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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
How would you like your cheese? Switzerland is a country with quite a few rules, which makes life orderly and predictable. Because this makes the quality of life and the quality of most products high, people are on board following the rules. And so a Swiss person knows that some of his cheese has big holes, some of it goes into fondue, other cheeses go into Raclette (even if there is an overlap here) – and then there are the cheeses that are sliced, diced, planed and chopped in a very specific way. One of those is Sbrinz, a cheese named after a town in the canton of Bern. Brienz is a village to the southeast of the Swiss capital, and in the heart of the Alps. From here, pack trains were readied for their trek across the Alps and the animals often carried a cheese with them, a very hard cheese that the Italians, who were on the receiving end of the pack trains called lo sbrinzo, the cheese from Brienz (they clearly added a few letters in translation). The name stuck, and now even the Swiss call the cheese Sbrinz. The cheese’s website carefully explains that there are three ways in which one can enjoy this cheese: use a sharp stubby knife (like the one you would use for Parmigiano), to hack small chunks off – those would be the Möckli – or use a cheese plane to get the rolls (Röllchen, you guessed it) or you can just grate it.
The explanation comes with links where you can get your own cheese pick, your cheese plane, or your grater: the marketing is quite impressive. We learned that Sbrinz does not do well in Raclette, it is too dry and doesn’t melt nicely. Otherwise, it is a fine cheese, just not one that I would buy the implements for, so if we have to have it, I will continue to get it in lil’ rolls at the local supermarket. Sbrinz is an AOP cheese, which means there are lots of rules to follow before you can call your Sbrinz a Sbrinz. Raw milk is used, cows don’t get fed any silage, and the cheese has to be ripened for at least 18 months. There is even a test, and the cheese has to score a minimum number of points before it can be called a Sbrinz. Even the name Hobelkäse (‘Plane Cheese’) is protected.
Another cheese that requires a specific implement for slicing it very thinly is the Tête de Moine, the Monk’s Head cheese – it is a loaf in the shape of a short thick tube, and in order to enjoy it, you are supposed to use a plane on a spindle that you can stick in the top of the cheese; by swiveling the plane perpendicularly to the surface of the cheese, thin slivers of cheese are shaved off. The process yields the so-called Rosetten, a thin, wavy flourish of cheese, not unlike some kind of flower. The thin layers melt in your mouth and the flavor really gets to unfold very nicely. While it is not made for it (and I may be jeopardizing future chances of becoming a Swiss citizen with this confession), we tried it in the Raclette maker and it was quite good. The classic, the younger version, is wrapped in silver foil, the older reserve in gold. The cheese has its origins in the monastery of Bellelay, also in the canton of Bern, but in the French-speaking borderlands with the Swiss Jura. The monks here for centuries paid their rent in cheese – at least since the late 12th century. The French Revolution saw the monks thrown out of the abbey but the cheese making continued. The invention of the nifty machine in 1981 really allowed the Tête de Moine to take flight – the little rosettes were just too cute to pass up, and the cheese because a party favorite.
The plane is known as a Girolle and here, too, the question is whether to spend 40 big ones on a machine before you have a gram of cheese, or to buy the ready-made rosettes in the store. So far, I haven’t been swayed towards the purchase of a machine, so I get mine in little plastic containers. Give me another 10 years in Switzerland and I am sure I will shake my head in disbelief of my former self, as I walk to my kitchen cabinet that stores all my various cheese saws, planes, drills, and knifes. I will know then better than I do now that, in order to enjoy cheese, there must be rules and there must be implements.
Yah, that sounds none too appealing, right? Cheese from the pit? Unless of course you are a hardened cheese aficionado who likes ’em gooey, stinky, moldy and any other variety that makes mere mortals go: ewww….
With the Formaggio di Fossa, it is actually not all that bad. Don’t think of some dank smelly, crusted hole in the ground: instead, think of a pleasant, regular, straw lined hole in the ground, where the cheese (it can be a sheep’s milk cheese, a cow’s milk cheese or a mix), wrapped in canvas bags, is carefully stacked on wooden planks, before the pit is covered and sealed and the cheese allowed to mature for 80-100 days – the technical term is anaerobic fermentation, and the 80 days is the legal minimum, the 100 days the legal maximum. You see, the cheese enjoys DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) status, and that means there are some stringent rules that govern exactly how and where the cheese is produced. The pits are dug in soft tufa rock in the Marche Region of Italy, on the Adriatic Coast, around the town of Sogliano al Rubicone – on the Rubicon, that very same river Julius Caesar once crossed, yelling “alea jacta est, suckers!” . Ancona is one of the major towns here, and that is where I got my cheese from the pit.
In this case, it was a sheep’s cheese, which made it a Pecorino di Fossa, and of course the pecoras have to be from the Marche region before you get the coveted DOP seal. The pits are very carefully prepared: straw is burned in them to get rid of the damp air and to reduce bacteria that may interfere with the ripening process. The pits are lined with straw for insulation and that straw is kept in place with an intricate frame of reeds and wooden hoops – it all has to be just so. The feast of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, November 25, is traditionally the day the cheese is hauled out of the pit, but the DOP today allows for infossatura (when the cheese descends into the pit) between March 1 and September 21, which means the cheese can come out much sooner or later than St. Catherine’s Day. I am sure cheese snobs will be able to tell November 25 cheese from cheese pulled out on any other day, but I was quite happy with my chunk. The ripening in the pit gives the cheese a light caramel color and the texture is a bit greasy – not all that appealing, to be honest – but the flavor is very distinct. it is a bit musty, really fills the mouth and there is quite a bit of sharpness. We use it mainly as a grating cheese, and you need just a bit to give your pasta dish a lot of extra flavor, it really packs a punch.
The city of Ancona doesn’t reveal its charms easily, by the way, even if it does have some interesting squares and streets. It is home to Antonio Budano’s Re Formaggio, a place of pilgrimage for cheese lovers, but I arrived there during the looooong afternoon break and I was unable to hang around until the King of Cheese came back from his nap. I found a small friendly store that sold cheese, salami, prosciutto and delicious homemade pies next to the covered market so I was able to score.
The cheese was sold to me by Sauro Zannotti, the proprietor of said small friendly store, along with a piece of aged Pecorino and a very young Pecorino, so that I could compare and appreciate the special qualities of the pit cheese. Ah, and of course there was pie. I cannot be entirely certain, but Sauro seemed so proud of the homemade pie that he left me convinced it was his very own wife who baked it. And even if my plastic-wrapped Pecorino di Fossa did not look as cool as the cloth-wrapped chunks that come out of the pits, it has made many a pasta dish in our household bring back pleasant memories of yet another successful cheese hunt.
Can there be such a thing as too much cheese? Until recently, I would have responded to that question with the superior yet generous smile of one who can accurately fathom the stupidity of the person asking the question. “Forgive them, for they know not what they ask” I would think, and busy myself with something far more important, such as the next chapter in Italian Cheese: A Guide To Its Discovery and Appreciation, 293 Traditional Types. Yes, that is a splendid book, and no, I am not providing a link to it on Amazon, because there are better ways to get it – support your local bookstore or library before they are all gone – but that’s for another time and another soapbox.
So, can there be such a thing as too much cheese? I will let you be the judge of it, but in our house, we certainly lived through a bit of a crisis brought on by events I’d like to collectively refer to as cheesemageddon. It all started with a visit in Riquewihr, a cute-as-a-button town in Alsace, that has a cheese cellar in the main street, les Caves d’Affinage de Riquewihr. Despite the fact that the place has a bit of a touristy flavor to it, I found some cheeses I liked: a Tomme D’Alsace (probably really just a Tomme de Savoie made in Alsace), a piece of semi-hard goat cheese and a Munster fermier.
A few days later I found myself in Savoy, and boy, do they take their cheese seriously up there. The region sits smack dab to the south of Lake Geneva and is as mountainous as next-door Switzerland. It is home to the Mont Blanc, the tallest peak in the Alps at 4,808 meters (that’s 15,774 feet for you non-metric folks) and lots of alpine meadows and cows to cavort in those meadows. Because of all the cavorting, those cows are exceedingly happy and as everyone from California knows, happy cows produce great milk. And do they ever know how to turn great milk in to spectacular cheese in Savoy.
Just how spectacular, I learned at the Coopérative fruitière du Val d’Arly in the small town of Flumet, just after I had spent some time marveling at all three cow races that the cheesemakers of Savoy love so dearly: the Montbéliarde, the Tarentaise and the Abondance. At the coop, they sell mountains of cheese, and they even have a little cheese exhibit along with a stand with free leaflets – pretty much one for each of the great Savoy cheeses. With the cows, the leaflets and the enormous cases full of enormous cases, I found myself with my back against the wall, silently cried uncle and bought enough cheese for a small orphanage: a whole Tommette brébis fermière (good but not sensational), a hefty slice of Abondance (sensational – fruity, full of complexity, as if you yourself are munching on all those alpine herbs and flowers), a chunk of Beaufort Été (of course it matters that it is a summer cheese rather than a winter one – in winter the cows get hay, in summer those French alpine herbs and flowers) and of course a Reblochon fermier. The Abondance comes from a valley with the same name, and can be made only with the milk of the three aforementioned cows. It is easily recognized by the clearly concave shape of the cheese’s side (same as with the Beaufort, by the way) which comes from the mold used during the cheese making process. The Beaufort comes from the region centered on the town with the same name, which is home to a very large facility where one can learn about the cheese, taste it and buy it – it’s the busiest business in Beaufort, which makes an otherwise sleepy impression. These two, along with the Reblochon make up the holy trinity of Savoy cheeses – at least in my book. The latter takes its name from a cheeky practice of Savoy farmers from the 13th century: these men hardly if ever owned the landed they had their cows graze on, so they owed the local count or abbey a usage fee, which was determined by the amount of milk obtained from the cows. On the day the usage fee was determined, the cunning farmer would ostensibly squeeze his cows dry, only to go back into the barn after the official had left for a little re-squeeze, which yielded a much smaller, but milkfat-richer amount of milk, of which a washed rind soft cheese was produced. Linguists among you have already figured out that this scofflaw procedure, the re-squeeze, was locally known as reblocher and that is how the cheese got its name. Today no such devious behavior is involved in making the cheese, which comes in two varieties: Reblochon with a red label is produced in large facilities that collect milk from several farms while a green label (it is stuck on the cheese before the final layer of white mold forms, so it is not easy to see) indicates a Reblochon made on the farm, from one herd of cows, and while the milk is as fresh as it can be. Purist of course swear by the latter. In both cases the milk used is unpasteurized which means it can sadly not be sold in the US – for your own protection, of course.
With my small mountain of cheese I eventually descended from the mountains, but not before I stopped in Annecy, where I visited the gorgeous Fromagerie of Pierre Gay, who has a cellar where he ripens his cheeses right under the store – and a large glass panel in the floor to prove it. It’s very cool to be browsing the store and to look down on the wheels of Abondance and Beaufort and the other innumerable cheesy highlights he is looking after. While it was late when I got there, and I was a bit more restrained, I still picked up a chunk of Vacherin des Bauges (the Savoy cousin of the Vacherin Mont d’Or), a piece of Persillé de Tignes (a delightful blue goat cheese without any visible traces of mold, but a flavor that leaves no doubt) and a Trèfle fermier, an ash-covered goat cheese in the shape of a clover.
Two days on, and I found myself in a cheese shop in Dijon and I met three cheeses I had to take how, and now our mid-size Swiss fridge started to creak at the seams, and all yogurt, pickles, bell peppers, leftovers and milk strangely started to taste like Reblochon. We enlisted the help of a friend and organized an evening of cheese tasting. He obliged and battled valiantly and with his effort, we made a very decent dent. He later confessed he had been overserved a bit but he felt it was for a noble cause, namely to help us not drown in fromage.
My epic cheese journey to Savoy and Burgundy took place in the second half of the week after our visit to Alsace, and the battle of the cheese bulge followed during the weekend. Somewhat relieved, I went to work on Monday, where an Italian friend from Genoa paid me a surprise visit. With a small but well-executed flourish, he swung one of those large silvery bags you get at the supermarket for cold stuff onto my desk, where it landed with a foreboding thud. He knows of my fatal attraction to cheese, and his voice had just the right amount of operatic flair, when he proclaimed: I brought you… cheese.
Details of the five generous chunks of cheese from Piedmont, collectively weighing in at a little under three kilos or about six pounds are for another post.
The story goes that Charlemagne, that most magnificent of kings, liked Brie so much that he told the bishop who introduced him to the cheese to send two cartloads of the fromage to Aix-la-Chapelle (now Aachen, Germany) so that the king of kings would always have some to nibble on. And, so the story goes, many other people in exalted positions with crowns on their head were of the same opinion in the centuries to come – a great marketing story if nothing else.
The Sanctum Sanctorum of Brie is in a basement of a small farm in the middle of Jouarre, a town in the département Seine-et-Marne (the modern incarnation of the ancient Brie region), a little under an hour east of Paris. It looks nothing like you would expect it to look. Stéphane Ganot and his sister Isabelle who run the 120-year-old family business are the high priest and priestess in the temple and again, they look like mere humans, not too tall, not too short, not too thick, not too thin. Sounds underwhelming, doesn’t it? And yet I felt, at the end of a long day on which it rained off and on, after visiting a champagne cellar, an old Picardie mill, a Viollet-le-Duc castle and a terrible roadside café, that we had arrived at the epicenter of cheese in France. The Fromagerie Ganot is where local farmers bring their ordinary brie tourtes (Brie de Meaux, Brie de Melun, Brie de Nangis, Brie de Provins) and Stéphane and Isabelle elevate them, with a lot of care, know-how, patience and modern technology to little mold-covered pieces of heaven.
Stéphane and Isabelle aren’t making any Brie. They collect Brie from neighboring farmers and make that Brie better. They are affineurs. They keep the cheese at the exact right temperature, the exact right moisture, turn it exactly when it needs to be turned and in that way, they tease the very most out of the potential that the farmer puts in. Compared to the actual cheese making, affinage takes time and, if you believe brother and sister Ganot, is half science and half art. And they share their art in small doses and only at certain times. Getting a spot on their tour feels a bit like winning the cheese lottery. Because as enthusiastic as they present their trade and their cheese, they don’t have all the time in the world, because they have tourtes to turn.
in the attic of one of the buildings on the farm, they carefully explain, with a slide show and in a small museum, some of the finer details of their trade. The land in the Seine-et-Marne region is getting more expensive every year, they say, and as a result there is less and less land for the cows to graze on. So they’re not exactly in a booming business, also because Brie is probably the most ripped-off cheese in the world: it did not get an AOC (now AOP) protection until 1980, by which time this cheese had already been copied around the world from Brazil to Wisconsin and from Japan to California.
The Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée designations stipulate things like the geographical region in which the product must be produced, the methods of production, the ingredients etc., etc. Since the EU took over the regulation of foodstuffs, they’re called AOPs, Appellation d’Origine Protégée. In Kathe Lison’s book The Whole Fromage, she explains with great insight how sometimes, these rules end up leaving out cheese makers who just have a slightly different way of making their cheese – long traditions and generations of know-how notwithstanding. In the case of brie, there are two kinds that have an AOC protection – Brie de Melun and Brie de Meaux, and there are others that go without – not that this perturbs the Ganots: the other Bries are handled with just as much love and expertise.
So is the Brie Noir, also without an AOC, and a bit of an oddball in the Brie palette: the name normally evokes visions of ivory colored, creamy, flavorful goodness, and Brie Noir is a decided departure from that: it is grey-brown, chewy and has a very strong flavor. It is best enjoyed as an ingredient in other dishes, and during the tasting we enjoyed it was served in the form of thin shavings. Lo and behold, the shavings are a much better way to eat this cheese (basically a Brie that has been allowed to ripen, ripen and ripen some more – up to 10 months, where 4 weeks is normal for regular Brie) that in bite-size chunks: the latter just become a chewy chore with a flavor too intense to enjoy.
With the farm land in the old Brie region becoming ever more expensive, Korean, Japanese and Brazilian counterfeits being produced in ever larger quantities, is there hope? Yes, darn it, yes! Because the French give a damn. They want Brie from Brie. They want to be sure that the milk is raw, that the process to get to the perfect cheese involves people, not machines. And, most importantly: they pass on the passion. the majority of the participants of the Brie-tour were kids. Kids who asked questions, who touched the things they were allowed to touch, and who expertly sampled the cheeses. And kids who will grow up to be the kind of adults Brie needs: the staunch defenders of the real deal. After our tour we were able to spend a small fortune on an enormous chunk of Brie de Meaux (the cheeses are larger than the Brie de Melun and the flavor is somewhat milder) a jar of local honey, some Brie de Melun and a few Petits Cœurs, small hearts, made of a combination of crème fraîche and cream (yes indeed, think OMG) which lasted us the remainder of the week in Brittany which, for all of its other tremendous qualities, is not a particularly cheesy part of France.
Saint-Louis is the first city in Alsace after crossing the French-Swiss border on the northern edge of Basel. It’s not a particularly pretty place – there are some scattered half-timbered houses with a bit of charm, and the main crossing in town is overlooked by a turreted hotel from the Belle-Époque that barely deserves the grandiose name “de l’Europe” but altogether, it is rather unremarkable. But it is in France, in wonderful, food-obsessed France, and you don’t have to look too far to experience that. More than 800 kilometers from the Normand fishing port of Courseulles-sur-Mer where I fell on my backside next to the fishmarket right where the fishing ships come and go (another story for another post), the local LeClerc has an impressive, outsized poisson & fruits de mer section, and around this time of year the patrons of the cheese section in that same LeClerc are positively giddy with the news that the Mont d’Or is here again, announcing the beginning of fall. And some weeks ago, on the weekly market which is brimming with good stuff, I was confronted with that food-lovin’ essence of France, distilled in a simple question when Christine asked for a melon (‘t was the season of the charentais jaune, and nous l’adorons). The response came from a man who in no way resembled a snooty French food connoisseur – he looked more like someone you’d want to steer clear from if you saw him in that alley next to the train station – but he never missed a beat and retorted: “Un melon pour le weekend, madame?”
So let that sink in for a moment. When was the last time someone at your local supermarket had the audacity to inquire exactly when you planned to feast on the foodstuffs you were about to purchase? And how likely would it have been that you would retort: “Xuse me, but I do not believe that is any of your business!” Exactly, that’s my point.
But years of going to the market with her aunt Colette had prepared Christine for this moment and where lesser American women would have faltered, she simply answered “Oui, pour le week-end”. Our rustic fruit vendor then sorted, looked, sniffed, gently squeezed through his merchandise and then it dawned on me that his impertinence had only one goal: to make sure that the particular melon he was going to present to Christine would do the very last bit of ripening to the absolute, unequivocal, impeccable pinnacle of ripeness in the few hours it would take us to complete our market visit, drive home, unload groceries, drop off the Swiss Mobility car, return home by tram, walk in the door and carve up that superfragrantilicious globe of orange goodness in the privacy of our own kitchen. In other words, our new best friend had asked Christine: “Are you looking for a random piece of fruit that will faintly taste like a melon whenever you decide to eat it, or do you want to do as the French do, and experience melon perfection?”
So there you have it. The difference between eating for sustenance and experiencing exquisite food pleasure is all in timing. Which leads me to cheese. Or rather, it led me to cheese because after our close encounter of the fruit kind, it was time for cheese. Around the corner from the fruit stand is the cheese truck of Aux Saveurs des Lys, St. Louis’ very own purveyor and affineur of fine cheeses. And because I knew that only hours after the charentais would be gone, I was going to conquer a Neufchâtel with my name on it in his display case, I spoke unto the fine cheese monger with the authority of a true connoisseur de fromage: “un Neufchâtel pour le week-end, s’il vout plait!”
That evening, only hours after we had wiped the melon juice off our chins, I was awarded for my perfect instruction to that sublime purveyor of cheeses as I savored the ripened-to-perfection Neufchâtel. No, we’re not talking about American Neufchâtel, a cheese mongrel that you should feel free to use in any recipe that calls for cream cheese if you care that Neufchâtel has less fat than cream cheese. The French Neufchâtel is a heart-shaped cheese from Normandy, and in the home of the Camembert, the Livarot and the Pont-l’Évêque, it is safe to assume that no one gives a damn about the fat content of the cheese, at least not for the reasons that would prompt someone to make said substitution when baking a cheesecake.
For no good reason whatsoever, the Neufchâtel had been the only one of the great Normand cheeses I had not yet savored. When I did, I exclaimed (in my head, the family doesn’t enjoy exclamations): “Neufchâtel, where have you been all my life?” It is somewhat embarrassing to pretend to know a bit about cheese and to stumble across a well-known cheese that harbors such a revelation, but there it was.
Neufchâtel is a soft cheese with a bloomy rind and at first sight, you may be forgiven for thinking that some smarmy French marketer dreamed up a heart-shaped Camembert to be in stores just in time for Valentine’s Day. But thankfully, this is not the case. Cheese lore says Neufchâtel has been around since the 6th century, only 300 years after St. Valentine was martyred (His story is so short on details that he received a demotion of sorts in the late sixties, and he’s been a benchwarmer for the Catholic calendar ever since), and centuries before Valentine became associated with heart-shaped boxes of chocolate, poorly written poetry and teenage heart palpitations and angst. More than its shape, it’s Neufchâtel’s flavor that sets it apart from Camembert. The former is saltier and sharper than the latter – think of “Camembert meets old Dutch cheese”- you get a mushroomy bouquet, a whiff of barn, a mouth full of cream….but wait, there is more! There’s that strong spine of saltiness, a hint of sharpness….. And with my taste buds having had their education in the Low Countries, the Neufchâtel is pretty much the best of both worlds for me. The particular specimen I enjoyed was relatively young – the cheese is aged a minimum of 10 days, but it is also sold in a more ripened version, when it is more dark ivory in color and a bit more wrinkly.
Neufchâtel received its AOC in 1969, that year of the Demotion of Saint Valentine (oh, the irony), and there is a story that young French maidens, on the occasion of New Year’s day, gave their English sweethearts the heart shaped cheeses to remember them by. This was during the Hundred Years’ War between France and England, and it is pretty symptomatic for that conflict that many people had a hard time figuring out whose side they were on. Apparently no one considered the gifting of the cheese as treasonous. Neufchâtel is best enjoyed between April and August, so perhaps it was just a way to get rid of some over-ripe cheese no French lad in his right mind would still accept as a token of true love. Who knows?
Towards the end of the 19th century, when the cheese was becoming a best-seller, there appeared a more verifiable connection to England, when Harrods in London re-introduced the descendants of those soldiers of yore to the heart-shaped version of the cheese. Because believe it or not, there are also less romantic versions – bricks, squares, rolls, but who cares? In fact, what is wrong, I dare ask, with any French cheese maker that decides to not use the shape the damn cheese is so known for? Alas, while the process of making the cheese and the diet of the cows that produce the milk is regulated in the AOC designation, the shape is not. So any Grinch, Scrooge or other curmudgeon that likes to have a taste of that heavenly Neuchâtel without any of the saccharine overtones of romance: yes, there is one with your name on it too, at your local supplier of fine French cheeses. Just let them know if it is for this week-end, or for later.
Ha! Yes indeed, I made a reference to Blue Fenugreek in my previous post and then… nothing. So I owe it to those readers to whom trigonella caerulea matters a lot to follow-up, and I will begin Episode 2 of this weekend’s post with that.
So here goes: there was a purpose to our detour across the mountains of Glarus. I wanted to stop in the canton’s eponymous capital and pick up a Stöckli of Schabziger, the local cheese that is not produced anywhere else. But at the Milchmanufaktur’s cheese counter, nicknamed “Käseparadies”, my quest took an unexpected turn when the young woman who helped me assemble the day’s cheese collection showed me two different cheeses from Glarus. One was the Stöckli, the green, slightly tapered package containing hard cheese made from skim milk. The other was a small white container that looked a little less styled, a bit more home-made, and of course I could not resist. So I ended up with Glarner Alpziger, a cheese made by Siegfried and Myrtha Fischli from milk produced by cows who graze on the Änziunen-Rauti Alp where Schwyz and Glarus border each other. More accurately, the cheese is made from the whey that is left over after cheese making. Alpziger starts out as a slightly sour fresh cheese that is shaped into balls, gets salt and ground blue fenugreek mixed in and is then pressed by hand into small white tubs, one of which I ended up with. It is certainly an acquired taste, and I’ll need to experiment a bit more with it to get the most out of it, but the mere fact that it’s produced by a couple that refuses to give up on a tradition that’s been in the family for generations makes me want to savor every last bit.
And with that, we move to cows coming home. As last year and 14 years ago, Christine and I decided to see an Alpabgang, and drag along our kid and, this time around, a friend who had already had to suffer through the windy road through the Glarus mountains and who now had to make sense of our delight and cows parading down the street, decked out in flowers and greenery. The idea is the same everywhere: it may have started with a festive closure of summer grazing when the cows parade down the mountains through the villages to stables or winter pastures, but today it is a great excuse to throw a town-wide party and invite people from all over. In Seewis im Prättigau, in the canton of Graubünden, they know how to celebrate their livestock.
52cheeses is finally back with a vengeance, after a hiatus that turned out to be much longer than I anticipated. Week 40 concludes with tall tales of brain cheese, Wilhelm Tell the Great Dane, Blue Fenugreek, 12 Mutschlis and a Swiss army knife, in no particular order. But I am getting ahead of myself, and I need to go back to the Milchmanufaktur in Einsiedeln, Switzerland, a place known for it’s splendid baroque abbey.
That’s where our day started around a copper cauldron of coagulating milk from the alpine meadows of Schwyz, the most prominent of the three Urkantone, the founding cantons of the Swiss Confederacy (Confoederatio Helvetica in Latin, hence the CH on the cars and the CHF as the abbreviation for the Swiss Franc). That milk largely comes from the Swiss Braunvieh, a pretty brown-grayish cow that looks great in pastures and does well in all sorts of commercials as well.
As would-be cheesemakers, we rapidly set about cutting the thickening mass with a cheese harp, to let whey escape and create nice, regular hazelnut-size granules of curds under the watchful eye of a friendly cheesemaker named Thomas, the only one around the cauldron who knew what he was doing. The cauldron hung from a massive hook attached to a moveable beam in what can be best described as a movie set resembling a Swiss cheese-making hut. We toured the modern facility of Manufaktur, where a great variety of cheeses is made from the perfect milk these happy cows with healthy lifestyles produce. These cows never eat silage, they graze on alpine meadows with a wide variety of tasty herbs mixed in with the grass in summer and delicious hay in winter. Of course they oblige by providing milk of a superior quality, and today, we turned some of that milk into 12 Mutschlis – a small round cheese, the Swiss answer to the Tomme. Your read that right: twelve of them. We will be eating Mutschlis for a long time…
We learned an awful lot about making cheese, how each of the steps in the process involves decisions that determine the final result – the milk that goes into the cheese, the size of the curds, the composition of the brine bath, the strains of bacteria being used etc. and we got to taste whey, cheese curds, and all kinds of yoghurt, heavenly yoghurt, another product the Milchmanufaktur (‘what on earth are we to do with all this milk???”)
Upstairs, in the store and restaurant area I got – among others – a cheese that expresses the quirky humor of Peter Glauser, an affineur who launched the wildly successful Belper Knolle (he works in the city of Belp, near Bern). The cheese is called Blaues Hirnli, that’s Little Blue Brain in English. The cheese indeed looks like a little blue brain with a creased grey mold cover over the ivory white creamy body of the cheese – a fresh-cheese ball, seasoned with Himalaya-salt. Combine the creaminess of the fresh cheese and the nuance the salt draws out from it with the strong flavors of the green-gray, fuzzy rind and a star among cheeses is born. We left a token bit of the Blue Brain for tomorrow only so we would not have to confront our gluttony the moment we woke up the morning after (“really? We ate an entire brain?”) The other two cheeses I tried were Willi Schmid’s Hölzig Schaf, a washed-rind sheep’s milk cheese that’s kept together with a strip of mountain spruce bark (combines red-rind stinkiness and the strong sharp flavor of sheep cheese: this cheese talks back!) and Käserei Stofel’s Tannenkäse, a rich, creamy cow’s milk cheese coated in a very thin crust of pine bark (yup, you can eat it…). With that, the all-Swiss cheese plate for the evening was an almost mischievous feast. A shame I didn’t decide to also add a piece of Fette Berta, fat Berta, for good measure.
After the Milchmanufaktur, young master Charles tried his hand at making his own Swiss Army Knife in Brunnen and then we stopped in the canton of Uri, at the Wilhelm Tell statue. You will recall that he was the Swiss freedom fighter who slip an apple on his son’s head with a crossbow, forced into conducting such a harebrained experiment by the hated representative of the Austrian crown, Albrecht Gessler. We know his aim was true, the apple split, Gessler killed and Switzerland freed from the Austrian yoke. And because of all this, the small town of Altdorf, where Wilhelm performed his awesome feat, has an enormous statue of Tell and his son at the base of a tower adorned with murals that tell the tale.
Alas, Christine and Charlie climbed the tower and found out from a strategically located sign that Tell was in fact Palnatoki, a Danish crossbow man, who supposedly did all the Tell-things before Tell did them. In fact, Tell never really existed and the mere fact that the same applies to Palnatoki is small comfort to us at this point. Wilhelm Tell was Danish – I bet you Rossini did not see that one coming.
If Tell never existed, why oh why did we not return home despondently, you may ask? Because our final destination for the day was beyond the Tell statue, over the great mountains of the canton of Glarus, to the alpine heights of Graubünden, where we were to attend the Kuhspektakel, of which I will write in the second installment of this extended post…
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.
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.
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.