Norwegian Cheese: best in the world?!

Norway Landscape
Norway in the Fall

Over the past few months I have traveled through Norway quite a bit. It is a country of perdendicular cliffs, deep fjords, beautiful old wooden churches, tacticurn people and yes, cheese. Not in the way that France or Italy are cheese countries. There, food trumps pretty much everything else in importance; many a heated debate or meandering discussion is devoted to the merits of this tomato versus that one, to the perfect way to roast a chicken or the preferred age of a soft cheese. In Norway, people seem too level-headed to let quandaries like these take over the afternoon, and I imagine Jørn Hafslund to be just such a Norwegian when he decided to make a cheese that was, well, just good. His tiny farm outside of Bergen with about a dozen cows was a labor of love, his was not a long pedigree of cheesemakers and I suspect that he may not have submitted his cheese to the World Cheese Awards competition if it hadn’t been held in Bergen last year. As it was, he presented his Fanaost and won first price. When I met the man who made the best cheese in the world, he was still not all that comfortable with his new found fame. “It iss nais, of kors. But also ferry stressful” he responded when I asked him about it. He could only muster a bit of a smile when my picture also had his son in it – sharing fame apparently helps to deal with it.

Ostegarden
Father and Son World Champions

Officially, the cheese is classified as a Gouda, which makes it a semi-hard, cooked cheese; yellow with an inedible rind. The flavor develops over time and this is why the age is rather crucial: a young Fanaost is a nice cheese, but not the gold medalist. That honor was bestowed on the Lagret Fanaost, matured for at least six months. Jørn has found an interesting way to cope with the skyrocketing demand: he is rationing the cheese he is willing to sell. I received a piece that was slightly more than 100 grams and could not get more. And even in Norway, where everything is expensive, I had a mild case of stickershock when I learned this slice of gold cheese would set me back about $10.

Rationed lagret
Lagret Fanaost – strictly rationed

Yes. Of course. The cheese was absolutely delicious, what would you think? Was it the best in the world? Who knows? An international jury said so and it has changed Jørn’s life. I found it to be surprisingly sweet, but with the saltiness that comes with maturity balancing perfectly. I would readily shell out another ten bucks if I could be granted permission to purchase another 100 grams, even if I am not sure I would travel all the way to his farm.

Fanaost
Cheesy Gold

There is Norwegian cheese to be had in a simpler and very surprising fashion. Fly through Oslo and you will find an amazing anomaly in the world of airport cheese stores. No person in their right mind and with a heart for cheese would purchase the colorful round cheeses they sell at Schiphol airport or the cute variety packs with an Eiffel Tower on them at Charles de Gaulle. At Oslo’s Gardermoen airport, the unsuspecting traveler can take his pick from among some 20 kinds of artisan cheeses, many made with raw milk, from small cheesemakers all over Norway. I picked up a Norwegian blue there on my way out the other week, and my now very high expectations were met: creamy blue, with the exact right saltiness and none of the sharpness that I don’t always enjoy.

A final flavor that is worth mentioning came my way as I traveled a high plateau just south of the Sognefjord, purchased in a countrystore that thought they would never find anyone in their right mind that would pay 160 Kroner for a heart-shaped piece of cheese. I must admit that I got it because I just thought it looked funny, not because I had particularly high hopes. It was Nøkkelost, a cheese with a slightly complicated etymology. What I found inside the yellow, heart shaped package was a straw-colored semi-hard cheese with cloves and cumin seeds mixed in, very flavorful. It allowed me to take another step in my recovery from an unpleasant encounter with cumin cheese in my youth.

As to the etymology of said cheese: Nøkkel means key, and the crossed keys are in the coat of arms of Leyden; Norwegians developed a taste for the cumin cheese from Leyden sometime in the mid-18 century but insist that today’s Nøkkelost is something quite different. Mine came from Inger Rosenfeld’s farm, who names his cheese after a half-blind cow, Melissa, he got for his 50th birthday and who became a mascot of sorts. She is on every cheese Inger sells, complete with eyepatch.

Nokkelost
Nøkkelost from Den Blinde Ku
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Return to Ancona

Trajan Arch
Trajan’s Arch & Shipyards

A while ago I returned to Ancona, and this time I was determined to visit the King of Cheese, the Re Formaggio, a cheese shop that was closed for the day the last time I tried to barge into the door. Even more so than on the previous visit, the city surprised me with what I am tempted to call Ancona Moments. The place is rather unassuming, with a big shipyard on its doorstep and a center that is a strange mismatch of all kinds of architectural styles and crimes against good taste, but you stumble across interesting bits and pieces on a regular basis. There is, for instance, Trajan’s Arch, built for that very same emperor who has a famous column in Rome, a market whereupon that column sits and a ruined bridge across the Danube near Drobeta-Turnu Severin in Romania all named after him. The arch is dwarfed by the cruise ships that are being built right behind it, and it stands a bit forlorn among the ramps and cranes of the shipyard. But it predates all that is being built around it by a cool 18 centuries: it was completed by 115.

Santa Maria della Piazza Ancona
Santa Maria della Piazza

Not far from the arch is the Romanesque church of Santa Maria della Piazza, with a beautifully structured façade showing a few fantastic looking animals. It never seizes to amaze me how worshippers back then thought of the Holy Trinity and the angels, but also of dragons, mermaids, chimeras and all these other creatures that can be found in the art that adorns the churches of the period; and doing so without any qualms about the false idol bit (Exodus 20:3-5).

Pistacchio Cake
Pistacchio Cake
Pizza di Formaggio
Pizza di Formaggio

Musing about my Ancona Moments I enjoyed an equally surprising piece of pistacchio cake in a café not far from the King of Cheese, where I picked up a few treasures. Pizza for instance. No, not what you think. Pizza (lord knows why, I never got a good explanation) in Ancona is a sort of huge muffin, made of fluffy if somewhat greasy bread, with big chunks of cheese baked in. A very tasty treat, although I think it ought to be eaten family style, as in: it takes a lot of people to finish one of them, because they are huge.

As always when I am in Italy I managed to buy a piece of cheese that came with an explanation I did not at all understand, and so I can report it was a bit dry and crumbly, but in a good way, and had a bit of a blue cheese flavor, but that all, folks. I bought a rather colossal chunk of Trentingrana Malga Rolle, a super hard cheese that you need to cut with a Tagliagrana, a cheese pick in essence, that is deployed to aggressively hack away at a big wheel of immutable cheese in the hope of breaking it down to more practical pieces. The cheese comes from a farm at a mountain pass in the shadow of the Pala di San Martino, at 9,800-feet peak in the Dolomites. It’s in the region of Trentino, and the cows that give the milk for it get to munch on a fine selection of alpine herbs, which gives the cheese that certain something extra. Trentingrana basically means had cheese from the region around the city of Trento; weeks later, we’re still grating it our pasta.

Pecorino di Fossa
Pecorino di Fossa

The piece de resistance of my cheese purchase was of course a raw milk bit of Pecorino di Fossa. There was nothing wrong with the first bit I bought here a while ago, but this cheese was something else. From the amber color to the slightly rank odor and from the slightly oily touch to the sticky texture to the intense flavor, this was a cheese that had gone through an awful lot before ending up on the shelves of the King of Cheese. The church of Santa Maria della Piazza, pistacchio cake and Marche-style pizza notwithstanding, it was the Pecorino di Fossa that made my return to Ancona a triumph worthy of that grand imperial roman arch.

Japan: where’s the cheese?

Japan New Year's
New Year’s Prayers and Wishes at a Temple in Tokyo

If you are in Japan, have limited time and you’re eager to check as many tourist attraction boxes as you can, don’t go looking for Japanese cheese. It is pretty labor intensive and a bit frustrating at times. Even in the basement of the large department stores, those incredible cornucopias of carefully prepared and packaged foods that offer anything you can actually eat (and some things you should really stay away from, if you ask me); even there you will not normally find homegrown products. There is no shortage of raclette, of Roquefort or Parmigiano. But Japanese cheese, not so much.

Of course, there are very few places in Japan suitable for herds of cows and there just isn’t much culinary history that involves dairy. But the Japanese, to their enormous credit, are obsessive about good food, eager to try new things and open to experimenting. Which made the hunt for Japanese cheese in Tokyo more than a little interesting. On a side note: we did not starve because I managed to keep the cheese-sleuthing to a bearable level, so we had a lot of time to try many other things from the Japanese table, including the much-hyped-but-really-not-all-that-dangerous fugu (watch the entire episode of the Simpsons that explains the possible dangers of eating poorly prepared puffer fish – season 2, episode 11.)

One of the first cheese experiences we had was in a restaurant that was purportedly all about cheese – what could possibly go wrong? We were in for more than one surprise. First off, we showed up for lunch time and the cheese dish the restaurant focused on, fondue, was only served in the evening. I opted for the next best thing which, in my mind, really is only a distantly related cousin: cheesecake. Purists may even accuse me of cheating but hold your horses for a moment. The cheesecake I was served didn’t just look like a big slice of cartoon cheese with holes in all the right places, it actually had small pieces of cheese in it.

Japanese Cheesecake
Cheesecake with …cheese?

Keep an open mind, now. Surprisingly, it worked quite well. And let’s be honest: 10 years ago no one would have put caramel and salt together either. At the airport, we found another creative departure from established cheesy tradition: carefully wrapped sweet sandwich cookies with a thin layer of cheese between them, using different kinds of cheese: I picked Roquefort and Camembert. As far as I am concerned, the cookies were quite good, whereas the cheesecake with real cheese was more of an …interesting flavor.

We were in Tokyo over New Year’s and the one purveyor of Hokkaido cheese was out of town for the holiday, otherwise finding Japanese cheese would have in fact been a slam dunk. Mr. Konno, alas, was off on a little vacation: the Voice of Cheese was closed. Konno-san has dozens of cheeses from small producers in Hokkaido, among them the Sakura cheese that is matured on cherry leaves. The small wheels of this cheese resemble Camemberts and they are sold with a little pickled cherry on the top, which makes them look a bit like round Japanese flags. Sakura cheese won a medal at the mountain cheese Olympics some 15 years ago and it is pretty much the only Japanese cheese you would have ever heard of.

Japanese Cheese
Shimuzu Farm red rind cheese

I enjoyed the sweet taste of success in one of the last food basements I visited: a red rind cheese from the Shimuzu farm in the Japanese Alps and some raclette, which we would teppanyaki with friends later in the day. Both were carefully crafted copies of European cheeses, unfortunately without much in the way of an identifiable Japanese touch. Not that I really need an excuse to travel to Japan again – it is hands down one of my favorite countries in the world – but now I know to come back for Mr. Konno’s cheese, and to discover what else the Japanese have come up with when it comes to チーズ. Heck, I might even go to Hokkaido for some cheese and to share a hot pool with those mountain monkeys.

Teppanyaki
Teppanyaki – raclette cheese bottom left….

Planet of the Sheep – Texel

14 Thousand sheep live on Texel, the Netherlands’ largest island in the Wadden Sea, and that’s just about as many as there are people who call the island home. I know that if you are from the Croatian Island of Pag, that’s not a lot, and if you are from New Zealand, the 1:1 ratio is positively laughable: there are almost 10 sheep for each New Zealander. But in a country as densely packed as the Netherlands, Texel has a LOT of sheep. They are everywhere, and it really doesn’t help that the native breed, the Texelaar, is neatly organized in four color groups: white, black, blue and Badger-face (yes, I know that’s really not a color, but I did not create the taxonomy). on top of the Texelaars, there are many other kinds of sheep – there is a farm where you can look at a few dozen different kinds. And don’t turn your nose up at a farm full o’ sheep, because after a few days on the island you’ll succumb, if only because, well, sheep are everywhere.

Dasgezicht Sheep II
Badger-faced Texel Sheep
Blue
Blue Texel Sheep

We discovered Texel one fine March a year and a half ago. This is where most regular tourists to the island start laughing hysterically, because there is absolutely no chance of reasonable weather this early in the season, and the overwhelming majority of visitors descend upon the beaches when there is a reasonable guarantee of a bit of sunshine and balmy temperatures. So we had much of the island to ourselves. Ourselves and the sheep of course.

boet II
Boet
boet I
Another boet

Texel’s most iconic building is not its lighthouse (even if it is a strapping, tall lighthouse Texelaars can be proud of), no. It is the boet. Yes, boet. You pronounce that boot, but shorter. And the building is also shorter. Shorter than you would expect, it looks a bit like a building that was finished simply when the builders ran out of bricks. That is of course not what actually happened, because there are lots of these boets on the island and they may run out of bricks, but they would learn of their mistakes after a few tries, wouldn’t you think? The boet’s door is in the flat slide of the building and they are usually built with the low sloping side towards the southwest, from where the prevailing winds come. This allows the sheep to seek shelter behind the barn. They usually do not spend a lot of time inside: boets are storage units and utility buildings, not really stables. Just like windmills these buildings, once testimonies of engineering genius, have long become obsolete, but the islanders are so fond of them that the few that remain are lovingly restored and cared for. There is even a book about boets and yes of course, I had to get that.

Floris_Claesz_van_Dijck_Stillleben_mit_Käse
Floris van Dyck’s Cheeses – Texel on top

“I thought this was a blog about effing cheese”, I can hear you think (you kiss your mamma with that mouth?) – so here goes: yes, even though meat and wool are bigger business than cheese, the sheep do produce milk from March to September, and much of that finds its way into cheese.  It’s been that way forever, as you can see on the Still Life with Cheeses, by Floris Claesz. van Dyck. This was painted around 1615 – the dark green cheese on top, almost black, is a sheep cheese from Texel. Some 50 years before Floris painted his cheeses, Ludovic Guicciardini, an Italian traveler, sang the praises of Texel cheese, saying it had an incomparable taste. He may not have known how right he was. To make this green cheese, some sheep poop would be put in a linen sachet, which was then steeped in water like a tea bag. The green ‘juice’ was added to the milk as the first step in the cheese making process…

Orekees
Orekéés

No, the cheese I brought home from Texel did not have poop in. Modern regulations prohibited this peculiar food additive in 1928. But my sheep cheese did have a little bit of extra green in it. In this case it was Sea Lavender (there’s some debate about what plant this actually is, it may be Sea Aster). The green leaves are finely chopped up and added to the cheese, which is otherwise made the way most Dutch cheeses are made: the curd is ‘cooked’ and pressed and out comes a semi-hard cheese with a nice, creamy consistency that gains flavor with age. The typical sheepy flavor is not particularly well developed in this process – the same is true for Dutch goat cheeses made this way; their goatiness is a mere whiff. This is not to say that the Orekéés was flavorless, far from it. The Sea Lavender/ Aster adds silty tones to the ephemeral sheepiness, along with a bit of texture. Add the above creaminess and out comes one very fine cheese. The judges of BBC’s Good Food Show in 2014 agreed, curing it the best Dutch cheese of that year. Rest assured, the sheep on Texel have not allowed this to go to their heads. They’re just as relaxed and easy going as ever. You should really go to Texel to meet them. And once you’ve had enough, there are some fine fish restaurants, a museum dedicated to the beachcomber culture of the islands, a place that rescues seals and educates the public about marine life (among other things with an exhibit showcasing an impressive sperm whale penis) and miles and miles of sandy beaches, rolling dunes, the occasional pheasant and the best rhubarb jam in the world, possibly in the universe, at the Windroos.

Lighthouse II
Texel Lighthouse

Naples: coffee, caves and cheese

Fontana dell'Immacolatella
Fontana dell’Immacolatella, along the waterside in Napoli
Napoli Breakfast
Neapolitan breakfast with Mozzarella di Bufala, fruit, Sfogliatelle and Pastiera
Galeria Umberto I
Galleria Umberto I
Caffè Gambrinus
Caffè Gambrinus, 150 years old

So I really like Naples. There, I said it. Don’t get me wrong, I get it if you don’t: it is congested, there’s graffiti, never-ending construction, lots of noise and that whole distasteful cult around Diego Maradona, that chubby cheating Argentinian with his hand of God. But I still like it, and with every visit, I like it a bit more. This time around, I descended into the underworld of Naples. Literally. I did not got entangled in some organized crime web, I simply climbed down a substantial number of flights and found myself some 120 feet below the surface in a maze of tunnels, underground cavernous rooms and narrow passageways which, in their unassuming darkness exuded more history than many resplendent city elsewhere in Europe.

 

 

Napoli Sotterraneo
Ancient Cistern in Napoli Sotterannea

Over 23 centuries have passed since Greek colonists began digging holes under their feet to dig out the volcanic tufa stone that has been used through the ages to build above ground. The Romans continued digging, creating aqueducts through which they channeled the creeks and rivulets that carried water through the fractured rock to the sea. Neapolitans used the extensive network of cisterns until the arrival of modern plumbing, two thousand years later.

 

Above the cistern was a well, that provided access to water. fine resident of Naples would have a well in their house, while lowly commoners found them in courtyards or other semi-public places. Inevitably, all manner of crap ended up in these wells and in the dense urban area, it became a real job to keep the cisterns clean and the wells open. the well workers were known as the pozzari. Dressed in sober, habit-like outfits, they looked a bit like monks. Climbing up and down wells, going from courtyard to courtyard or from house to house, they moved around unseen and over time gained a mysterious and mischievous aura. Valuables that disappeared, long lost precious items which miraculously reappeared, women who experienced immaculate conceptions – Neapolitans would ascribe such inexplicable events to a “little monk”, a  Monaciello.

 

Napoli Sotterraneo II
In the “Bourbon Tunnel”

And then there was Ferdinand II of Bourbon, a monarch with a chin like an anvil who started his reign racking up a number of impressive feats: first train in Italy, first steamship in southern Italy, a telegraph connection between Naples and Sicily. he was a man of the people, or so he thought. Until the people, encouraged by their monarch who said all the right things, demanded greater freedoms, constitutional changes – the works. So Ferdinand let the genie out of the bottle and had a hell of a time trying to stuff it back. 20 years into his reign he was positively paranoid and asked Enrico Alvino, a well-respected architect and city planned, to build a tunnel under the city, to connect the palace with the cavalry barracks. Alvino drew a line, straight as an arrow between the two buildings and merrily cut his way through ancient cisterns and passageways, leaving some impressive brick structures along the way: places where walls needed reinforcement, water had to be diverted and so on. Ferdinand never used his tunnel which, despite auspicious beginnings, was badly underfunded and got progressively smaller towards the barracks. Coming to the aid of a besieged monarch through the passageway as it was finally completed would have been a hell of a job for the cavalry.

 

A further period of improvements an excavations was necessitated during World War II, when bombs from Allied and (later) German planes rained down on the city over and over again. The caverns got rudimentary lighting, bathrooms, makeshift triage stations and little classrooms for the thousands of people who spent more time underground than above as their city began to crumble over their heads. In many places, stoves, pans, pots, wash basins and all and sundry utensils and furniture is still being discovered today. Used as an impound lot and then as an easy place to deposit trash, the underground began to clog up until fairly recently, when archaeologists led the charge to uncover Napoli Sotterranea. 

Caciotto
Cheese to go

I know, I know. This blog is supposed to be about cheese. But it is my blog so I’ll do what I damn well please, thanks very much. This time it took until the last hour to cut to the cheese, and we ended up meeting at the airport. There it was, the cheese with my name on it, in a very nifty portable cheeseboard, produced a few hours east of Naples, in the Appenine town of Calitri. My Caciotto conzato Calitrano (something like “cheese, made the Calitri way” had been rubbed patiently with oil, chili peppers, sage, mint and other herbs (secret formula, of course) and then aged in terracotta amphorae for about 3 months. Caciotta look like pouches, or teardrops because after the curd has been extensively kneaded, they’re hung up to age with a little noose around their cheesy necks. The cheese has a very creamy texture, but it packs a real punch: it is quite sharp, but the creaminess balances it so well, that it is easily my favorite sharp Italian cheese. I’ll take this over a sharp Provolone any day. Clearly, with the mottled rind and the clever packaging, we met because I fell for the beauty that is merely superficial. But I love her, because she is beautiful on the inside, my Calitri cheese.

 

Caciotto II
Mottled rind

In Ticino we call it Formaggio – Swiss Cheese

Paradiso
Boat stop on Lugano – Paradiso. We would have to agree.

Growing up I had little idea that there was anything beyond the large yellow wheels of Gouda cheese my mother would pick a pound or two from at the cheese vendor. Fast forward many years later, to the late eighties in the U.S. I had extended my knowledge of cheese, which by now also included the big French cheeses along with Parmesan, which came in powdered form in a cardboard container. And now, here I was introduced to the wondrous world of Kraft cheeses: orange for cheddar, yellow for American and white for Swiss cheese, and the latter would often have a few holes thrown in for good measure. I am pretty sure Kraft employs some underpaid immigrants to punch those holes in the cheese to make it more Swiss.

Today I have completely arrived in the land of Swiss cheese and regularly slather Raclette onto pretty much anything edible. We visit cheese festivals, inhale the healthy country air complete with cowpoop and we are patiently ticking down the list of Swiss AOP cheeses. This weekend we went over the hump: there are 12 cheeses with the Swiss AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) designation, and I picked up cheese number 7, a chunk of mountain cheese from Ticino, from the Piora Valley, to be exact. The latter is important, I was told, because the Piora valley, at some 6,000 feet, yields the very best of the Ticino cheeses. The beginnings of this cheese, which now commands rather steep prices, were quite humble. It was really because the poorest farmers had nowhere else to go that they herded their cows up these remote valleys – some pastureland was better than none, they must have thought. Eventually of course, people started to notice some differences in the quality of the cheese based on the pastureland it came from. Up in the high valleys, cows munch on as many as 150 different herbs and grasses, a smorgasboard that includes the blue gentian, a flower that inspired one of the absolute classics of German Schlager-Music, blau blüht der Enzian. You may click the link at your own risk – the German singer Heino could just rock your world.

Salumeria
Gabbani for meats, wines and cheeses

Only about 300 cows forage in the Piora Valley, so getting my hands on a piece of that cheese felt like an important milepost. I got it at the Formaggeria Gabbani, just across the street from the Salumeria Gabbani, and next door to the Enoteca Gabbani – you get the picture. With it, I got a piece of soft Ticino cheese and some rhubarb jam. Oh yes, that was in Lugano – funny you should ask. Of course it is delightful, stretching lazily along the eponymous lake – beautiful shops, beautiful cars, beautiful people but down to earth enough to not feel naked without a Rolex and a Jaguar. Ticino is Italy’s expensive, better organized and more polite little sister. The houses are more colorful, the sun more plentiful and the dishes more flavorful than in the part of Switzerland we inhabit – la vita è bella in Lugano. The Grand Café al Porto’s desserts and the food at La Tinera only helped to cement our assessment.

Cafe Lugano
Grand Café al Porto
Lake Lugano
On Lake Lugano

And then there was the cheese, of course. The mountain cheese from the Piora Valley is almost sweet, very smooth and rounded, without edges but not boring. It tastes like a really well composed piece of music, without any dissonance. The Formagella from Isone I bought is, in a way, a downtime cheese, made during the time cows are not out in the pastures. Often goat milk and cow milk are used together: the cow milk is skimmed and the cream is used to make butter – if only goat’s milk is used, the cheese is a bit fatter. The piece we had was a bit older and had a lot of flavor to it.

Ticino cheese
Clockwise from top left: Formagella di Isone, Piora Mountain Cheese, Schnokeloch, T’chiot Biloute

We enjoyed both of our Ticino cheeses with friends who complemented the dinner table with salami and smoked ham from Salumeria Gabbani – we all had traveled to Lugano together and in the food on our plates we relived the compelling combination of Italian flair and Swiss perfection of the city on the lake.

Dinner
Dinner!

Leidse Kaas – Cheese with Cumin

Leidse Kaas I
Leidse Kaas met de Sleutels

After more than 2 years writing about cheese, it is confession time. About a skeleton that has been in my closet longer than I can remember. And it has everything to do with cheese. I must have been eleven or twelve or so, and I was at the market in Gouda with my mother, and we bought cheese. As was customary, the merchant offered me a random slice of cheese. It wasn’t so much a sample as a treat – butchers would hand out slices of sausage in the same way to good kids that helped their mothers carry groceries. With an understated yet carefully rehearsed flourish he turned the business end of his cheese slicer towards me, presenting a thin slice of creamy goodness. I took the cheese, put it on my tongue and allowed it to start melting away. Shortly after my tastebuds woke up from a lazy slumber, alarm bells begun to go off but by the time the devastating reality set it, it was too late. I had inadvertently ingested cumin cheese.

I hated cumin cheese. I thought it was the vilest thing in the world and I couldn’t even stand the smell. But the merchant was beaming with pride in his own generosity, my mother looked at me with great and somewhat stern expectations, and so I made some appreciative noises and nodded my head approvingly as I tried not to gag.

So when I visited Amsterdam’s Dappermarkt, it was time to face my cheese demon. You see, there is a rather famous PDO (Protected Designation of Origin, the old AOC) cheese from the Dutch city of Leiden that is made with cumin seeds. It is a cheese with a story and it’s only one of four protected cheeses in the Netherlands (the other three being Edam, Gouda and Kanterkaas from Friesland) – so there is no way I can forever pretend as if it doesn’t exist. I asked Richard Jansen from Jansen Bio Kaas to hit me, and he obliged: I got a sliver of cumin-speckled cheese and…. I was taken aback by how much I enjoyed it. Either I had never had a slice of the real deal, or my tastebuds have matured after that meltdown so many years ago. Leyden Cheese is no longer my Angstgegner!

Leiden
Koornbrug in Leiden, with the keys in the city coat of arms.

The cheese has a lowly origin: it used to be made as a mere byproduct of butter production and because of that, it is low in fat, because the milk used is skimmed. Buttermilk and rennet are added to get the milk to coagulate and it’s actually produced with or without cumin seeds, but the latter version seems to be much more synonymous with “Leyden”. Back in the 17th century, the cheese was favored by the VOC (the United East Indies Company) as a provision on long voyages: its lower fat content meant it could be kept longer and sweated less. It was precisely the VOC that also brought the cumin used to spice up the cheese a bit to Holland from the Indonesian colonies. The combination really works well and while cumin is an acquired taste, there isn’t anything quite like it among any of the Dutch cheeses. It is made with raw milk, and the cumin seed in Leyden is crushed a bit more than in most other cumin cheeses so it’s more  evenly distributed which makes for a more consistent flavor experience.

There are only about a dozen or so producers of the PDO cheese, imprinted with the crossed keys of St. Peter, patron saint of Leiden. Another detail that makes the cheese different is its shape: it has one round ‘shoulder’ and one with a sharper edge. Finally, the rind is given the typical red-brown coating that makes it stand out (no, not edible) among its yellow classmates.

Dappermarkt II
Roots at the Dappermarkt

The Dappermarkt in the meantime, is the ideal place to get a chunk of cheese, but they also have fish, myriad ethnic foodstuffs, smartphone covers, tools, 5 euro Tupac t-shirts, watches and fake Birkenstock sandals. It is in a part of Amsterdam not yet discovered by tourism and not yet gentrified. On the edge of the neighborhood is Brouwerij het IJ, named after the body of water that runs along the northern edge of the old city. In a former bath house under one of the tallest remaining windmills in Holland is a brewery and a delightful café, where I enjoyed a Columbus amber ale, along with a Skaepsrond sheep cheese from a nearby cheese farm (the sheep feed off the leftovers from the brewing process, so it seemed an appropriate choice) and some osseworst, an Amsterdam specialty. After all, vanquishing my cheese nemesis and turning him into a friend called for a bit of a celebration.

Badhuis
In the Bath House, now a brewery
Brouwerij
Beer, Osseworst and Skaepsrond cheese

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 Schnokeloch, 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

Goats at the End of the World

Goat
Friendly German Goat

A few weeks ago I found myself in Berlin, Germany’s capital that is so much better than the setting of any post-apocalyptic movie you could ever hope to see. Berlin somehow survived the apocalypse of the Third Reich, turned around and did it again in the wake of the slow apocalypse that was the German Democratic Republic, which petered out a generation ago. Unlike those genre-movies with Harrison Ford or Mel Gibson though, Berlin is alive and ruined, colorful and grey, raucous and bleak, modern and decrepit, slick and subversive all at once. It is a city unlike any other, precisely because of its scars. It’s the kind of city no one wants to see a miniature version of in EPCOT – another reason to embrace it.

Zicken II
Relaxing

So I love Berlin but I was determined to spend a few hours a little further afield this time around as well. My destination was the Karolinenhof, a goat farm in – well, there begins the trouble. Officially it is in Kremmen, a town near the edge of the known world. But from there, my GPS told me to just keep driving, through the next town, and into the sticks beyond the end of the world. This is a part of Germany that was supposed to be turned into the Blooming Landscapes chancellor Helmut Kohl promised when he fast-tracked reunification in the 90ies, but less than an hour from Berlin the towns are falling apart and the roads aren’t doing so well either. At some stage even the GPS gave up but since the trees did not yet have any leaves, I could see a forlorn building straight ahead where the GPS unconvincingly murmured something about turning right, so I pushed ahead, unafraid, into the unknown. I was almost immediately rewarded because about three quarters of a mile down the road, there was the farm, and the café which promised cheesecake made with goat cheese, among other goat-related delicacies.

Karolinenhoefa
Karolinenhöfa

I found the super-relaxed goats in a barn a little past the café on the edge of land that was first cultivated under King Frederick William I (of course his name was Friedrich Wilhelm I., but I am helping you out here). This genius (not a very nice man, by the way) had the foresight of bringing a Dutch cheese maker to the region, in order to teach the local yokels the fine art. And they did well! The red-rind goat cheese (Karolinenhöfa, I bought the younger kind, ripened for at least 6 weeks) is absolutely wonderful; I do not remember ever having such a perfect blend of the typical fresh and tangy goat flavor along with the full-bodied flavor & stink of a red rind cheese. really a match made in heaven. the little goat Camembert (they call it Kamenbär – who says Germans have no sense of humor?) I got was also a well balanced combination of goatiness and creaminess.

Berlin Cheese Platter
From top right: Kamenbär, Wrångebäck from Sweden, Herve from Wallonia, Friesisch Blue from Northern Germany and the Karolinenhöfa

The goat cheese cake (a German style baked cheesecake for which quark is used, that highest form of fresh dairy known to mankind) was good, but not as epic as my cheese. The café itself is thoroughly relaxing, with a splendid view of the vast flat fields and with very friendly service. I was surprised at the number of people who, just like me, found the end of the world and pressed on beyond it to visit with the goats, use the cheerfully chaotic playground with their kids and have a bite to eat before returning to the known world. I did not see a single one of the cranes that apparently visit during certain times of the year. It must be quite a sight when they do hang out in the neighborhood, there are some 80,000 of them. As a consolation prize, I did catch a spectacular late afternoon sky over the flat landscape of Brandenburg on my way back to Berlin, glorious, pockmarked, haphazard, creative Berlin.

Sky
Afternoon in Brandenburg

 

 

Norwegian Cheese? Sure.

Bergen
Bergen’s Old Port, Bryggen

A week ago I found myself in Bergen, Norway, and there was just enough time to step into a few stores to get a jar of cloudberry jam and a big chunk of Tine Gudbrandsdalost. Yup, the latter is a foodstuff. The operative syllable in that monsterword is ost. Ost is cheese in Norwegian,  Swedish and Danish – such economical languages to learn, because a lot of words are like that: (near) identical in all three. The particular cheese someone had asked me to bring back comes from the 200-mile-long Gudbrands Valley in southeast Norway. The problem with the ost is that it is technically not ost at all. But don’t tell any Norwegians that. They may never speak to you again, because it is a food very interwoven in the cultural fabric.

Ost is made by heating up whey, the watery leftovers after milk curdles (that is, separates into solids and liquids during the cheese making process). The milk sugar in the whey caramelizes and gives the thickening goop a brown color – but because there is no coagulation of proteins, well – it doesn’t count as cheese, officially. Again, not that anyone in Norway cares. A very friendly woman in the covered market around the old harbor in Bergen took me through the various kinds of brown cheese she had on offer. They were all produced by Tine, a company that takes in milk from some 9,000 farmers, which makes it a dairy behemoth. She started me off with a piece of Gudbrandalsost and explained how, of all the brown cheeses, this was the lightest in color and flavor. “Young people, especially women enjoy this cheese” she said, with great authority. The cheeses got darker but more varied in flavor. Geitost is made with goat’s milk, but some cow’s milk cream is added in to make it extra smooth. “This” she said with measured gravity, “is something for a more mature gentleman like yourself”, so I made sure to like this one the best. The other two were darker yet, and a bit sweeter. One of them is known as Bestemorsost, grandma’s cheese. The young woman told me that it’s sweet, a kid’s favorite and that the name is supposed to evoke images of a visit with grandma and all the coziness that entails.

cheeses
Clockwise from top left: Undredal Geitost, Rød Geit, Fønix blåost, and Rød Kjerringøy

My new favorite store in Bergen, Colonialen sells neat little boxes with neat little pieces of Geitost (Tine’s ost comes only in brick- and half-brick sizes) which was just perfect. A bad encounter with some rather disappointing slices of cheese on a breakfast buffet earlier in the day did not get me into the mindset of gorging myself with brown cheese.

At Colonialen I also got a blue cheese from Stavanger in the south of Norway, Fønix; some Rød Kjerringøy, a red rind cow’s cheese from the coast near Bodø, a 24-hour drive north from Stavanger, and a thick slice of Rød Geit, probably the best of the bunch.

norway
Morning Sun along the Oslo-Bergen Railway, not far from where the Rød Geit is made.

It is made on the Ysteri (dairy) of Rakel and Jarle Rueslåtten in Hol, near the Oslo-Bergen Railway. It is a goat cheese with a washed rind and that makes it a goat cheese with an unusual stinky intensity – couldn’t recommend it more highly.

Gammelost
“You will not like it” – Gamelost from Vik

In another store I bought a piece of Gamelost, which Tine produces in the town of Vik on the Sognefjord. Gamelost means old cheese. ” You will not like it” said the polite young man in the store who cut off a piece for me. I think I saw him shake his head as I was leaving the store. This cheese is make from sour skim milk. Once the curds have formed, they are rubbed with the molds that give the cheese its very strong flavor. The cheese is unusually grainy and falls apart when you try to cut it – it has the consistency of a dry cupcake. In your mouth it is surprisingly chewy and it does take a while to grow on you.

Geitost II
Brunost, thinly sliced

Back from Norway I used a Norwegian invention, Thor Bjørklund’s cheese slicer, to peel thin slices of Undredal Brunost of my dainty little block and I felt relief with the first taste. This was creamy, goaty, complex cheese-stuff. It does have a bit of that salty, musty cheese flavor, before you taste the caramel, which eventually morphs into…licorice. I know, I know, this doesn’t make it sound any better maybe, if you were already skeptical. But believe me, once you have put aside any preconceived notions of what cheese should taste like, there is a world of flavors packed into a good block of brunost. Slice it thinly (if you do not own a cheese slicer – don’t let that drop out in polite conversation – just quickly get one, you troglodyte) and lay it out on knäckebröd from your local IKEA, or on your own favorite kind of bread and happy Norwegian goats and cows on green pastures surrounded by steep granite cliffs will appear before your mind’s eye and you will bite into a small piece of Norway – kjempegod!