Mimolette (Week 52)

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Belle-Mere’s favorite: Mimolette

The final cheese of the year is a tribute to my late mother in law, who crowned this one of her favorite cheeses. Steven Jenkins, in his Cheese Primer, has nothing good to say about the Mimolette, but he still gives it plenty of attention and somehow it makes it on his shortlist. Go figure. The Mimolette extra vielle I brought home is comparable to a ripe Dutch cheese, and that, of course, is what it originally set out to be. Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIVs Minister of Finance and pretty much everything else took a whole bunch of very protectionist measures and had the French make French versions of popular imports, among them the cheese from Holland. In order to get it to look the part (a saturated yellow,rather than the pale straw color of most cheeses of the time, annato, turning the cheese a slightly creepy orange that over the years has become its trademark.

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See any cheese mites ?

The other interesting (if also slightly creepy) aspect of this cheese is in its rind. A good Mimolette is thoroughly pockmarked as a result of the happy actions of cheese mites, little bugs that munch away at the ripening cheese and supposedly give Mimolette its special flavor. True or not, the possibility of any mites still present in the cheese (they are dusted with an air gun before going on sale, and the bugs that manage to hang on do not live to tell the tale) makes it a cheese non grata in the US. You can get a version with a much smoother rind that never came anywhere near a cheese mite, but connoisseurs will tell you it is just not the same without bugs. Finally, Charles de Gaulle said it was his favorite cheese, and that should account for something, I guess. After all, it was de Gaulle who said of France “How can you govern a country that has 246 kinds of cheese?”. Never mind that the actual number of cheeses in the quote tends to vary, and that le Général thoroughly lowballed the number of different cheeses in the country – he provided cheese lovers around the world with something to put on napkins, fridge magnets, trivets, tiles, and plaques. And in a way, he caught the essence of the way the French look at their cheese – more than just a food, it helps define a region, a way of life, a people. The Mimolette, for its part, comes from the North, and is also known as the Boule de Lille. My mother in law, from the city of Soissons, liked her northerly cheeses. Her other favorite I will keep for next year: Maroilles, a stinker from the town with the same name originated only about an hour away from Lille.

In a few days my final post for the year: my top 5 after 52 weeks of cheese, and the plans for 2017.

 

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Roquefort (Week 51)

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Holes like caves: Roquefort

If many more people would read my blog I could possibly start a real controversy by writing the below. Fortunately, there is such a tiny overlap between my readership and the people that will go to war over the question of the best blue cheese in the world, that I can, without causing drama and mayhem, proclaim that a good Roquefort is hands down the best blue cheese experience to be had anywhere in the world. It has all the musty flavor of other blue cheese, but none of the sharpness you find all too often in the less sophisticated blue cheeses. Wow, that just sounded very snobbish. But hey – it is Roquefort I am talking about. Pliny the Elder, the Roman chronicler who wrote some pretty unkind things about the Dutch delta dwellers, already mentions a cheese from the region in the year 79, so this is a very old cheese. It is made using penicillum roqueforti, the mold that gives it the irregular holes, filled with grey powdery stuff that gives this sheep’s milk cheese its musty flavor. And it is not just any old sheep’s milk that will do for Roquefort. The milk has to come from the Lacaune breed, named after a town in southern France about an hour’s drive from Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, where the caves are in which the Roquefort is ripened – and of course, no other caves will do. In the dripping dark millions of cheeses are ripened by a handful of large companies: Roquefort is big business in France, only Comté is produced in bigger quantities. And it is old business: already in the early 15th century the producers of Roquefort managed to get Charles VI of France, whose reign was an overall unhappy affair, to protect the cheese and its makers, in essence providing it with the first AOP, if you will. His successor gave the decree some teeth by arranging for the punishment of those producing fake Roquefort. So there you have it: mentioned by a stellar Roman historian and scientist, ranked as his personal #1 by Charlemagne among all cheeses, provided one of the oldest food protections in the world (the German Reinheitsgebot for beer was introduced more than a hundred years later) and fawned over throughout the ripening process – no wonder Roquefort claims the title of King of Cheeses.

Langres (Week 50)

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Langrrr….

The Plateau of Langres in the central-eastern part of France is where the Meuse and Seine rivers start. It is also where they make a cheese that is very recognizable. For lay people like myself, this is great. Without even looking much at it, you can take a bit, lick your chops, wait a moment for the imaginary drumroll and proclaim with supreme confidence: “ah… Langres”. Make sure you pronounce it right, though, because it may destroy the effect: it is not Langrès, but Langrr. And it requires a certain amount of exercise in the French language to make that now sound like a growl. Langrrr is pleasantly chewy (so just a bit, not like you need special tools), has a fresh, vaguely tart taste which reminds me a bit of quark, the stuff they use in Germany to bake cheese cake. The rind is edible and beautiful and although the cheese comes in different sizes, I have to say that the petit in the little box would be a star on any cheese plateau.

Langres has a washed rind, and because the cheese is never turned during the 2-3 weeks of affinage, it ends up with the appearance of a deflated soufflé: if you want, you can pour Marc de Bourgogne, a pomace brandy from Burgundy in the cavity and let it sit a bit before tucking into the cheese. Because of the washed rind, there is a bit of a perfume, but Langres is not a real stinker. The milk for this cheese is supposed to come from French Simmental, Montbéliard or Swiss Braunvieh cows, all cows that can stand a bit of cold and coincidentally all cows that have quite a bit of brown in their hides. Speaking of color, the Langres is colored with a bit of anatto, which helps to make this just one very pretty cheese.

Tomme de Savoie Fermier (Week 49)

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Rustic & Crusty: Tomme de Savoie Fermier

Savoy today is a corner of France tucked away between Lake Geneva and Italy, in the high Alps. For some 7 centuries, the Counts, Dukes and later Kings of Savoy managed to build and maintain a nifty little state that was at times quite powerful. Today their palaces around Turin are one of the most popular attractions in that region, and in one of the royal chapels visitors can see the famous Turin shroud. None of this has anything to do with cheese, which is why the story stops here, for now. Aside from the rich Counts, Dukes and later Kings of Savoy, the isolated high country was populated by relatively poor farmers, who would take the cream of their cows’ milk to make butter, and the partially skimmed milk to create simple, rustic looking cheeses: smallish rounds for their own use, the so-called tommes. The word has an etymology that goes back to the Celts and that gives you an idea of just how ancient the cheese is. Today, the Tomme de Savoie is a lowly cheese no longer: it is one of the most popular exports from the region and it is protected with an AOP. It has a thick, grey-brown rind (you could eat it but why would you do it – it’s not good and too thick) and a nice pale yellow paste with quite a few small holes. It is a semi-soft cheese with a lot of flavor, as long as it has had the time to ripen a bit. My piece had a nice intense edge to it. The flavor subtly changes with the season, depending on whether the cows are in their summer pastures or fed on hay. This week’s cheese and those for the subsequent three weeks all came from the enormous stall of Au Saveurs des Terroirs on the Sunday market in the city of Versailles, a few blocks away from the famous Palace. Buying cheese here is not for the fainthearted. First, there is just an enormous amount of cheese in all shapes and sizes and then, there are the rules. The line forms counter clockwise, and you do not stand still in front of the cheese you have picked so that you can point at it and make sure they understand you correctly. A good French customer stands neatly in line, waits for the next person that can help them and rattles off their list of cheeses, without having them anywhere near. So I left like an amateur as I struggled to remember all the cheeses I had seen and wanted to buy in my few dry-runs. In the end, I came away with a bag-full of French cheese classics, and next time, I will be a bit more confident in my ability to summon from memory just what I would want. A cheesy new-year’s resolution!

The Future has arrived in Appenzell!? (Week 48)

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Land of the Future: Appenzell

I thought Raymond Chandler had the market for suspenseful stories of crime and corruption cornered generations ago. I still think there is no private eye quite like Philip Marlowe anywhere in the real or in the fictional world, but I did learn today that even in our mountain paradise of the Confoederatio Helvetica (yup, that’s where the CH comes from), rackets are alive and well, and naturally, in a country like this, one of the more interesting rackets is the production of cheese knockoffs. That’s right, there are people who produce cheap, nasty cheeses and sell them as real Gruyeres, Emmentalers or Appenzellers.

The latter is a cheese that is marketed as the most flavorful in Switzerland. Interestingly, it is not protected by an AOP or something like it – it is a brand that is aggressively protected by the folks that collect the milk from some 50-odd farms and turn that into a hard cheese that is repeatedly washed in an herbal brine which is the great secret of this cheese. Depending on who you ask, there is just a handful of people who know the original recipe – I have read somewhere there were only two; a risky approach if you ask me.

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Noble-Flavorful in Purple Branding

What is interesting about the Appenzell – oh wait, let’s first talk about the actual cheese that got me going: I got a piece of Appenzell that is marketed as the Edel-Würzig variety. It really sounds fine for a cheese in German, even if the translation in English becomes a bit over-the-top and stilted: I give you the Appenzell Noble – Flavorful.  OK, so that didn’t work. I can guarantee you that the flavor itself absolutely does, because here is a cheese that is creamy, salty, fresh, clean and oh so, eh – flavorful. It really is as good as the name implies. We have been eating it for a few days and we’re on our second chunk – we tend to eat it in slices about a third of an inch thick.

The cheese is not inexpensive and here we are back in the murky world of the cheese forgers, and why, of all places, Appenzell is such an interesting locale in this respect. This canton is one of the most conservative places in Europe. Not until the early days of 1990 (nope, that’s not a typo) were women allowed to vote here, and when the cows come down from the summer pastures in the fall, traffic through the main streets in the towns is likely to come to a screeching halt – people respect traditions, and cheese is an important one. They have been cranking out cheese at least since the 13th century, but probably a lot longer. But when it comes to combating cheese fraud, the canton is at the cutting edge: the marketing organization that watches out for the brand has teamed up with the Swiss government to isolate certain strands of lactic acid bacteria which are used in the cheese making process, and use them as ‘fingerprints’ for the cheese. How 21st century is that? Most hard cheeses have a casein mark in them – an identifier like a code that usually tells a buyer where the cheese is from and when it was produced.

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Casein mark – real Appenzeller

That mark in an Appenzeller is almost as big as the cheese itself, so it is almost impossible to buy a chunk without the reassurance that you have a real Appenzeller in your hands. But with this modern method, even the casein mark is not necessary: a single slice of cheese without any rind can be identified – think of it as a DNA test for cheese. I am sure that the cheese mafia has recently left Appenzell, and gone on to places where women have been voting for close to 100 years now, but where a cheese doesn’t yet have a paternity test developed for them.

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Appenzell Farm
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Main Street in Appenzell