Cheese from the Pit

Mercato Publico
Covered Market in Ancona, Italy

Yah, that sounds none too appealing, right? Cheese from the pit? Unless of course you are a hardened cheese aficionado who likes ’em gooey, stinky, moldy and any other variety that makes mere mortals go: ewww….

With the Formaggio di Fossa, it is actually not all that bad. Don’t think of some dank smelly, crusted hole in the ground: instead, think of a pleasant, regular, straw lined hole in the ground, where the cheese (it can be a sheep’s milk cheese, a cow’s milk cheese or a mix), wrapped in canvas bags, is carefully stacked on wooden planks, before the pit is covered and sealed and the cheese allowed to mature for 80-100 days – the technical term is anaerobic fermentation, and the 80 days is the legal minimum, the 100 days the legal maximum. You see, the cheese enjoys DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) status, and that means there are some stringent rules that govern exactly how and where the cheese is produced.  The pits are dug in soft tufa rock in the Marche Region of Italy, on the Adriatic Coast, around the town of Sogliano al Rubicone – on the Rubicon, that very same river Julius Caesar once crossed, yelling “alea jacta est, suckers!” . Ancona is one of the major towns here, and that is where I got my cheese from the pit.

Pecorinos
Cheese from the Pit: clockwise from top left: young Pecorino, Pecorino di Fossa, aged Pecorino

In this case, it was a sheep’s cheese, which made it a Pecorino di Fossa, and of course the pecoras have to be from the Marche region before you get the coveted DOP seal. The pits are very carefully prepared: straw is burned in them to get rid of the damp air and to reduce bacteria that may interfere with the ripening process. The pits are lined with straw for insulation and that straw is kept in place with an intricate frame of reeds and wooden hoops – it all has to be just so. The feast of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, November 25, is traditionally the day the cheese is hauled out of the pit, but the DOP today allows for infossatura (when the cheese descends into the pit) between March 1 and September 21, which means the cheese can come out much sooner or later than St. Catherine’s Day. I am sure cheese snobs will be able to tell November 25 cheese from cheese pulled out on any other day, but I was quite happy with my chunk. The ripening in the pit gives the cheese a light caramel color and the texture is a bit greasy – not all that appealing, to be honest – but the flavor is very distinct. it is a bit musty, really fills the mouth and there is quite a bit of sharpness. We use it mainly as a grating cheese, and you need just a bit to give your pasta dish a lot of extra flavor, it really packs a punch.

Fontana del Calamo
Fontana del Calamo, 16th century masterpiece

The city of Ancona doesn’t reveal its charms easily, by the way, even if it does have some interesting squares and streets. It is home to Antonio Budano’s Re Formaggio, a place of pilgrimage for cheese lovers, but I arrived there during the looooong afternoon break and I was unable to hang around until the King of Cheese came back from his nap. I found a small friendly store that sold cheese, salami, prosciutto and delicious homemade pies next to the covered market so I was able to score.

Sauro Zannotti
Small friendly cheese store

The cheese was sold to me by Sauro Zannotti, the proprietor of said small friendly store, along with a piece of aged Pecorino and a very young Pecorino, so that I could compare and appreciate the special qualities of the pit cheese. Ah, and of course there was pie. I cannot be entirely certain, but Sauro seemed so proud of the homemade pie that he left me convinced it was his very own wife who baked it. And even if my plastic-wrapped Pecorino di Fossa did not look as cool as the cloth-wrapped chunks that come out of the pits, it has made many a pasta dish in our household bring back pleasant memories of yet another successful cheese hunt.

Renaissance Arch
Renaissance Archway in Ancona

 

 

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An embarrassment of cheeses

Riquewihr
Riquewihr in Alsace, where this story begins

Can there be such a thing as too much cheese? Until recently, I would have responded to that question with the superior yet generous smile of one who can accurately fathom the stupidity of the person asking the question. “Forgive them, for they know not what they ask” I would think, and busy myself with something far more important, such as the next chapter in Italian Cheese: A Guide To Its Discovery and Appreciation, 293 Traditional Types. Yes, that is a splendid book, and no, I am not providing a link to it on Amazon, because there are better ways to get it – support your local bookstore or library before they are all gone – but that’s for another time and another soapbox.

So, can there be such a thing as too much cheese? I will let you be the judge of it, but in our house, we certainly lived through a bit of a crisis brought on by events I’d like to collectively refer to as cheesemageddon. It all started with a visit in Riquewihr, a cute-as-a-button town in Alsace, that has a cheese cellar in the main street, les Caves d’Affinage de Riquewihr. Despite the fact that the place has a bit of a touristy flavor to it, I found some cheeses I liked: a Tomme D’Alsace (probably really just a Tomme de Savoie made in Alsace), a piece of semi-hard goat cheese and a Munster fermier.

Mont Blanc
Mont Blanc

A few days later I found myself in Savoy, and boy, do they take their cheese seriously up there. The region sits smack dab to the south of Lake Geneva and is as mountainous as next-door Switzerland. It is home to the Mont Blanc, the tallest peak in the Alps at 4,808 meters (that’s 15,774 feet for you non-metric folks) and lots of alpine meadows and cows to cavort in those meadows. Because of all the cavorting, those cows are exceedingly happy and as everyone from California knows, happy cows produce great milk. And do they ever know how to turn great milk in to spectacular cheese in Savoy.

Just how spectacular, I learned at the Coopérative fruitière du Val d’Arly in the small town of Flumet, just after I had spent some time marveling at all three cow races that the cheesemakers of Savoy love so dearly: the Montbéliarde, the Tarentaise and the Abondance. At the coop, they sell mountains of cheese, and they even have a little cheese exhibit along with a stand with free leaflets – pretty much one for each of the great Savoy cheeses. With the cows, the leaflets and the enormous cases full of enormous cases, I found myself with my back against the wall, silently cried uncle and bought enough cheese for a small orphanage: a whole Tommette brébis fermière (good but not sensational), a hefty slice of Abondance (sensational – fruity, full of complexity, as if you yourself are munching on all those alpine herbs and flowers), a chunk of Beaufort Été (of course it matters that it is a summer cheese rather than a winter one – in winter the cows get hay, in summer those French alpine herbs and flowers) and of course a Reblochon fermier. The Abondance comes from a valley with the same name, and can be made only with the milk of the three aforementioned cows. It is easily recognized by the clearly concave shape of the cheese’s side (same as with the Beaufort, by the way) which comes from the mold used during the cheese making process. The Beaufort comes from the region centered on the town with the same name, which is home to a very large facility where one can learn about the cheese, taste it and buy it – it’s the busiest business in Beaufort, which makes an otherwise sleepy impression. These two, along with the Reblochon make up the holy trinity of Savoy cheeses – at least in my book. The latter takes its name from a cheeky practice of Savoy farmers from the 13th century: these men hardly if ever owned the landed they had their cows graze on, so they owed the local count or abbey a usage fee, which was determined by the amount of milk obtained from the cows. On the day the usage fee was determined, the cunning farmer would ostensibly squeeze his cows dry, only to go back into the barn after the official had left for a little re-squeeze, which yielded a much smaller, but milkfat-richer amount of milk, of which a washed rind soft cheese was produced. Linguists among you have already figured out that this scofflaw procedure, the re-squeeze, was locally known as reblocher and that is how the cheese got its name. Today no such devious behavior is involved in making the cheese, which comes in two varieties: Reblochon with a red label is produced in large facilities that collect milk from several farms while a green label (it is stuck on the cheese before the final layer of white mold forms, so it is not easy to see) indicates a Reblochon made on the farm, from one herd of cows, and while the milk is as fresh as it can be. Purist of course swear by the latter. In both cases the milk used is unpasteurized which means it can sadly not be sold in the US – for your own protection, of course.

Tarentaise
Tarentaise
Abondance
Abondance
Montbeliarde
Montbéliarde

With my small mountain of cheese I eventually descended from the mountains, but not before I stopped in Annecy, where I visited the gorgeous Fromagerie of Pierre Gay, who has a cellar where he ripens his cheeses right under the store – and a large glass panel in the floor to prove it. It’s very cool to be browsing the store and to look down on the wheels of Abondance and Beaufort and the other innumerable cheesy highlights he is looking after. While it was late when I got there, and I was a bit more restrained, I still picked up a chunk of Vacherin des Bauges (the Savoy cousin of the Vacherin Mont d’Or), a piece of Persillé de Tignes (a delightful blue goat cheese without any visible traces of mold, but a flavor that leaves no doubt) and a Trèfle fermier, an ash-covered goat cheese in the shape of a clover.

Vacherin & Persille
At Fromagerie Pierre Gay in Annecy

Two days on, and I found myself in a cheese shop in Dijon and I met three cheeses I had to take how, and now our mid-size Swiss fridge started to creak at the seams, and all yogurt, pickles, bell peppers, leftovers and milk strangely started to taste like Reblochon. We enlisted the help of a friend and organized an evening of cheese tasting. He obliged and battled valiantly and with his effort, we made a very decent dent. He later confessed he had been overserved a bit but he felt it was for a noble cause, namely to help us not drown in fromage.

My epic cheese journey to Savoy and Burgundy took place in the second half of the week after our visit to Alsace, and the battle of the cheese bulge followed during the weekend. Somewhat relieved, I went to work on Monday, where an Italian friend from Genoa paid me a surprise visit. With a small but well-executed flourish, he swung one of those large silvery bags you get at the supermarket for cold stuff onto my desk, where it landed with a foreboding thud. He knows of my fatal attraction to cheese, and his voice had just the right amount of operatic flair, when he proclaimed: I brought you… cheese.

Details of the five generous chunks of cheese from Piedmont, collectively weighing in at a little under three kilos or about six pounds are for another post.

 

Lil’ Blue Brain (Week 40)

Little Blue Brain
A little creepy: Blaues Hirni, the Little Blue Brain

52cheeses is finally back with a vengeance, after a hiatus that turned out to be much longer than I anticipated. Week 40 concludes with tall tales of brain cheese, Wilhelm Tell the Great Dane, Blue Fenugreek, 12 Mutschlis and a Swiss army knife, in no particular order. But I am getting ahead of myself, and I need to go back to the Milchmanufaktur in Einsiedeln, Switzerland, a place known for it’s splendid baroque abbey.

Baroque II
Einsiedeln’s abbey church

That’s where our day started around a copper cauldron of coagulating milk from the alpine meadows of Schwyz, the most prominent of the three Urkantone, the founding cantons of the Swiss Confederacy (Confoederatio Helvetica in Latin, hence the CH on the cars and the CHF as the abbreviation for the Swiss Franc). That milk largely comes from the Swiss Braunvieh, a pretty brown-grayish cow that looks great in pastures and does well in all sorts of commercials as well.

Cutting the curds
Cutting the curds

As would-be cheesemakers, we rapidly set about cutting the thickening mass with a cheese harp, to let whey escape and create nice, regular hazelnut-size granules of curds under the watchful eye of a friendly cheesemaker named Thomas, the only one around the cauldron who knew what he was doing. The cauldron hung from a massive hook attached to a moveable beam in what can be best described as a movie set resembling a Swiss cheese-making hut. We toured the modern facility of Manufaktur, where a great variety of cheeses is made from the perfect milk these happy cows with healthy lifestyles produce. These cows never eat silage, they graze on alpine meadows with a wide variety of tasty herbs mixed in with the grass in summer and delicious hay in winter. Of course they oblige by providing milk of a superior quality, and today, we turned some of that milk into 12 Mutschlis – a small round cheese, the Swiss answer to the Tomme. Your read that right: twelve of them. We will be eating Mutschlis for a long time…

We learned an awful lot about making cheese, how each of the steps in the process involves decisions that determine the final result – the milk that goes into the cheese, the size of the curds, the composition of the brine bath, the strains of bacteria being used etc. and we got to taste whey, cheese curds, and all kinds of yoghurt, heavenly yoghurt, another product the Milchmanufaktur (‘what on earth are we to do with all this milk???”)

Cheesy store
The Cheese Paradise of the Milchmanufaktur in Einsiedeln

Upstairs, in the store and restaurant area I got – among others – a cheese that expresses the quirky humor of Peter Glauser, an affineur who launched the wildly successful Belper Knolle (he works in the city of Belp, near Bern). The cheese is called Blaues Hirnli, that’s Little Blue Brain in English. The cheese indeed looks like a little blue brain with a creased grey mold cover over the ivory white creamy body of the cheese – a fresh-cheese ball, seasoned with Himalaya-salt. Combine the creaminess of the fresh cheese and the nuance the salt draws out from it with the strong flavors of the green-gray, fuzzy rind and a star among cheeses is born. We left a token bit of the Blue Brain for tomorrow only so we would not have to confront our gluttony the moment we woke up the morning after (“really? We ate an entire brain?”) The other two cheeses I tried were Willi Schmid’s Hölzig Schaf, a washed-rind sheep’s milk cheese that’s kept together with a strip of mountain spruce bark (combines red-rind stinkiness and the strong sharp flavor of sheep cheese: this cheese talks back!) and Käserei Stofel’s Tannenkäse, a rich, creamy cow’s milk cheese coated in a very thin crust of pine bark (yup, you can eat it…). With that, the all-Swiss cheese plate for the evening was an almost mischievous feast. A shame I didn’t decide to also add a piece of Fette Berta, fat Berta, for good measure.

Swiss Cheese
Swiss Cheese – but different

After the Milchmanufaktur, young master Charles tried his hand at making his own Swiss Army Knife in Brunnen and then we stopped in the canton of Uri, at the Wilhelm Tell statue. You will recall that he was the Swiss freedom fighter who slip an apple on his son’s head with a crossbow, forced into conducting such a harebrained experiment by the hated representative of the Austrian crown, Albrecht Gessler. We know his aim was true, the apple split, Gessler killed and Switzerland freed from the Austrian yoke. And because of all this, the small town of Altdorf, where Wilhelm performed his awesome feat, has an enormous statue of Tell and his son at the base of a tower adorned with murals that tell the tale.

Tell
Tell Monument in Uri

Alas, Christine and Charlie climbed the tower and found out from a strategically located sign that Tell was in fact Palnatoki, a Danish crossbow man, who supposedly did all the Tell-things before Tell did them. In fact, Tell never really existed and the mere fact that the same applies to Palnatoki is small comfort to us at this point. Wilhelm Tell was Danish – I bet you Rossini did not see that one coming.

If Tell never existed, why oh why did we not return home despondently, you may ask? Because our final destination for the day was beyond the Tell statue, over the great mountains of the canton of Glarus, to the alpine heights of Graubünden, where we were to attend the Kuhspektakel, of which I will write in the second installment of this extended post…

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

Κερκύρας κεφαλοτύρι, Ξυνομυζήθρα Κριτις and Jewish-Greek Pastries (Week 41)

xynomizythra
Xynomyzithra Kritis with fruit and honey
kefalotyri
Kerkyras Kefalotyri (Kefalo Cheese from Corfu)

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?

– Yes!

– Can I have a piece?

– Yes!

[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.

rosys-window
The window drew me in….
rosy
…and Rosy herself sold me on the pastries

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.

rosys-pastries-ii
Yup, worth every.single.calorie.

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.

along-the-spianada
Along the Spianada in Kerkyra
in-rosys-store-ii
In Rosy’s Store
kerkyra-market-in-town
Corner Grocery Store in the Old City

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.

Ledyard (Week 36)

ledyard
It’s gone before you know it: must..eat…Led….yard

Cheese: Ledyard

Producer: Meadowood Farms

Where: Cazenovia, New York

Just southeast of Syracuse in New York is Cazenovia, and don’t say “well, everybody knows that”. Cazenovia is home to a little over 7,000 souls and at least one ridiculously photogenic farm, Meadowood. Oh, be that way, don’t take my word for it. Look at their website and then agree with me, that’s fine. Meadowood is home to a herd of East Frisian sheep. Apparently these woolly wonders are the best that sheepdom has to offer in versatility: they produce a lot of milk, compared to other sheep, they provide fine wool and if all else fails, they don’t taste so bad either. The perfect package for a relatively small farm. The cheesemaker here is a woman by the name of Veronica Predraza, and

You can listen to a radio interview with her here. I just thought that I could put that in here, because I have not yet had the opportunity to link with a radio program. You can skip the first 2:12 minutes.

ledyard-ii
Ledyard – competition in the background

Veronica gave us Ledyard, this week’s cheese. She clearly knows her stuff and ended up borrowing an Italian tradition – that of the leaf-wrapped robiolas – for this particular cheese. so you take your soft ewe’s milk cheese, soak some grape leafs in beer (Deep Purple, a beer made with Concord grapes added for flavor and the purple color), slap ‘em on the cheese to create a neatly wrapped package, let it age for 4-6 weeks and voilà, you got yourself a cheese that is something else altogether. Ledyard is fresh, with some herbal notes, a bit of yeast and a bit of fruit, and yes, this time around I mean all of this high-falutin’ stuff: the cheese packs a lot of different flavors in each bit, and they all seem to be vying for attention, not all together, but one after another, which makes eating the cheese pleasantly confusing (is it a vegetable? No! Is it cream? No! Is it a drink? No!)

Notable: Ledyard became this week’s cheese after a pitched battle with the other cheeses I got from DTLA Cheese, a battle that took the shape of a true cheese orgy: the Smoked Kashar from Parish Hill Creamery in Vermont, the formidable Bandage Wrapped Cheddar from Fiscalini in Modesto in the Golden State, the Adair from Jacobs and Brichford in Indiana’s Whitewater Valley and the take-no-prisoners stinky Dorset cheese from Consider Bardwell Farm of West Pawlet in Vermont. Given the strong field – much better and more competitive than the republic presidential slate. And because of that, let’s show all of the contestants: drrrrrrrummrollllll:

smoked-kasar
Smoked Kashar from Parish Hill Creamery
cheddar
Bandage Wrapped Cheddar from Fiscalini Farms
adair
Adair from Jacobs and Brichford Farm
dorset
Dorset from Consider Bardwell Farm

Torta del Casar (Week 24)

Torta del Casar I
Torta ready to eat: isn’t she lovely?

Cheese: Torta del Casar

Producer: Hermanos Pajuelo

 Where: Almoharín, Extremadura, Spain

In Salamanca I bought a well-ripened Torta del Casar, a sheep’s milk cheese named after the town of Casar de Cáceres where this cheese originated, in the Extremadura, a region in Western Spain. There are a lot of producers in the area, mine was from the creamery of the brothers Pajuelo (Santiago is the brother who is still alive, Ignacio has passed away). They brand their torta Manjar Extremeño. Which probably translates as ‘delicacy from the Extremadura’ or something like that.  Cáceres has UNESCO World Heritage status and the cheese befits its origin, because it is monumental. Like some other cheeses on the Iberian Peninsula, cardoon thistle pistils are used in curdling the milk, and this process leaves a faint bitterness in the cheese, that only adds to the complex flavors in this bad boy. It has a distinct smell and an equally distinct taste.

Torta del Casar II
Ready, set, spoon!

It is a big fat mouthful, especially when eaten as intended: put the torta on the table, slice of its top (the rind is quite hard as does not get eaten) and start spooning. The milk for the torta comes from Merino and Entrefina sheep and because both are not prodigious producers, it takes the milk of a small herd of sheep to make a single cheese. In turn, that makes Torta del Casar one of the most expensive cheeses in Spain. Cured for a minimum of two months, it is worth getting a cheese that is a little older to get the full benefit of the full-flavored runniness that makes this such an excellent experience. In 1999 the Torta received its DPO protection. There are at least another 3 tortas in Spain (Torta de Barros, Torta del Canarejal, and Torta la Serena) that are eaten in a similar fashion and have similar flavors. Collect them all! This one was eaten with colleagues as the sun was setting over the Douro Valley in Portugal, together with some other splendid cheeses from Salamanca, a dinner where cheese was the main course.

Cheesy Dinner
Cheesy dinner in the Douro Valley

Paški Sir (Week 15)

Paski Sir II
Croatia’s Cheesy Pride: Paski Sir

Cheese: Paški Sir

Producer: Sirana Gligora

Where: Kolan, Pag Island, Croatia

So here is a picture of Pag, an island just off the coast of Croatia. There are less than 10,000 people who call the island home, but there are some 40,000 sheep. They’re a little smaller than average, these Paška Ovca, and they are indigenous to the island. From the coastal Velebit Mountains of Dalmatia, the Bora wind barrels down, picks up a lot of salt from the air over the water and drops some of that salty moisture on the pasture where the sheep run around, mostly freely. The herbs and grasses on the island the sheep feast on are pre-salted, if you will, like the grass in coastal Normandy around Issigny, where the best butter in the world comes from. These roaming sheep produce about half a liter of milk a day, so half a quart of milk. That is little, even by sheep standards (half a gallon is sort of average, compared to three quarters of a gallon from a goat and 8 gallons from a cow). Add to that the fact that the sheep are still often milked by hand in the fields where they graze and you have one labor intensive dairy operation going. But at the end of that long laborious process, there is Paški Sir, the cheese from Pag, which wins medals all over the world and makes Croatians proud.  Depending on who you believe, the farmers on Pag have been making cheese for hundreds of years (some writers believe since the days of the old Romans) and of course there is the popular suggestion that at one point it was used as currency, which seems a little farfetched. I am sure it may have been a barter unit in some sense, but it is hard to see that someone would buy a cow and say: “I’ll pay you 34 cheeses for that nice animal there”. One way or another, the cheese from Pag has very, very deep roots. Alberto Fortis, an Italian who traveled around Dalmatia in the 18th century wrote about the salt, the sage honey, the wool and the cheese from Pag in his Viaggio in Dalmazia, but by that time, it had already been around for a good long while. The Gligora family has been at it since 1916 and towards the end of the previous century father Ivan and son Šie have begun to take, as they say, the cheese to the next level. Among other things, they send their products all over the world provided you’re happy to pay the rather splendid shipping fees. You may find that is it more prudent to just wait until you travel to Croatia to get some. A competitor, Paška Sirana has an excellent video. Great images, and with English subtitles.

Paski Sir Cheese
Vino, Kruh i Sir. The cheeses from left to right: Kozlar, Dinarski and Paski Sir

Paški Sir is a cheese that needs a bit of time to unfold in your mouth, don’t eat it hastily. At first, it is what you’d expect from a sheep cheese: it is hard, crumbly and drier than most cow’s milk cheeses. And then, as it melts in your mouth, your tastebuds tell you: “wait, wait, there is more”. I will leave it to experts to give the complex flavors names; I will simply say that there is a lot to savor in an innocent looking piece of Paški Sir, and only if you take your time, will you discover why it gets those accolades the Croatians like to tout. I am sure it tastes great in a variety of dishes, but it is expensive enough that you want to carefully cut it up and eat it with a glass of Croatian red rather than in the mac and cheese from the crockpot. It has a nice crunch – most if it hits the market after aging for about a year so there are the little white protein crystals that lend the cheese even more texture. Shave it on your salad like you would Parmigiano, or eat it with figs – if you can get them, from Dalmatia. Aside from the Paški Sir, I also had a taste of Gligora’s Dinarski Sir, a crumbly, salty cow’s milk cheese from the Dinaric Alps and their Kozlar, a semi-hard goat cheese, also quite salty but very creamy and if fact, I ended up liking it at least as much as the cheese of the week. But I waited until we had left Croatian territorial waters before admitting that aloud. I am sure the Croatians would seriously frown on my preference and I wanted to stay out of trouble.

Four Square (Week 9)

Four Square
Four Square at the Wheel House

Cheese: Four Square

Producer: Bleating Heart Creamery

Where: Tomales, California

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.

Cheese Platter & Four Square
Clockwise from bottom left: Seascape from Central Coast Creamery, Hooligan, Humble from Parish Hill Creamery and Four Square

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.

Four Square 2
Four Square: Buffalo, Cow, Goat & Sheep all in one!