13 years after we first visited Saint-Cergue, there were now three of us. And all three of us gazed in awe at the magnificent beasts, the colorful traditions and – of course – the cheese….
a few more images –
“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!
Phew! After moving to Switzerland, traveling back to the US to get my travel documents sorted, picking up the final dog to complete our household and a host of other things, I am finally caught up. This is why there will be a small avalanche of posts: weeks 33 through 37 will pour like lava from an erupting volcano (or like fondue from a toppled pan) onto these blog pages today and the only thing left to do for the week is to talk about my new cheese of the week which will come from Austria or Germany. That’s right, I am doing another one of those cheese cage matches, where two cheeses fight to the death for that prized title of Cheese of the Week.
In the meantime, I still have a lot of catch-up posts that will be released on a regular basis, one after another, until all of the Cheeses of the Week have been accounted for. The above picture is one I would like to dedicate to my family. While the biggest burden of the 52 cheeses project falls on my shoulder, they too pitch in where they can to lighten my load as I eat my way to the finish line, only 14 more cheeses away.
Look forward in this place and on Our Swiss Life for dueling accounts of this weekend’s adventure: the Désalpe in St. Cergue, Vaud, Switzerland, an all-cow extravaganza that features more cowbell than even Bruce Dickinson would care for, alpenmacaroni in ridiculously large pans and all manner of other things we look forward to, based on our first cow encounter of the third kind, a lifetime ago.