The Future has arrived in Appenzell!? (Week 48)

appenzell-hills
Land of the Future: Appenzell

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.

appenzeller
Noble-Flavorful in Purple Branding

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.

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Casein mark – real Appenzeller

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.

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Appenzell Farm
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Main Street in Appenzell
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Another gift – and more cheese sleuthing (Week 47)

adobera
Cheese Enigma: we’ll call it Adobera for now!

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.

cheese-mongers
Awesome cheese paper: Cheesemongers of Sherman Oaks

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.

everton
Sharp, Bold – Everton

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.

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Kinsman Ridge, Vermont’s answer to Brie
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Goat-Cow stinker from Twig Farm

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.

 

 

The Mont d’Or is here! The Mont d’Or is here! (Week 46)

cheese-volcano-mont-dor-ii
It’s a…. cheese volcano!

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.

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The Shar Pei of cheeses: Mont d’Or’s bloomy, loose-fitting rind

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.

mont-dor-with-wine
Cheese & wine in one nifty package

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.

cheese-volcano-mont-dor
Cheese Volcano erupted

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.

A good year for Comté – not from May of course, from April (Week 45)

comte-avril
Slow ripened…

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.

comte-big-slice
The big cheese

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.

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The green bell means: here is the best of the best of Comte

 

Best Morbier ever – really (Week 44)

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Morbier Fermier – proof that there is a God

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-fermier-ii
Oh my cheesy goodness

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.

Willi Schmid, my friend. Fearless maker of Mühlistein. (Week 43)

muhlestein-iiA 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.

muhlestein
Complete Millstone

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.

Alpha Tolman (Week 28)

Alpha Tolman
Mr. Henry Stanley Tolman. You can call him Alpha

Cheese: Alpha Tolman

Producer: Jasper Hill Creamery

Where: Hardwick, Vermont

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.

Tomme de Jura (Week 40)

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Magnificent local cheese: Tomme de Jura

Cheese: Tomme de Jura (Tomme Massif du Jura)

Cheese Monger: José les Rousses

Where: Les Rousses, Franche-Comté, France

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.

les-rousses
Best-looking cheese shop ever: Jose les Rousses

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.

jesu-de-morteau
Yup, that’s what it says: Jesus sausage…

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.

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Ready for its close-up: Tomme de Jura’s many holes

 

A Tale of Two Cheeses: Rubachtaler Alt vs. Besler Bergkäse (Week 39)

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Cheese-a-rama: Hieber’s Award-Winning Cheese Counter

Cheese: Rubachtaler Alt

Producer: Dorfsennerei Sibratsgfäll

Where: Sibratsgfäll, Vorarlberg, Austria

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.

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In the German Corner: 6-month-old Besler

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.

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Squaring off: Besler (0n the left) vs. Rubachtaler Alt (12-15 months)

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.

 

Emmi le Maréchal (Week 29)

Le Marechal
A Cheese like a Grandpa

Cheese: Le Maréchal

Producer: Fromagerie Le Maréchal

Where: Granges-près-Marnand, Vaud, Switzerland

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).

Le Marechal Vielle Cuvee
Better in Switzerland? I think so….

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.

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Le Marechal lui-meme