Banon AOP (Week 5)

Banon 1

Banon: goat cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves

Cheese: Banon AOP

Producer: Fromagerie de Banon

Where: Banon, France

I spent the first few days of this week in Avignon, and the Cheese Primer suggests that two of the ‘worthy’ cheeses from Provence/ Dauphiné region are the Banon and the Saint Marcellin. Steven Jenkins is the author of this book, which I bought quite a few years ago and which is starting to show its age: it was published in 1996 and back then it won a James Beard award, but unfortunately, it has by now missed 20 years of development – nothing in his book about the splendid new cheeses in the US (he dedicates a chapter to the US, but the pickings are slim), or any of the newer creations in Europe. In fact, it even predates the AOP designation of the Banon, which was awarded in 2003. At some point in this blog, I will write something about the Appellation d’Origine Protégée, but for now it suffices to say that this designation indicates to consumers that they are buying the real deal, in this case a cheese that is produced according to certain rules in a certain area, using certain ingredients, in this case raw goat milk.

It is a little round cheese, about three inches in diameter and an inch thick, with a nice white rind and a smooth creamy paste. Banon are wrapped in chestnut after 5 to 10 days of ripening. The leaves are soaked in water or a water & vinegar mix and this takes out much of the tannin, but the overall idea of this wrapping is that the leaves do not just protect the cheese but also impart some flavor. The leaves are carefully folded around the cheese and kept in place with a strand of natural raffia. If nothing else, the cheese looks very pretty and it makes for a good story. The cheese is named for the small market town that sits on a 2,600 feet ridge about 60 miles east of Avignon. There is a legend that Antoninus Pius, Roman emperor from 138 to 161, ate so much Banon that he fell ill and died a few days later. I am not quite sure why the people that are selling this cheese think they need to tell this story.

Local farmers who used their goats (‘poor man’s cows’) for milk produced cheese for their own use and sold any surplus in the nearby towns. Today the region in which Banon is produced is carefully delineated, outside of it, farmers can wrap their cheese in chestnut leaves all they want, but it’s no Banon!

The second cheese I bought was the Saint Marcellin, named after a town two hours north of Avignon, a little over a half hour from the banks of the Rhône. It is ridiculously creamy, packs a lot of flavor and a bit of a bite when thoroughly ripened. That big glob of cheese on the bread is Saint Marcellin.

Saint Marcellin
Creamy goodness: Saint Marcellin

The bread by the way is typical for the region: walnuts and grapes, soaked in red wine for a while, are kneaded into the dough – pain vigneron. It is the kind of bread you can just keep munching away at until it is miraculously gone.

Third cheese! The Pélardon is from the Cévennes region, in the Massif Central, quite a ways from Avignon, so it didn’t fit in my plan of having strictly regional cheeses, but my companion, Magalie insisted, and she’s a chef, so I did as I was told. It was worth it: it is dry, has the typical goat flavor with nice complexity – a good one all around. One of the great things about some of the AOPs is that they prescribe what the animals eat and where they eat it – in this way, these rules ensure that the consumer knows that their cheese comes from goats who have a decent life. The Pélardon has an AOP designation as well.

Delice du Ministre
Tres delicieux: Delice du Ministre

For good measure, I bought three other cheeses (and I thought I showed great restraint): a goat cheese from the Chevrerie du Pesillon, one from the Terrasson farm, and finally a Délice du Ministre from Givors, a town along the Rhône. This last cheese has its roots in a small town called Vinay, not far from Saint Marcellin and I cannot figure out why it is not better known. The only thing I have learned that it received its name because high ranking government official in the past would have goatees, and were subsequently referred to as goats. Délice du Ministre is thus a reverse-play on that nickname. It was a delightful surprise, I actually liked it the best of all of six cheese – perhaps it was a draw between the Saint Marcellin and the Délice.

On the plate with the six cheeses, they are, from center top clockwise: the Saint Marcellin (cow’s milk, by the way), the Pesillon, the Pélardon AOP, the Délice du Ministre and the Terrasson (with the grey mold). The Banon sits in the center.

French Goat Cheeses
On ne peut jamais avoir trop de fromage!
Advertisements

Remeker (Week 4)

DSC_0155

Cheese: Remeker

Producer: De Grote Voort

Where: Lunteren, the Netherlands

We spent last Christmas in the Netherlands and part of the Christmas Eve ohmygoodnessIatetoomuch dinner was a cheese plate. Christine’s only demand was that there would be a camembert au lait cru; otherwise, I though it a splendid idea to have only Dutch cheeses. I picked up an order from l’Amuse, a very well-established cheese monger in Amsterdam; highly recommended if you are ever in the city and you are tired of the Rijksmuseum, the van Gogh and the touristy cheese places in the canal belt. L’Amuse is a few tram stops away, and my trek out there was rewarded with a splendid suggestion from the gentleman I corresponded with: don’t take the hangkaas, take the Remeker instead. The prille Remeker became everyone’s favorite cheese (the blue goat cheese from Drenthe was somewhat of a bomb). So when I had the chance, I visited mother Ouendag, drove about 30 minutes through the drab countryside to visit the farm of Irene and Dirk-Jan van de Voort.

DSC_0140

They keep a herd of Jersey cows, and go about making raw milk cheese with an incredible zeal. Irene wrote a book and in it you can read about a family hovering between passion and obsession about making the best dang cheese you can image. And, by golly, I do not believe Dutch cheese ever tasted so good. I got a piece of ‘pril’ – 3 months old; a piece of ‘ryp’ (8-9 months); and a piece of Olde Remeker, which has ripened 13 months. All three of them were absolutely worth the trip. They’re creamy, extremely flavorful, salty but not too salty, complex, and the taste stays with you for a while. When I took my leave from mom, I left some Remeker for her, brought some for Molly, who had to endure the craziness of the hunt for cheese #3, and a nice chunk of ryp for the family. ‘t was a sad day when that Remeker ran out, but I will be back there for more. The bread and the gooseberry-elderberry blossom jam I picked up there were also to die for.

DSC_0161

 

 

 

Munster Fermier (Week 3)

 

Munster Fermier c

Cheese: Munster Fermier

Producer: Ferme Schott & Ferme du Lameysberg

Where: Breitenbach, Alsace, France

The real Munster, cheese experts will tell you, has nothing to do with the cheese that is sold as such in the US, or the version that is linked to the eponymous city in Germany. Munster is a small town in the Vosges Mountains of Alsace, Northwestern France, close to Basel, and during a visit to our Basel office it seemed like a great idea to venture out into the countryside to find a Munster Fermier, buy it directly from a cheese farmer and say hi to the cows, the Vosgesiennes, a breed that is specific to the area (but Munster doesn’t necessarily need to come from milk of these cows). The mottled white & black animals apparently don’t mind the sometimes inclement mountain weather of the high pastures. In winter they are brought down to the farm and I guess purists would stay away from the cheese made from winter milk: the cows eat hay, not that nice mix of grass, herbs and wildflowers that grow in the meadows of the Vosges.

Murbach Abbey Winter c
Transept of the abbey of Murbach, Alsace

 

View on Stosswihr c
View on Stosswihr

The plan seemed simply enough, and I took a colleague along for the ride. There is a cheese museum of sorts in a town close to Munster and farms that sell cheese are clearly mapped on a website that provides lots of information about Alsace’s most famous cheese. Alas, the cheese museum was closed for winter (the website didn’t spill those beans) and one of the obvious candidate farms was closed for lunch. When we came back after lunch, there was a handwritten sign on the door that said “Out on an errand, back in 20”. 20 minutes came and went and poor Molly must have regretted that she joined what tuned out to be a mad quest for fromage fermier.

Ferme du Versant du Soleil Alsace c
The cheese is there, but nobody’s home. At La Ferme du Versant du Soleil in Hohrod

In the end, we got our Munsters in Colmar, a very charming little town not far from the Rhine. It’s a major tourist draw in southern Alsace, and it was the home of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, the man who sculpted some nice fountains and other statuary. Oh yah, and that lady that stands in New York Harbor, welcoming the poor, tired, huddled masses….

Munsters are stinky, there’s no 2 ways about it. Really stinky. We came home to the hotel in Basel and ate our cheese with some dried Bündnerfleisch and drank a vendanges tardives Gewürztraminer with it. The Munster from Hubert Schott was still young, and as such the flavor was surprisingly mild. You would expect such a stinky cheese to be quite a mouthful. The Munster from the Ferme du Lameysberg was riper and here, the flavor was more robust. All in all worth the quest (we never did see any Vosgesiennes) but for January, the top ranking still goes to the Rush Creek Reserve.

Munster c
Hubert Schott’s Munster

 

Quesillo Oaxaca (Week 2)

DSC_0009c
Tangled Oaxacan Cheese

Cheese: Quesillo Oaxaca

Producer: –

Where: –

One of the stops on a food tour in Boyle Heights this week was a particularly delightful surprise: in an otherwise very nondescript building, we found a covered market in the basement that turned out to be a delight for the senses. I picked the two most interesting cheeses I could find at a vendor who sold cheese and meats. The first one was the Quesillo Oaxaca, a white ball that looks like the Mexican version of a Mozzarella, which it sort of is. Apparently some Italian farmer, with the support of the Mexican government, came over in the 1950 and taught locals to produce cheese. Another story has Dominican monks teach the Oaxacans how to make Queso. And then there is the legendary Leobarda Castellanos García, a girl who, back in 1885, was charged with watching the slow heating of the cheese curd, but got distracted until the stuff was overcooked. She panicked, decided to throw hot water on the curd and voilà, thusly was born Mexican pasta filata cheese.

Of course, mozzarella cheese is made by putting the curd in hot water, too, so this accidental screw-up neatly dovetailed with centuries of cheesemaking history…. The pulling of the curd, which gets a little rubbery, and then the kneading into a ball: there are really good reasons to think that at some time, there was an Italian (Dominican or not) that introduced the Oaxacans to this cheese.

DSC_0003c
The Queso before the entanglement

Most Mexican cheese is used in cooking, and Queso Oaxacathis is particularly well suited for quesadillas. On its own I thought it tasted very fresh (you are supposed to eat this cheese when it is only a few days old and it comes in a plastic bag complete with a generous helping of liquid), but not as creamy as good mozzarella and a little salty to my taste. I think I will need to try it again, and travel to Oaxaca to do it there. I frankly have no idea where exactly this cheese came from: it is imported, but also produced locally.

I learned a lot more about the Oaxacan cheese from a blog by food historian Rachel Laudan. She writes that there is a Mexican expression: “That’s more tangled than a Oaxacan cheese”. Just how tangled that cheese can get is obvious in the picture: all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t get that cheese back together again.

DSC_0014c
‘Tipo Chester’ Cheese from Chihuahua

The other cheese was semi-hard, with small little irregular holes. It is produced in a Mennonite Colony near Las Virginias, 168 miles south of El Paso in the Mexican State of Chihuahua. The cheesemaker is called La Estrella, and they call the cheese ‘Tipo Chester’. It was mild with a bit of a sharp edge and a tang, quite nice. It’s also called Chihuahua cheese, but it seems that there is quite a variety of different cheeses that fall under that geographical designation, which would not make it very helpful if you were to be looking for a specific cheese. It’s also called Mennonita, because the Mennonite colonies in northern Mexico are known for their cheese-making prowess.

As far as the animals that produce the milk are concerned, Rachel Laudan says the preferred cows in Mexico are crossbreeds between Zebu and Brown Swiss. The latter’s heritage is easy to guess, the former is basically an Indian cow. The great thing about these animals is that they do well in the heat, and that of course is a good thing in much of Mexico.

In the end, neither cheese would rank high on my list of favorites, but I will maybe find some time in these 52 weeks to give Mexican cheeses another shot. In the process of reading up on Oaxaca, I learned they eat chapulines there, grasshoppers, among a host of other interesting and flavorful foods. We’ll need to find a really good Oaxacan restaurant in the Southland to prepare for a trip down there!

 

 

Rush Creek Reserve (Week 1)

IMG_0919c

Cheese: Rush Creek Reserve

Producer: Upland Cheese Company

Where: Dodgeville, Wisconsin

My first cheese of 2016 came from the local Whole Foods. I simply went for the most interesting cheese I could find, so I ended up with Rush Creek Reserve, a farmstead cheese from Wisconsin. According to the rules of the American Cheese Society, this means that the milk from which the cheese is made comes from one farm (or one herd, I guess), without any other milk mixed in. In this case, that would be the Upland Cheese Company farm, which is in the southwest of the state. It looked nothing like the big blocks of yellow foam cheese Green Bay Packers fans put on their heads on game day, and that was a good part of its initial appeal.

When I looked up the farm, the cows and the people behind this cheese, its appeal rapidly grew. From the way they breed the cows (9 different races are crossbred, according to the website), the way the cows graze (new paddock every day) and the fact that it is a raw milk cheese, it was clear that these folks mean business. Rush Creek Reserve is the American response to the French/ Swiss Vacherin Mont d’Or (the cheese is made on both side of the French/ Swiss border, but the Swiss own the name, in France it is known as Mont d’Or or Vacherin du Haut Doubs – it’s a long story, and the French are still seething). It means that this is a cheese produced only during the time the cows are fed hay instead of fresh grass. This happens in winter, so Rush Creek Reserve is a seasonal cheese. It is a soft, washed rind cheese that comes with a strip of spruce bark tied around its edge, so that the cheese keeps it shape, even if it is not in a box. Mine was only wrapped in paper, not sure it this is how it comes, or if the Whole Foods people broke the box…

IMG_0928c

The idea is that once the cheese is ripe (you can push the rind and it will give) you take the rind of the top like you would open a can, and you can then spoon out the cheese, which has a consistency of thick custard. It has a beautiful pale yellow color and a very, very interesting flavor: salty, smoky, and woodsy, all in a perfect balance. I found it a little unusual at first but with the second spoonful I was completely sold. There are probably a host of different ways you could use this cheese in cooking, but I enjoyed it with just some crusty bread – it really doesn’t need anything else. It is quite pricey (13 ounces will set you back somewhere in the neighborhood of $30) but it is worth it, and considering that the entire production is sold out for 2015, the cheese has a lot of fans.

IMG_0936c

Interesting detail: Upland Cheese didn’t make any Rush Creek Reserve in 2014, because of the unclear FDA-issued regulations. The FDA is quite concerned about cheese made from raw milk. Cheese in the US has to be aged for at least 60 days – the idea being that all bad bacteria are dead by that time, an idea for which there seems to be scant scientific evidence, but the FDA seems to take a better-safe-than-sorry approach. Good thing, I say. Imagine living in a country like France, where you could freely buy such lethal weapons as a Camembert au lait cru – naturally prohibited in the U.S., on account of it being a public health and safety issue….

52 Weeks – 52 Cheeses!

So here’s the idea for this blog: in each of the 52 weeks of 2016, I will pick a cheese from somewhere on the planet (let’s be realistic: from Europe or North America), savor it, take a picture of it, try to learn as much as I can about it, and then, write about it. No other rules. Obviously it helps for the cheese to have a story, and there has to be at least some epicurean promise; I am not planning to spend a week trying to uncover the mystery of Kraft slices.

In the process I pursue not one, not two, not three, but four goals. Once could think this is very ambitious, but it really isn’t. Considering I have to hold down a job, be present for my family and attend to sundry other obligations, my output will be limited. I am afraid I will not win Cheese Blogger of the Year Award anytime soon. So, in no particular order, this is what I am aiming to accomplish:

  • 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

I think that is ambitious enough. In Dutch, we’d say: we zien wel waar het schip strand: we’ll see where the ship runs aground. In essence: we’ll see what happens.