Ok, I am cheating here, because the Buffalo Blue is a cheese I bought in Claremont, about a month ago. But some weeks, there are just leftover pieces of cheese in my house, and at other times – it’s a party. I have written about the folks at Bleating Heart in this blog before so I will not repeat that here. You can find something on their Four Square cheese that I tried in week 9 of this year. That was a pretty unique cheese, because it is made with the milk of goats, sheep, cows and water buffalo, those of Mozzarella di Bufala Campana fame. Seana Doughty, the cheesemaker and founder of Bleating Heart, decided not to try to recreate her own Mozzarella and created a blue cheese instead. Given that buffalo milk has about double the amount of milkfat of normal cow’s milk, this makes for a very creamy blue.
There is a bit if sweetness in Buffalo Blue that balances the bite of the Penicillium, which makes it a very accessible cheese. That is absolutely not to say that this is not an interesting chees, au contraire: it is an adventure in blue, and one can only hope that the good folk at Bleating Heart will continue to defy convention and, as they say “making seriously good cheeses without taking ourselves too seriously”.
So let’s get to the second part of the title first. Terroir is a word sometimes used by the pretentious and the pretenders to talk about whatever expensive red or white they are swirling in their glass. Since it is foreign, it is supposed to help lend instant credibility to whatever comes before or after the use of the t-word. To the people who invented it (oui, les Français) it actually means something, and it is not only used for wine, although that is the field of food & drink appreciation where it is heard the most. Terroir, in a nutshell, ties a product to the land, to the climate, and to the traditions that impart a product its particular qualities. In cheese-speak, a Frenchman tastes the lush green pastures of Normandy, the houses that seems to grow out of the ground on which they stand, the lazy cows that chew and chew and the thick pillowy clouds full of rain when he tucks into a chunk of Pont l’évêque cheese. It is the concept that a food belongs somewhere, has a pedigree and a history that is not interchangeable. The cherished French AOCs (Appellation d’origine contrôlée), which have been replaced by the EU’s AOPs are related to the idea that you can’t uproot a product, transplant it to somewhere else and expect it to be the same. And what does all of this have to do with this week’s cheese?
Sable de Wissant is not a particularly old cheese with a long history going back to Charlemagne or Louis XIV. It goes back to Antoine Bernard and the 1990s, when this man, who raised goats for a living, decided to get into the cheese business. That did not seem an obvious choice because Antoine’s creamery is in the far northwest of France, an area many people in parts of the country more blessed with natural beauty and culture lovingly refer to as the sticks. Antoine first traveled around, learned on farms and monasteries and then set about creating cheese with a solid sense of terroir: the raw cow’s milk for the cheese comes from local farms and the beer used to wash the cheese and give it its unique yeasty flavor is brewed in Wissant, another small town in those very same sticks. And so here is a relatively newcomer to that fabled plethora of 246 French cheeses Charles de Gaulle talked about (“how can one govern a country that has 246 different cheeses), and it is all about local flavor, local products, and local labor of love – terroir, in essence. The cheese is semi-soft, smells like a nice white beer and has a creamy, soft but not runny texture and a full, rich flavor which combines yeast, barnyard and butter in just the right proportions. Well, done, les frères Bernard! And well done by the Cloche à Fromage in Strasbourg, on the opposite end of the country, for offering this delicious creaminess to the folks in Alsace.
“What on earth” you could hear those Swiss mountain farmers think “are we going to do with all that friggin’ milk?” That’s when some smarty-pants came up with the idea of making cheese. A lot of milk goes into a single cheese, you can roll the wheels down the mountain (ok, they really don’t do that, but they could, if you ask me), and you can keep the cheese for months. Fast forward a lot more cows and of course, the question becomes “what on earth” – exactly: “are we going to do with all that friggin’ cheese?”
You eat it. your neighbors eat it, the people one town over eat it. And visitors eat it. A lot. and then you send it all over the world so everyone eats it. Problem solved and worldwide reputation established. We found ourselves in the epicenter of cheesiness this weekend, as we witnessed a spectacle where the-cows-that-make-the-milk-the-farmers-turn-into-the-cheese-that-gets-sold-around-the-globe are brought down from their summer pastures, where the mountain herbs on which the cows feast give the milk that je-ne-sais-quoi that makes the mountain cheese so yummy, to the winter pastures and stables where they wait until spring.
The town of Saint-Cergue has turned this chore into something people from the US, Sweden, Belgium, France, and Japan travel for thousands of miles to witness: cows with big old bells (Bruce Dickinson!) around their necks, some with flowery headdresses are poked and prodded down the mountains, do a few tours around the town, spray the pavement with poop and disappear, all this to the delight of the visitors, who feast on Tomme Vaudoise grillée and on Tartiflette, a stew of onions, bacon, potatoes and Reblochon, and thus help to take care of some cheese for which the locals now no longer need worry about transportation costs.
Why, you say, is this area an epi-cheese-center? Because it is frontier country. We overnighted in a hotel that straddles the border between Switzerland and France. And both countries face the above-mentioned ‘what to do with’ dilemma. So they are fiercely competitive. On the Swiss side, the Tomme Vaudoise is the innocent-looking vanguard of the Gruyere and Emmentaler forces a little further inland. The Vacherin Mont d’Or has been claimed as a Swiss cheese, but the French will never recognize it as such. On the French side, there are the formidable stacks of Comté wheels, fittingly being aged in a old fortress in Les Rousses, the Morbier, and the Bleus – those of Gex and of the Haut Jura. for the cheese lovers, this pitched battle makes the border region a Cheese Wonderland. Ah, I had to restrain myself – 0vercome with emotion while looking at the cows, I could have kissed any of those dewy-eyed pretty ladies. Instead, I whispered a quiet “Thank you” in each ear.
I know I promised to have an Austrian-German cheese cage match, but that will have to wait until next week. In the meantime, I did find a delightful little goat cheese from La Fourrière – I assume the word means something like ‘pen’, as in an enclosure for animals, because the word translates as pound – as in dog pound or impound lot. I am sure Mme. Girardot doesn’t have anything to do with impounding cars. Her goats produce a nice little cheese that isn’t particularly goaty; it does have that typical flavor, but it is not very pronounced and since it is sold after a bit of ageing, the cheese has a bit of saltiness I really like. All in all a very pleasant cheese, so I hope Mme. Girardot will find a successor – I can’t tell how recent the posts on her page is, but she is trying to sell the farm, a bit east of the town of Langres, itself known for an eponymous cheese. She wants to retire, and it would be sad if those heart shaped cheeses would just disappear after 21 years. Anyone out there stuck in a dead-end job?
Brothers Simon and Tim Jones of Lincolnshire Poacher Cheese are certifiable cheese nuts whose web pages are brimming with enthusiasm and idealism. They run their place on wind and solar, heat their milk with straw pellets and even pump heat out of the ground. And we’re not even talking about the cows yet. Their 230 Holstein Frisians munch on food that is largely grown on the farm, a family operation since 1917 (they also have a few Ayrshire cows – that’s a Scottish breed, but they blend right in because they look like red Holsteins, pretty much). As the Joneses do not use pesti- and other cides, the cows live among happy healthy bugs and critters of all kinds. Their farm sits 7 miles or so away from the North Sea near the town of Alford, which has a windmill with five sails as its claim to fame. A very disturbing sight for a Dutchman. Anyone who knows something about windmills understands that more than four sails is just wrong, and in England apparently that are some mills that even have six sails. One needn’t wonder why the Empire couldn’t last.
The piece of Lincolnshire Poacher I had was relatively young, had a fresh clean taste and a beautiful yellow color. I liked it a lot, but I will be looking out for their more mature cheese, because I believe that there is more flavor and goodness to be had with age. Some of it is aged over 3 years. You can listen to Simon Jones explain this and more on a beautiful little video; their website is also a treasure trove of information, photos of happy cows and of the assistant cheesemaker who apparently likes to play the trombone when he is not up to his elbows in curds.
The Lincolnshire Poacher is originally a traditional song that has been adopted as an anthem of sorts of Lincolnshire county. It is used as the official march of several military units. Benjamin Britten even arranged a version, but that one is for the dogs. Chris Sarjeant plays the tune in this video. It has crappy sound quality, but the crowd sings along and he picks a mean guitar.
When I was bound apprentice in famous Lincolnshire, Full well I serv’d my master, for more than seven year, Till I took up to poaching, as you shall quickly hear. Oh, ’tis my delight on a shining night, in the season of the year.
Ah, our new Swiss Life. After I picked up what I needed from the local web provider, I walked across the street that makes up downtown Reinach to the local butcher and deli, who also sells cheese. I wanted something for dinner, so I got that, some Unser Bier (see Week 33) and this little cheese, wrapped in a white piece of paper with a cheerful blue logo printed on it. And thus, I stepped into the world of Michel Beroud, a cheesemaker in a town that can arguably be considered the cradle of Swiss Alpine cheeses.
The Fleurette, as the story goes, was the nickname of a woman who came to help pack cheese and showed up every day in an apron with flowers all over. This cheese comes from raw cow’s milk, and the cows that make that milk live their lives chewing on grass that grows on an altitude of about 3,300 ft (or hay of that same grass). Mixed in with the grass is clover, wild cumin and other yummy greens that all find their way in the fine flavor the cheese and a fine flavor and texture it is! Oozing out of its perfect white bloomy rind is a white, creamy fresh-tasting goop that, at 2 weeks ripening, has quite a bit of structure and depth. I know, I know, that sounds convoluted – ok, so it is a bit saltier and has a bit more flavor that you would expect from such a cheese. Beroud makes some other cheeses as well, so I believe I may soon be back at my friendly neighborhood cheese store. But read my post for Week 38 – you’ll find that there is more in this corner of the planet in the way of cheese opportunities.
Just southeast of Syracuse in New York is Cazenovia, and don’t say “well, everybody knows that”. Cazenovia is home to a little over 7,000 souls and at least one ridiculously photogenic farm, Meadowood. Oh, be that way, don’t take my word for it. Look at their website and then agree with me, that’s fine. Meadowood is home to a herd of East Frisian sheep. Apparently these woolly wonders are the best that sheepdom has to offer in versatility: they produce a lot of milk, compared to other sheep, they provide fine wool and if all else fails, they don’t taste so bad either. The perfect package for a relatively small farm. The cheesemaker here is a woman by the name of Veronica Predraza, and
You can listen to a radio interview with her here. I just thought that I could put that in here, because I have not yet had the opportunity to link with a radio program. You can skip the first 2:12 minutes.
Veronica gave us Ledyard, this week’s cheese. She clearly knows her stuff and ended up borrowing an Italian tradition – that of the leaf-wrapped robiolas – for this particular cheese. so you take your soft ewe’s milk cheese, soak some grape leafs in beer (Deep Purple, a beer made with Concord grapes added for flavor and the purple color), slap ‘em on the cheese to create a neatly wrapped package, let it age for 4-6 weeks and voilà, you got yourself a cheese that is something else altogether. Ledyard is fresh, with some herbal notes, a bit of yeast and a bit of fruit, and yes, this time around I mean all of this high-falutin’ stuff: the cheese packs a lot of different flavors in each bit, and they all seem to be vying for attention, not all together, but one after another, which makes eating the cheese pleasantly confusing (is it a vegetable? No! Is it cream? No! Is it a drink? No!)
Notable: Ledyard became this week’s cheese after a pitched battle with the other cheeses I got from DTLA Cheese, a battle that took the shape of a true cheese orgy: the Smoked Kashar from Parish Hill Creamery in Vermont, the formidable Bandage Wrapped Cheddar from Fiscalini in Modesto in the Golden State, the Adair from Jacobs and Brichford in Indiana’s Whitewater Valley and the take-no-prisoners stinky Dorset cheese from Consider Bardwell Farm of West Pawlet in Vermont. Given the strong field – much better and more competitive than the republic presidential slate. And because of that, let’s show all of the contestants: drrrrrrrummrollllll:
In today’s popular parlance, this cheese is a boss. In particular the kind that is ripened some 18 months, and that the Swiss call ‘rezent’, which has nothing to do with recent, on the contrary. The word means something like ‘sharp’, and that tasty sharpness is reached after ageing for a good long while.
The valley of the Emme in the Canton of Bern has seen people make cheese for some 800 years, most of the time just for their own use, and to give some of it in exchange for their lease of the pastures to their feudal lords. Only in the early 19th century did it become more widespread and then it took off. Emmentaler is one of the most copied cheeses in the world – heck, even Kraft slices come in something that vaguely resembles the Swiss King of Cheese. I am frankly surprised the Swiss have not ever considered severing ties with the US for that abomination. Emmentaler as protected by the AOP designation is now made in a fairly sizeable part of Switzerland, not just in the Emme Valley, but the stipulations about its production are still quite stringent: raw milk, no silage for the cows, a certain percentage of the diet of the cows has to come from fresh grass etc.
My ‘rezenter Emmentaler’ came from the Wirth cheese stand on Basel’s main market, and like in many other places, the cheese is not presented as from a particular producer – so it is anyone’s guess if the cheese is actually from that fabled valley, or from a place in the neigborhood that fits the bill laid out in the rules of the AOP. So yes, I am lying up there where it says ‘where’… all I know for sure is the cheese is from Switzerland (if it isn’t, someone else is lying)
Of course all of this is fine and good, but really, the only thing everyone always wanted to know about Emmentaler is: where do the holes come from? Meet Propionibacterium freudenreichii. Freudi, as I like to call him, is a bacteria that inhabits, well, us – there are quadrillions of them in our skin. Freudi is also useful in the production of certain cheeses, and when he is done with his useful reductive work, he leaves flavor and a lot of gas, CO₂ to be exact. The gas finds tiny little bits of haydust in the cheese, enters the minute little capillaries in the hay and voom! it expands and creates a hole.
If that sounds farfetched, don’t take my word for it. Buy a copy of the study by some Emmentaler-obsessed Swiss scientists in Bern (it will set you back $40, so you may just want to trust me on this one). Raw milk contains more bacteria than pasteurized milk (among them also lactobacillus helveticus, a colleague of Freudi who does a lot of groundwork for him, before he gets started with the whole gasmaking operation) and winter milk has more haydust in it than summer milk, so you know what to do when you want big holes in your cheese. The holes ought to be round, poorly shaped holes may very well point to poor performance on the part of the bacteria and hence poor quality cheese. And the salt crystals and the occasional ‘tear’ of salt water in the bigger holes of the more ripened cheese: it’s all part of the fun. I am sure that you are familiar with the sweet, sour taste of Swiss cheese. Add to that the multi-layered depth owed to raw milk and a natural production process and then, bam! compound that with the body and complexity that comes from 18 months of careful ageing – and there’s a cheese to bow in front of, and chant: ‘we’re not worthy, not worthy, not worthy’, before taking a big fat bite.
In a French supermarket on the very edge of the Hexagon (the French call their country L’Hexagone sometimes, because of its shape), I experienced one of the blessings of living in the heart of Europe. It is 500 miles to Livarot, but I was able to get my fresh, raw milk Camembert from that very town in Normandy. Because in the US, the FDA watches over you and makes sure you don’t do anything that could be bad for you, you are not able to have a raw milk Camembert unless you leave the country. In our case, we also left the country but we did so in a car and we were back home again for dinner. We brought home a Camembert from E. Graindorge, a rather large producer, with a history going back to 1910, to grandpa Eugène. They have a slick, well done website, and the cheese can be ordered online. They produce some 11 different cheeses, all from the milk of those Normand cows that is transformed into some of the best cheese in the world. Among these cheeses, they feature the blockbusters, Livarot, Pont-l’évêque, Neufchâtel and Camembert de Normandie. All four of them carry the AOP designation, and the other three one day each deserve their own post. The Camembert, a soft cow’s milk cheese with a white bloomy rind really needs no introduction – it is produced all over the world, which explains the long official name of the cheese we brought home: any old cheesemaker can produce a cheese that looks the part and call it Camembert, but Camembert de Normandie is autre chose: something entirely different.
The cheese with the AOP seal is made from milk from Normandie cows, the curds are scooped into the mold by hand (very carefully, to guarantee just the right texture, and the milk is always raw. Marie Harel, an intrepid farm woman from Vimoutiers helped a man of the cloth, a certain abbot Bonvoust, as he was hiding from the French revolutionaries and he taught her a method of cheese making from his native Brie, which she adapted to create Camembert as we know it today. All of this happened in the waning years of the 18th century, and most, if not all of it, is entirely made up. Marie Harel did exist, but the cheese bit is unlikely, even if the story is a good one, and there is even a statue celebrating her ‘invention’ in Vimoutiers, paid for by an American who claimed to have had tremendous health benefits from eating copious amounts of Camembert. Whatever the origins of the cheese are or aren’t, Marie Harel’s descendants for many years just rudely claimed to own the exclusive rights to this cheese and tried hard to box other farmers out of the lucrative business of supplying Paris with the very popular cheese. Eventually other farmers got in on the action as well, and it wasn’t before long that Camembert was discovered elsewhere. So the early marketing and subsequent success of the cheese set the stage for widespread imitation and eventually necessitated the current clarification to the name. And yes, there is a difference, and it is huge.
A ripe Camembert de Normandie tastes like the Almighty intended cheese to taste. It has a bold aroma, a creamy consistency, and it adds a bit of a kick to a mouthful of barnyardy, mushroomy flavor. But never mind the adjectives, because there are certain things in life you just recognize when you experience them, even for the first time. Every bite from a real Camembert that has ripened to that ‘just right’ stage is, well, just right – but on a cosmic scale.