Ha! Yes indeed, I made a reference to Blue Fenugreek in my previous post and then… nothing. So I owe it to those readers to whom trigonella caerulea matters a lot to follow-up, and I will begin Episode 2 of this weekend’s post with that.
So here goes: there was a purpose to our detour across the mountains of Glarus. I wanted to stop in the canton’s eponymous capital and pick up a Stöckli of Schabziger, the local cheese that is not produced anywhere else. But at the Milchmanufaktur’s cheese counter, nicknamed “Käseparadies”, my quest took an unexpected turn when the young woman who helped me assemble the day’s cheese collection showed me two different cheeses from Glarus. One was the Stöckli, the green, slightly tapered package containing hard cheese made from skim milk. The other was a small white container that looked a little less styled, a bit more home-made, and of course I could not resist. So I ended up with Glarner Alpziger, a cheese made by Siegfried and Myrtha Fischli from milk produced by cows who graze on the Änziunen-Rauti Alp where Schwyz and Glarus border each other. More accurately, the cheese is made from the whey that is left over after cheese making. Alpziger starts out as a slightly sour fresh cheese that is shaped into balls, gets salt and ground blue fenugreek mixed in and is then pressed by hand into small white tubs, one of which I ended up with. It is certainly an acquired taste, and I’ll need to experiment a bit more with it to get the most out of it, but the mere fact that it’s produced by a couple that refuses to give up on a tradition that’s been in the family for generations makes me want to savor every last bit.
And with that, we move to cows coming home. As last year and 14 years ago, Christine and I decided to see an Alpabgang, and drag along our kid and, this time around, a friend who had already had to suffer through the windy road through the Glarus mountains and who now had to make sense of our delight and cows parading down the street, decked out in flowers and greenery. The idea is the same everywhere: it may have started with a festive closure of summer grazing when the cows parade down the mountains through the villages to stables or winter pastures, but today it is a great excuse to throw a town-wide party and invite people from all over. In Seewis im Prättigau, in the canton of Graubünden, they know how to celebrate their livestock.
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.
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.
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???”)
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
A nice, interesting chäs from Switzerland was my cheese of the week this time, number 42. Willi Schmid made it for me. Technically, that is incorrect, he doesn’t even know me, but eating his cheese and looking at his website, you do get the impression that this cheese is made just for you. Start with the interesting shape: a whole wheel does have a hole in it, which gives it the appearance of a millstone. The German word for millstone is Mühlstein, and because the Swiss just can’t help themselves, they throw in an ‘i’, so that it sounds a bit more cheerful. And there you have it: with a thin rind of grey mold, the wheel doesn’t just have the shape, it also has the color.
Cut it up and you’ll have a beautiful yellow color, and a semi-hard, flavorful cheese that has a bit of mushroom with some slightly sour notes as well. And as always when I use some slightly convoluted language to describe the cheese I have the urge to say: “it’s just a really good cheese!” Willi does a whole lot more than this one, made with milk from his Jersey cows. He also creates goat, sheep and buffalo cheeses and he sells many of them directly on the farm in Toggenburg. He doesn’t realize it yet, but Willi is my friend. Toggenburg, we’ll be there soon.
In the US, this cheese is sold only at Whole Foods as Emmi le Maréchal as the result of a marketing agreement between Swiss cheese giant Emmi, Whole Foods and Jean-Michel Rapin, the actual cheese maker, who named the Maréchal after his grandpa, a blacksmith. In French, a blacksmith is called a maréchal-ferrant, so there you have it. Grandpa’s picture is on the cheeses, although it is hard to tell at Whole foods, as they pre-cut their cheese in relatively narrow pieces. Imported cheeses are expensive, and a piece the size of grandpa’s picture may set you back a month’s rent. We had to take Jean-Michel’s word for it, initially. Rapin describes his cheese as reflective of his grandfather’s character: original and robust. I would agree. At first it looks and feels like any old Swiss mountain cheese, except for the dark rind, which comes from the herb coating, and that herb coating of course imparts that little extra during the 5+ months of aging that makes the Maréchal a standout. It is saltier, more herbal than similar cheeses, and it misses the sweetness of, say, a Gruyère. I read a review that speculates on the effect of flax seeds in the cows’ diet, giving the cheese that bit of an edge (it’s a little stinkier than a Gruyère, too).
I recently had some Maréchal Vielle Cuvée here in Allschwil (a town on the edge of Basel, Switzerland) and lo and behold (or rather lo and taste): the Maréchal in Switzerland is the better cheese. Not sure why (it may be that the VC version has ripened a bit longer – it is supposed to have at least 5 months under its belt), but it has a fuller, richer flavor and none of the saltiness that I think creates the edge in the US export version. It may have been because I was going through a Gruyère-phase when I had the Maréchal in the US, and preferred the sweetness of that cheese. But maybe, those sneaky Swisses just keep the best cheese for themselves. Oh, and this being the land of plenty, at least when it comes to cheese, they have big half-wheels sitting in the cheese counter, so there he was the other day: Grandpa.
“What on earth” you could hear those Swiss mountain farmers think “are we going to do with all that friggin’ milk?” That’s when some smarty-pants came up with the idea of making cheese. A lot of milk goes into a single cheese, you can roll the wheels down the mountain (ok, they really don’t do that, but they could, if you ask me), and you can keep the cheese for months. Fast forward a lot more cows and of course, the question becomes “what on earth” – exactly: “are we going to do with all that friggin’ cheese?”
You eat it. your neighbors eat it, the people one town over eat it. And visitors eat it. A lot. and then you send it all over the world so everyone eats it. Problem solved and worldwide reputation established. We found ourselves in the epicenter of cheesiness this weekend, as we witnessed a spectacle where the-cows-that-make-the-milk-the-farmers-turn-into-the-cheese-that-gets-sold-around-the-globe are brought down from their summer pastures, where the mountain herbs on which the cows feast give the milk that je-ne-sais-quoi that makes the mountain cheese so yummy, to the winter pastures and stables where they wait until spring.
The town of Saint-Cergue has turned this chore into something people from the US, Sweden, Belgium, France, and Japan travel for thousands of miles to witness: cows with big old bells (Bruce Dickinson!) around their necks, some with flowery headdresses are poked and prodded down the mountains, do a few tours around the town, spray the pavement with poop and disappear, all this to the delight of the visitors, who feast on Tomme Vaudoise grillée and on Tartiflette, a stew of onions, bacon, potatoes and Reblochon, and thus help to take care of some cheese for which the locals now no longer need worry about transportation costs.
Why, you say, is this area an epi-cheese-center? Because it is frontier country. We overnighted in a hotel that straddles the border between Switzerland and France. And both countries face the above-mentioned ‘what to do with’ dilemma. So they are fiercely competitive. On the Swiss side, the Tomme Vaudoise is the innocent-looking vanguard of the Gruyere and Emmentaler forces a little further inland. The Vacherin Mont d’Or has been claimed as a Swiss cheese, but the French will never recognize it as such. On the French side, there are the formidable stacks of Comté wheels, fittingly being aged in a old fortress in Les Rousses, the Morbier, and the Bleus – those of Gex and of the Haut Jura. for the cheese lovers, this pitched battle makes the border region a Cheese Wonderland. Ah, I had to restrain myself – 0vercome with emotion while looking at the cows, I could have kissed any of those dewy-eyed pretty ladies. Instead, I whispered a quiet “Thank you” in each ear.
Ah, our new Swiss Life. After I picked up what I needed from the local web provider, I walked across the street that makes up downtown Reinach to the local butcher and deli, who also sells cheese. I wanted something for dinner, so I got that, some Unser Bier (see Week 33) and this little cheese, wrapped in a white piece of paper with a cheerful blue logo printed on it. And thus, I stepped into the world of Michel Beroud, a cheesemaker in a town that can arguably be considered the cradle of Swiss Alpine cheeses.
The Fleurette, as the story goes, was the nickname of a woman who came to help pack cheese and showed up every day in an apron with flowers all over. This cheese comes from raw cow’s milk, and the cows that make that milk live their lives chewing on grass that grows on an altitude of about 3,300 ft (or hay of that same grass). Mixed in with the grass is clover, wild cumin and other yummy greens that all find their way in the fine flavor the cheese and a fine flavor and texture it is! Oozing out of its perfect white bloomy rind is a white, creamy fresh-tasting goop that, at 2 weeks ripening, has quite a bit of structure and depth. I know, I know, that sounds convoluted – ok, so it is a bit saltier and has a bit more flavor that you would expect from such a cheese. Beroud makes some other cheeses as well, so I believe I may soon be back at my friendly neighborhood cheese store. But read my post for Week 38 – you’ll find that there is more in this corner of the planet in the way of cheese opportunities.
In today’s popular parlance, this cheese is a boss. In particular the kind that is ripened some 18 months, and that the Swiss call ‘rezent’, which has nothing to do with recent, on the contrary. The word means something like ‘sharp’, and that tasty sharpness is reached after ageing for a good long while.
The valley of the Emme in the Canton of Bern has seen people make cheese for some 800 years, most of the time just for their own use, and to give some of it in exchange for their lease of the pastures to their feudal lords. Only in the early 19th century did it become more widespread and then it took off. Emmentaler is one of the most copied cheeses in the world – heck, even Kraft slices come in something that vaguely resembles the Swiss King of Cheese. I am frankly surprised the Swiss have not ever considered severing ties with the US for that abomination. Emmentaler as protected by the AOP designation is now made in a fairly sizeable part of Switzerland, not just in the Emme Valley, but the stipulations about its production are still quite stringent: raw milk, no silage for the cows, a certain percentage of the diet of the cows has to come from fresh grass etc.
My ‘rezenter Emmentaler’ came from the Wirth cheese stand on Basel’s main market, and like in many other places, the cheese is not presented as from a particular producer – so it is anyone’s guess if the cheese is actually from that fabled valley, or from a place in the neigborhood that fits the bill laid out in the rules of the AOP. So yes, I am lying up there where it says ‘where’… all I know for sure is the cheese is from Switzerland (if it isn’t, someone else is lying)
Of course all of this is fine and good, but really, the only thing everyone always wanted to know about Emmentaler is: where do the holes come from? Meet Propionibacterium freudenreichii. Freudi, as I like to call him, is a bacteria that inhabits, well, us – there are quadrillions of them in our skin. Freudi is also useful in the production of certain cheeses, and when he is done with his useful reductive work, he leaves flavor and a lot of gas, CO₂ to be exact. The gas finds tiny little bits of haydust in the cheese, enters the minute little capillaries in the hay and voom! it expands and creates a hole.
If that sounds farfetched, don’t take my word for it. Buy a copy of the study by some Emmentaler-obsessed Swiss scientists in Bern (it will set you back $40, so you may just want to trust me on this one). Raw milk contains more bacteria than pasteurized milk (among them also lactobacillus helveticus, a colleague of Freudi who does a lot of groundwork for him, before he gets started with the whole gasmaking operation) and winter milk has more haydust in it than summer milk, so you know what to do when you want big holes in your cheese. The holes ought to be round, poorly shaped holes may very well point to poor performance on the part of the bacteria and hence poor quality cheese. And the salt crystals and the occasional ‘tear’ of salt water in the bigger holes of the more ripened cheese: it’s all part of the fun. I am sure that you are familiar with the sweet, sour taste of Swiss cheese. Add to that the multi-layered depth owed to raw milk and a natural production process and then, bam! compound that with the body and complexity that comes from 18 months of careful ageing – and there’s a cheese to bow in front of, and chant: ‘we’re not worthy, not worthy, not worthy’, before taking a big fat bite.
The Swiss buy Swiss. Of course they buy German cars and Korean cell phones. But when you go to any grocery store, it is very easy to find out where your food is coming from, and the information doesn’t just reassure buyers that they’re getting ‘made in Switzerland’. Often, the canton is identified as well, and I have seen cheeses with perky little signs that tell you the family farm whence the Käse came from, and this not just in high end cheese shops. Of course, it makes many things quite expensive, because anyone in Switzerland engaged in producing your foodstuffs is paid a decent wage, generous benefits and excellent but expensive healthcare. The Biermustschli is a case in point.
A Mutschli is basically a small round semi-hard cheese somewhere between one and 10 lbs (so much smaller that many of those huge wheels the Swiss roll down the mountains). And this particular cheese comes from the town of Mümliswil, about an hour from Basel. It is made of raw milk and the cows are fed grass or hay exclusively. In ripening of the Biermutschli involves washing the rind with beer and hops; they also smoke the cheese a bit. And the beer used is Unser Bier, literally ‘our beer’, which comes with a tagline that epitomizes the fondness the Swiss have for locally produced things: Bier von hier statt von dort – beer from here instead of from there. Unser Bier got started with a guy who brewed 18 liters of beer in a pasta pan – the rest is history. They create some unusual brews – their summer beer has elderflowers in it, and for the fall they do pumpkin beer.
The guy with the crown sticking out his tongue in the logo of Unser Bier is Basel’s famous Lällekönig, the name for a mechanical device in the shape of a human face with moving eyes and a tongue that moved in and out. Originally, this could be seen on the Rhinetower, and it was connected to the clock on that tower, which stood on the city-side of the old bridge across the river. Eventually, the Tongueking (the character wore a crown) became quite famous and today, with the tower and the original Lällekönig long gone, there is a replacement on the facade of the restaurant at the city end of the bridge. The people on the Grossbasel side of the river like to think the King is sticking out his tongue in the direction of Kleinbasel (little Basel, formerly an independent suburb – across the water, think of Oakland), but there is no historical evidence that the person who made the machine wanted to do anything else that createan entertaining contraption – and he succeeded. And of course, today the red tongue is on the Mutschli, a delightful cheese that just has the perfect balance of smokey, yeasty, a faint touch of bitter and a lot of creamy body – we went back to the market square, to the Wirth cheese stand, a week after we hand a conservative slice to try it to buy our own whole Mutschli. Soon e Kääs!