Planet of the Sheep – Texel

smiling lamb
Smiling Lamb

14 Thousand sheep live on Texel, the Netherlands’ largest island in the Wadden Sea, and that’s just about as many as there are people who call the island home. I know that if you are from the Croatian Island of Pag, that’s not a lot, and if you are from New Zealand, the 1:1 ratio is positively laughable: there are almost 10 sheep for each New Zealander. But in a country as densely packed as the Netherlands, Texel has a LOT of sheep. They are everywhere, and it really doesn’t help that the native breed, the Texelaar, is neatly organized in four color groups: white, black, blue and Badger-face (yes, I know that’s really not a color, but I did not create the taxonomy). on top of the Texelaars, there are many other kinds of sheep – there is a farm where you can look at a few dozen different kinds. And don’t turn your nose up at a farm full o’ sheep, because after a few days on the island you’ll succumb, if only because, well, sheep are everywhere.

Dasgezicht Sheep II
Badger-faced Texel Sheep
Blue
Blue Texel Sheep

We discovered Texel one fine March a year and a half ago. This is where most regular tourists to the island start laughing hysterically, because there is absolutely no chance of reasonable weather this early in the season, and the overwhelming majority of visitors descend upon the beaches when there is a reasonable guarantee of a bit of sunshine and balmy temperatures. So we had much of the island to ourselves. Ourselves and the sheep of course.

boet II
Boet
boet I
Another boet

Texel’s most iconic building is not its lighthouse (even if it is a strapping, tall lighthouse Texelaars can be proud of), no. It is the boet. Yes, boet. You pronounce that boot, but shorter. And the building is also shorter. Shorter than you would expect, it looks a bit like a building that was finished simply when the builders ran out of bricks. That is of course not what actually happened, because there are lots of these boets on the island and they may run out of bricks, but they would learn of their mistakes after a few tries, wouldn’t you think? The boet’s door is in the flat slide of the building and they are usually built with the low sloping side towards the southwest, from where the prevailing winds come. This allows the sheep to seek shelter behind the barn. They usually do not spend a lot of time inside: boets are storage units and utility buildings, not really stables. Just like windmills these buildings, once testimonies of engineering genius, have long become obsolete, but the islanders are so fond of them that the few that remain are lovingly restored and cared for. There is even a book about boets and yes of course, I had to get that.

Floris_Claesz_van_Dijck_Stillleben_mit_Käse
Floris van Dyck’s Cheeses – Texel on top

“I thought this was a blog about effing cheese”, I can hear you think (you kiss your mamma with that mouth?) – so here goes: yes, even though meat and wool are bigger business than cheese, the sheep do produce milk from March to September, and much of that finds its way into cheese.  It’s been that way forever, as you can see on the Still Life with Cheeses, by Floris Claesz. van Dyck. This was painted around 1615 – the dark green cheese on top, almost black, is a sheep cheese from Texel. Some 50 years before Floris painted his cheeses, Ludovic Guicciardini, an Italian traveler, sang the praises of Texel cheese, saying it had an incomparable taste. He may not have known how right he was. To make this green cheese, some sheep poop would be put in a linen sachet, which was then steeped in water like a tea bag. The green ‘juice’ was added to the milk as the first step in the cheese making process…

Orekees
Orekéés

No, the cheese I brought home from Texel did not have poop in. Modern regulations prohibited this peculiar food additive in 1928. But my sheep cheese did have a little bit of extra green in it. In this case it was Sea Lavender (there’s some debate about what plant this actually is, it may be Sea Aster). The green leaves are finely chopped up and added to the cheese, which is otherwise made the way most Dutch cheeses are made: the curd is ‘cooked’ and pressed and out comes a semi-hard cheese with a nice, creamy consistency that gains flavor with age. The typical sheepy flavor is not particularly well developed in this process – the same is true for Dutch goat cheeses made this way; their goatiness is a mere whiff. This is not to say that the Orekéés was flavorless, far from it. The Sea Lavender/ Aster adds silty tones to the ephemeral sheepiness, along with a bit of texture. Add the above creaminess and out comes one very fine cheese. The judges of BBC’s Good Food Show in 2014 agreed, curing it the best Dutch cheese of that year. Rest assured, the sheep on Texel have not allowed this to go to their heads. They’re just as relaxed and easy going as ever. You should really go to Texel to meet them. And once you’ve had enough, there are some fine fish restaurants, a museum dedicated to the beachcomber culture of the islands, a place that rescues seals and educates the public about marine life (among other things with an exhibit showcasing an impressive sperm whale penis) and miles and miles of sandy beaches, rolling dunes, the occasional pheasant and the best rhubarb jam in the world, possibly in the universe, at the Windroos.

Lighthouse II
Texel Lighthouse
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Naples: coffee, caves and cheese

Fontana dell'Immacolatella
Fontana dell’Immacolatella, along the waterside in Napoli
Napoli Breakfast
Neapolitan breakfast with Mozzarella di Bufala, fruit, Sfogliatelle and Pastiera
Galeria Umberto I
Galleria Umberto I
Caffè Gambrinus
Caffè Gambrinus, 150 years old

So I really like Naples. There, I said it. Don’t get me wrong, I get it if you don’t: it is congested, there’s graffiti, never-ending construction, lots of noise and that whole distasteful cult around Diego Maradona, that chubby cheating Argentinian with his hand of God. But I still like it, and with every visit, I like it a bit more. This time around, I descended into the underworld of Naples. Literally. I did not got entangled in some organized crime web, I simply climbed down a substantial number of flights and found myself some 120 feet below the surface in a maze of tunnels, underground cavernous rooms and narrow passageways which, in their unassuming darkness exuded more history than many resplendent city elsewhere in Europe.

 

 

Napoli Sotterraneo
Ancient Cistern in Napoli Sotterannea

Over 23 centuries have passed since Greek colonists began digging holes under their feet to dig out the volcanic tufa stone that has been used through the ages to build above ground. The Romans continued digging, creating aqueducts through which they channeled the creeks and rivulets that carried water through the fractured rock to the sea. Neapolitans used the extensive network of cisterns until the arrival of modern plumbing, two thousand years later.

 

Above the cistern was a well, that provided access to water. fine resident of Naples would have a well in their house, while lowly commoners found them in courtyards or other semi-public places. Inevitably, all manner of crap ended up in these wells and in the dense urban area, it became a real job to keep the cisterns clean and the wells open. the well workers were known as the pozzari. Dressed in sober, habit-like outfits, they looked a bit like monks. Climbing up and down wells, going from courtyard to courtyard or from house to house, they moved around unseen and over time gained a mysterious and mischievous aura. Valuables that disappeared, long lost precious items which miraculously reappeared, women who experienced immaculate conceptions – Neapolitans would ascribe such inexplicable events to a “little monk”, a  Monaciello.

 

Napoli Sotterraneo II
In the “Bourbon Tunnel”

And then there was Ferdinand II of Bourbon, a monarch with a chin like an anvil who started his reign racking up a number of impressive feats: first train in Italy, first steamship in southern Italy, a telegraph connection between Naples and Sicily. he was a man of the people, or so he thought. Until the people, encouraged by their monarch who said all the right things, demanded greater freedoms, constitutional changes – the works. So Ferdinand let the genie out of the bottle and had a hell of a time trying to stuff it back. 20 years into his reign he was positively paranoid and asked Enrico Alvino, a well-respected architect and city planned, to build a tunnel under the city, to connect the palace with the cavalry barracks. Alvino drew a line, straight as an arrow between the two buildings and merrily cut his way through ancient cisterns and passageways, leaving some impressive brick structures along the way: places where walls needed reinforcement, water had to be diverted and so on. Ferdinand never used his tunnel which, despite auspicious beginnings, was badly underfunded and got progressively smaller towards the barracks. Coming to the aid of a besieged monarch through the passageway as it was finally completed would have been a hell of a job for the cavalry.

 

A further period of improvements an excavations was necessitated during World War II, when bombs from Allied and (later) German planes rained down on the city over and over again. The caverns got rudimentary lighting, bathrooms, makeshift triage stations and little classrooms for the thousands of people who spent more time underground than above as their city began to crumble over their heads. In many places, stoves, pans, pots, wash basins and all and sundry utensils and furniture is still being discovered today. Used as an impound lot and then as an easy place to deposit trash, the underground began to clog up until fairly recently, when archaeologists led the charge to uncover Napoli Sotterranea. 

Caciotto
Cheese to go

I know, I know. This blog is supposed to be about cheese. But it is my blog so I’ll do what I damn well please, thanks very much. This time it took until the last hour to cut to the cheese, and we ended up meeting at the airport. There it was, the cheese with my name on it, in a very nifty portable cheeseboard, produced a few hours east of Naples, in the Appenine town of Calitri. My Caciotto conzato Calitrano (something like “cheese, made the Calitri way” had been rubbed patiently with oil, chili peppers, sage, mint and other herbs (secret formula, of course) and then aged in terracotta amphorae for about 3 months. Caciotta look like pouches, or teardrops because after the curd has been extensively kneaded, they’re hung up to age with a little noose around their cheesy necks. The cheese has a very creamy texture, but it packs a real punch: it is quite sharp, but the creaminess balances it so well, that it is easily my favorite sharp Italian cheese. I’ll take this over a sharp Provolone any day. Clearly, with the mottled rind and the clever packaging, we met because I fell for the beauty that is merely superficial. But I love her, because she is beautiful on the inside, my Calitri cheese.

 

Caciotto II
Mottled rind

In Ticino we call it Formaggio – Swiss Cheese

Paradiso
Boat stop on Lugano – Paradiso. We would have to agree.

Growing up I had little idea that there was anything beyond the large yellow wheels of Gouda cheese my mother would pick a pound or two from at the cheese vendor. Fast forward many years later, to the late eighties in the U.S. I had extended my knowledge of cheese, which by now also included the big French cheeses along with Parmesan, which came in powdered form in a cardboard container. And now, here I was introduced to the wondrous world of Kraft cheeses: orange for cheddar, yellow for American and white for Swiss cheese, and the latter would often have a few holes thrown in for good measure. I am pretty sure Kraft employs some underpaid immigrants to punch those holes in the cheese to make it more Swiss.

Today I have completely arrived in the land of Swiss cheese and regularly slather Raclette onto pretty much anything edible. We visit cheese festivals, inhale the healthy country air complete with cowpoop and we are patiently ticking down the list of Swiss AOP cheeses. This weekend we went over the hump: there are 12 cheeses with the Swiss AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) designation, and I picked up cheese number 7, a chunk of mountain cheese from Ticino, from the Piora Valley, to be exact. The latter is important, I was told, because the Piora valley, at some 6,000 feet, yields the very best of the Ticino cheeses. The beginnings of this cheese, which now commands rather steep prices, were quite humble. It was really because the poorest farmers had nowhere else to go that they herded their cows up these remote valleys – some pastureland was better than none, they must have thought. Eventually of course, people started to notice some differences in the quality of the cheese based on the pastureland it came from. Up in the high valleys, cows munch on as many as 150 different herbs and grasses, a smorgasboard that includes the blue gentian, a flower that inspired one of the absolute classics of German Schlager-Music, blau blüht der Enzian. You may click the link at your own risk – the German singer Heino could just rock your world.

Salumeria
Gabbani for meats, wines and cheeses

Only about 300 cows forage in the Piora Valley, so getting my hands on a piece of that cheese felt like an important milepost. I got it at the Formaggeria Gabbani, just across the street from the Salumeria Gabbani, and next door to the Enoteca Gabbani – you get the picture. With it, I got a piece of soft Ticino cheese and some rhubarb jam. Oh yes, that was in Lugano – funny you should ask. Of course it is delightful, stretching lazily along the eponymous lake – beautiful shops, beautiful cars, beautiful people but down to earth enough to not feel naked without a Rolex and a Jaguar. Ticino is Italy’s expensive, better organized and more polite little sister. The houses are more colorful, the sun more plentiful and the dishes more flavorful than in the part of Switzerland we inhabit – la vita è bella in Lugano. The Grand Café al Porto’s desserts and the food at La Tinera only helped to cement our assessment.

Cafe Lugano
Grand Café al Porto
Lake Lugano
On Lake Lugano

And then there was the cheese, of course. The mountain cheese from the Piora Valley is almost sweet, very smooth and rounded, without edges but not boring. It tastes like a really well composed piece of music, without any dissonance. The Formagella from Isone I bought is, in a way, a downtime cheese, made during the time cows are not out in the pastures. Often goat milk and cow milk are used together: the cow milk is skimmed and the cream is used to make butter – if only goat’s milk is used, the cheese is a bit fatter. The piece we had was a bit older and had a lot of flavor to it.

Ticino cheese
Clockwise from top left: Formagella di Isone, Piora Mountain Cheese, Schnokeloch, T’chiot Biloute

We enjoyed both of our Ticino cheeses with friends who complemented the dinner table with salami and smoked ham from Salumeria Gabbani – we all had traveled to Lugano together and in the food on our plates we relived the compelling combination of Italian flair and Swiss perfection of the city on the lake.

Dinner
Dinner!

Leidse Kaas – Cheese with Cumin

Leidse Kaas I
Leidse Kaas met de Sleutels

After more than 2 years writing about cheese, it is confession time. About a skeleton that has been in my closet longer than I can remember. And it has everything to do with cheese. I must have been eleven or twelve or so, and I was at the market in Gouda with my mother, and we bought cheese. As was customary, the merchant offered me a random slice of cheese. It wasn’t so much a sample as a treat – butchers would hand out slices of sausage in the same way to good kids that helped their mothers carry groceries. With an understated yet carefully rehearsed flourish he turned the business end of his cheese slicer towards me, presenting a thin slice of creamy goodness. I took the cheese, put it on my tongue and allowed it to start melting away. Shortly after my tastebuds woke up from a lazy slumber, alarm bells begun to go off but by the time the devastating reality set it, it was too late. I had inadvertently ingested cumin cheese.

I hated cumin cheese. I thought it was the vilest thing in the world and I couldn’t even stand the smell. But the merchant was beaming with pride in his own generosity, my mother looked at me with great and somewhat stern expectations, and so I made some appreciative noises and nodded my head approvingly as I tried not to gag.

So when I visited Amsterdam’s Dappermarkt, it was time to face my cheese demon. You see, there is a rather famous PDO (Protected Designation of Origin, the old AOC) cheese from the Dutch city of Leiden that is made with cumin seeds. It is a cheese with a story and it’s only one of four protected cheeses in the Netherlands (the other three being Edam, Gouda and Kanterkaas from Friesland) – so there is no way I can forever pretend as if it doesn’t exist. I asked Richard Jansen from Jansen Bio Kaas to hit me, and he obliged: I got a sliver of cumin-speckled cheese and…. I was taken aback by how much I enjoyed it. Either I had never had a slice of the real deal, or my tastebuds have matured after that meltdown so many years ago. Leyden Cheese is no longer my Angstgegner!

Leiden
Koornbrug in Leiden, with the keys in the city coat of arms.

The cheese has a lowly origin: it used to be made as a mere byproduct of butter production and because of that, it is low in fat, because the milk used is skimmed. Buttermilk and rennet are added to get the milk to coagulate and it’s actually produced with or without cumin seeds, but the latter version seems to be much more synonymous with “Leyden”. Back in the 17th century, the cheese was favored by the VOC (the United East Indies Company) as a provision on long voyages: its lower fat content meant it could be kept longer and sweated less. It was precisely the VOC that also brought the cumin used to spice up the cheese a bit to Holland from the Indonesian colonies. The combination really works well and while cumin is an acquired taste, there isn’t anything quite like it among any of the Dutch cheeses. It is made with raw milk, and the cumin seed in Leyden is crushed a bit more than in most other cumin cheeses so it’s more  evenly distributed which makes for a more consistent flavor experience.

There are only about a dozen or so producers of the PDO cheese, imprinted with the crossed keys of St. Peter, patron saint of Leiden. Another detail that makes the cheese different is its shape: it has one round ‘shoulder’ and one with a sharper edge. Finally, the rind is given the typical red-brown coating that makes it stand out (no, not edible) among its yellow classmates.

Dappermarkt II
Roots at the Dappermarkt

The Dappermarkt in the meantime, is the ideal place to get a chunk of cheese, but they also have fish, myriad ethnic foodstuffs, smartphone covers, tools, 5 euro Tupac t-shirts, watches and fake Birkenstock sandals. It is in a part of Amsterdam not yet discovered by tourism and not yet gentrified. On the edge of the neighborhood is Brouwerij het IJ, named after the body of water that runs along the northern edge of the old city. In a former bath house under one of the tallest remaining windmills in Holland is a brewery and a delightful café, where I enjoyed a Columbus amber ale, along with a Skaepsrond sheep cheese from a nearby cheese farm (the sheep feed off the leftovers from the brewing process, so it seemed an appropriate choice) and some osseworst, an Amsterdam specialty. After all, vanquishing my cheese nemesis and turning him into a friend called for a bit of a celebration.

Badhuis
In the Bath House, now a brewery
Brouwerij
Beer, Osseworst and Skaepsrond cheese

Cheese and Politics in Alsace

Charcuterie
Along a street somewhere in Alsace

Sometimes a cheese is just a cheese and sometimes it is a complete story. Don’t get me wrong: each cheese that deserves the name (we leave the yellow Kraft slices out of it) has a story. But in some cases, the cheese takes you to places you never anticipated when you said: et un morceau de ce fromage là, in your best French.

 

Before I exercised my stunning language skills in “La Cloche à Fromage” in Haguenau, I walked around a bit in this town to the northwest of Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace, home to the European Parliament. Haguenau has little of Strasbourg’s big-city flair, but it is clear that it is quintessentially Alsatian,  and that makes it charming enough. In the streets, the language that you hear is not French anymore but not yet German either. But it is much closer to the latter than to the former. And this is why the hero of an early 20th century Alsatian play is not named Jean, but Hans. Hans Boulanger – even in the name, there is a bit of France and a bit of Germany – is torn, just like many other Alsatians. His brother sides with the Germans, his mother with the French, and Hans – Hans is incapable of making a decision. While the play lacks an exact year, it is clear that, once again, the Germans and the French are at each other’s throats and the Alsatians are caught in the middle, forced to take sides. In the play is a tune that has spread all over the region, into Germany and Switzerland:

Hans in the Schnokeloch / Has everything he wants / And what he has he doesn’t want / And want he wants he doesn’t have / Hans in the Schnokeloch / Has everything he wants.

 

It is clear, Hans is very confused and can’t make up his mind. This is perhaps because he finds himself in the Schnokeloch – or maybe his indecision is his actual Schnokeloch, who knows. For Heaven’s sake, I hear you say, what on earth is a Schnokeloch??? Well, along the eastern edge of Alsace runs the Rhine. Long ago it didn’t run, it meandered there, but centuries of canalization took care of that, leaving the Rhine much more straight and lots of meanders cut off from the main channel – just placid bodies of water in the river’s floodplain now. Sloughs is what you call these. Imagine a slough in summer, completely overgrown and sweltering in the heat and you did not bring your DEET. Mosquitoes will feast on your blood, and they’re coming from all sides. Voilà, that’s a Schnokeloch. Hans is caught in between and doesn’t see an easy way out. So Hans from the play is the personification of Alsace, always caught in the middle.

Wait, isn’t this a cheese blog? Well yes. So back to the store. After I treated the friendly cheese monger to my best French, and demanded un morceau de ce fromage là, she picked it up and inquired “vous voulez le Schnokeloch?”

Schnokeloch
Left to right: T’chiot Biloute, a quarter of Schnokeloch, Chaource Fermier, Ch’ti Roux à la Biere

Here was, ivory-colored and creamy and with a hole in the middle (“Loch” is the German/ Alsatian word for hole), the Alsatian in-between dilemma in cheese form. It is made by Denis Goetz on a farm in the small town of Mussig, not far from Colmar, a town in southern Alsace that is just ridiculously cute – chock full of half-timbered houses, stork souvenirs (the stork is the official animal of Alsace and you’ll likely encounter the actual bird in the region, even if they’re not as plentiful as their stuffed, made-in-China-off-all-new-materials brethren), attractive restaurants, a few excellent museums and a beautiful covered market. Mussig is also not far from the Rhine and therefore, from a Schnokeloch or two, so Denis Goetz probably knows what he is talking about.

 

Colmar
Colmar

But the Schnokeloch Kas (German: käse, French: fromage – you do the math) is far from unpleasant – nothing reminds you of your time in the bug-infested wetlands of some faraway river. The cheese is creamy, full of flavor, and just salty enough to make it one of my new favorite cheeses. By the way, even those real Schnokelochs are not as bad as they may have once been. First off, one is now able to prevent bugs from successfully attacking, and the cut-off meanders of the Rhine are rapidly becoming places where many people – French, German and Alsatian – spend hours canoeing, kayaking and generally enjoying themselves. On both sides of the river, in both countries, large swaths of riparian habitat have been restored and returned to nature. Germany and France being best European buddies today does make life a lot easier, even in the Schnokeloch.

 

Munster
Alsatian cheeses at the covered market in Colmar
Maison des tetes Colmar
One of the many faces on the Maison des Têtes in Colmar

Goats at the End of the World

Goat
Friendly German Goat

A few weeks ago I found myself in Berlin, Germany’s capital that is so much better than the setting of any post-apocalyptic movie you could ever hope to see. Berlin somehow survived the apocalypse of the Third Reich, turned around and did it again in the wake of the slow apocalypse that was the German Democratic Republic, which petered out a generation ago. Unlike those genre-movies with Harrison Ford or Mel Gibson though, Berlin is alive and ruined, colorful and grey, raucous and bleak, modern and decrepit, slick and subversive all at once. It is a city unlike any other, precisely because of its scars. It’s the kind of city no one wants to see a miniature version of in EPCOT – another reason to embrace it.

Zicken II
Relaxing

So I love Berlin but I was determined to spend a few hours a little further afield this time around as well. My destination was the Karolinenhof, a goat farm in – well, there begins the trouble. Officially it is in Kremmen, a town near the edge of the known world. But from there, my GPS told me to just keep driving, through the next town, and into the sticks beyond the end of the world. This is a part of Germany that was supposed to be turned into the Blooming Landscapes chancellor Helmut Kohl promised when he fast-tracked reunification in the 90ies, but less than an hour from Berlin the towns are falling apart and the roads aren’t doing so well either. At some stage even the GPS gave up but since the trees did not yet have any leaves, I could see a forlorn building straight ahead where the GPS unconvincingly murmured something about turning right, so I pushed ahead, unafraid, into the unknown. I was almost immediately rewarded because about three quarters of a mile down the road, there was the farm, and the café which promised cheesecake made with goat cheese, among other goat-related delicacies.

Karolinenhoefa
Karolinenhöfa

I found the super-relaxed goats in a barn a little past the café on the edge of land that was first cultivated under King Frederick William I (of course his name was Friedrich Wilhelm I., but I am helping you out here). This genius (not a very nice man, by the way) had the foresight of bringing a Dutch cheese maker to the region, in order to teach the local yokels the fine art. And they did well! The red-rind goat cheese (Karolinenhöfa, I bought the younger kind, ripened for at least 6 weeks) is absolutely wonderful; I do not remember ever having such a perfect blend of the typical fresh and tangy goat flavor along with the full-bodied flavor & stink of a red rind cheese. really a match made in heaven. the little goat Camembert (they call it Kamenbär – who says Germans have no sense of humor?) I got was also a well balanced combination of goatiness and creaminess.

Berlin Cheese Platter
From top right: Kamenbär, Wrångebäck from Sweden, Herve from Wallonia, Friesisch Blue from Northern Germany and the Karolinenhöfa

The goat cheese cake (a German style baked cheesecake for which quark is used, that highest form of fresh dairy known to mankind) was good, but not as epic as my cheese. The café itself is thoroughly relaxing, with a splendid view of the vast flat fields and with very friendly service. I was surprised at the number of people who, just like me, found the end of the world and pressed on beyond it to visit with the goats, use the cheerfully chaotic playground with their kids and have a bite to eat before returning to the known world. I did not see a single one of the cranes that apparently visit during certain times of the year. It must be quite a sight when they do hang out in the neighborhood, there are some 80,000 of them. As a consolation prize, I did catch a spectacular late afternoon sky over the flat landscape of Brandenburg on my way back to Berlin, glorious, pockmarked, haphazard, creative Berlin.

Sky
Afternoon in Brandenburg

 

 

Norwegian Cheese? Sure.

Bergen
Bergen’s Old Port, Bryggen

A week ago I found myself in Bergen, Norway, and there was just enough time to step into a few stores to get a jar of cloudberry jam and a big chunk of Tine Gudbrandsdalost. Yup, the latter is a foodstuff. The operative syllable in that monsterword is ost. Ost is cheese in Norwegian,  Swedish and Danish – such economical languages to learn, because a lot of words are like that: (near) identical in all three. The particular cheese someone had asked me to bring back comes from the 200-mile-long Gudbrands Valley in southeast Norway. The problem with the ost is that it is technically not ost at all. But don’t tell any Norwegians that. They may never speak to you again, because it is a food very interwoven in the cultural fabric.

Ost is made by heating up whey, the watery leftovers after milk curdles (that is, separates into solids and liquids during the cheese making process). The milk sugar in the whey caramelizes and gives the thickening goop a brown color – but because there is no coagulation of proteins, well – it doesn’t count as cheese, officially. Again, not that anyone in Norway cares. A very friendly woman in the covered market around the old harbor in Bergen took me through the various kinds of brown cheese she had on offer. They were all produced by Tine, a company that takes in milk from some 9,000 farmers, which makes it a dairy behemoth. She started me off with a piece of Gudbrandalsost and explained how, of all the brown cheeses, this was the lightest in color and flavor. “Young people, especially women enjoy this cheese” she said, with great authority. The cheeses got darker but more varied in flavor. Geitost is made with goat’s milk, but some cow’s milk cream is added in to make it extra smooth. “This” she said with measured gravity, “is something for a more mature gentleman like yourself”, so I made sure to like this one the best. The other two were darker yet, and a bit sweeter. One of them is known as Bestemorsost, grandma’s cheese. The young woman told me that it’s sweet, a kid’s favorite and that the name is supposed to evoke images of a visit with grandma and all the coziness that entails.

cheeses
Clockwise from top left: Undredal Geitost, Rød Geit, Fønix blåost, and Rød Kjerringøy

My new favorite store in Bergen, Colonialen sells neat little boxes with neat little pieces of Geitost (Tine’s ost comes only in brick- and half-brick sizes) which was just perfect. A bad encounter with some rather disappointing slices of cheese on a breakfast buffet earlier in the day did not get me into the mindset of gorging myself with brown cheese.

At Colonialen I also got a blue cheese from Stavanger in the south of Norway, Fønix; some Rød Kjerringøy, a red rind cow’s cheese from the coast near Bodø, a 24-hour drive north from Stavanger, and a thick slice of Rød Geit, probably the best of the bunch.

norway
Morning Sun along the Oslo-Bergen Railway, not far from where the Rød Geit is made.

It is made on the Ysteri (dairy) of Rakel and Jarle Rueslåtten in Hol, near the Oslo-Bergen Railway. It is a goat cheese with a washed rind and that makes it a goat cheese with an unusual stinky intensity – couldn’t recommend it more highly.

Gammelost
“You will not like it” – Gamelost from Vik

In another store I bought a piece of Gamelost, which Tine produces in the town of Vik on the Sognefjord. Gamelost means old cheese. ” You will not like it” said the polite young man in the store who cut off a piece for me. I think I saw him shake his head as I was leaving the store. This cheese is make from sour skim milk. Once the curds have formed, they are rubbed with the molds that give the cheese its very strong flavor. The cheese is unusually grainy and falls apart when you try to cut it – it has the consistency of a dry cupcake. In your mouth it is surprisingly chewy and it does take a while to grow on you.

Geitost II
Brunost, thinly sliced

Back from Norway I used a Norwegian invention, Thor Bjørklund’s cheese slicer, to peel thin slices of Undredal Brunost of my dainty little block and I felt relief with the first taste. This was creamy, goaty, complex cheese-stuff. It does have a bit of that salty, musty cheese flavor, before you taste the caramel, which eventually morphs into…licorice. I know, I know, this doesn’t make it sound any better maybe, if you were already skeptical. But believe me, once you have put aside any preconceived notions of what cheese should taste like, there is a world of flavors packed into a good block of brunost. Slice it thinly (if you do not own a cheese slicer – don’t let that drop out in polite conversation – just quickly get one, you troglodyte) and lay it out on knäckebröd from your local IKEA, or on your own favorite kind of bread and happy Norwegian goats and cows on green pastures surrounded by steep granite cliffs will appear before your mind’s eye and you will bite into a small piece of Norway – kjempegod!

 

 

Möckli, Röllchen or Rosetten?

Möckli, Röllchen or Rosetten?

Sbrinz II
Choices, choices: chunks, rolls or rosettes?

How would you like your cheese? Switzerland is a country with quite a few rules, which makes life orderly and predictable. Because this makes the quality of life and the quality of most products high, people are on board following the rules. And so a Swiss person knows that some of his cheese has big holes, some of it goes into fondue, other cheeses go into Raclette (even if there is an overlap here) – and then there are the cheeses that are sliced, diced, planed and chopped in a very specific way. One of those is Sbrinz, a cheese named after a town in the canton of Bern. Brienz is a village to the southeast of the Swiss capital, and in the heart of the Alps. From here, pack trains were readied for their trek across the Alps and the animals often carried a cheese with them, a very hard cheese that the Italians, who were on the receiving end of the pack trains called lo sbrinzo, the cheese from Brienz (they clearly added a few letters in translation). The name stuck, and now even the Swiss call the cheese Sbrinz. The cheese’s website carefully explains that there are three ways in which one can enjoy this cheese: use a sharp stubby knife (like the one you would use for Parmigiano), to hack small chunks off – those would be the Möckli – or use a cheese plane to get the rolls (Röllchen, you guessed it) or you can just grate it.

Sbrinz
Sbrinz in rolls

The explanation comes with links where you can get your own cheese pick, your cheese plane, or your grater: the marketing is quite impressive. We learned that Sbrinz does not do well in Raclette, it is too dry and doesn’t melt nicely. Otherwise, it is a fine cheese, just not one that I would buy the implements for, so if we have to have it, I will continue to get it in lil’ rolls at the local supermarket. Sbrinz is an AOP cheese, which means there are lots of rules to follow before you can call your Sbrinz a Sbrinz. Raw milk is used, cows don’t get fed any silage, and the cheese has to be ripened for at least 18 months. There is even a test, and the cheese has to score a minimum number of points before it can be called a Sbrinz. Even the name Hobelkäse (‘Plane Cheese’) is protected.

Rosetten II
Cheese, Art, or both ?

Another cheese that requires a specific implement for slicing it very thinly is the Tête de Moine, the Monk’s Head cheese – it is a loaf in the shape of a short thick tube, and in order to enjoy it, you are supposed to use a plane on a spindle that you can stick in the top of the cheese; by swiveling the plane perpendicularly to the surface of the cheese, thin slivers of cheese are shaved off. The process yields the so-called Rosetten, a thin, wavy flourish of cheese, not unlike some kind of flower. The thin layers melt in your mouth and the flavor really gets to unfold very nicely. While it is not made for it (and I may be jeopardizing future chances of becoming a Swiss citizen with this confession), we tried it in the Raclette maker and it was quite good. The classic, the younger version, is wrapped in silver foil, the older reserve in gold. The cheese has its origins in the monastery of Bellelay, also in the canton of Bern, but in the French-speaking borderlands with the Swiss Jura. The monks here for centuries paid their rent in cheese – at least since the late 12th century. The French Revolution saw the monks thrown out of the abbey but the cheese making continued. The invention of the nifty machine in 1981 really allowed the Tête de Moine to take flight – the little rosettes were just too cute to pass up, and the cheese because a party favorite.

Girolle
Swiss Circular Cheese Plane. Girolle sounds much better.

The plane is known as a Girolle and here, too, the question is whether to spend 40 big ones on a machine before you have a gram of cheese, or to buy the ready-made rosettes in the store. So far, I haven’t been swayed towards the purchase of a machine, so I get mine in little plastic containers. Give me another 10 years in Switzerland and I am sure I will shake my head in disbelief of my former self, as I walk to my kitchen cabinet that stores all my various cheese saws, planes, drills, and knifes. I will know then better than I do now that, in order to enjoy cheese, there must be rules and there must be implements.

Cheese from the Pit

Mercato Publico
Covered Market in Ancona, Italy

Yah, that sounds none too appealing, right? Cheese from the pit? Unless of course you are a hardened cheese aficionado who likes ’em gooey, stinky, moldy and any other variety that makes mere mortals go: ewww….

With the Formaggio di Fossa, it is actually not all that bad. Don’t think of some dank smelly, crusted hole in the ground: instead, think of a pleasant, regular, straw lined hole in the ground, where the cheese (it can be a sheep’s milk cheese, a cow’s milk cheese or a mix), wrapped in canvas bags, is carefully stacked on wooden planks, before the pit is covered and sealed and the cheese allowed to mature for 80-100 days – the technical term is anaerobic fermentation, and the 80 days is the legal minimum, the 100 days the legal maximum. You see, the cheese enjoys DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) status, and that means there are some stringent rules that govern exactly how and where the cheese is produced.  The pits are dug in soft tufa rock in the Marche Region of Italy, on the Adriatic Coast, around the town of Sogliano al Rubicone – on the Rubicon, that very same river Julius Caesar once crossed, yelling “alea jacta est, suckers!” . Ancona is one of the major towns here, and that is where I got my cheese from the pit.

Pecorinos
Cheese from the Pit: clockwise from top left: young Pecorino, Pecorino di Fossa, aged Pecorino

In this case, it was a sheep’s cheese, which made it a Pecorino di Fossa, and of course the pecoras have to be from the Marche region before you get the coveted DOP seal. The pits are very carefully prepared: straw is burned in them to get rid of the damp air and to reduce bacteria that may interfere with the ripening process. The pits are lined with straw for insulation and that straw is kept in place with an intricate frame of reeds and wooden hoops – it all has to be just so. The feast of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, November 25, is traditionally the day the cheese is hauled out of the pit, but the DOP today allows for infossatura (when the cheese descends into the pit) between March 1 and September 21, which means the cheese can come out much sooner or later than St. Catherine’s Day. I am sure cheese snobs will be able to tell November 25 cheese from cheese pulled out on any other day, but I was quite happy with my chunk. The ripening in the pit gives the cheese a light caramel color and the texture is a bit greasy – not all that appealing, to be honest – but the flavor is very distinct. it is a bit musty, really fills the mouth and there is quite a bit of sharpness. We use it mainly as a grating cheese, and you need just a bit to give your pasta dish a lot of extra flavor, it really packs a punch.

Fontana del Calamo
Fontana del Calamo, 16th century masterpiece

The city of Ancona doesn’t reveal its charms easily, by the way, even if it does have some interesting squares and streets. It is home to Antonio Budano’s Re Formaggio, a place of pilgrimage for cheese lovers, but I arrived there during the looooong afternoon break and I was unable to hang around until the King of Cheese came back from his nap. I found a small friendly store that sold cheese, salami, prosciutto and delicious homemade pies next to the covered market so I was able to score.

Sauro Zannotti
Small friendly cheese store

The cheese was sold to me by Sauro Zannotti, the proprietor of said small friendly store, along with a piece of aged Pecorino and a very young Pecorino, so that I could compare and appreciate the special qualities of the pit cheese. Ah, and of course there was pie. I cannot be entirely certain, but Sauro seemed so proud of the homemade pie that he left me convinced it was his very own wife who baked it. And even if my plastic-wrapped Pecorino di Fossa did not look as cool as the cloth-wrapped chunks that come out of the pits, it has made many a pasta dish in our household bring back pleasant memories of yet another successful cheese hunt.

Renaissance Arch
Renaissance Archway in Ancona

 

 

An embarrassment of cheeses

Riquewihr
Riquewihr in Alsace, where this story begins

Can there be such a thing as too much cheese? Until recently, I would have responded to that question with the superior yet generous smile of one who can accurately fathom the stupidity of the person asking the question. “Forgive them, for they know not what they ask” I would think, and busy myself with something far more important, such as the next chapter in Italian Cheese: A Guide To Its Discovery and Appreciation, 293 Traditional Types. Yes, that is a splendid book, and no, I am not providing a link to it on Amazon, because there are better ways to get it – support your local bookstore or library before they are all gone – but that’s for another time and another soapbox.

So, can there be such a thing as too much cheese? I will let you be the judge of it, but in our house, we certainly lived through a bit of a crisis brought on by events I’d like to collectively refer to as cheesemageddon. It all started with a visit in Riquewihr, a cute-as-a-button town in Alsace, that has a cheese cellar in the main street, les Caves d’Affinage de Riquewihr. Despite the fact that the place has a bit of a touristy flavor to it, I found some cheeses I liked: a Tomme D’Alsace (probably really just a Tomme de Savoie made in Alsace), a piece of semi-hard goat cheese and a Munster fermier.

Mont Blanc
Mont Blanc

A few days later I found myself in Savoy, and boy, do they take their cheese seriously up there. The region sits smack dab to the south of Lake Geneva and is as mountainous as next-door Switzerland. It is home to the Mont Blanc, the tallest peak in the Alps at 4,808 meters (that’s 15,774 feet for you non-metric folks) and lots of alpine meadows and cows to cavort in those meadows. Because of all the cavorting, those cows are exceedingly happy and as everyone from California knows, happy cows produce great milk. And do they ever know how to turn great milk in to spectacular cheese in Savoy.

Just how spectacular, I learned at the Coopérative fruitière du Val d’Arly in the small town of Flumet, just after I had spent some time marveling at all three cow races that the cheesemakers of Savoy love so dearly: the Montbéliarde, the Tarentaise and the Abondance. At the coop, they sell mountains of cheese, and they even have a little cheese exhibit along with a stand with free leaflets – pretty much one for each of the great Savoy cheeses. With the cows, the leaflets and the enormous cases full of enormous cases, I found myself with my back against the wall, silently cried uncle and bought enough cheese for a small orphanage: a whole Tommette brébis fermière (good but not sensational), a hefty slice of Abondance (sensational – fruity, full of complexity, as if you yourself are munching on all those alpine herbs and flowers), a chunk of Beaufort Été (of course it matters that it is a summer cheese rather than a winter one – in winter the cows get hay, in summer those French alpine herbs and flowers) and of course a Reblochon fermier. The Abondance comes from a valley with the same name, and can be made only with the milk of the three aforementioned cows. It is easily recognized by the clearly concave shape of the cheese’s side (same as with the Beaufort, by the way) which comes from the mold used during the cheese making process. The Beaufort comes from the region centered on the town with the same name, which is home to a very large facility where one can learn about the cheese, taste it and buy it – it’s the busiest business in Beaufort, which makes an otherwise sleepy impression. These two, along with the Reblochon make up the holy trinity of Savoy cheeses – at least in my book. The latter takes its name from a cheeky practice of Savoy farmers from the 13th century: these men hardly if ever owned the landed they had their cows graze on, so they owed the local count or abbey a usage fee, which was determined by the amount of milk obtained from the cows. On the day the usage fee was determined, the cunning farmer would ostensibly squeeze his cows dry, only to go back into the barn after the official had left for a little re-squeeze, which yielded a much smaller, but milkfat-richer amount of milk, of which a washed rind soft cheese was produced. Linguists among you have already figured out that this scofflaw procedure, the re-squeeze, was locally known as reblocher and that is how the cheese got its name. Today no such devious behavior is involved in making the cheese, which comes in two varieties: Reblochon with a red label is produced in large facilities that collect milk from several farms while a green label (it is stuck on the cheese before the final layer of white mold forms, so it is not easy to see) indicates a Reblochon made on the farm, from one herd of cows, and while the milk is as fresh as it can be. Purist of course swear by the latter. In both cases the milk used is unpasteurized which means it can sadly not be sold in the US – for your own protection, of course.

Tarentaise
Tarentaise
Abondance
Abondance
Montbeliarde
Montbéliarde

With my small mountain of cheese I eventually descended from the mountains, but not before I stopped in Annecy, where I visited the gorgeous Fromagerie of Pierre Gay, who has a cellar where he ripens his cheeses right under the store – and a large glass panel in the floor to prove it. It’s very cool to be browsing the store and to look down on the wheels of Abondance and Beaufort and the other innumerable cheesy highlights he is looking after. While it was late when I got there, and I was a bit more restrained, I still picked up a chunk of Vacherin des Bauges (the Savoy cousin of the Vacherin Mont d’Or), a piece of Persillé de Tignes (a delightful blue goat cheese without any visible traces of mold, but a flavor that leaves no doubt) and a Trèfle fermier, an ash-covered goat cheese in the shape of a clover.

Vacherin & Persille
At Fromagerie Pierre Gay in Annecy

Two days on, and I found myself in a cheese shop in Dijon and I met three cheeses I had to take how, and now our mid-size Swiss fridge started to creak at the seams, and all yogurt, pickles, bell peppers, leftovers and milk strangely started to taste like Reblochon. We enlisted the help of a friend and organized an evening of cheese tasting. He obliged and battled valiantly and with his effort, we made a very decent dent. He later confessed he had been overserved a bit but he felt it was for a noble cause, namely to help us not drown in fromage.

My epic cheese journey to Savoy and Burgundy took place in the second half of the week after our visit to Alsace, and the battle of the cheese bulge followed during the weekend. Somewhat relieved, I went to work on Monday, where an Italian friend from Genoa paid me a surprise visit. With a small but well-executed flourish, he swung one of those large silvery bags you get at the supermarket for cold stuff onto my desk, where it landed with a foreboding thud. He knows of my fatal attraction to cheese, and his voice had just the right amount of operatic flair, when he proclaimed: I brought you… cheese.

Details of the five generous chunks of cheese from Piedmont, collectively weighing in at a little under three kilos or about six pounds are for another post.