Loire Valley: Cheese 24/7

Chambord
Not too shabby: Chateau Chambord

A few months ago I had occasion to visit France (any excuse will do, really, so I will not get into the wherefore and the why). Our destination was a small chateau in the Loire Valley which now serves as a pleasant bed & breakfast with a very friendly and thoroughly philosophical host. We spent three days there and used our time to explore from the castle of Chambord in the east to Nantes in the west.

The Loire is the country’s longest river, and its valley is known as the garden of France. The rolling hills with deep soils are perfect for agriculture and the small towns and the many, many chateaux add enough charm to the region to drown out the annoyance of having to share the very best of these chateaux with hordes of tourists and innumerable French school classes who are forced to learn about Francois I, the king who was in no small measure responsible for the way the valley looks today. He went on an ill-advised conquest to Italy and came back inspired by the Italian Renaissance – the rest, as they say, is history, but there is more to it, of course.

Chenonceaux
Chenonceau

Before architects and artisans, largely imported from Italy, turned the Loire Valley in this incomparable chateau-a-rama, the landscape was dotted with medieval fortifications, because at one point, this was the frontier. Depending on how far back you want to go, the enemy at the gate may have been the dastardly English or the Saracens, the invaders from the Middle East and North Africa. They were routed so thoroughly, as history is told, that they left many of their worldly belongings behind – among them, their goats. This may very well be a mere legend, but in the absence of a better story, we’ll go with this: so many goats were left behind in the Loire Valley that the re-conquering French were left pulling out their hair: what to do with all the goats and all that goatmilk? Obviously, as the French do in most crisis situations, they considered cheese as a solution, and voilà, the region’s reputation as a prodigious producer of goat cheese was born. Even though the Loire Valley provides ample grazing opportunities for cows, there just isn’t anything in the way of cow’s cheese that can compete with Sainte-Maure de Touraine, Selles-sur-Cher, Pouligny-Saint-Pierre, Crottin de Chavignol and Valençay, the quintet of Loire Valley goat cheeses the area is famous for.

Limousin Cow
Friendly neighborhood cow

On one particularly pleasant evening (we had already gone for a walk along the Cher, a tributary of the Loire; ordered some very tasty savory crepes from a food truck – yes, a food truck in rural France – and chatted with some very friendly Limousin cows), a roadside sign caught Christine’s eye. She suggested we follow it, and where I understood ‘distributeur 24 h/24 h” to be a cheese distributor where trucks bound for all of France were carrying cheese to the six corners of the Hexagone around the clock, she knew exactly what this was.

Of course, someone had to come up with the perfect solution for that all-too-often occurring disaster: there is a sudden great need for goat cheese, but none can be found anywhere in the pantry – the cave, as the French would call it – quel horreur! Enter the distributeur 24 h/ 24 h: the cheese vending machine!

Distributeur 24
24/7 cheese

After following the signs around several tight turns and lazy bends in the road, we arrived at the farm owned and run by a couple whose picture adorned a board near the open gate to their property, Sandra and Rémi Mabilleau. They were shown holding some friendly furry goats below a statement of great poetic and philosophical force: “One can’t buy happiness – but one can buy cheese, which is virtually the same thing.”

Mabiquette
Cheese is happiness…

And then, not far from that sign, there it was: the vending machine. A log of fresh goat cheese coated in ash from door number 5 set us back a mere 4 euros. Once we arrived in our modest room in the small chateau we immediately tucked into a snow-white piece of goat dairy candy, which tasted as fresh as the cheese was white. As my taste buds were getting overwhelmed with the crisp, tangy, creamy revelation that unfolded itself in my mouth, I had visions of domestic tranquility being restored in the middle of the night after a derailed family gathering, a depression narrowly averted, a relationship salvaged in this small corner of the universe – because not far away, with round-the-clock reliability, a log of happiness-inducing, peace-making, splendid goat cheese could be had for only 4 euros, and some deft pushing of vending machine buttons.

Chevre
snow-white goat cheese
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Norwegian Cheese: best in the world?!

Norway Landscape
Norway in the Fall

Over the past few months I have traveled through Norway quite a bit. It is a country of perdendicular cliffs, deep fjords, beautiful old wooden churches, tacticurn people and yes, cheese. Not in the way that France or Italy are cheese countries. There, food trumps pretty much everything else in importance; many a heated debate or meandering discussion is devoted to the merits of this tomato versus that one, to the perfect way to roast a chicken or the preferred age of a soft cheese. In Norway, people seem too level-headed to let quandaries like these take over the afternoon, and I imagine Jørn Hafslund to be just such a Norwegian when he decided to make a cheese that was, well, just good. His tiny farm outside of Bergen with about a dozen cows was a labor of love, his was not a long pedigree of cheesemakers and I suspect that he may not have submitted his cheese to the World Cheese Awards competition if it hadn’t been held in Bergen last year. As it was, he presented his Fanaost and won first price. When I met the man who made the best cheese in the world, he was still not all that comfortable with his new found fame. “It iss nais, of kors. But also ferry stressful” he responded when I asked him about it. He could only muster a bit of a smile when my picture also had his son in it – sharing fame apparently helps to deal with it.

Ostegarden
Father and Son World Champions

Officially, the cheese is classified as a Gouda, which makes it a semi-hard, cooked cheese; yellow with an inedible rind. The flavor develops over time and this is why the age is rather crucial: a young Fanaost is a nice cheese, but not the gold medalist. That honor was bestowed on the Lagret Fanaost, matured for at least six months. Jørn has found an interesting way to cope with the skyrocketing demand: he is rationing the cheese he is willing to sell. I received a piece that was slightly more than 100 grams and could not get more. And even in Norway, where everything is expensive, I had a mild case of stickershock when I learned this slice of gold cheese would set me back about $10.

Rationed lagret
Lagret Fanaost – strictly rationed

Yes. Of course. The cheese was absolutely delicious, what would you think? Was it the best in the world? Who knows? An international jury said so and it has changed Jørn’s life. I found it to be surprisingly sweet, but with the saltiness that comes with maturity balancing perfectly. I would readily shell out another ten bucks if I could be granted permission to purchase another 100 grams, even if I am not sure I would travel all the way to his farm.

Fanaost
Cheesy Gold

There is Norwegian cheese to be had in a simpler and very surprising fashion. Fly through Oslo and you will find an amazing anomaly in the world of airport cheese stores. No person in their right mind and with a heart for cheese would purchase the colorful round cheeses they sell at Schiphol airport or the cute variety packs with an Eiffel Tower on them at Charles de Gaulle. At Oslo’s Gardermoen airport, the unsuspecting traveler can take his pick from among some 20 kinds of artisan cheeses, many made with raw milk, from small cheesemakers all over Norway. I picked up a Norwegian blue there on my way out the other week, and my now very high expectations were met: creamy blue, with the exact right saltiness and none of the sharpness that I don’t always enjoy.

A final flavor that is worth mentioning came my way as I traveled a high plateau just south of the Sognefjord, purchased in a countrystore that thought they would never find anyone in their right mind that would pay 160 Kroner for a heart-shaped piece of cheese. I must admit that I got it because I just thought it looked funny, not because I had particularly high hopes. It was Nøkkelost, a cheese with a slightly complicated etymology. What I found inside the yellow, heart shaped package was a straw-colored semi-hard cheese with cloves and cumin seeds mixed in, very flavorful. It allowed me to take another step in my recovery from an unpleasant encounter with cumin cheese in my youth.

As to the etymology of said cheese: Nøkkel means key, and the crossed keys are in the coat of arms of Leyden; Norwegians developed a taste for the cumin cheese from Leyden sometime in the mid-18 century but insist that today’s Nøkkelost is something quite different. Mine came from Inger Rosenfeld’s farm, who names his cheese after a half-blind cow, Melissa, he got for his 50th birthday and who became a mascot of sorts. She is on every cheese Inger sells, complete with eyepatch.

Nokkelost
Nøkkelost from Den Blinde Ku

Return to Ancona

Trajan Arch
Trajan’s Arch & Shipyards

A while ago I returned to Ancona, and this time I was determined to visit the King of Cheese, the Re Formaggio, a cheese shop that was closed for the day the last time I tried to barge into the door. Even more so than on the previous visit, the city surprised me with what I am tempted to call Ancona Moments. The place is rather unassuming, with a big shipyard on its doorstep and a center that is a strange mismatch of all kinds of architectural styles and crimes against good taste, but you stumble across interesting bits and pieces on a regular basis. There is, for instance, Trajan’s Arch, built for that very same emperor who has a famous column in Rome, a market whereupon that column sits and a ruined bridge across the Danube near Drobeta-Turnu Severin in Romania all named after him. The arch is dwarfed by the cruise ships that are being built right behind it, and it stands a bit forlorn among the ramps and cranes of the shipyard. But it predates all that is being built around it by a cool 18 centuries: it was completed by 115.

Santa Maria della Piazza Ancona
Santa Maria della Piazza

Not far from the arch is the Romanesque church of Santa Maria della Piazza, with a beautifully structured façade showing a few fantastic looking animals. It never seizes to amaze me how worshippers back then thought of the Holy Trinity and the angels, but also of dragons, mermaids, chimeras and all these other creatures that can be found in the art that adorns the churches of the period; and doing so without any qualms about the false idol bit (Exodus 20:3-5).

Pistacchio Cake
Pistacchio Cake
Pizza di Formaggio
Pizza di Formaggio

Musing about my Ancona Moments I enjoyed an equally surprising piece of pistacchio cake in a café not far from the King of Cheese, where I picked up a few treasures. Pizza for instance. No, not what you think. Pizza (lord knows why, I never got a good explanation) in Ancona is a sort of huge muffin, made of fluffy if somewhat greasy bread, with big chunks of cheese baked in. A very tasty treat, although I think it ought to be eaten family style, as in: it takes a lot of people to finish one of them, because they are huge.

As always when I am in Italy I managed to buy a piece of cheese that came with an explanation I did not at all understand, and so I can report it was a bit dry and crumbly, but in a good way, and had a bit of a blue cheese flavor, but that all, folks. I bought a rather colossal chunk of Trentingrana Malga Rolle, a super hard cheese that you need to cut with a Tagliagrana, a cheese pick in essence, that is deployed to aggressively hack away at a big wheel of immutable cheese in the hope of breaking it down to more practical pieces. The cheese comes from a farm at a mountain pass in the shadow of the Pala di San Martino, at 9,800-feet peak in the Dolomites. It’s in the region of Trentino, and the cows that give the milk for it get to munch on a fine selection of alpine herbs, which gives the cheese that certain something extra. Trentingrana basically means had cheese from the region around the city of Trento; weeks later, we’re still grating it our pasta.

Pecorino di Fossa
Pecorino di Fossa

The piece de resistance of my cheese purchase was of course a raw milk bit of Pecorino di Fossa. There was nothing wrong with the first bit I bought here a while ago, but this cheese was something else. From the amber color to the slightly rank odor and from the slightly oily touch to the sticky texture to the intense flavor, this was a cheese that had gone through an awful lot before ending up on the shelves of the King of Cheese. The church of Santa Maria della Piazza, pistacchio cake and Marche-style pizza notwithstanding, it was the Pecorino di Fossa that made my return to Ancona a triumph worthy of that grand imperial roman arch.

Japan: where’s the cheese?

Japan New Year's
New Year’s Prayers and Wishes at a Temple in Tokyo

If you are in Japan, have limited time and you’re eager to check as many tourist attraction boxes as you can, don’t go looking for Japanese cheese. It is pretty labor intensive and a bit frustrating at times. Even in the basement of the large department stores, those incredible cornucopias of carefully prepared and packaged foods that offer anything you can actually eat (and some things you should really stay away from, if you ask me); even there you will not normally find homegrown products. There is no shortage of raclette, of Roquefort or Parmigiano. But Japanese cheese, not so much.

Of course, there are very few places in Japan suitable for herds of cows and there just isn’t much culinary history that involves dairy. But the Japanese, to their enormous credit, are obsessive about good food, eager to try new things and open to experimenting. Which made the hunt for Japanese cheese in Tokyo more than a little interesting. On a side note: we did not starve because I managed to keep the cheese-sleuthing to a bearable level, so we had a lot of time to try many other things from the Japanese table, including the much-hyped-but-really-not-all-that-dangerous fugu (watch the entire episode of the Simpsons that explains the possible dangers of eating poorly prepared puffer fish – season 2, episode 11.)

One of the first cheese experiences we had was in a restaurant that was purportedly all about cheese – what could possibly go wrong? We were in for more than one surprise. First off, we showed up for lunch time and the cheese dish the restaurant focused on, fondue, was only served in the evening. I opted for the next best thing which, in my mind, really is only a distantly related cousin: cheesecake. Purists may even accuse me of cheating but hold your horses for a moment. The cheesecake I was served didn’t just look like a big slice of cartoon cheese with holes in all the right places, it actually had small pieces of cheese in it.

Japanese Cheesecake
Cheesecake with …cheese?

Keep an open mind, now. Surprisingly, it worked quite well. And let’s be honest: 10 years ago no one would have put caramel and salt together either. At the airport, we found another creative departure from established cheesy tradition: carefully wrapped sweet sandwich cookies with a thin layer of cheese between them, using different kinds of cheese: I picked Roquefort and Camembert. As far as I am concerned, the cookies were quite good, whereas the cheesecake with real cheese was more of an …interesting flavor.

We were in Tokyo over New Year’s and the one purveyor of Hokkaido cheese was out of town for the holiday, otherwise finding Japanese cheese would have in fact been a slam dunk. Mr. Konno, alas, was off on a little vacation: the Voice of Cheese was closed. Konno-san has dozens of cheeses from small producers in Hokkaido, among them the Sakura cheese that is matured on cherry leaves. The small wheels of this cheese resemble Camemberts and they are sold with a little pickled cherry on the top, which makes them look a bit like round Japanese flags. Sakura cheese won a medal at the mountain cheese Olympics some 15 years ago and it is pretty much the only Japanese cheese you would have ever heard of.

Japanese Cheese
Shimuzu Farm red rind cheese

I enjoyed the sweet taste of success in one of the last food basements I visited: a red rind cheese from the Shimuzu farm in the Japanese Alps and some raclette, which we would teppanyaki with friends later in the day. Both were carefully crafted copies of European cheeses, unfortunately without much in the way of an identifiable Japanese touch. Not that I really need an excuse to travel to Japan again – it is hands down one of my favorite countries in the world – but now I know to come back for Mr. Konno’s cheese, and to discover what else the Japanese have come up with when it comes to チーズ. Heck, I might even go to Hokkaido for some cheese and to share a hot pool with those mountain monkeys.

Teppanyaki
Teppanyaki – raclette cheese bottom left….

Planet of the Sheep – Texel

14 Thousand sheep live on Texel, the Netherlands’ largest island in the Wadden Sea, and that’s just about as many as there are people who call the island home. I know that if you are from the Croatian Island of Pag, that’s not a lot, and if you are from New Zealand, the 1:1 ratio is positively laughable: there are almost 10 sheep for each New Zealander. But in a country as densely packed as the Netherlands, Texel has a LOT of sheep. They are everywhere, and it really doesn’t help that the native breed, the Texelaar, is neatly organized in four color groups: white, black, blue and Badger-face (yes, I know that’s really not a color, but I did not create the taxonomy). on top of the Texelaars, there are many other kinds of sheep – there is a farm where you can look at a few dozen different kinds. And don’t turn your nose up at a farm full o’ sheep, because after a few days on the island you’ll succumb, if only because, well, sheep are everywhere.

Dasgezicht Sheep II
Badger-faced Texel Sheep
Blue
Blue Texel Sheep

We discovered Texel one fine March a year and a half ago. This is where most regular tourists to the island start laughing hysterically, because there is absolutely no chance of reasonable weather this early in the season, and the overwhelming majority of visitors descend upon the beaches when there is a reasonable guarantee of a bit of sunshine and balmy temperatures. So we had much of the island to ourselves. Ourselves and the sheep of course.

boet II
Boet
boet I
Another boet

Texel’s most iconic building is not its lighthouse (even if it is a strapping, tall lighthouse Texelaars can be proud of), no. It is the boet. Yes, boet. You pronounce that boot, but shorter. And the building is also shorter. Shorter than you would expect, it looks a bit like a building that was finished simply when the builders ran out of bricks. That is of course not what actually happened, because there are lots of these boets on the island and they may run out of bricks, but they would learn of their mistakes after a few tries, wouldn’t you think? The boet’s door is in the flat slide of the building and they are usually built with the low sloping side towards the southwest, from where the prevailing winds come. This allows the sheep to seek shelter behind the barn. They usually do not spend a lot of time inside: boets are storage units and utility buildings, not really stables. Just like windmills these buildings, once testimonies of engineering genius, have long become obsolete, but the islanders are so fond of them that the few that remain are lovingly restored and cared for. There is even a book about boets and yes of course, I had to get that.

Floris_Claesz_van_Dijck_Stillleben_mit_Käse
Floris van Dyck’s Cheeses – Texel on top

“I thought this was a blog about effing cheese”, I can hear you think (you kiss your mamma with that mouth?) – so here goes: yes, even though meat and wool are bigger business than cheese, the sheep do produce milk from March to September, and much of that finds its way into cheese.  It’s been that way forever, as you can see on the Still Life with Cheeses, by Floris Claesz. van Dyck. This was painted around 1615 – the dark green cheese on top, almost black, is a sheep cheese from Texel. Some 50 years before Floris painted his cheeses, Ludovic Guicciardini, an Italian traveler, sang the praises of Texel cheese, saying it had an incomparable taste. He may not have known how right he was. To make this green cheese, some sheep poop would be put in a linen sachet, which was then steeped in water like a tea bag. The green ‘juice’ was added to the milk as the first step in the cheese making process…

Orekees
Orekéés

No, the cheese I brought home from Texel did not have poop in. Modern regulations prohibited this peculiar food additive in 1928. But my sheep cheese did have a little bit of extra green in it. In this case it was Sea Lavender (there’s some debate about what plant this actually is, it may be Sea Aster). The green leaves are finely chopped up and added to the cheese, which is otherwise made the way most Dutch cheeses are made: the curd is ‘cooked’ and pressed and out comes a semi-hard cheese with a nice, creamy consistency that gains flavor with age. The typical sheepy flavor is not particularly well developed in this process – the same is true for Dutch goat cheeses made this way; their goatiness is a mere whiff. This is not to say that the Orekéés was flavorless, far from it. The Sea Lavender/ Aster adds silty tones to the ephemeral sheepiness, along with a bit of texture. Add the above creaminess and out comes one very fine cheese. The judges of BBC’s Good Food Show in 2014 agreed, curing it the best Dutch cheese of that year. Rest assured, the sheep on Texel have not allowed this to go to their heads. They’re just as relaxed and easy going as ever. You should really go to Texel to meet them. And once you’ve had enough, there are some fine fish restaurants, a museum dedicated to the beachcomber culture of the islands, a place that rescues seals and educates the public about marine life (among other things with an exhibit showcasing an impressive sperm whale penis) and miles and miles of sandy beaches, rolling dunes, the occasional pheasant and the best rhubarb jam in the world, possibly in the universe, at the Windroos.

Lighthouse II
Texel Lighthouse

Naples: coffee, caves and cheese

Fontana dell'Immacolatella
Fontana dell’Immacolatella, along the waterside in Napoli
Napoli Breakfast
Neapolitan breakfast with Mozzarella di Bufala, fruit, Sfogliatelle and Pastiera
Galeria Umberto I
Galleria Umberto I
Caffè Gambrinus
Caffè Gambrinus, 150 years old

So I really like Naples. There, I said it. Don’t get me wrong, I get it if you don’t: it is congested, there’s graffiti, never-ending construction, lots of noise and that whole distasteful cult around Diego Maradona, that chubby cheating Argentinian with his hand of God. But I still like it, and with every visit, I like it a bit more. This time around, I descended into the underworld of Naples. Literally. I did not got entangled in some organized crime web, I simply climbed down a substantial number of flights and found myself some 120 feet below the surface in a maze of tunnels, underground cavernous rooms and narrow passageways which, in their unassuming darkness exuded more history than many resplendent city elsewhere in Europe.

 

 

Napoli Sotterraneo
Ancient Cistern in Napoli Sotterannea

Over 23 centuries have passed since Greek colonists began digging holes under their feet to dig out the volcanic tufa stone that has been used through the ages to build above ground. The Romans continued digging, creating aqueducts through which they channeled the creeks and rivulets that carried water through the fractured rock to the sea. Neapolitans used the extensive network of cisterns until the arrival of modern plumbing, two thousand years later.

 

Above the cistern was a well, that provided access to water. fine resident of Naples would have a well in their house, while lowly commoners found them in courtyards or other semi-public places. Inevitably, all manner of crap ended up in these wells and in the dense urban area, it became a real job to keep the cisterns clean and the wells open. the well workers were known as the pozzari. Dressed in sober, habit-like outfits, they looked a bit like monks. Climbing up and down wells, going from courtyard to courtyard or from house to house, they moved around unseen and over time gained a mysterious and mischievous aura. Valuables that disappeared, long lost precious items which miraculously reappeared, women who experienced immaculate conceptions – Neapolitans would ascribe such inexplicable events to a “little monk”, a  Monaciello.

 

Napoli Sotterraneo II
In the “Bourbon Tunnel”

And then there was Ferdinand II of Bourbon, a monarch with a chin like an anvil who started his reign racking up a number of impressive feats: first train in Italy, first steamship in southern Italy, a telegraph connection between Naples and Sicily. he was a man of the people, or so he thought. Until the people, encouraged by their monarch who said all the right things, demanded greater freedoms, constitutional changes – the works. So Ferdinand let the genie out of the bottle and had a hell of a time trying to stuff it back. 20 years into his reign he was positively paranoid and asked Enrico Alvino, a well-respected architect and city planned, to build a tunnel under the city, to connect the palace with the cavalry barracks. Alvino drew a line, straight as an arrow between the two buildings and merrily cut his way through ancient cisterns and passageways, leaving some impressive brick structures along the way: places where walls needed reinforcement, water had to be diverted and so on. Ferdinand never used his tunnel which, despite auspicious beginnings, was badly underfunded and got progressively smaller towards the barracks. Coming to the aid of a besieged monarch through the passageway as it was finally completed would have been a hell of a job for the cavalry.

 

A further period of improvements an excavations was necessitated during World War II, when bombs from Allied and (later) German planes rained down on the city over and over again. The caverns got rudimentary lighting, bathrooms, makeshift triage stations and little classrooms for the thousands of people who spent more time underground than above as their city began to crumble over their heads. In many places, stoves, pans, pots, wash basins and all and sundry utensils and furniture is still being discovered today. Used as an impound lot and then as an easy place to deposit trash, the underground began to clog up until fairly recently, when archaeologists led the charge to uncover Napoli Sotterranea. 

Caciotto
Cheese to go

I know, I know. This blog is supposed to be about cheese. But it is my blog so I’ll do what I damn well please, thanks very much. This time it took until the last hour to cut to the cheese, and we ended up meeting at the airport. There it was, the cheese with my name on it, in a very nifty portable cheeseboard, produced a few hours east of Naples, in the Appenine town of Calitri. My Caciotto conzato Calitrano (something like “cheese, made the Calitri way” had been rubbed patiently with oil, chili peppers, sage, mint and other herbs (secret formula, of course) and then aged in terracotta amphorae for about 3 months. Caciotta look like pouches, or teardrops because after the curd has been extensively kneaded, they’re hung up to age with a little noose around their cheesy necks. The cheese has a very creamy texture, but it packs a real punch: it is quite sharp, but the creaminess balances it so well, that it is easily my favorite sharp Italian cheese. I’ll take this over a sharp Provolone any day. Clearly, with the mottled rind and the clever packaging, we met because I fell for the beauty that is merely superficial. But I love her, because she is beautiful on the inside, my Calitri cheese.

 

Caciotto II
Mottled rind

In Ticino we call it Formaggio – Swiss Cheese

Paradiso
Boat stop on Lugano – Paradiso. We would have to agree.

Growing up I had little idea that there was anything beyond the large yellow wheels of Gouda cheese my mother would pick a pound or two from at the cheese vendor. Fast forward many years later, to the late eighties in the U.S. I had extended my knowledge of cheese, which by now also included the big French cheeses along with Parmesan, which came in powdered form in a cardboard container. And now, here I was introduced to the wondrous world of Kraft cheeses: orange for cheddar, yellow for American and white for Swiss cheese, and the latter would often have a few holes thrown in for good measure. I am pretty sure Kraft employs some underpaid immigrants to punch those holes in the cheese to make it more Swiss.

Today I have completely arrived in the land of Swiss cheese and regularly slather Raclette onto pretty much anything edible. We visit cheese festivals, inhale the healthy country air complete with cowpoop and we are patiently ticking down the list of Swiss AOP cheeses. This weekend we went over the hump: there are 12 cheeses with the Swiss AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) designation, and I picked up cheese number 7, a chunk of mountain cheese from Ticino, from the Piora Valley, to be exact. The latter is important, I was told, because the Piora valley, at some 6,000 feet, yields the very best of the Ticino cheeses. The beginnings of this cheese, which now commands rather steep prices, were quite humble. It was really because the poorest farmers had nowhere else to go that they herded their cows up these remote valleys – some pastureland was better than none, they must have thought. Eventually of course, people started to notice some differences in the quality of the cheese based on the pastureland it came from. Up in the high valleys, cows munch on as many as 150 different herbs and grasses, a smorgasboard that includes the blue gentian, a flower that inspired one of the absolute classics of German Schlager-Music, blau blüht der Enzian. You may click the link at your own risk – the German singer Heino could just rock your world.

Salumeria
Gabbani for meats, wines and cheeses

Only about 300 cows forage in the Piora Valley, so getting my hands on a piece of that cheese felt like an important milepost. I got it at the Formaggeria Gabbani, just across the street from the Salumeria Gabbani, and next door to the Enoteca Gabbani – you get the picture. With it, I got a piece of soft Ticino cheese and some rhubarb jam. Oh yes, that was in Lugano – funny you should ask. Of course it is delightful, stretching lazily along the eponymous lake – beautiful shops, beautiful cars, beautiful people but down to earth enough to not feel naked without a Rolex and a Jaguar. Ticino is Italy’s expensive, better organized and more polite little sister. The houses are more colorful, the sun more plentiful and the dishes more flavorful than in the part of Switzerland we inhabit – la vita è bella in Lugano. The Grand Café al Porto’s desserts and the food at La Tinera only helped to cement our assessment.

Cafe Lugano
Grand Café al Porto
Lake Lugano
On Lake Lugano

And then there was the cheese, of course. The mountain cheese from the Piora Valley is almost sweet, very smooth and rounded, without edges but not boring. It tastes like a really well composed piece of music, without any dissonance. The Formagella from Isone I bought is, in a way, a downtime cheese, made during the time cows are not out in the pastures. Often goat milk and cow milk are used together: the cow milk is skimmed and the cream is used to make butter – if only goat’s milk is used, the cheese is a bit fatter. The piece we had was a bit older and had a lot of flavor to it.

Ticino cheese
Clockwise from top left: Formagella di Isone, Piora Mountain Cheese, Schnokeloch, T’chiot Biloute

We enjoyed both of our Ticino cheeses with friends who complemented the dinner table with salami and smoked ham from Salumeria Gabbani – we all had traveled to Lugano together and in the food on our plates we relived the compelling combination of Italian flair and Swiss perfection of the city on the lake.

Dinner
Dinner!

Norwegian Cheese? Sure.

Bergen
Bergen’s Old Port, Bryggen

A week ago I found myself in Bergen, Norway, and there was just enough time to step into a few stores to get a jar of cloudberry jam and a big chunk of Tine Gudbrandsdalost. Yup, the latter is a foodstuff. The operative syllable in that monsterword is ost. Ost is cheese in Norwegian,  Swedish and Danish – such economical languages to learn, because a lot of words are like that: (near) identical in all three. The particular cheese someone had asked me to bring back comes from the 200-mile-long Gudbrands Valley in southeast Norway. The problem with the ost is that it is technically not ost at all. But don’t tell any Norwegians that. They may never speak to you again, because it is a food very interwoven in the cultural fabric.

Ost is made by heating up whey, the watery leftovers after milk curdles (that is, separates into solids and liquids during the cheese making process). The milk sugar in the whey caramelizes and gives the thickening goop a brown color – but because there is no coagulation of proteins, well – it doesn’t count as cheese, officially. Again, not that anyone in Norway cares. A very friendly woman in the covered market around the old harbor in Bergen took me through the various kinds of brown cheese she had on offer. They were all produced by Tine, a company that takes in milk from some 9,000 farmers, which makes it a dairy behemoth. She started me off with a piece of Gudbrandalsost and explained how, of all the brown cheeses, this was the lightest in color and flavor. “Young people, especially women enjoy this cheese” she said, with great authority. The cheeses got darker but more varied in flavor. Geitost is made with goat’s milk, but some cow’s milk cream is added in to make it extra smooth. “This” she said with measured gravity, “is something for a more mature gentleman like yourself”, so I made sure to like this one the best. The other two were darker yet, and a bit sweeter. One of them is known as Bestemorsost, grandma’s cheese. The young woman told me that it’s sweet, a kid’s favorite and that the name is supposed to evoke images of a visit with grandma and all the coziness that entails.

cheeses
Clockwise from top left: Undredal Geitost, Rød Geit, Fønix blåost, and Rød Kjerringøy

My new favorite store in Bergen, Colonialen sells neat little boxes with neat little pieces of Geitost (Tine’s ost comes only in brick- and half-brick sizes) which was just perfect. A bad encounter with some rather disappointing slices of cheese on a breakfast buffet earlier in the day did not get me into the mindset of gorging myself with brown cheese.

At Colonialen I also got a blue cheese from Stavanger in the south of Norway, Fønix; some Rød Kjerringøy, a red rind cow’s cheese from the coast near Bodø, a 24-hour drive north from Stavanger, and a thick slice of Rød Geit, probably the best of the bunch.

norway
Morning Sun along the Oslo-Bergen Railway, not far from where the Rød Geit is made.

It is made on the Ysteri (dairy) of Rakel and Jarle Rueslåtten in Hol, near the Oslo-Bergen Railway. It is a goat cheese with a washed rind and that makes it a goat cheese with an unusual stinky intensity – couldn’t recommend it more highly.

Gammelost
“You will not like it” – Gamelost from Vik

In another store I bought a piece of Gamelost, which Tine produces in the town of Vik on the Sognefjord. Gamelost means old cheese. ” You will not like it” said the polite young man in the store who cut off a piece for me. I think I saw him shake his head as I was leaving the store. This cheese is make from sour skim milk. Once the curds have formed, they are rubbed with the molds that give the cheese its very strong flavor. The cheese is unusually grainy and falls apart when you try to cut it – it has the consistency of a dry cupcake. In your mouth it is surprisingly chewy and it does take a while to grow on you.

Geitost II
Brunost, thinly sliced

Back from Norway I used a Norwegian invention, Thor Bjørklund’s cheese slicer, to peel thin slices of Undredal Brunost of my dainty little block and I felt relief with the first taste. This was creamy, goaty, complex cheese-stuff. It does have a bit of that salty, musty cheese flavor, before you taste the caramel, which eventually morphs into…licorice. I know, I know, this doesn’t make it sound any better maybe, if you were already skeptical. But believe me, once you have put aside any preconceived notions of what cheese should taste like, there is a world of flavors packed into a good block of brunost. Slice it thinly (if you do not own a cheese slicer – don’t let that drop out in polite conversation – just quickly get one, you troglodyte) and lay it out on knäckebröd from your local IKEA, or on your own favorite kind of bread and happy Norwegian goats and cows on green pastures surrounded by steep granite cliffs will appear before your mind’s eye and you will bite into a small piece of Norway – kjempegod!

 

 

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

 

 

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.

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.