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.
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.
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.
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.
I know I promised to have an Austrian-German cheese cage match, but that will have to wait until next week. In the meantime, I did find a delightful little goat cheese from La Fourrière – I assume the word means something like ‘pen’, as in an enclosure for animals, because the word translates as pound – as in dog pound or impound lot. I am sure Mme. Girardot doesn’t have anything to do with impounding cars. Her goats produce a nice little cheese that isn’t particularly goaty; it does have that typical flavor, but it is not very pronounced and since it is sold after a bit of ageing, the cheese has a bit of saltiness I really like. All in all a very pleasant cheese, so I hope Mme. Girardot will find a successor – I can’t tell how recent the posts on her page is, but she is trying to sell the farm, a bit east of the town of Langres, itself known for an eponymous cheese. She wants to retire, and it would be sad if those heart shaped cheeses would just disappear after 21 years. Anyone out there stuck in a dead-end job?
White Whale Farm is in Petaluma, not far from where Christine and I spent a fabulous weekend in the winter of 2014 on Tomales Bay. Had we only known at the time, we would have visited Anna Hancock and her happy goats (admit it, those are some happy looking goats). Alas, we were unaware at the time, so we had to make do with oysters and a selection of cheese from the Cow Girl Creamery.
Samson is the name of one of the two dogs that look after the goats. I don’t know about the dogs, but the cheese is just great. It is definitely a goaty cheese (go figure) but it has had a chance to ripen and develop its flavors which just makes it an all-around wonderful cheese. There is salt, sweetness, a bit of mushroom and a bit of funkiness (just enough). The goats are Saanens and Alpines, with a few other races thrown in for good measure. Both the former are known to be high producers. The dairy, in an 1867 barn, also is home to pigs and chickens – Christine and I will have it on our NoCal list of things to do, because it sounds just wonderful.
The picture at the top also shows the Buffalo Blue from Bleating Heart (see Week 26) and the Estero Gold Reserve from Valley Ford Cheese Company, from Valley Ford in California, not far from Petaluma on Pacific Coast Highway. The latter reminds me of a mature Dutch cheese, what we’d call ouwe kaas. Excellent cheese – I’ll know where to find you folks, next time I am in the neighborhood.
Not really related to the White Whale Farm, but very much on the theme of happy goats is the below video, made at our favorite Dutch goat farm, the Mèkkerstee near Ouddorp in the southwest of the country, where they have mainly Dutch White Goats with some Toggenburgers mixed in. They installed some rotating brushes in the stable (think carwash), which make the animals very, very happy. Fun for goats.
At the Wheel House, I picked up a piece of Four Square along with a chunk of Hooligan (I went back for more of that weeks later, so see Week 21) and two other cheeses that were somewhat less remarkable.
The Four Square was irresistible, because who would not want to try a four milk cheese? Seana Doughty is the driving force behind Bleating Heart Cheese, the company that creates this cheese (it will be available again this summer, but I got one of the very last pieces of it, it is a limited offering). She and her husband Dave Dalton appear to have a lot of passion for the art of cheese making, a healthy disregard for tradition if it suits them (I am sure purists have nothing good to say about a four-milk cheese) and a sense of humor about the whole thing. The best part about their website is the ‘stories’ section where they present the milk producers. The place that has the water buffalo is Double 8 Dairy and they have their own fun video that shows the daily work on the farm. That one definitely is worth a view.
Four Square is made with equal parts cow, sheep, buffalo and goat milk, ripened on redwood planks, washed with a brine every few days for 2-3 months. The squares have developed a very nice orange hue by that time. The cheese is fragrant in the best possible cheesy way and the semi-soft, pale ivory paste has a smooth, creamy texture and an easy, slightly salty taste. It is not overly complex but very pleasant – I may have been a tad disappointed with that, having expected something multi-layered that would take advanced placement classes in cheese appreciation to truly decipher. Instead it was just a very nicely balanced, full-flavored piece of cheese that can be enjoyed without or with rind, the latter for a salty flavor enhancement.
If Cato Corner Farm’s Hooligan could enter a stink-off with a Munster from Alsace, I do not know who would come out on top. Take a piece home with you and forewarn the people in your household, because there is no way you are going to be able to wrap this baby in a way that will prevent the odor to stay inside the paper. Raw milk from Jersey and Brown Swiss cows guarantee that the Hooligan is also very creamy – there is nothing not to like about this cheese. Cut off the rind, which is washed with brine and buttermilk during the ripening process, or leave a little on for a bit of extra intense flavor and crunchiness.
You can eat it young, when it tastes like grass and grazing cow, or wait for it to start running and take in every last bit of bold flavor – not for the faint-hearted. If you think brie is quite an assertive cheese, pass on the Hooligan. Mark Gilman, the man in charge of creating the cheeses at Cato Corner consulted with French and Belgian cheese makers, who know a thing or two about stink, to come up with the Hooligan. His mother runs the farm and looks after the herd of less than 50 cows. Cato Corner’s website, which has gorgeous ‘portraits’ of its cheeses, suggests to have a beer with the Hooligan, or sweet white wine. I say suspend with the niceties and just start eating that bad boy. There is more than enough in there to keep your taste buds busy. This is one of my favorite American cheeses.
I got the Hooligan and the Wheel House in Culver City, and with it, I picked up a piece of Grayson, a washed rind cheese with small holes, and a nice strong flavor – nothing too funky, but pretty salty. I also got a slice of Berskswell sheep’s milk cheese. It comes from England, from a creamery called Rams Hall, that’s operated by Stephen Fletcher.The town is not far from Coventry, and they drain the whey from the cheese in colanders, which give the cheeses their typical form – round and flat, with a ridge running along the width of the cheese. It has a distinct scent – it pales in comparison to the Hooligan but is is pretty robust. The cheese has a nice, quite complex and rich flavor, and it is not your typical sheep’s cheese. The people at Rams Hall age their cheeses for at least 6 months, which helps to allow all the flavor to unfold, of course. The milk comes from some 350 Frisian sheep. Apparently these animals are prized for their even, friendly temperament. Being half Frisian myself, I think I am qualified to say that what goes for the sheep from Friesland does not go for the people there.
Week 32 has an excellent example of why I enjoy the 52 cheeses process. The start this time was inauspicious: we are in the process of moving from one country to another and time is precious: not exactly the best of times to seek out a cheese monger and ponder myriad choices. So, at a local Géant supermarket in Alsace, I found one of the few raw milk cheeses they had (the fact that the vast majority of the cheeses on offer were made of pasteurized milk shows that the country is going to hell in a hand basket) and took it home. And that’s always when it starts to get interesting: there is the tasting, and there is the research. The tasting yields pleasure, the research yields the stories, and these, for the purpose of this blog are probably more important. Let’s face it: most people have very little idea what it means when they read: ‘the cheese is nutty, with caramel overtones and some faint floral notes’. There is certainly room for elaboration at one point and I am not against using those kinds of words – but most folks that bite into a piece of cheese go one of two ways: “I like it!” or “Meh”, (Those that go “Eww, that’s disgusting” should have stayed away from that Munster in the first place.) so I would never take any flowery cheese description’s word for it, and just make up my own mind – and encourage others to disagree with my assessment.
So here is the story on Saint-Maure de Touraine. Let’s begin with the first part. ‘Maure’ of course comes from a word for ‘black’ (think ‘Moorish’) and the saint in question may have been some ancient deity in charge of fermentation – seems very fitting for a cheese to adopt this name. There may be a relation also to the Moors that stayed in France after the Saracens (yes, that’s kind of the same as the Moors) suffered defeat at the hands of Charles Martel in 732. They may have introduced goat cheese making in southern France – more specifically their women, because cheese making was a woman’s job. Skeptics point out that there were goat herds well before the Moors’ defeat, but it makes for a good story. The other excellent story related to this cheese is the notion that you need to cut the log at its widest end first. Get it wrong and the goat from which the milk came will lose its milk-producing mojo (I think I screwed up here). But onto the second part of the name, before I forget.
Touraine today lives on as a marketing concept: it is a somewhat well-defined tourist region encompassing much of the Loire Valley around Tours. In the olden days, it was first a county and then a duchy centered on the city of Tours, erstwhile capital of the Celtic tribe of the Turones (I am using capital in the most liberal sense of the word). Aside from tourism, Touraine also exists in the world of cheese, because since 1990, the Sainte-Maure de Touraine is protected with an AOP and can only be produced in what used to be the old duchy. And it has a very cool proof of authenticity: a rye straw is to run through the length of the log, and when you pull it out, you’ll find the producer’s name engraved on the straw. No straw, no name, no AOP.
My log came from Cloche d’Or. Most Sainte-Maure de Touraine is produced by large companies, and this is no exception. Cloche d’Or collects raw goat’s milk from about 150 farmers and churns out some 64o tonnes of the cheese every year. Not exactly your mom and pop cheesemakers, and interesting that such large enterprises busy themselves with making raw milk cheese. Sainte-Maure is a dense, creamy goat cheese with a typical slightly acidic flavor: while not particularly surprising, it is a very solid and thoroughly tasty contribution to the world of goat cheeses. A cheese that does its job, nothing more, but certainly nothing less. A day after my purchase there was but a sad stump left of the once formidable log.
High time, 32 weeks into my 52 cheeses project, to have a list: the most enjoyable cheeses thus far. Notice how I did not say the best cheeses thus far? I don’t aspire to be a cheese arbiter, I will leave that to people with better developed palates and a more astute choice of words. I simply look at which cheese encounters provided me with the most all-around joy, and here is what I came up with, in no particular order.
The Remeker is a favorite because I just think this is what God intended when he said: ‘there be Dutch cheese’. It is really that simple, and the encounters with the brown cows certainly did add to the fondness I have for this cheese. The Hooligan is just so much fun because it is in the house, really. Put it in the refrigerator and you cannot open the door without thinking ‘wow, something’s not right here’. Aside from that, it is just a very flavorful, smooth experience. Except when you mix in some crunchy rind. Then it is a crunchy experience. Two for the price of one! The Azeitão is small enough to spoon it out in one sitting. There is a lot of freshness, some tang, a bit of bitter, creaminess, and what is there not to like about a cheese with an ã in the name? The Mua was a surprise with its chamomile rind, which gives it such an inimitable flavor, and finally, for sheer fresh, delicious ooziness, the Croix Catal, which also deserves many points for looks, was unbeatable.
So there you have it: 3 cow’s milk cheese, 1 goat, 1 sheep. Five different countries and honestly, that is a coincidence, I had no desire to create some inclusive-diverse-feel-good list that gave each country its due. There are obviously a lot of honorable mentions, my list will change over time and I do not mean no disrespect to any of the cheeses I tried.
And then to the explanation: most blogs, I hear, do not make it past 10 posts. A few months ago it looked like mine would become a statistic as well. I did eat my cheeses, I did hone in on the cheese of that week and I made my notes, but I couldn’t find much time to write. So in two bursts, I am catching up and until early October, thanks to the wonderful technology of WordPress, my blog will continue to spit out posts on a regular basis, every few days, until I am completely caught up. In the meantime, I will be going forward sticking to one cheese and one post a week (two if there is anything interesting from the travel front) and in 2o weeks we’ll see which cheeses walk away with that coveted 52cheeses.com Gold Medal for 2016….
Yes, you guessed it, that’s a Greek cheese I am taking about. I picked it up during a brief stop on a cruise, in the town of Thira on the idyllic Island of Santorini, which more or less lives off tourism and agriculture. I found my cheese in a small, non-descript store that sold local products, and this one looked quite interesting. Little did I know that the island has its very own cheese, Chloro. For various reasons, I had not been able to do any homework on Greek cheese. I did find out later that the particular cheese I picked up comes from an island that was only about 40 miles away from a tiny beach in Yeniköy, in Turkey, where I would dip into the Aegean Sea a few days later. But back for a moment to Santorini.
3,500 years ago, the people here were none too happy. That was because they got caught up in the Minoan eruption, a spectacular volcanic event that did extensive damage to the old Minoans and their civilization and created the Santorini we know today, a semicircle of sorts surrounding a lagoon with a small island in the middle. Volcanologists see a giant water-filled caldera, where the rest of us just see a string of pretty villages with white walls perched atop some very steep cliffs like icing on a gigantic cake. Thera, where I landed, is the least attractive of the little towns on the island so next time I am there I will have a double mission: see the tiny little towns with the blue-domed churches and get a piece of the Chloro cheese, even if the name does not sound inviting at all.
The cheese I did end up with was still interesting and, since I did not have high expectations, a very pleasant surprise. The Kalathaki was fresh and salty (it spends 3 weeks in a brine bath), with a bit of tang and since goat’s milk and sheep’s milk are mixed together to create it, you do get two flavors for the price of one, and they strike a nice balance, I found. I haven’t been a big fan of feta, perhaps because of the omnipresence of the factory produced stuff that is called upon every time olives and greens meet in a salad.
This cheese matures for about 60 days in a small wicker basket and the imprint the basket leaves behind gives the cheese its name: Kalathaki means basket. It is one of more than 20 cheeses in Greece that has a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO, OR DOP, or AOP, depending on which EU language you are using). The sheep and the goats who deliver the milk for this cheese are largely allowed to roam around so what you get in the cheese is the flora and the climate of the island in a relatively straightforward way. Dedicated promotors of the cheese claim that is was around in Homer’s days – but the great poet didn’t really write about it, so it is not that easy to verify.