The same friend who got me a piece of her family’s cheese from La Capilla de Guadalupe in Mexico gave me a riddle in the form of a cheese from Teocaltiche in the state of Jalisco – about an hour and a half to the northeast of La Capilla. It has a pale ivory color, a fine grainy texture – you can see it looks a bit like dough where I cut it – and a fresh, sour taste. It smells exactly like European yoghurt, and these were my clues. Her family is divided on the cheese, as much as they are united in the Queso Fresco from La Capilla. it grew on me after a few bites but it is probably better as an ingredient in a dish that requires queso than as a ‘stand-alone’. I did some web research and found the Cheese Underground description of a cheese called Adobera, so named because it comes in a shape that looks like an adobe brick. It fits what I am eating very neatly, so I think this is what we’re dealing with. It is made from pasteurized cow’s milk and another website lumps it in with the quesos frescos. The problem with that is that it doesn’t tell you a lot, because there is a wide variety of these and one queso fresco is not like another. so for the time being, I’ll settle on Adobera.
I also visited the Cheesemongers of Sherman Oaks this week, and picked up 3 American cheeses. From the Indiana farm of Jacobs and Brichford Cheese I had a piece of Everton – think Gruyère, but sharper. Nice big mouthful but not for the fainthearted – it really packs a punch. I had the Adair from the same creamery a few weeks ago, so now I will want to try more of their cheeses – that one was also very good.
The Everton is definitely my cheese of the week, although the other two, the Kinsman Ridge from the Landaff creamery – a bloomy rind cheese with big mushroomy and grassy flavors – and the Twig Farm – a stinker with a washed rind with a really interesting taste made from a combo of goat and cow milk – were also very, very good.
One of the best things about shopping at the Cheesemongers is the love of cheese that permeates everything that they do. “What the heck does that mean?”, I hear you think. For starters, the cheese-monger-in-chief’s face lights up when she speaks about cheese. Then, they enjoy advising you and letting you taste and finally: look at how carefully and lovingly they wrap their cheeses in the best-designed cheese paper I have ever seen, and tagged with little tags so that I remember what I am eating as I am munching away, trying to figure out which of this week’s four new flavors will be cheese of the week – a labor of love itself.
Today, I am getting cheese number 47 of 2016. I think it will be my final American cheese for the year, as I am heading back to Switzerland this weekend. High time for another snapshot of the last 46 weeks in cheese. The current tally by country is a good starting point: 12 American Cheeses were ‘cheese of the week’, along with 12 French, but the latter group is likely to grow, because we’ll be in France in a few weeks. There were 7 Swiss cheeses so far, and only 3 Dutch ones. Three times an Italian cheese got the coveted title; Mexican and Spanish cheeses each took the honor twice, as did the Greek cheeses which, for whatever reason, were both a mix of goat and sheep milk. Finally, there was one top billing for each of the following countries: Croatia, Portugal, Austria and England. By milk, the cows clearly had it: 30 of my 47 cheeses were made with cow’s milk, there were seven goat cheeses, 4 sheep cheeses along with the two Greek mixed ones. Two were made of the milk of water buffalo and one had milk of all four animals in it.
But of course there have been many more than just these 47. Remeker cheese is sold at 3 months, 8-9 months, 16 months and 18+months and all four of them have very distinct characters. Considering that the youngest of these cheeses, which the cheesemakers are calling pril (an old Dutch word for young, basically) packed enough flavor to become one of my five favorites some weeks back, imagine what a really aged Remeker tastes like! There is a tradition among the frugal Dutch to use a cheese slicer and putting a thin layer of cheese on a slice of bread, but we never bothered much with the bread and ate the cheese in chunks – life is too short for moderation when it comes to this cheese.
In Croatia, I tried three of the cheeses the local cheese monger sold, and in many other places, I picked up more than what was decent. There was one of the five cheeses I found at la Cloche à Fromage in Strasbourg with a somewhat indecent name – a term of endearment in the far north of France is Biloute – um – dick. It’s what friends call each other and what a cheesemaker in that part of France calls his cheese: T’Chiot Biloute. The first word is a reference to the area and its dialect – it’s the French version of the sticks. But there it was, a beautiful rond cheese with a beer-washed rind, a slightly yeasty flavor – all great and good, but just a tad bit less great and good than the Sable de Wissant, which basically is the same thing without the strange name. So the Biloute came in second, and who ever remembers who won silver?
Another runner up was the exotically named Piacentinu ennese alla zafferano, a cheese with a DOP designation, made in Sicliy in the Enne region with an unusual color – saffron yellow.
In Basel, I once picked up a nice slice of a raw milk Époisses – always a crowdpleaser – that king of cheeses from Burgundy that makes you want to lick your plate (and lick you must because it is sticky).
I started this year with a description of the Rush Creek Reserve, a cheese that is more or less the American version of the Vacherin Mont-d’Or, a mountain cheese that is produced in fall and winter, when the cows are in their stables and eat hay instead of gras.
Between the French and the Swiss there is a bit of acrimony about the AOP of this cheese, which is understandable – the landscape doesn’t care about international borders and it stands to reason that the farmers in the mountains that separate the two countries over hundreds of years would have, through trial and error and exchange of idea, have reached similar conclusions about the things they can do with their cow’s milk. So a soft runny cheese with a strip of bark around it to keep the gooey torte from collapsing existed on both sides of the border for a long time and for the sneaky Swiss (or clever Swiss, depending on your point of view) to claim the Vacherin Mont-d’Or as theirs (and by extension not French), is a bit, well, sneaky. So off went the pouting French when all of this happened and decided to name their cheese the Vacherin du Haut Doubs, or simply Mont d’Or (sans trait d’union – without the dash). This cheese has made quite a career, because it had lowly beginnings: the farmers in winter often had a harder time getting their milk to the fruitières (and milk from hay-fed cows was considered inferior to begin with) so they often just made this soft, bloomy rind cheese for themselves and spent their dark winter evenings spooning warm cheese from their bark-reinforced wheels.
Today, as soon as the first hay-milk is being turned into fromage, the cheese fills the cheese counters in fromageries and in the better supermarkets, and often they come with pretty packages and in this case, with a small bottle of Arbois Béthanie 2010 a Chardonnay-Savagnin blend, a very robust white wine that comes from the Jura.
The idea here is to punch a few holes in the top of the cheese, pour the liquid all over it to let it soak and put it in the oven at 200 degrees centigrade and spoon it out when it is warm. And yes, indeed, it is exactly what you think it is: a creamy, ecstatic cheese climax. Think of a cheese fondue right out of the cheese. You can eat it with potatoes, use nice country bread or even carrots and broccoli if that’s your fancy – anything goes. Drink white wine with it if but something with big flavors, because the cheese does have a lot of it already. A dainty lil’ white wine will do well here. The cheese texture is smooth, and white the wine, there is a delicious balance between creaminess and acidity – it’s cheese fondue without the Emmentaler, in essence. It also is lighter than cheese fondue – you can probably overdose on it easier, because you do not fill up quickly.
Since it is a seasonal cheese, there is the hype about the first Mont d”Or of the season, as in: ‘they’re baaack!’. Of course, this happens in October and spring in these parts does not arrive until April, at least not in the mountains, so there will be Mont d’Or aplenty for months to come.
And finally, there was the Comté from José les Rousses, the little cheese shop that gave me three weeks worth of cheeses of the week. That nice, slightly sweet, solid-stick-to-your-teeth-just-a-bit-Comté. The Swiss may think this is the French version of Gruyere, but don’t tell the French that. They may not sell any to you, and then where will you be? Comté is produced in vast quantities and ripening takes place in enormous storage facilities, or, as is the case in Les Rousses, in an abandoned fort. Consider the brilliance of the Frenchman who looked at the old brick and stone fort with its massive walls and thought to himself:”Mais, fromage bien-sûr, fromage!”
So the cheese comes from the same cows and the same kind of pastures that give you Morbier. But the milk for Comté is collected in local fruitières, places that crank out the fromage in great big wheels and see to it that it goes into the caves and ripens, and ripens. And here is where the French obsession with gôut reaches full tilt: depending on what those happy cows in the pastures eat – so depending on the time of year – the cheese, in the eyes of the connoisseur, will have a slightly different taste. And so it was that I could get my hands on a piece of Comté in the fall of 2016 that had been made in April of 2015. “Ah”, a connoisseur may think, “that April the Marigold leaves were so succulent and there was such an abundance of Gentian early in the month!” before they sink their teeth in.
As for us, it was just a gift that kept giving, because in my enthusiasm I had bought what looked like a narrow slice from the wheel – but of course the wheels are large, and the narrow slice ended up providing enough fromage for an orphanage. We didn’t taste the Gentian or the Marigold, just the cheese. the wonderful, wonderful cheese. And we gave thanks to the wonderful French cows we had seen in the mountain pastures and wished them a happy, warm winter.
Yes, this one is out of order again, because the Morbier was a cheese I got in Les Rousses, in what is shaping up to be one of my very favorite cheese places in the whole world. I wrote about it before, but it is worth gushing over some more. There is just something very poetic about a store that exudes: “we do not sell you a lifestyle, we do not want you to buy books, napkins, cute kitchen utensils or coasters or olive picks; we sell cheese, and you eat it. Period, end of the story.” The Morbier is one of those staples in the Mountains of the Jura and the Doubs. It was first made in the late 1700s by farmers who didn’t feel like bringing their milk to town to have it turned into Comté so much anymore. They would take the milk from the cows in the evening, make, if you will, the bottom of the cheese, and sprinkle some ashes on the paste to keep bugs and critters away and then the next day, they would put cheese from the morning milking on top. Today, there is no longer a real need for the line of ash, but it is a tradition and it makes the cheese stand out. No, it doesn’t do anything for the taste.
Morbier has an AOP, so the rules for making it are rather strict: only milk from Montbéliard and French Simmental cows may be used, the animals cannot be fed any silage, them have to be in pastures that are in a specified geographical region and even the amount of room the cows have to roam, munch and ruminate in is regulated – per cow the farmer needs to have at least 2.5 acres. It may all seem a little much, but it is soooo worth it. The semi-soft paste is supple but not rubbery, it has a gorgeous color and the taste – the taste is a symphony. It has saltiness, nuttiness, a bit of barn. It is just a glorious, glorious cheese. Of course, you can get something that vaguely resembles Morbier in your local cheese shop and if you have, you’ll wonder why I am so hysterical about the Morbier – and that’s because you have had the nasty imitation, my friends. Travel to the Jura mountains, get the real deal and you will understand my hysteria.
A nice, interesting chäs from Switzerland was my cheese of the week this time, number 42. Willi Schmid made it for me. Technically, that is incorrect, he doesn’t even know me, but eating his cheese and looking at his website, you do get the impression that this cheese is made just for you. Start with the interesting shape: a whole wheel does have a hole in it, which gives it the appearance of a millstone. The German word for millstone is Mühlstein, and because the Swiss just can’t help themselves, they throw in an ‘i’, so that it sounds a bit more cheerful. And there you have it: with a thin rind of grey mold, the wheel doesn’t just have the shape, it also has the color.
Cut it up and you’ll have a beautiful yellow color, and a semi-hard, flavorful cheese that has a bit of mushroom with some slightly sour notes as well. And as always when I use some slightly convoluted language to describe the cheese I have the urge to say: “it’s just a really good cheese!” Willi does a whole lot more than this one, made with milk from his Jersey cows. He also creates goat, sheep and buffalo cheeses and he sells many of them directly on the farm in Toggenburg. He doesn’t realize it yet, but Willi is my friend. Toggenburg, we’ll be there soon.
There are another 11 weeks to go in my year of cheese and I have decided to ditch the format I have used so far for something a little bit more free flowing. Not that my previous rambles have been paragons of structured writing, but I am doing away with the listing at the top of the post (the “cheese – producer – where” bit) and I am having as much or as little cheese as I want. There are weeks where I munch away at the cheeses we got during some wild cheese-buying spree (our weekend in the Jura Mountains comes to mind) and nothing new enters our life – such was the case in the weeks after the Désalpe. Conversely, when I travel, there are new places to be explored and with them come new cheeses to write about. The past week has been one of those. After I ventured into the wild world of Greek cheese, I arrived in Naples and I had to get some Mozzarella di Bufala Campana.
That’s a mouthful in more than one ways. It’s a cheese that is made from the milk of water buffalo in the Campania region of Italy, just south of Naples. And it’s a mouthful because you can’t really eat a tiny bit of it. The idea is that you get it as fresh as possible, and you buy it in a bag in some liquid, mostly a light brine, in a few cases whey. And you take a ball out of the liquid and you stick the whole thing in your mouth. Just like that. You can buy it in smaller and larger balls, sometimes in braids. It is a cheese that is kneaded, much like a dough, while hot water is poured on it and with that, it gets a degree of elasticity. No, that doesn’t mean the cheese is chewy. It has just a little give before it breaks when you bite into it – think of it as al dente: not too hard, not to soft – just right. Obviously, you run of the mill mozzarella doesn’t delight quite like this. My cheese was one day old, was as white as porcelain and had that perfect textural balance – and it really just tastes like cream. Nice, clean, ever so slightly salty cream. The Consorzio Tutela di Bufala Campana – a club that promotes this particular cheese, has some cool pictures of the magnificent bufala this cheese comes from on their website. The saddest thing about fresh Mozzarella is the what all the other Mozzarella tastes like. If you meet an Italian abroad who seems to be carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders – he’s probably just homesick for some Mozzarella di Bufala Campana that was still milk two days ago.
So the cheese was reason enough to love Naples, but there was a lot more. It is not a particularly clean city, there is quite a bit of graffiti and as a port, it has it big industrial zones right on the water – welcome to cranes and containers. But let it grow on you for half an hour and it becomes a glorious display of disorderly conduct, from the way people get their coffee and pastries at Scaturchio to how they hand their laundry in the impossibly narrow streets where you have to look up, up, up to see the sky and to the way the makers of terra cotta nativity characters display their things with a decent sprinkling of soccer players. More than anyone else in that particular category of Saints, Diego Maradona, the Argentinian enfant terrible is still revered. Mixed in with the nativities are also local characters made from terra cotta. I brought one home and Christine is insisting that I am putting him in a room where she doesn’t have to look at him.
His name is Sciò Sciò, he has a hump that you’re supposed to rub for good luck, so I don’t get the problem. Finally – not finally, there is a lot more, but the post needs to come to an end at some stage – there are the pastries. Two in particular I must speak of: the pastiera, originally eaten at Easter (really, the Neapolitans don’t want to eat these all the time??) which is made with ricotta cheese, eggs, wheat berries and some very, very fine orange flavor. I got one in a beautiful box to take home to the family (much appreciated, best husband/dad in the world) and the sfogliatelle, where I must give a shout out to my friend Patricia who introduced them to me.
These ricotta-filled shells are made of crackly, superthin, deliciously buttery layers of dough. Bite into one and you will find yourself in the middle of an explosion of razor thin crumbles: so much goodness is such a little pastry!
Visitors come to Naples, give it a passing glance and continue to Pompeii or Herculaneum. Yes, those are some very awesome ruins, centuries old. But when have those ancient Romans every given you anything good to eat ?
Cheese: Kerkyras Kefalotyri and Xynomyzithra Kritis
Monger: A friendly lady at the cheese counter of a local supermarket
Where: Kerkyra (the city, a.k.a. Corfu Town), Kerkyra (the island, a.k.a. Corfu), Greece
OK, so the wheels are coming off in my blog. First off, I am breaking the one-cheese-a-week rule for the umpteenth time, and I pretend to be fluent in Greek, going as far as using Greek letters in the header of this post (again), and I am making cheese share the headline with other food. I can reassure you that I do not speak or read a word of the language, and that my selection of cheeses had nothing to do with any in-depth understanding of the local dairy product landscape. Here is what I knew: 1. the Greek eat so much cheese that they are world champions (yes, ahead of les Français or the Swiss or the Dutch). 2. Most of what the Greek consume is Feta, that ubiquitous sheep’s milk cheese (officially with some goat mixed in, but produced worldwide without regard for tradition with any old milk you can think of), that seems to be crumbled on just about any unimaginative salad in the world. 3. There are other Greek cheeses worth a try. Other than that, I was wholly unprepared and those funky letters, the friendly supermarket lady’s lack of English and my complete ignorance of Greek made for an interesting conversation:
[Pointing at a cheese that had ‘Κερκύρα’ (Corfu) in its name]
– is that cheese from Corfu?
– Can I have a piece?
[Pointing at a cheese with a DOP logo]
– and what is that?
– Ah… is light!
– OK, I’ll have that, too.
So what the heck did I come home with? The first cheese is Kefalotyri, and apparently, it is a very old cheese, in the historical sense: them old Byzantines already knew how to enjoy it. It is a hard cheese, pale yellow in color and made of sheep’s milk with a bit of goat mixed in. It’s very salty, but that is how the Greek like their cheese it seems. It is often used in all kinds of dishes, but I found it quite nice for just munching without anything else. For the second cheese, for once I followed the instructions: the Xynomyzithra, I had read somewhere, is crumbled and enjoyed with some honey and fruit for breakfast (I do suspect the Greeks to rack up their record cheese-eating by going at it for breakfast, lunch and dinner). So even if the time of day was not appropriate, I did have fruit and honey with my cheese and decided that from now on, I will have all of my Xynomyzithra with fruit and honey – it was a big success. The cheese itself is a little sour, granular and still creamy. It is made using whey (from sheep’s and goat’s milk in some combination) and then adding some cream. It easily crumbles and it has quite a bit more flavor than one would expect of a very young cheese.
The other discovery I made in Kerkyra was a small bakery run by a very cheerful woman with thick, curly brown hair and a smile that did not leave any part of her face untouched. The window in her little dark store drew me in, because the pastries in all kinds of colors are stacked high. Inside, everywhere you look there are mountains of pastries, and with a relatively simple set of ingredients, the variety is breathtaking. Rosy Soussis takes Phyllo dough, nuts, honey or honey-based syrup, chocolate and orange (or kumquats) and dreams up beautiful things that manage to bring out the flavors of all ingredients – and they all play well with each other. I asked her to put a little collection together and she gave me one to taste as she was going around her store finding things to put in the tin-foil container I was to take back with me. On a post in the middle of the store was a picture of a girl with the same smile and the same thick, curly hair, along with an embroidered Star of David. I asked her a very obvious question, and she confirmed. Of course I am just projecting and perhaps I owe her an apology for doing so, but the way she proudly responded: “Yes!” to my question “are you Jewish?” came out as if she said: “Yes, I am Jewish, proudly so, and I am still here and the Nazi’s lost!” Greek Jews did not fare much better that their brethren in other parts of Eastern Europe during World War II. To me, an encounter like this always pokes a little finger in the eye of history: we’re still here, and we’re doing fine.
There are narrow streets, layer upon layer of history, beautiful old buildings and plenty of fortifications in Kerkyra; the island’s strategic locations had made it embattled throughout the centuries – heck, the UNESCO has even put the city on its World Heritage Site list. Though as I walked back to the ship that had brought me here, my Kerkyra consisted of two friendly women, two cheeses, and a container full of sweets. As I was biting into one of them back on board, it all made perfect sense and came full circle. These were the kind of pastries that could start a war. Move over, Helen of Troy.
Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont is not just this big old cellar that ages and promotes Vermont cheese to a grateful nation (and grateful that nation is!), it also makes its own cheese. Alpha Tolman for instance, named after local dairy farmer and philanthropist Henry Stanley Tolman who gave the town of Greensboro a building for its library back in 1900. Tolman was the grandson of one of Greensboro’s settlers and an all-around upstanding citizen and the name of the cheese is altogether befitting, because this is one fine cheese. I disagree a bit with the comparison to Swiss Appenzeller that Jasper Hill makes, because Alpha Tolman is easier on the palate than Appenzeller. It is robust and flavorful, and it can hold its own among the Swiss originals, for sure, but it lacks sharp edges and the taste doesn’t linger in your mouth as much. Perhaps I will need to get a more aged piece at some stage, and sooner or later I will need to travel to the dairy wonderland of Jasper Hill.
Brothers Mateo and Andy Kehler started Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro in the summer of 2002. They had some Ayrshire cows, Scottish doppelgangers of the red Holsteins, and began cranking out cheeses. Big fat success soon followed and after a few years and lots of preparation and study, they built the Cellars at Jasper Hill and got into the affinage business. The art of ripening the cheese has always been a vital ingredient in French cheese culture to a point where quite a few cheeses are known by the brand name of the affineur rather than by the creamery where they originally came from. Jasper Hill works a little differently in that they promote the farms and the people behind the cheeses they ripen to perfection and then market. So far, I have found three of their cheeses – each of them a testament to the dedication of the folks that produce them and the Kehlers, master affineurs from Vermont.
Ha! A cheese I had never heard of and bam! it makes my top five of the year. Yes, it was really that good. What a joy to behold, what a surprise to bite into! The Tomme de Jura is a semi-hard cheese that is produced and mostly eaten locally. It has a grey-white mottled rind, a perfect yellow color and small, irregular holes. It’s a bit sticky, tastes fresh but with a lot of character for a relatively young cheese (ripened 2-4 months), and it’s almost sweet as milk. It is apparently largely a local cheese – most of it is eaten here. I guess just like some of the white Jura wines they do not produce a whole lot, and the local yokels are happy to keep most of it to themselves.
The Tomme de Jura came from the excellent little cheese shop in Les Rousses where I purchased cheese for weeks to come – there will be more praise for the place in the weeks to come. And strangely, here too it is not so easy to find much information about the cheese or the purveyor. José les Rousses, père et fils, have been in the business of cheese mongering since 1976, and in Les Rousses, they compete with the gargantuan Fortress that has been transformed in one of the world’s largest cheese ripening facilities and a fromagerie that caters largely to tourists attracted to the town because of the fort, and they do so quietly. There is nothing flashy about the fromagerie of José les Rousses. I stood in line waiting for my turn with locals, who all seemed to know exactly what they wanted. There was a cheese I have never heard of before (and that doesn’t exist on the World Wide Web) named Dajo, and a host of other local cheeses, one better looking than the other. And cow bells, of course, and assorted sausages.
I brought a local smoked sausage with the startling name Jésus de Morteau that was a big hit a week after our visit to the mountains along with the mountain of cheese: every single one of them deserved to come down the mountain with us, but after a good 2 kilos I came to my senses and realized that not everyone in the family was going to applaud the idea of having cheese for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the next few weeks. There was no information about the actual farms the cheeses that were sold came from. Elsewhere, that may not have been a good sign, but in the way the cheeses were labeled, packaged and displayed, it was clear that père et fils did not mess around. When he handed me my shopping bag o’ cheese, I looked in the eyes of a man who knows life is too short for crappy cheese.