A year of cheeses – more than 52

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Cheese as far as the eye can see

So that was it! Two days ago, without any warning, 2016 came to a screeching halt and my 52 cheeses project right with it. After an identity crisis that lasted several seconds, I made some bold decisions: first off, I will keep eating cheese, and I will write about it. On the last day of the year I got a piece of Reblochon, and that will become the cheese of week 1, 2017.  But my decisiveness didn’t stop there, because I also felt I needed some changes. More about that in a minute – first, let’s go back to see if I achieved the goals I set myself when I started this blog a year ago. This is what I wanted to do:

  • Eat (a bit of) 52 different cheeses in 2016
  • Understand more than I did before about cheese and everything related to it
  • Develop a new creative outlet for my own selfish purposes
  • Learn how to write a blog

So I ate more than my fair share of cheese – just tonight I finished the last of the Camembert and the Tomme de Montagne and a bit of a very nice goat cheese from the great cheese counter at Hieber – so on count 1, I scored more than 100%. I do know a thing or two about cheese I didn’t know before, I met some interesting cheese people and I have a list of places I’d like to visit one day, to meet some random animals and some of the people that help put their milk into cheese. This post will be number 76, so the part about learning how to write and keep up a blog – that’s covered as well. The one thing where I may have missed the mark is the whole creative outlet bit. The self-imposed number of 52 cheeses and then the extra posts I decided to write: it’s become a bit much, and the writing at times felt like work.

Which is the perfect segue into what’s going to be next: in 2017, under the now clearly misleading name 52cheeses, I will write about all sorts of food. Mainly beer, chocolate and of course cheese, but I am also trying to learn more about the clementines from Corsica I just bought – apparently they merit an AOP. I doubt that I will eat any French AOP hay anytime soon, but the whole certification thing is interesting – there is a Kirsch-brandy soaked cake from the city of Zug, in Switzerland that has a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI), a jaw-breaking gingerbread from Aachen in Germany with similar protection, Bratwursts from St. Gallen – the list goes on.

Travel allows the exploration of all this diverse culinary heritage, and one doesn’t always have to go that far. Remember Jim Nakano’s donuts? So I will not get to a post every week, but I will write as often as I have a good enough reason – a good enough food with a good enough story. Not sure how much I will enjoy Harðfiskur, but I absolutely want to find out. And obviously, 2017 will be the year where I tell the world about the great taste of fresh grey peas – Kapucijners in Dutch. There is nothing quite like it. Trust me. Or not, it doesn’t matter. I haven’t seen them outside of Holland, and it seems that even there, the fresh green kind is not nearly as popular as the disgusting, canned brown variety. Clearly, eating grey peas that are actually brown is asking for trouble.

Oh – happy new year, by the way. My favorites in 2016, in no particular order and with no disrespect to all the other cheeses: The Remeker, the Tomme de Jura, the Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, the Croix Catal and the Appenzell Edel-Würzig. But even putting it down on paper, or rather committing it to cyberspace where it will live forever, picking just five of them seems to be random and somewhat callous, and a strange way of closing the book on a year of cheesy surprises, highlights, chance encounters and even a few….interesting experiences. So by way of New Year’s Eve cheese fireworks, below are some pictures – the year in cheese.

 

 

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Mimolette (Week 52)

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Belle-Mere’s favorite: Mimolette

The final cheese of the year is a tribute to my late mother in law, who crowned this one of her favorite cheeses. Steven Jenkins, in his Cheese Primer, has nothing good to say about the Mimolette, but he still gives it plenty of attention and somehow it makes it on his shortlist. Go figure. The Mimolette extra vielle I brought home is comparable to a ripe Dutch cheese, and that, of course, is what it originally set out to be. Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIVs Minister of Finance and pretty much everything else took a whole bunch of very protectionist measures and had the French make French versions of popular imports, among them the cheese from Holland. In order to get it to look the part (a saturated yellow,rather than the pale straw color of most cheeses of the time, annato, turning the cheese a slightly creepy orange that over the years has become its trademark.

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See any cheese mites ?

The other interesting (if also slightly creepy) aspect of this cheese is in its rind. A good Mimolette is thoroughly pockmarked as a result of the happy actions of cheese mites, little bugs that munch away at the ripening cheese and supposedly give Mimolette its special flavor. True or not, the possibility of any mites still present in the cheese (they are dusted with an air gun before going on sale, and the bugs that manage to hang on do not live to tell the tale) makes it a cheese non grata in the US. You can get a version with a much smoother rind that never came anywhere near a cheese mite, but connoisseurs will tell you it is just not the same without bugs. Finally, Charles de Gaulle said it was his favorite cheese, and that should account for something, I guess. After all, it was de Gaulle who said of France “How can you govern a country that has 246 kinds of cheese?”. Never mind that the actual number of cheeses in the quote tends to vary, and that le Général thoroughly lowballed the number of different cheeses in the country – he provided cheese lovers around the world with something to put on napkins, fridge magnets, trivets, tiles, and plaques. And in a way, he caught the essence of the way the French look at their cheese – more than just a food, it helps define a region, a way of life, a people. The Mimolette, for its part, comes from the North, and is also known as the Boule de Lille. My mother in law, from the city of Soissons, liked her northerly cheeses. Her other favorite I will keep for next year: Maroilles, a stinker from the town with the same name originated only about an hour away from Lille.

In a few days my final post for the year: my top 5 after 52 weeks of cheese, and the plans for 2017.

 

Roquefort (Week 51)

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Holes like caves: Roquefort

If many more people would read my blog I could possibly start a real controversy by writing the below. Fortunately, there is such a tiny overlap between my readership and the people that will go to war over the question of the best blue cheese in the world, that I can, without causing drama and mayhem, proclaim that a good Roquefort is hands down the best blue cheese experience to be had anywhere in the world. It has all the musty flavor of other blue cheese, but none of the sharpness you find all too often in the less sophisticated blue cheeses. Wow, that just sounded very snobbish. But hey – it is Roquefort I am talking about. Pliny the Elder, the Roman chronicler who wrote some pretty unkind things about the Dutch delta dwellers, already mentions a cheese from the region in the year 79, so this is a very old cheese. It is made using penicillum roqueforti, the mold that gives it the irregular holes, filled with grey powdery stuff that gives this sheep’s milk cheese its musty flavor. And it is not just any old sheep’s milk that will do for Roquefort. The milk has to come from the Lacaune breed, named after a town in southern France about an hour’s drive from Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, where the caves are in which the Roquefort is ripened – and of course, no other caves will do. In the dripping dark millions of cheeses are ripened by a handful of large companies: Roquefort is big business in France, only Comté is produced in bigger quantities. And it is old business: already in the early 15th century the producers of Roquefort managed to get Charles VI of France, whose reign was an overall unhappy affair, to protect the cheese and its makers, in essence providing it with the first AOP, if you will. His successor gave the decree some teeth by arranging for the punishment of those producing fake Roquefort. So there you have it: mentioned by a stellar Roman historian and scientist, ranked as his personal #1 by Charlemagne among all cheeses, provided one of the oldest food protections in the world (the German Reinheitsgebot for beer was introduced more than a hundred years later) and fawned over throughout the ripening process – no wonder Roquefort claims the title of King of Cheeses.

Langres (Week 50)

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Langrrr….

The Plateau of Langres in the central-eastern part of France is where the Meuse and Seine rivers start. It is also where they make a cheese that is very recognizable. For lay people like myself, this is great. Without even looking much at it, you can take a bit, lick your chops, wait a moment for the imaginary drumroll and proclaim with supreme confidence: “ah… Langres”. Make sure you pronounce it right, though, because it may destroy the effect: it is not Langrès, but Langrr. And it requires a certain amount of exercise in the French language to make that now sound like a growl. Langrrr is pleasantly chewy (so just a bit, not like you need special tools), has a fresh, vaguely tart taste which reminds me a bit of quark, the stuff they use in Germany to bake cheese cake. The rind is edible and beautiful and although the cheese comes in different sizes, I have to say that the petit in the little box would be a star on any cheese plateau.

Langres has a washed rind, and because the cheese is never turned during the 2-3 weeks of affinage, it ends up with the appearance of a deflated soufflé: if you want, you can pour Marc de Bourgogne, a pomace brandy from Burgundy in the cavity and let it sit a bit before tucking into the cheese. Because of the washed rind, there is a bit of a perfume, but Langres is not a real stinker. The milk for this cheese is supposed to come from French Simmental, Montbéliard or Swiss Braunvieh cows, all cows that can stand a bit of cold and coincidentally all cows that have quite a bit of brown in their hides. Speaking of color, the Langres is colored with a bit of anatto, which helps to make this just one very pretty cheese.

Tomme de Savoie Fermier (Week 49)

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Rustic & Crusty: Tomme de Savoie Fermier

Savoy today is a corner of France tucked away between Lake Geneva and Italy, in the high Alps. For some 7 centuries, the Counts, Dukes and later Kings of Savoy managed to build and maintain a nifty little state that was at times quite powerful. Today their palaces around Turin are one of the most popular attractions in that region, and in one of the royal chapels visitors can see the famous Turin shroud. None of this has anything to do with cheese, which is why the story stops here, for now. Aside from the rich Counts, Dukes and later Kings of Savoy, the isolated high country was populated by relatively poor farmers, who would take the cream of their cows’ milk to make butter, and the partially skimmed milk to create simple, rustic looking cheeses: smallish rounds for their own use, the so-called tommes. The word has an etymology that goes back to the Celts and that gives you an idea of just how ancient the cheese is. Today, the Tomme de Savoie is a lowly cheese no longer: it is one of the most popular exports from the region and it is protected with an AOP. It has a thick, grey-brown rind (you could eat it but why would you do it – it’s not good and too thick) and a nice pale yellow paste with quite a few small holes. It is a semi-soft cheese with a lot of flavor, as long as it has had the time to ripen a bit. My piece had a nice intense edge to it. The flavor subtly changes with the season, depending on whether the cows are in their summer pastures or fed on hay. This week’s cheese and those for the subsequent three weeks all came from the enormous stall of Au Saveurs des Terroirs on the Sunday market in the city of Versailles, a few blocks away from the famous Palace. Buying cheese here is not for the fainthearted. First, there is just an enormous amount of cheese in all shapes and sizes and then, there are the rules. The line forms counter clockwise, and you do not stand still in front of the cheese you have picked so that you can point at it and make sure they understand you correctly. A good French customer stands neatly in line, waits for the next person that can help them and rattles off their list of cheeses, without having them anywhere near. So I left like an amateur as I struggled to remember all the cheeses I had seen and wanted to buy in my few dry-runs. In the end, I came away with a bag-full of French cheese classics, and next time, I will be a bit more confident in my ability to summon from memory just what I would want. A cheesy new-year’s resolution!

The Future has arrived in Appenzell!? (Week 48)

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Land of the Future: Appenzell

I thought Raymond Chandler had the market for suspenseful stories of crime and corruption cornered generations ago. I still think there is no private eye quite like Philip Marlowe anywhere in the real or in the fictional world, but I did learn today that even in our mountain paradise of the Confoederatio Helvetica (yup, that’s where the CH comes from), rackets are alive and well, and naturally, in a country like this, one of the more interesting rackets is the production of cheese knockoffs. That’s right, there are people who produce cheap, nasty cheeses and sell them as real Gruyeres, Emmentalers or Appenzellers.

The latter is a cheese that is marketed as the most flavorful in Switzerland. Interestingly, it is not protected by an AOP or something like it – it is a brand that is aggressively protected by the folks that collect the milk from some 50-odd farms and turn that into a hard cheese that is repeatedly washed in an herbal brine which is the great secret of this cheese. Depending on who you ask, there is just a handful of people who know the original recipe – I have read somewhere there were only two; a risky approach if you ask me.

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Noble-Flavorful in Purple Branding

What is interesting about the Appenzell – oh wait, let’s first talk about the actual cheese that got me going: I got a piece of Appenzell that is marketed as the Edel-Würzig variety. It really sounds fine for a cheese in German, even if the translation in English becomes a bit over-the-top and stilted: I give you the Appenzell Noble – Flavorful.  OK, so that didn’t work. I can guarantee you that the flavor itself absolutely does, because here is a cheese that is creamy, salty, fresh, clean and oh so, eh – flavorful. It really is as good as the name implies. We have been eating it for a few days and we’re on our second chunk – we tend to eat it in slices about a third of an inch thick.

The cheese is not inexpensive and here we are back in the murky world of the cheese forgers, and why, of all places, Appenzell is such an interesting locale in this respect. This canton is one of the most conservative places in Europe. Not until the early days of 1990 (nope, that’s not a typo) were women allowed to vote here, and when the cows come down from the summer pastures in the fall, traffic through the main streets in the towns is likely to come to a screeching halt – people respect traditions, and cheese is an important one. They have been cranking out cheese at least since the 13th century, but probably a lot longer. But when it comes to combating cheese fraud, the canton is at the cutting edge: the marketing organization that watches out for the brand has teamed up with the Swiss government to isolate certain strands of lactic acid bacteria which are used in the cheese making process, and use them as ‘fingerprints’ for the cheese. How 21st century is that? Most hard cheeses have a casein mark in them – an identifier like a code that usually tells a buyer where the cheese is from and when it was produced.

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Casein mark – real Appenzeller

That mark in an Appenzeller is almost as big as the cheese itself, so it is almost impossible to buy a chunk without the reassurance that you have a real Appenzeller in your hands. But with this modern method, even the casein mark is not necessary: a single slice of cheese without any rind can be identified – think of it as a DNA test for cheese. I am sure that the cheese mafia has recently left Appenzell, and gone on to places where women have been voting for close to 100 years now, but where a cheese doesn’t yet have a paternity test developed for them.

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Appenzell Farm
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Main Street in Appenzell

Another gift – and more cheese sleuthing (Week 47)

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Cheese Enigma: we’ll call it Adobera for now!

The same friend who got me a piece of her family’s cheese from La Capilla de Guadalupe in Mexico gave me a riddle in the form of a cheese from Teocaltiche in the state of Jalisco – about an hour and a half to the northeast of La Capilla. It has a pale ivory color, a fine grainy texture – you can see it looks a bit like dough where I cut it – and a fresh, sour taste. It smells exactly like European yoghurt, and these were my clues. Her family is divided on the cheese, as much as they are united in the Queso Fresco from La Capilla. it grew on me after a few bites but it is probably better as an ingredient in a dish that requires queso than as a ‘stand-alone’. I did some web research and found the Cheese Underground description of a cheese called Adobera, so named because it comes in a shape that looks like an adobe brick. It fits what I am eating very neatly, so I think this is what we’re dealing with. It is made from pasteurized cow’s milk and another website lumps it in with the quesos frescos. The problem with that is that it doesn’t tell you a lot, because there is a wide variety of these and one queso fresco is not like another. so for the time being, I’ll settle on Adobera.

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Awesome cheese paper: Cheesemongers of Sherman Oaks

I also visited the Cheesemongers of Sherman Oaks this week, and picked up 3 American cheeses. From the Indiana farm of Jacobs and Brichford Cheese I had a piece of Everton – think Gruyère, but sharper. Nice big mouthful but not for the fainthearted – it really packs a punch. I had the Adair from the same creamery a few weeks ago, so now I will want to try more of their cheeses – that one was also very good.

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Sharp, Bold – Everton

The Everton is definitely my cheese of the week, although the other two, the Kinsman Ridge from the Landaff creamery – a bloomy rind cheese with big mushroomy and grassy flavors – and the Twig Farm – a stinker with a washed rind with a really interesting taste made from a combo of goat and cow milk – were also very, very good.

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Kinsman Ridge, Vermont’s answer to Brie
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Goat-Cow stinker from Twig Farm

One of the best things about shopping at the Cheesemongers is the love of cheese that permeates everything that they do. “What the heck does that mean?”, I hear you think. For starters, the cheese-monger-in-chief’s face lights up when she speaks about cheese. Then, they enjoy advising you and letting you taste and finally: look at how carefully and lovingly they wrap their cheeses in the best-designed cheese paper I have ever seen, and tagged with little tags so that I remember what I am eating as I am munching away, trying to figure out which of this week’s four new flavors will be cheese of the week – a labor of love itself.

 

 

46 down, 6 more to go – some of the runners-up.

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Future Remeker-maker

Today, I am getting cheese number 47 of 2016. I think it will be my final American cheese for the year, as I am heading back to Switzerland this weekend. High time for another snapshot of the last 46 weeks in cheese. The current tally by country is a good starting point: 12 American Cheeses were ‘cheese of the week’, along with 12 French, but the latter group is likely to grow, because we’ll be in France in a few weeks. There were 7 Swiss cheeses so far, and only 3 Dutch ones. Three times an Italian cheese got the coveted title; Mexican and Spanish cheeses each took the honor twice, as did the Greek cheeses which, for whatever reason, were both a mix of goat and sheep milk. Finally, there was one top billing for each of the following countries: Croatia, Portugal, Austria and England. By milk, the cows clearly had it: 30 of my 47 cheeses were made with cow’s milk, there were seven goat cheeses, 4 sheep cheeses along with the two Greek mixed ones. Two were made of the milk of water buffalo and one had milk of all four animals in it.

But of course there have been many more than just these 47. Remeker cheese is sold at 3 months, 8-9 months, 16 months and 18+months and all four of them have very distinct characters. Considering that the youngest of these cheeses, which the cheesemakers are calling pril (an old Dutch word for young, basically) packed enough flavor to become one of my five favorites some weeks back, imagine what a really aged Remeker tastes like! There is a tradition among the frugal Dutch to use a cheese slicer and putting a thin layer of cheese on a slice of bread, but we never bothered much with the bread and ate the cheese in chunks – life is too short for moderation when it comes to this cheese.

In Croatia, I tried three of the cheeses the local cheese monger sold, and in many other places, I picked up more than what was decent. There was one of the five cheeses I found at la Cloche à Fromage in Strasbourg with a somewhat indecent name – a term of endearment in the far north of France is Biloute – um – dick. It’s what friends call each other and what a cheesemaker in that part of France calls his cheese: T’Chiot Biloute. The first word is a reference to the area and its dialect – it’s the French version of the sticks. But there it was, a beautiful rond cheese with a beer-washed rind, a slightly yeasty flavor – all great and good, but just a tad bit less great and good than the Sable de Wissant, which basically is the same thing without the strange name. So the Biloute came in second, and who ever remembers who won silver?

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Little Willy from the North: T’chiot Biloute

Another runner up was the exotically named Piacentinu ennese alla zafferano, a cheese with a DOP designation, made in Sicliy in the Enne region with an unusual color – saffron yellow.

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Black peppercorns contrast with saffron-yellow cheese: Piacentinu ennese

In Basel, I once picked up a nice slice of a raw milk Époisses – always a crowdpleaser – that king of cheeses from Burgundy that makes you want to lick your plate (and lick you must because it is sticky).

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Oozing goodness: Epoisses de Bourgogne

The Mont d’Or is here! The Mont d’Or is here! (Week 46)

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It’s a…. cheese volcano!

I started this year with a description of the Rush Creek Reserve, a cheese that is more or less the American version of the Vacherin Mont-d’Or, a mountain cheese that is produced in fall and winter, when the cows are in their stables and eat hay instead of gras.

Between the French and the Swiss there is a bit of acrimony about the AOP of this cheese, which is understandable – the landscape doesn’t care about international borders and it stands to reason that the farmers in the mountains that separate the two countries over hundreds of years would have, through trial and error and exchange of idea, have reached similar conclusions about the things they can do with their cow’s milk. So a soft runny cheese with a strip of bark around it to keep the gooey torte from collapsing existed on both sides of the border for a long time and for the sneaky Swiss (or clever Swiss, depending on your point of view) to claim the Vacherin Mont-d’Or as theirs (and by extension not French), is a bit, well, sneaky. So off went the pouting French when all of this happened and decided to name their cheese the Vacherin du Haut Doubs, or simply Mont d’Or (sans trait d’union – without the dash). This cheese has made quite a career, because it had lowly beginnings: the farmers in winter often had a harder time getting their milk to the fruitières (and milk from hay-fed cows was considered inferior to begin with) so they often just made this soft, bloomy rind cheese for themselves and spent their dark winter evenings spooning warm cheese from their bark-reinforced wheels.

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The Shar Pei of cheeses: Mont d’Or’s bloomy, loose-fitting rind

Today, as soon as the first hay-milk is being turned into fromage, the cheese fills the cheese counters in fromageries and in the better supermarkets, and often they come with pretty packages and in this case, with a small bottle of Arbois Béthanie 2010 a Chardonnay-Savagnin blend, a very robust white wine that comes from the Jura.

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Cheese & wine in one nifty package

The idea here is to punch a few holes in the top of the cheese, pour the liquid all over it to let it soak and put it in the oven at 200 degrees centigrade and spoon it out when it is warm. And yes, indeed, it is exactly what you think it is: a creamy, ecstatic cheese climax. Think of a cheese fondue right out of the cheese. You can eat it with potatoes, use nice country bread or even carrots and broccoli if that’s your fancy – anything goes. Drink white wine with it if but something with big flavors, because the cheese does have a lot of it already. A dainty lil’ white wine will do well here. The cheese texture is smooth, and white the wine, there is a delicious balance between creaminess and acidity – it’s cheese fondue without the Emmentaler, in essence. It also is lighter than cheese fondue – you can probably overdose on it easier, because you do not fill up quickly.

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Cheese Volcano erupted

Since it is a seasonal cheese, there is the hype about the first Mont d”Or of the season, as in: ‘they’re baaack!’. Of course, this happens in October and spring in these parts does not arrive until April, at least not in the mountains, so there will be Mont d’Or aplenty for months to come.

A good year for Comté – not from May of course, from April (Week 45)

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Slow ripened…

And finally, there was the Comté from José les Rousses, the little cheese shop that gave me three weeks worth of cheeses of the week. That nice, slightly sweet, solid-stick-to-your-teeth-just-a-bit-Comté. The Swiss may think this is the French version of Gruyere, but don’t tell the French that. They may not sell any to you, and then where will you be? Comté is produced in vast quantities and ripening takes place in enormous storage facilities, or, as is the case in Les Rousses, in an abandoned fort. Consider the brilliance of the Frenchman who looked at the old brick and stone fort with its massive walls and thought to himself:”Mais, fromage bien-sûr, fromage!”

So the cheese comes from the same cows and the same kind of pastures that give you Morbier. But the milk for Comté is collected in local fruitières, places that crank out the fromage in great big wheels and see to it that it goes into the caves and ripens, and ripens. And here is where the French obsession with gôut reaches full tilt: depending on what those happy cows in the pastures eat – so depending on the time of year – the cheese, in the eyes of the connoisseur, will have a slightly different taste. And so it was that I could get my hands on a piece of Comté in the fall of 2016 that had been made in April of 2015. “Ah”, a connoisseur may think, “that April the Marigold leaves were so succulent and there was such an abundance of Gentian early in the month!” before they sink their teeth in.

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The big cheese

As for us, it was just a gift that kept giving, because in my enthusiasm I had bought what looked like a narrow slice from the wheel – but of course the wheels are large, and the narrow slice ended up providing enough fromage for an orphanage. We didn’t taste the Gentian or the Marigold, just the cheese. the wonderful, wonderful cheese. And we gave thanks to the wonderful French cows we had seen in the mountain pastures and wished them a happy, warm winter.

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The green bell means: here is the best of the best of Comte