Καλαθάκι Λήμνου, A Tale of Two Islands (Week 14)

Kalathaki Lemnos II
Kalathaki, still wrapped up

Cheese: Kalathaki Lemnou

Producer: Lemnos Markakis

Where: Myrina, on the Island of Lemnos, Greece

Yes, you guessed it, that’s a Greek cheese I am taking about. I picked it up during a brief stop on a cruise, in the town of Thira on the idyllic Island of Santorini, which more or less lives off tourism and agriculture. I found my cheese in a small, non-descript store that sold local products, and this one looked quite interesting. Little did I know that the island has its very own cheese, Chloro. For various reasons, I had not been able to do any homework on Greek cheese. I did find out later that the particular cheese I picked up comes from an island that was only about 40 miles away from a tiny beach in Yeniköy, in Turkey, where I would dip into the Aegean Sea a few days later. But back for a moment to Santorini.

Oia Santorini II
Santorini Island, Village of Oia

3,500 years ago, the people here were none too happy. That was because they got caught up in the Minoan eruption, a spectacular volcanic event that did extensive damage to the old Minoans and their civilization and created the Santorini we know today, a semicircle of sorts surrounding a lagoon with a small island in the middle. Volcanologists see a giant water-filled caldera, where the rest of us just see a string of pretty villages with white walls perched atop some very steep cliffs like icing on a gigantic cake. Thera, where I landed, is the least attractive of the little towns on the island so next time I am there I will have a double mission: see the tiny little towns with the blue-domed churches and get a piece of the Chloro cheese, even if the name does not sound inviting at all.

The cheese I did end up with was still interesting and, since I did not have high expectations, a very pleasant surprise. The Kalathaki was fresh and salty (it spends 3 weeks in a brine bath), with a bit of tang and since goat’s milk and sheep’s milk are mixed together to create it, you do get two flavors for the price of one, and they strike a nice balance, I found. I haven’t been a big fan of feta, perhaps because of the omnipresence of the factory produced stuff that is called upon every time olives and greens meet in a salad.

Kalathaki Lemnos
Imprint of the wicker basket that gives the cheese its name

This cheese matures for about 60 days in a small wicker basket and the imprint the basket leaves behind gives the cheese its name: Kalathaki means basket. It is one of more than 20 cheeses in Greece that has a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO, OR DOP, or AOP, depending on which EU language you are using). The sheep and the goats who deliver the milk for this cheese are largely allowed to roam around so what you get in the cheese is the flora and the climate of the island in a relatively straightforward way. Dedicated promotors of the cheese claim that is was around in Homer’s days – but the great poet didn’t really write about it, so it is not that easy to verify.

Santorini Church
Santorini, Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in Thira
Santorini with 2 ships
Santorini, cruise ships docked in the caldera

Downtown LA (Week 8)

Grand Central Market
In Grand Central Market

Oma, the cheese for week 8, came from DTLA Cheese in Grand Central market in the elusive heart of Los Angeles. In the mid-90s, the effort to revitalize downtown Los Angeles was in full swing. The Public Library had reopened, Pershing Square had been redone, there was a museum of neon art, the new metro stations shone and sparkled with public artworks and Angels Flight had just been brought back from the dead. Twenty years later, those efforts seem to be bearing fruit: there are more restaurants and bars, a great many lofts, some green spaces and there are plans for a do-over of Pershing Square which, in its 90s guise turned out to be somewhat of a bust.

To me, the intersection of Broadway and West 3rd Street is a place where, then as now, revitalization is necessary only in the slightest sense – there is no real need to make huge improvements on what’s there, because it has always been an interesting and colorful corner. There is the beautiful Bradbury Building from 1893 that’s been used in many movies (most famously in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner) with its cast iron stairwells and elevator shaft and the enormous skylight. As you exit the Bradbury onto West 3rd Street, you are face to face with an enormous mural of Anthony Quinn, who is dancing as Zorba the Greek. The mural is on the side of the Victor Clothing Company, where Quinn supposedly was a loyal customer. The Bradbury’s other rear exit leads to Biddy Mason Park, where a wall created by Sheila Levant de Bretteville recounts the remarkable life of Ms. Mason, who was born a slave, but eventually became one of the founders of L.A.’s First AME church. Additionally, Mason worked as a nurse and ended up owning quite a bit of property in the neighborhood. Across Broadway from the Bradbury is the former Million Dollar Theatre, which opened in 1918. Sid Grauman (yes, the one of Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard) had it built as one of the first of its kind in the country. It marks the northern end of the stretch along Broadway that has a great number of theaters, some of which are barely used anymore, and others that are being rediscovered. The L.A. Conservancy, which busies itself with protecting architectural icons of the past, has a great program every summer called Last Remaining Seats. They stage movies, often with live music or a Wurlitzer Movie Organ, in these old gems. For a few hours, anyone with a (reasonably priced) ticket can relive the glory days of L.A.’s own Broadway. It is worth it showing up on time, as the seats are all sold at the same price and late comers end up in the seats right under the ceiling…

The Million Dollar Theater has been part of the lineup for Last Remaining Seats in years past. The building also was known for years as the home to the Farmacia Y Botanica Million Dollar , but early in 2016, that business closed. It did not just sell basic drugstore items, but focused especially on votive candles, rosaries, saint statuettes, amulets, potions and spells. Anyone with great expectations or concerns in love, money, career, family or all of the above could go here and get the necessary spiritual accouterments needed to ward of the bad and bring in the good. Alas, it is all gone now, just like the plaques in the pavement honoring Latino greats from the movies, such as Pedro Armendáriz and Dolores del Rio.

Chiles Secos Grand Central Market
Chiles Secos !

Next door, though, the Grand Central market is thriving as it is currently trying to navigate the pitfalls of gentrification. The oldest market in Los Angeles, dating back to 1917, still sold day-old conchas, pigs ears and knuckles, fruit with blemishes and Chinese herbs when I first visited in the 90s. Today, the breakfast line for Eggslut is out on the street, there is a McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams outlet, a place where they cure salmon and other fish and a stand which offers German Currywurst. But some of the low-end merchants are still there, the produce is still inexpensive in many places, and Chiles Secos still sells mole – there is hope! Let’s pray that we won’t have to join in the Big Yellow Taxi refrain any time soon for any of these places that derive so much of their authentic charm from being a little worse for wear, a little tattered, a little rough around the edges.

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Yong Kim and fans
Yong Kim and fans

On this week’s visit to downtown, we also fulfilled one of Charlie’s recent dreams when we visited Seoul Sausage, a restaurant he had heard of because he watched the Great Food Truck Race on Netflix. A few years ago, three young Korean guys won that show – they had been Charlie’s favorites throughout all episodes. Yong Kim, one of the three stars of the reality TV-series was there and Charlie had his picture taken – ah, and of course we had the sausages and the famous rice balls. We also picked up a t-shirt with a profound message: “Make sausage, not war”. Peace, everyone.

Seoul Sausage
Sausage, not war

Cheeseshops in LA (Week 9)

Cheesemongers Sherman Oaks II
Cheesemongers of Sherman Oaks

In my quest for 52 cheeses in 2016, I either try to find some time during travels domestic or international, or I default to my neighborhood Whole Foods. That’s a very flexible concept, because as many Angelenos, my work neighborhood and my home neighborhood are quite a ways apart, and there are a number of stores that fit the bill. I like the Whole Foods in Woodland Hills a lot, because they carry a very wide variety of cheeses, many of them made with raw milk. From what I understand, each store can order from a very big list that WF central decides on, and it seems clear that some stores have a fierce resident cheese monger while others don’t. I am certainly not a fan of the one in the Rolling Hills Plaza – had more than one disappointment there.

Of course between getting my Cheese in Avignon or in Woodland Hills there is a third way: local travel. And a bit of travel it always is, in the City of Angels. We try to combine any weekend quest for cheese with other food destinations in the same area, heck, we even throw in a little local culture on occasion. Here are, in no particular order, the mongers we have visited thus far in the 52 Cheeses Year.

Cheesemongers of Sherman Oaks sits on a strip along Ventura Boulevard that has a lot of upscale, trendy shops and restaurants, and they fit right in. They do cheese, cured meats, they do sandwiches and they sell all the paraphernalia that go with these foods. It is a modern, airy looking place and the owners, Kia Burton (cheese girl) and Chaz Christianson (meat guy) clearly enjoy what they are doing. We met and chatted with Chaz and admired both the selection of spectacular meats and the lovingly laid out cheese counter.

DTLA Cheese
DTLA Cheese in Grand Central Market

DTLA Cheese in the Grand Central Market is a different place entirely. Because the market now is always busy, there is never a boring moment at the cheese counter, and I suspect that much of their income is from their mac and cheese (well-deserved income, I would say) and their sandwiches.

Grilled Cheeeeese Sandwich

The folks there are friendly, and seem to enjoy working there. The owners are two sisters, Marnie and Lydia Clarke, and their other store is the Cheese Cave, which is possibly the most cluttered among the four places listed here, but I mean cluttered in a good way: who would not want a silver cow in the window, and who would not want to walk out of a place with sixteen items you didn’t know you needed?

Claremont Cheese Cave II
Cheese Cave: Window Dressing

In Culver City, in a neighborhood that is, well, soon-to-be-but-not-quite-yet gentrified, is the Wheel House, where they do tastings and classes and make sandwiches, sell $15 jars of jam that’s worth 16 dollars at least and where I have picked up some smelly chunks of Hooligan, one of my favorite cheeses in their assortment. They consider themselves as much of wine shop as a cheese monger.

Wheel House
Wheel House Wine and Cheese in Culver City

All four of these are completely worth the visit and they are so much more than your local Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. Be prepared to spend a little money; they all sell much more that what you really need (but they’re so attractive that you forget what you really need and go for what you really want), and good cheese is not cheap.

Oma, the Sound of Cheese (Week 8)

Bread ‘n Cheese. All you need

Cheese: Oma

Producer: Von Trapp Farmstead

Where: Waitsfield, Vermont

Yes, indeed, there is a connection between the cheese and the von Trapp’s of Sound of Music fame. The great-grandfather of the two cheesemakers, brothers Sebastian and Dan von Trapp was that famous von Trapp, played by Christopher Plummer in the wildly successful movie that took enough liberties with the actual family’s story to leave several von Trapps somewhat irritated with it. At any rate, the cheese makers, above claiming cheap and easy fame instead present themselves as the third generation of dairy farmers from Vermont. Grandfather Werner bought the farm with wife Erika in 1959, and here is where the name of this cheese comes in. ‘Oma’ is the informal address for one’s grandmother in German – in English the cheese would have to be named Grandma. The milk for Oma comes from a herd that is largely made up of Jersey cows, with some other races mixed in. the Farm’s website features some of these happy girls

The semi-soft cheese comes as a small wheel, about 6 inches in diameter. It is aged and washed in brine at the Cellars at Jasper Hill, the affineur that also ripens the Landaff cheese of Week 7 fame. After 60-90 days, the cheese has developed a pale orange rind, a decent smell and a very balanced flavor. As washed-rind cheeses go, Oma is relatively mild and creamy, while full-flavored – perfect if you want a little adventure without completely stinking up your refrigerator. And: it’s made of raw milk, which means the flavor is brought to you in cooperation with the natural bacteria in the milk, not just those added in the cheese making process. Therefore: more flavor, more goodness.

Cheese Counter DTLA Cheese
Cheese Counter at DTLA Cheese

I found my piece of Oma at the DTLA Cheese shop in Downtown L.A.’s Grand Central Market, where they do more than just sell cheese. They also serve a mean mac and cheese and their grilled cheese sandwiches are guaranteed to leave you with strands of melted cheese dangling from your chin. They are so good, you will not care. DTLA is the second venture of cheese sisters Lydia and Marnie Clarke, their first being the Cheese Cave in Claremont.

Queso Fresco (Week 11)

The end result: delectable quesadillas

Cheese: Queso Fresco

Producer: Quesería Jiménez

Where: La Capilla de Guadalupe

This week I got a gift. A gift of cheese. A colleague who knew about my 52 Cheeses quest brought me something that came with a story. There are few things that connect people to their heritage the way food does, and all of us are familiar with the melancholy sighs bemoaning the absence of some real fill-in-the-blank. In the 1980, when I worked a lot with German tourists in the US, it never took more than about 8 or 9 days before my guests began to lament the quality of American bread, compared to what they like to call black bread. This was well before Whole Foods and in most of the country, burger buns, dinner and breakfast rolls and wonderbread were holding down the bread-fort.

My friend’s family members rejoice and think of a place far away in the old country every time they bite into the pleasant graininess of a soft white Mexican cheese they just call Queso Fresco. She brought me a piece, neatly packaged in a plastic bag to keep the whey from dripping all over my desk. The cheese, she announced, comes from Quesería Jiménez, an unassuming facility that could pass for any other industrial building safe for the cow picture on the door. I was unable to find anything but the streetview google image.

queseria Jimenez
Queseria Jimenez

The quesería is in La Capilla de Guadalupe, and apparently, this modest town is home to the best looking women of Mexico. I am not googling that because lord knows what will come up in such a search. Capilla’s cheese is certainly worth the trouble and the risk – I am pretty sure that bringing it in to U.S. is frowned upon by the FDA. It is creamy, fresh, and not too salty. It melts to create splendid quesadillas which, I am told, is really what this cheese is made for. I enjoyed it just by the slice also, and I realize that I now have the old Playboy excuse if I were to ever travel to Capilla to see if what they say about the women is true: “I am only here for the cheese”, I will be able to claim.

Queso Fresco
Queso Fresco: Cooking up a quesadilla

Basel, Switzerland (Week 6)

Zum roten Engel
Cafe zum Roten Engel, Basel

I travel to Basel on a fairly regular basis, and while most people in Europe associate that city with the pharmaceutical industries on the edge of the old city and most North Americans don’t associate it with anything in particular, there are enough nooks and crannies that make it a pleasant place to visit. There is, for instance, the Andreasplatz, a small square with lots of ivy covering the ancient walls, a few small shops and Café zum Roten Engel (In the Red Angel). It’s tiny, it has a tiny terrace and a tiny counter, but the Wähe comes in generous slices, as does the coffee or tea to go with it. Wähe is the Swiss version of a fruit tart; there are savory kinds as well and I’d be compelled to say they’re the Swiss version of a quiche. Whatever is in season is slapped into them – good ones are not too sweet and there is more fruit than the cream & eggs filling, so the whole thing is relatively flat.

The Rheinsprung is another delightful place, or rather, a road. From near the Middle Bridge it goes up rather steeply towards the square next to the Münster (the city’s cathedral) and about 100 yards in on the left side, there is the so-called blue house, a baroque mansion that was built for a silk merchant in the second half of the 18th century. It has a ridiculously ornate wrought-iron fence and local guides tell the story of how this house and its neighbor played an important role in the history of Basel’s pharmaceutical industry.

Blue House Basel
Das blaue Haus

Both mansions were owned by silk traders (brothers, in fact) and in order to dye silk, an industry developed first in France, and then in the surrounding countries. Basel was favored because of the permissive legal climate when it came to the chemical processes involved in creating artificial dyes (it was easy to steal other people’s secrets without repercussions), and its location on the Rhine river, whose waters provided transportation. The river was also a cheap and easy way to wash away the chemical leftovers. At the end of the Rheinsprung is the Münsterberg, the promontory with the best river view in Basel, and the cathedral itself, which has a beautiful Romanesque north gate, the Galluspforte.

Basel Munster
Basler Munster

A little bit more up and down from the cathedral will have you going up the steps of the Lohnhofgässlein lined with thick-walled age-old houses in pastel colors.


Eventually, all roads in the old city will converge on the lower-lying areas, the Barfüsserplatz (Bare-footer Square, named after the Franciscan monks who had a monastery here) or the market square in front of city hall, are rather garish red-colored house that has medieval roots but received its current skin in the late 19th century. This little bit of Basel can be bitten off in about an hour and a half. The Red Angel is not far from the market square and if it is too hot for coffee and Wähe, there is Moevenpick ice cream on the square at the eponymous restaurant.

Basel City Hall
Basel City Hall

Brandrood (Week 17)

Michiel Cassuto on his farm

Cheese: Brandrood

Producer: Michiel Cassuto

Where: Ede, Gelderland

Michiel Cassuto has a beautiful farm, beautiful cows and beautiful looking cheese. Oh, and it tastes great too. Brandrood, if you will, is the Dutch version of a Gruyère: it comes in great wheels, has a natural rind (which makes for beautiful colors and patterns) and has the consistency and flavor of those cheeses from farther south. Like the other cheeses from the Gelderse Vallei, they are a far cry from the yellow stuff you can buy in pre-wrapped chunks at Schiphol airport; think of filet mignon vs. hot dog – it may both be meat (sort of) but it not quite the same. Brandrood has a bold flavor that lasts, some nuttiness and a bit of a sharper edge, but all very well balanced.

Brandrood cheese with a beautifully mottled rind

The farmer, who does everything himself, writes on his website that he grew up wanting to milk cows. And boy, does he live his dream. The Brandrood is a cow breed (“fire-red”) that has been around for centuries, but almost died out. They are beautiful beasts, and when I asked Mr. Cassuto (the name is Italian only because long-time-ago ancestors came from Italy, Michiel is as Dutch as vanillevla) if I could get a little closer to the cows to take a picture he casually suggested I should just climb over the fence, mind the cow pies and get as close as I wanted.

Brandrood cows

Cassuto has about two dozen of them, there aren’t many more than about a thousand still around. They do not yield an awful lot of milk so for many years they have not been bred a great deal and that has threatened their survival, hence their inclusion on the list of the Slow Food Foundation of Biodiversity. Leaving the farm, itself hundreds of years old, I felt good about the Brandrood’s chances of long-term survival – if you have friends like Michiel Cassuto who’s clearly in it as much for the love of it as for the money, things are looking up.

Engelenhove, Michiel Cassuto’s farm

Den Bosch, the Netherlands (Week 12)

The Dieze River, running through and under the city of ‘s Hertogenbosch

The reason I was in the Netherlands for a quick visit in week 12 of this year was an exhibit in the city of ‘s Hertogenbosch. That’s a mouthful of Dutch, but all it really means is “Duke’s Forest”. In the late Middle Ages, the city was one of the largest in the Duchy of Brabant, along with Louvain, Brussels and Antwerp. The Belgian fight for independence, which officially ended with the treaty of Maastricht in 1843, cut the duchy in half, and north of the border, Noord-Brabant became a Dutch province and Den Bosch (for short) its rather quiet capital. Today, the city is overshadowed in the province by Eindhoven of Philips fame, but from its heyday date both a very large (for the Netherlands) Gothic cathedral as well as its other big claim to forever-after fame. Around the middle of the 15th century, a certain Joen or Jeroen van Aken was born here, and he was to become the most famous Dutch painter of his time as Jheronimus Bosch (usually spelled Hieronymus in English). As was the case with other painters of his time, many of his works eventually ended up far away from Den Bosch, because the Netherlands were variously owned and operated by Burgundy, France, Austria or Spain, and their kings, dukes and princes took away a lot of art, sometimes paying for it, too.

Bosch Giraffe
Giraffe from the Garden of Earthly Delights

Sadly, the city couldn’t show a single painting of its famous son in its museum, and something had to be done for the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Bosch’ death in 1516. Enter a team of art experts assembled to conduct the most comprehensive study of Bosch work ever, with an intriguing proposal to any museum or gallery willing to participate in a trade: we provide research and restoration services for free, and in return, we get to have your Bosch paintings or drawings for our exhibit. The idea worked like a charm, and this spring, the spectacular exhibit brought close to half a million visitors to Den Bosch. In city parks, unsettling three-dimensional monstrous sculptures, lifted out of Bosch’ paintings created a strange cityscape, many local merchants got into the act and for a few months, den Bosch was all about its famous son, who is honored with a statue in the main market.

Jheronimus Bosch
Jheronimus Bosch, statue on the main market square

I stayed in the Duke hotel, a modern, friendly place that has top-floor rooms with views all over the city.  Many little details, such as a fun collection of snacks, an XXL shower and the integration of bits and pieces of the old building in the decidedly modern aesthetic made my room a lot of fun to be in. Aside from the exhibit, visitor had a chance to climb to the roof of the cathedral, to see the sculptures on the flying buttresses that support the walls up close. 82 feet over the city is a wondrous world of medieval craftsmen, strange gargoyles and human-animal hybrids straight out of a Bosch painting.

Dak van de kathedraal
Rider on a man-beast, sculpture on a flying buttress of the cathedral

The church’s interior is certainly worth a visit, but it pales in comparison to the thrilling roof exploration. All sculptures have been replaced in the late 19th century and some have been replicated more faithfully than others, but overall, the sense of being in a world Hieronymus Bosch would have felt right at home with added tremendously to my visit.

Dak van de kathedraal (2)
Monster, more than 80 feet over the city

In the meantime, the Bosch circus has moved on to Madrid. The royal Spanish thieves of yore ensured that the Prado today has the largest single museum’s collection of Bosch’ works, and it was easy to get other museums to pitch in: the Prado has plenty of bargaining power: “I’ll give you a fistful of Goya for your El Bosco triptych”. Den Bosch is recovering from the visitors (the museum was open around the clock in the last days of the exhibit) and things are returning to normal. If you happen to be in the neighborhood, the inside of the church is certainly worth a peek, the cafes are very inviting, Bosch statue is still there, and a little boat tour on the Dieze, the little stream that runs under and through the old city is a great way to get a perspective that is a little different.

Het Laatste Oordeel Marc Mulders
Marc Mulders, the Last Judgement, stained-glass window in the  cathedral