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.

kinsman-ridge
Kinsman Ridge, Vermont’s answer to Brie
twig-farm
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.

 

 

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46 down, 6 more to go – some of the runners-up.

brown-cow
Future Remeker-maker

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?

tchiot-biloute
Little Willy from the North: T’chiot Biloute

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.

piacentinu-ennese
Black peppercorns contrast with saffron-yellow cheese: Piacentinu ennese

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).

epoisses
Oozing goodness: Epoisses de Bourgogne

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.

mont-dor-rind
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.

Best Morbier ever – really (Week 44)

morbier-fermier
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.

Croix Catal (Week 31)

Croix Catal
The Occitan Cross

Cheese: Croix Catal

Producer: Le Mas de Catal

Where: Rudelle, Lot, France

I am cheating again for this week, because this goat cheese is one that I had a while ago after my visit to La Cloche à Fromage in Strasbourg. I think it is a perfect choice for cheating a bit because this is one very fine goat cheese. It comes from southern France, and the cross on the cheese makes that clear: it is the Occitan Cross used by local rulers in Provence and Languedoc back in the days when France wasn’t as large as it is today, and the people in the south spoke Occitan (the langue d’Oc), a language still alive in a large part of the country and south of the border in Catalonia. The cross is white on a background of ash, which is used on many goat cheeses in France. The alkaline ash lowers the surface acidity of the cheese, and that in turn allows the molds that form a rind to develop better.

Croix Catal II
White Goodness

Inside, the Croix Catal is a beautiful white, and mine was ripe enough for the paste to ooze a bit, with flavor fully developed. As goat cheeses go, this was one of the best I have ever had. It had everything that makes a goat cheese a goat cheese, but is was unusually creamy, very fresh and clean – just délicieux. It is made on a farm with a little over 200 goats in Rudelle, a tiny little town of less than 200 souls with a remarkable fortified church with crenelated walls. Rudelle is in the French département Lot, named after the river that flows through it.

Tomme de Jura (Week 40)

tomme-de-jura-iv
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.

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

 

Fat Bottom Girl (Week 30)

Fat Bottom Girl
Surely a nice bottom

Cheese: Fat Bottom Girl

Producer: Bleating Heart Creamery

Where: Tomales, California

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.

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

hieber
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.

besler
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.

rubachtaler
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.

le-marechal-lui-meme
Le Marechal lui-meme

 

Buffalo Blue (Week 26)

Buffalo BlueCheese: Buffalo Blue

Producer: Bleating Heart Creamery

Where: Tomales, California

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”.