Etim Late Harvest Garnacha, it is my favorite dessert wine from Spain: inky, rich, smooth, and so satisfying.
What are your go-to Spanish wine and cheese pairings?
● Etim Late Harvest Garnacha with Blues: Cabrales, Valdeon, MitiBleu, Andazul
● Albariño, Godello, or Verdejo: Miticana de Cabra or Oveja - Soft Ripened Goat or Sheep Log
● A rosé with body: Drunken Goat (R) Cheese
● Listán Negro: Alisios Mixed Milk Cheese
● Mineral whites or a Tempranillo Crianza: Idiazabal
● Macabeo/Chardonnay blend: Pimentino Goat Cheese with Paprika
● Albariño and Cava: San Simon
● Verdejo or a crisp medium-bodied white: Campo de Montalban Mixed Milk Cheese
● Enate Cabernet/Tempranillo blend: PataCabra- semi soft washed curd goat from Aragon
● Any crisp white: Naked Goat - Carchelo Canalizo
You’re stranded on a desert island and have only one case of Spanish wine to keep you company until the search party finds you (or not). What would you choose and why?
Pazo Señorans Albariño. As much as I love red wines, they would make me too thirsty, so I'd like something mineral, not overpowering, and with finesse, yet not meek. It would keep me happy for a long time.
Bonus question: what Spanish cheese would you pair with your desert island wine?
I love all my cheeses—they are my children and the producers are my family. It is oh so hard to choose. . . as with all our kids, it is also dependent on the day and how we feel about them :)
I feel that I would choose El Trigal 6 month Manchego. It is to me the iconic Manchego—not too firm, just right—it oozes with butter and has a long finish with a touch of nuttiness. It would marry beautifully with the Pazo Señorans.