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.
So the people at Bleating heart have good distribution in the Southland. I found a piece of their Foursquare at the Wheelhouse in Culver City; a chunk of Buffalo Blue in Claremont at the Cheese Cave and at a Whole Foods in Sherman Oaks they sold this Fat Bottom Girl. It is a sheep’s milk cheese with a dark ivory paste and a very nice textured rind, that is created by hand-rubbing with salt water during the aging process. Apparently the cheese accidentally ended up with a rotund shape which inspired the link to the Queen song Fat Bottomed Girls from their 1978 Jazz album. There were some cheeses taken out of their forms and then left unattended, which caused them to sag a bit under their own weight, creating the shape that linked it to the female anatomy. After some careful testing the cheese maker was able to develop just the right process to recreate the initial accidental fat bottom in the cheeses with standardized precision.The piece I got, alas, was too small to allow me to recognize it as such. Shame on Whole Foods for depriving its customers of the experience by chopping up the cheese in small little bits! The sleeve liner of that infamous Queen album had a picture of dozens of naked women on bicycles, among them one with her bottom (which wasn’t fat at all) turned towards the camera. I was at an age where boys have no sense of humor about naked women on bicycles yet – it took that image very seriously and it occupied a prime spot in my feverish imagination for quite a while.
The cheese on the other hand is pleasant and, as the Bleating Heart people put it, approachable. It lacks the edge a lot of sheep cheeses have. In fact, if you’re a die-hard sheep cheese kind of a person, you may find the Fat Bottom Girl wanting a bit. But chances are, you’ll still find enough to your liking in this one, the flagship cheese of the Bleating Heart enterprise. It is available on a limited basis, because sheep produce milk for only 6-7 months or so, and the cheese ripens for 3 to 4. So the cheese making season runs from March to September and if the cheese sells well, none may be had between December and about late May or so. You can listen to Queen twelve months of the year, if that is any consolation – but I would not recommend that.
So here is my report on two cheeses I got just across the border, in the German town of Lörrach. They have the German version of Whole Foods there, only better. Better especially in the cheese department, because their counter makes any cheese lover’s eyes water with emotion – it is about twice the size of most cheese shops in LA – the quality is on a par and the variety is vastly superior, in particular of course because the Germans are not afraid of the bacteria in a nice bloomy rind Camembert. After we hastily tucked into a Camembert the other week that wasn’t quite ripe yet, we got one at our new favorite store, practiced patience and were amply rewarded with a cheese that we finished in a few quick sessions. Good Camembert is to be cut up in big old chucks, not dainty little slices.
But back to the store. It is called Hieber and it is a small chain in the extreme southwest of Germany, an area of small cities, diverse industry, vineyards and excellent infrastructure – basically an area with long traditions and a very high quality of living. Levi Strauss, the man that gave us the blue jeans, came from here.
I asked for a raw milk cheese from Austria and one from Germany, as I noticed that both countries were well-represented in the store’s selection. The Rubachtaler is from the Far West of Austria, and the Besler Bergkäse from the Far South of Bavaria. And lo and behold, they come from creameries (a creamery is a Sennerei in local parlance) that are less than an hour apart. The Bessler family runs a creamery along with a guest house where they serve an awful lot of their own cheese.
The Rubachtaler from Austria is a vexing cheese when you try to find out more about the peeps who create it. I have stumbled across the folks of the Dorfsennerei Sibratsgfäll, who make the Rubachtaler – it stands to reason that they also do the Rubachtaler Alt – ‘alt’ means nothing more than old. However, on their website, they do not say anything about the Rubachtaler. Perhaps it is a brand they do not market themselves – the info that they are making the cheese comes from an Austrian website about cheese producers, and me thinks they ought to know. Either way, let’s just leave this for what it is. Even Philip Marlowe would not have solved every case. The more important part of the whole affair – a dead giveaway at this point, really – is that to me, this match-up between Austria and Germany was won by the former. The Besler is a little like an Emmentaler, not quite as pronounced, and certainly a cheese I would buy again. But I am more of a salty type of a guy – I like the older cheeses, and the Rubachtaler is a bit like a Gruyere. Both have a beautiful straw-yellow color (both are made of milk from cows that eat either grass from alpine meadows or hay from those very same meadows, little or no silage), and both are made of raw milk. But only the Rubachtaler has the crunch of protein crystals and that thick buttery creaminess of a ripened mountain cheese. You may cry foul and insist that I cannot compare a 12-15 month old with a 6 month old, but the last time Austria bested Germany in soccer was back in 1986 – so even if this match was a little rigged with the Austrian cheese being the more mature one – cut those Austrians some slack, OK? They do not have it easy.
Next week: after our trip to the French-Swiss borderlands, we have been eating copious amounts of cheese from Franche-Comté. And most of those derserve their own post – besides, I bought so much of it, we’ll still be munching Comté in three weeks from now.
In the US, this cheese is sold only at Whole Foods as Emmi le Maréchal as the result of a marketing agreement between Swiss cheese giant Emmi, Whole Foods and Jean-Michel Rapin, the actual cheese maker, who named the Maréchal after his grandpa, a blacksmith. In French, a blacksmith is called a maréchal-ferrant, so there you have it. Grandpa’s picture is on the cheeses, although it is hard to tell at Whole foods, as they pre-cut their cheese in relatively narrow pieces. Imported cheeses are expensive, and a piece the size of grandpa’s picture may set you back a month’s rent. We had to take Jean-Michel’s word for it, initially. Rapin describes his cheese as reflective of his grandfather’s character: original and robust. I would agree. At first it looks and feels like any old Swiss mountain cheese, except for the dark rind, which comes from the herb coating, and that herb coating of course imparts that little extra during the 5+ months of aging that makes the Maréchal a standout. It is saltier, more herbal than similar cheeses, and it misses the sweetness of, say, a Gruyère. I read a review that speculates on the effect of flax seeds in the cows’ diet, giving the cheese that bit of an edge (it’s a little stinkier than a Gruyère, too).
I recently had some Maréchal Vielle Cuvée here in Allschwil (a town on the edge of Basel, Switzerland) and lo and behold (or rather lo and taste): the Maréchal in Switzerland is the better cheese. Not sure why (it may be that the VC version has ripened a bit longer – it is supposed to have at least 5 months under its belt), but it has a fuller, richer flavor and none of the saltiness that I think creates the edge in the US export version. It may have been because I was going through a Gruyère-phase when I had the Maréchal in the US, and preferred the sweetness of that cheese. But maybe, those sneaky Swisses just keep the best cheese for themselves. Oh, and this being the land of plenty, at least when it comes to cheese, they have big half-wheels sitting in the cheese counter, so there he was the other day: Grandpa.
Ok, I am cheating here, because the Buffalo Blue is a cheese I bought in Claremont, about a month ago. But some weeks, there are just leftover pieces of cheese in my house, and at other times – it’s a party. I have written about the folks at Bleating Heart in this blog before so I will not repeat that here. You can find something on their Four Square cheese that I tried in week 9 of this year. That was a pretty unique cheese, because it is made with the milk of goats, sheep, cows and water buffalo, those of Mozzarella di Bufala Campana fame. Seana Doughty, the cheesemaker and founder of Bleating Heart, decided not to try to recreate her own Mozzarella and created a blue cheese instead. Given that buffalo milk has about double the amount of milkfat of normal cow’s milk, this makes for a very creamy blue.
There is a bit if sweetness in Buffalo Blue that balances the bite of the Penicillium, which makes it a very accessible cheese. That is absolutely not to say that this is not an interesting chees, au contraire: it is an adventure in blue, and one can only hope that the good folk at Bleating Heart will continue to defy convention and, as they say “making seriously good cheeses without taking ourselves too seriously”.