Κερκύρας κεφαλοτύρι, Ξυνομυζήθρα Κριτις and Jewish-Greek Pastries (Week 41)

xynomizythra
Xynomyzithra Kritis with fruit and honey
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Kerkyras Kefalotyri (Kefalo Cheese from Corfu)

Cheese: Kerkyras Kefalotyri and Xynomyzithra Kritis

Monger: A friendly lady at the cheese counter of a local supermarket

Where: Kerkyra (the city, a.k.a. Corfu Town), Kerkyra (the island, a.k.a. Corfu), Greece

OK, so the wheels are coming off in my blog. First off, I am breaking the one-cheese-a-week rule for the umpteenth time, and I pretend to be fluent in Greek, going as far as using Greek letters in the header of this post (again), and I am making cheese share the headline with other food. I can reassure you that I do not speak or read a word of the language, and that my selection of cheeses had nothing to do with any in-depth understanding of the local dairy product landscape. Here is what I knew: 1. the Greek eat so much cheese that they are world champions (yes, ahead of les Français or the Swiss or the Dutch). 2. Most of what the Greek consume is Feta, that ubiquitous sheep’s milk cheese (officially with some goat mixed in, but produced worldwide without regard for tradition with any old milk you can think of), that seems to be crumbled on just about any unimaginative salad in the world. 3. There are other Greek cheeses worth a try. Other than that, I was wholly unprepared and those funky letters, the friendly supermarket lady’s lack of English and my complete ignorance of Greek made for an interesting conversation:

[Pointing at a cheese that had ‘Κερκύρα’ (Corfu) in its name]

– is that cheese from Corfu?

– Yes!

– Can I have a piece?

– Yes!

[Pointing at a cheese with a DOP logo]

– and what is that?

– Ah… is light!

– OK, I’ll have that, too.

So what the heck did I come home with? The first cheese is Kefalotyri, and apparently, it is a very old cheese, in the historical sense: them old Byzantines already knew how to enjoy it. It is a hard cheese, pale yellow in color and made of sheep’s milk with a bit of goat mixed in. It’s very salty, but that is how the Greek like their cheese it seems. It is often used in all kinds of dishes, but I found it quite nice for just munching without anything else. For the second cheese, for once I followed the instructions: the Xynomyzithra, I had read somewhere, is crumbled and enjoyed with some honey and fruit for breakfast (I do suspect the Greeks to rack up their record cheese-eating by going at it for breakfast, lunch and dinner). So even if the time of day was not appropriate, I did have fruit and honey with my cheese and decided that from now on, I will have all of my Xynomyzithra with fruit and honey – it was a big success. The cheese itself is a little sour, granular and still creamy. It is made using whey (from sheep’s and goat’s milk in some combination) and then adding some cream. It easily crumbles and it has quite a bit more flavor than one would expect of a very young cheese.

rosys-window
The window drew me in….
rosy
…and Rosy herself sold me on the pastries

The other discovery I made in Kerkyra was a small bakery run by a very cheerful woman with thick, curly brown hair and a smile that did not leave any part of her face untouched. The window in her little dark store drew me in, because the pastries in all kinds of colors are stacked high. Inside, everywhere you look there are mountains of pastries, and with a relatively simple set of ingredients, the variety is breathtaking. Rosy Soussis takes Phyllo dough, nuts, honey or honey-based syrup, chocolate and orange (or kumquats) and dreams up beautiful things that manage to bring out the flavors of all ingredients – and they all play well with each other. I asked her to put a little collection together and she gave me one to taste as she was going around her store finding things to put in the tin-foil container I was to take back with me. On a post in the middle of the store was a picture of a girl with the same smile and the same thick, curly hair, along with an embroidered Star of David. I asked her a very obvious question, and she confirmed. Of course I am just projecting and perhaps I owe her an apology for doing so, but the way she proudly responded: ­ “Yes!” to my question ­ “are you Jewish?” came out as if she said: ­ “Yes, I am Jewish, proudly so, and I am still here and the Nazi’s lost!” Greek Jews did not fare much better that their brethren in other parts of Eastern Europe during World War II. To me, an encounter like this always pokes a little finger in the eye of history: we’re still here, and we’re doing fine.

rosys-pastries-ii
Yup, worth every.single.calorie.

There are narrow streets, layer upon layer of history, beautiful old buildings and plenty of fortifications in Kerkyra; the island’s strategic locations had made it embattled throughout the centuries – heck, the UNESCO has even put the city on its World Heritage Site list. Though as I walked back to the ship that had brought me here, my Kerkyra consisted of two friendly women, two cheeses, and a container full of sweets. As I was biting into one of them back on board, it all made perfect sense and came full circle. These were the kind of pastries that could start a war. Move over, Helen of Troy.

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Along the Spianada in Kerkyra
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In Rosy’s Store
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Corner Grocery Store in the Old City

Alpha Tolman (Week 28)

Alpha Tolman
Mr. Henry Stanley Tolman. You can call him Alpha

Cheese: Alpha Tolman

Producer: Jasper Hill Creamery

Where: Hardwick, Vermont

Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont is not just this big old cellar that ages and promotes Vermont cheese to a grateful nation (and grateful that nation is!), it also makes its own cheese. Alpha Tolman for instance, named after local dairy farmer and philanthropist Henry Stanley Tolman who gave the town of Greensboro a building for its library back in 1900. Tolman was the grandson of one of Greensboro’s settlers and an all-around upstanding citizen and the name of the cheese is altogether befitting, because this is one fine cheese. I disagree a bit with the comparison to Swiss Appenzeller that Jasper Hill makes, because Alpha Tolman is easier on the palate than Appenzeller. It is robust and flavorful, and it can hold its own among the Swiss originals, for sure, but it lacks sharp edges and the taste doesn’t linger in your mouth as much. Perhaps I will need to get a more aged piece at some stage, and sooner or later I will need to travel to the dairy wonderland of Jasper Hill.

Brothers Mateo and Andy Kehler started Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro in the summer of 2002. They had some Ayrshire cows, Scottish doppelgangers of the red Holsteins, and began cranking out cheeses. Big fat success soon followed and after a few years and lots of preparation and study, they built the Cellars at Jasper Hill and got into the affinage business. The art of ripening the cheese has always been a vital ingredient in French cheese culture to a point where quite a few cheeses are known by the brand name of the affineur rather than by the creamery where they originally came from. Jasper Hill works a little differently in that they promote the farms and the people behind the cheeses they ripen to perfection and then market. So far, I have found three of their cheeses – each of them a testament to the dedication of the folks that produce them and the Kehlers, master affineurs from Vermont.

Croix Catal (Week 31)

Croix Catal
The Occitan Cross

Cheese: Croix Catal

Producer: Le Mas de Catal

Where: Rudelle, Lot, France

I am cheating again for this week, because this goat cheese is one that I had a while ago after my visit to La Cloche à Fromage in Strasbourg. I think it is a perfect choice for cheating a bit because this is one very fine goat cheese. It comes from southern France, and the cross on the cheese makes that clear: it is the Occitan Cross used by local rulers in Provence and Languedoc back in the days when France wasn’t as large as it is today, and the people in the south spoke Occitan (the langue d’Oc), a language still alive in a large part of the country and south of the border in Catalonia. The cross is white on a background of ash, which is used on many goat cheeses in France. The alkaline ash lowers the surface acidity of the cheese, and that in turn allows the molds that form a rind to develop better.

Croix Catal II
White Goodness

Inside, the Croix Catal is a beautiful white, and mine was ripe enough for the paste to ooze a bit, with flavor fully developed. As goat cheeses go, this was one of the best I have ever had. It had everything that makes a goat cheese a goat cheese, but is was unusually creamy, very fresh and clean – just délicieux. It is made on a farm with a little over 200 goats in Rudelle, a tiny little town of less than 200 souls with a remarkable fortified church with crenelated walls. Rudelle is in the French département Lot, named after the river that flows through it.

Tomme de Jura (Week 40)

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Magnificent local cheese: Tomme de Jura

Cheese: Tomme de Jura (Tomme Massif du Jura)

Cheese Monger: José les Rousses

Where: Les Rousses, Franche-Comté, France

Ha! A cheese I had never heard of and bam! it makes my top five of the year. Yes, it was really that good. What a joy to behold, what a surprise to bite into! The Tomme de Jura is a semi-hard cheese that is produced and mostly eaten locally. It has a grey-white mottled rind, a perfect yellow color and small, irregular holes. It’s a bit sticky, tastes fresh but with a lot of character for a relatively young cheese (ripened 2-4 months), and it’s almost sweet as milk. It is apparently largely a local cheese – most of it is eaten here. I guess just like some of the white Jura wines they do not produce a whole lot, and the local yokels are happy to keep most of it to themselves.

les-rousses
Best-looking cheese shop ever: Jose les Rousses

The Tomme de Jura came from the excellent little cheese shop in Les Rousses where I purchased cheese for weeks to come – there will be more praise for the place in the weeks to come. And strangely, here too it is not so easy to find much information about the cheese or the purveyor. José les Rousses, père et fils, have been in the business of cheese mongering since 1976, and in Les Rousses, they compete with the gargantuan Fortress that has been transformed in one of the world’s largest cheese ripening facilities and a fromagerie that caters largely to tourists attracted to the town because of the fort, and they do so quietly. There is nothing flashy about the fromagerie of José les Rousses. I stood in line waiting for my turn with locals, who all seemed to know exactly what they wanted. There was a cheese I have never heard of before (and that doesn’t exist on the World Wide Web) named Dajo, and a host of other local cheeses, one better looking than the other. And cow bells, of course, and assorted sausages.

jesu-de-morteau
Yup, that’s what it says: Jesus sausage…

I brought a local smoked sausage with the startling name Jésus de Morteau that was a big hit a week after our visit to the mountains along with the mountain of cheese: every single one of them deserved to come down the mountain with us, but after a good 2 kilos I came to my senses and realized that not everyone in the family was going to applaud the idea of having cheese for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the next few weeks. There was no information about the actual farms the cheeses that were sold came from. Elsewhere, that may not have been a good sign, but in the way the cheeses were labeled, packaged and displayed, it was clear that père et fils did not mess around. When he handed me my shopping bag o’ cheese, I looked in the eyes of a man who knows life is too short for crappy cheese.

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Ready for its close-up: Tomme de Jura’s many holes

 

Fat Bottom Girl (Week 30)

Fat Bottom Girl
Surely a nice bottom

Cheese: Fat Bottom Girl

Producer: Bleating Heart Creamery

Where: Tomales, California

So the people at Bleating heart have good distribution in the Southland. I found a piece of their Foursquare at the Wheelhouse in Culver City; a chunk of Buffalo Blue in Claremont at the Cheese Cave and at a Whole Foods in Sherman Oaks they sold this Fat Bottom Girl. It is a sheep’s milk cheese with a dark ivory paste and a very nice textured rind, that is created by hand-rubbing with salt water during the aging process. Apparently the cheese accidentally ended up with a rotund shape which inspired the link to the Queen song Fat Bottomed Girls from their 1978 Jazz album. There were some cheeses taken out of their forms and then left unattended, which caused them to sag a bit under their own weight, creating the shape that linked it to the female anatomy. After some careful testing the cheese maker was able to develop just the right process to recreate the initial accidental fat bottom in the cheeses with standardized precision.The piece I got, alas, was too small to allow me to recognize it as such. Shame on Whole Foods for depriving its customers of the experience by chopping up the cheese in small little bits! The sleeve liner of that infamous Queen album had a picture of dozens of naked women on bicycles, among them one with her bottom (which wasn’t fat at all) turned towards the camera. I was at an age where boys have no sense of humor about naked women on bicycles yet – it took that image very seriously and it occupied a prime spot in my feverish imagination for quite a while.

The cheese on the other hand is pleasant and, as the Bleating Heart people put it, approachable. It lacks the edge a lot of sheep cheeses have. In fact, if you’re a die-hard sheep cheese kind of a person, you may find the Fat Bottom Girl wanting a bit. But chances are, you’ll still find enough to your liking in this one, the flagship cheese of the Bleating Heart enterprise. It is available on a limited basis, because sheep produce milk for only 6-7 months or so, and the cheese ripens for 3 to 4. So the cheese making season runs from March to September and if the cheese sells well, none may be had between December and about late May or so. You can listen to Queen twelve months of the year, if that is any consolation – but I would not recommend that.

A Tale of Two Cheeses: Rubachtaler Alt vs. Besler Bergkäse (Week 39)

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Cheese-a-rama: Hieber’s Award-Winning Cheese Counter

Cheese: Rubachtaler Alt

Producer: Dorfsennerei Sibratsgfäll

Where: Sibratsgfäll, Vorarlberg, Austria

So here is my report on two cheeses I got just across the border, in the German town of Lörrach. They have the German version of Whole Foods there, only better. Better especially in the cheese department, because their counter makes any cheese lover’s eyes water with emotion – it is about twice the size of most cheese shops in LA – the quality is on a par and the variety is vastly superior, in particular of course because the Germans are not afraid of the bacteria in a nice bloomy rind Camembert. After we hastily tucked into a Camembert the other week that wasn’t quite ripe yet, we got one at our new favorite store, practiced patience and were amply rewarded with a cheese that we finished in a few quick sessions. Good Camembert is to be cut up in big old chucks, not dainty little slices.

But back to the store. It is called Hieber and it is a small chain in the extreme southwest of Germany, an area of small cities, diverse industry, vineyards and excellent infrastructure – basically an area with long traditions and a very high quality of living. Levi Strauss, the man that gave us the blue jeans, came from here.

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In the German Corner: 6-month-old Besler

I asked for a raw milk cheese from Austria and one from Germany, as I noticed that both countries were well-represented in the store’s selection. The Rubachtaler is from the Far West of Austria, and the Besler Bergkäse from the Far South of Bavaria. And lo and behold, they come from creameries (a creamery is a Sennerei in local parlance) that are less than an hour apart. The Bessler family runs a creamery along with a guest house where they serve an awful lot of their own cheese.

rubachtaler
Squaring off: Besler (0n the left) vs. Rubachtaler Alt (12-15 months)

The Rubachtaler from Austria is a vexing cheese when you try to find out more about the peeps who create it. I have stumbled across the folks of the Dorfsennerei Sibratsgfäll, who make the Rubachtaler – it stands to reason that they also do the Rubachtaler Alt – ‘alt’ means nothing more than old. However, on their website, they do not say anything about the Rubachtaler. Perhaps it is a brand they do not market themselves – the info that they are making the cheese comes from an Austrian website about cheese producers, and me thinks they ought to know. Either way, let’s just leave this for what it is. Even Philip Marlowe would not have solved every case. The more important part of the whole affair – a dead giveaway at this point, really – is that to me, this match-up between Austria and Germany was won by the former. The Besler is a little like an Emmentaler, not quite as pronounced, and certainly a cheese I would buy again. But I am more of a salty type of a guy – I like the older cheeses, and the Rubachtaler is a bit like a Gruyere. Both have a beautiful straw-yellow color (both are made of milk from cows that eat either grass from alpine meadows or hay from those very same meadows, little or no silage), and both are made of raw milk. But only the Rubachtaler has the crunch of protein crystals and that thick buttery creaminess of a ripened mountain cheese. You may cry foul and insist that I cannot compare a 12-15 month old with a 6 month old, but the last time Austria bested Germany in soccer was back in 1986 – so even if this match was a little rigged with the Austrian cheese being the more mature one – cut those Austrians some slack, OK? They do not have it easy.

Next week: after our trip to the French-Swiss borderlands, we have been eating copious amounts of cheese from Franche-Comté. And most of those derserve their own post – besides, I bought so much of it, we’ll still be munching Comté in three weeks from now.

 

Emmi le Maréchal (Week 29)

Le Marechal
A Cheese like a Grandpa

Cheese: Le Maréchal

Producer: Fromagerie Le Maréchal

Where: Granges-près-Marnand, Vaud, Switzerland

In the US, this cheese is sold only at Whole Foods as Emmi le Maréchal as the result of a marketing agreement between Swiss cheese giant Emmi, Whole Foods and Jean-Michel Rapin, the actual cheese maker, who named the Maréchal after his grandpa, a blacksmith. In French, a blacksmith is called a maréchal-ferrant, so there you have it. Grandpa’s picture is on the cheeses, although it is hard to tell at Whole foods, as they pre-cut their cheese in relatively narrow pieces. Imported cheeses are expensive, and a piece the size of grandpa’s picture may set you back a month’s rent. We had to take Jean-Michel’s word for it, initially. Rapin describes his cheese as reflective of his grandfather’s character: original and robust. I would agree. At first it looks and feels like any old Swiss mountain cheese, except for the dark rind, which comes from the herb coating, and that herb coating of course imparts that little extra during the 5+ months of aging that makes the Maréchal a standout. It is saltier, more herbal than similar cheeses, and it misses the sweetness of, say, a Gruyère. I read a review that speculates on the effect of flax seeds in the cows’ diet, giving the cheese that bit of an edge (it’s a little stinkier than a Gruyère, too).

Le Marechal Vielle Cuvee
Better in Switzerland? I think so….

I recently had some Maréchal Vielle Cuvée here in Allschwil (a town on the edge of Basel, Switzerland) and lo and behold (or rather lo and taste): the Maréchal in Switzerland is the better cheese. Not sure why (it may be that the VC version has ripened a bit longer – it is supposed to have at least 5 months under its belt), but it has a fuller, richer flavor and none of the saltiness that I think creates the edge in the US export version. It may have been because I was going through a Gruyère-phase when I had the Maréchal in the US, and preferred the sweetness of that cheese. But maybe, those sneaky Swisses just keep the best cheese for themselves. Oh, and this being the land of plenty, at least when it comes to cheese, they have big half-wheels sitting in the cheese counter, so there he was the other day: Grandpa.

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Le Marechal lui-meme