Cheese and Politics in Alsace

Charcuterie
Along a street somewhere in Alsace

Sometimes a cheese is just a cheese and sometimes it is a complete story. Don’t get me wrong: each cheese that deserves the name (we leave the yellow Kraft slices out of it) has a story. But in some cases, the cheese takes you to places you never anticipated when you said: et un morceau de ce fromage là, in your best French.

 

Before I exercised my stunning language skills in “La Cloche à Fromage” in Haguenau, I walked around a bit in this town to the northwest of Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace, home to the European Parliament. Haguenau has little of Strasbourg’s big-city flair, but it is clear that it is quintessentially Alsatian,  and that makes it charming enough. In the streets, the language that you hear is not French anymore but not yet German either. But it is much closer to the latter than to the former. And this is why the hero of an early 20th century Alsatian play is not named Jean, but Hans. Hans Boulanger – even in the name, there is a bit of France and a bit of Germany – is torn, just like many other Alsatians. His brother sides with the Germans, his mother with the French, and Hans – Hans is incapable of making a decision. While the play lacks an exact year, it is clear that, once again, the Germans and the French are at each other’s throats and the Alsatians are caught in the middle, forced to take sides. In the play is a tune that has spread all over the region, into Germany and Switzerland:

Hans in the Schnokeloch / Has everything he wants / And what he has he doesn’t want / And want he wants he doesn’t have / Hans in the Schnokeloch / Has everything he wants.

 

It is clear, Hans is very confused and can’t make up his mind. This is perhaps because he finds himself in the Schnokeloch – or maybe his indecision is his actual Schnokeloch, who knows. For Heaven’s sake, I hear you say, what on earth is a Schnokeloch??? Well, along the eastern edge of Alsace runs the Rhine. Long ago it didn’t run, it meandered there, but centuries of canalization took care of that, leaving the Rhine much more straight and lots of meanders cut off from the main channel – just placid bodies of water in the river’s floodplain now. Sloughs is what you call these. Imagine a slough in summer, completely overgrown and sweltering in the heat and you did not bring your DEET. Mosquitoes will feast on your blood, and they’re coming from all sides. Voilà, that’s a Schnokeloch. Hans is caught in between and doesn’t see an easy way out. So Hans from the play is the personification of Alsace, always caught in the middle.

Wait, isn’t this a cheese blog? Well yes. So back to the store. After I treated the friendly cheese monger to my best French, and demanded un morceau de ce fromage là, she picked it up and inquired “vous voulez le Schnokeloch?”

Schnokeloch
Left to right: T’chiot Biloute, a quarter of Schokeloch, Chaource Fermier, Ch’ti Roux à la Biere

Here was, ivory-colored and creamy and with a hole in the middle (“Loch” is the German/ Alsatian word for hole), the Alsatian in-between dilemma in cheese form. It is made by Denis Goetz on a farm in the small town of Mussig, not far from Colmar, a town in southern Alsace that is just ridiculously cute – chock full of half-timbered houses, stork souvenirs (the stork is the official animal of Alsace and you’ll likely encounter the actual bird in the region, even if they’re not as plentiful as their stuffed, made-in-China-off-all-new-materials brethren), attractive restaurants, a few excellent museums and a beautiful covered market. Mussig is also not far from the Rhine and therefore, from a Schnokeloch or two, so Denis Goetz probably knows what he is talking about.

 

Colmar
Colmar

But the Schnokeloch Kas (German: käse, French: fromage – you do the math) is far from unpleasant – nothing reminds you of your time in the bug-infested wetlands of some faraway river. The cheese is creamy, full of flavor, and just salty enough to make it one of my new favorite cheeses. By the way, even those real Schnokelochs are not as bad as they may have once been. First off, one is now able to prevent bugs from successfully attacking, and the cut-off meanders of the Rhine are rapidly becoming places where many people – French, German and Alsatian – spend hours canoeing, kayaking and generally enjoying themselves. On both sides of the river, in both countries, large swaths of riparian habitat have been restored and returned to nature. Germany and France being best European buddies today does make life a lot easier, even in the Schnokeloch.

 

Munster
Alsatian cheeses at the covered market in Colmar
Maison des tetes Colmar
One of the many faces on the Maison des Têtes in Colmar
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