Appenzell Part 2: the Cheese, please

Appenzell in the Morning
Early morning in Appenzell

Around our visit to the Alpabzug, unsurprisingly, we also took an interest in, you guessed it, cheese. And that brought us to the small town of Stein. On the edge of this village in the canton of Appenzell Ausserrhoden, there is a complex of two buildings that do a magnificent job in telling the story of local agriculture. There is a museum which displays beautiful folk are with lots of cows and flowers, a live person in a shed who makes cheese with traditional equipment that you can buy in the gift shop (yes, you heard right: go to a museum to buy cheese) and a host of other bits and pieces of local history. It’s a modern, light building with plenty of room for all the art and artefacts. Next door is the Schaukäserei, a place that explains the history and the art of cheesemaking in the region, wrapped around a large cheesemaking facility.

Appenzell Museum Stein
Senner Hut: Butter churn on the right, harmonic cowbells in the back

One of the best exhibits is a film that shows an interview with an old Senn, who tells the story of his growing up with a dozen siblings on a farm where the diet consisted largely of bread and dairy products: butter, whey, cheese, milk. Sennen spend their days in summer herding cows, milking them and either transporting the milk down the mountain or turning it into cheese right there in a shed in the meadows. Even today these men and women work in the open with most of their interactions limited to their bovine charges. The old man’s eyes light up when he speaks about the cows, how he likes talking to them and rubbing their heads.

He goes on to explain how the cheese he was used to was normally low-fat: the cream would be scooped off the milk and turned into butter that could be sold at higher prices, and almost immediately: butter provided cash-flow. In the town of Appenzell they still sell this cheese, and call it Rässchäs, sharp cheese. And that, my cheese friends, is not an understatement. This cheese combines and surpasses the sharp saltiness of really old Dutch cheese with the potent stink of a Munster. In fact, a quick scientific survey of everyone in the family irrefutably concluded that it is was worse than any cheese I had ever dared to bring into the home. Räss in flavor and smell, indeed. It is the kind of cheese that will put hair on your chest – I thought it was impressive in the best possible way.

Appenzell Museum Stein II
Mid-19th century drawing in the Appenzeller Museum
Appenzell Costumes
Appenzeller traditional dress

The unusual cheese choices in this part of Switzerland don’t end there. I picked up a few slices of Schlipferkäse at a cheese shop that seems to specialize in unusual cheeses. It came with an interesting recipe: soak a slice or two overnight in lukewarm water (cover it up, but do not refrigerate). The next morning, pour off the water, cover the cheese with some cream, add salt, pepper and cumin as you like, and eat it for breakfast with some boiled potatoes with the skin still on – Gschwellti, as the Swiss call them. Yup – true recipe. I tried it without the Gschwellti and it’s quite pleasant, although I doubt I would often want to go through the trouble. To me some hard cheese with a slicer is easier and less work.

Cheese from Appenzell
Clockwise from top left: Suurchäs, Schlipferkäse, Urnäscher Brauchtumskäse, Rässchäs

Finally, I got a piece of Suurchäs, sour cheese. This cheese is produced in the neighboring district of Toggenburg, the modern incarnation of a medieval county with the same name. it is made of skimmed milk and therefore has a lot of protein, without much fat. It is white, with a fresh and somewhat sour taste, and as it gets older, a shiny layer develops on the surface that looks a bit like bacon, and is hence called ‘speck’. All three of these cheeses are rather acquired tastes, but not so much the fourth cheese I brought home from Appenzell. It came from the neighboring community of Urnäsch, where the family farms work together in a cooperative that markets several local cheeses very professionally. One of them is made with milk only from cows that have horns – there is some evidence that the milk of these animals tastes a bit different. I got some Urnäscher Brauchtumskäse, heritage cheese, if you will. This one comes in three different ages and mine had ripened for somewhere between 6 and 8 months. It is not a miracle that it won a Super Gold award at the World Cheese Awards a few years ago, because it is salty, creamy, and chockful of flavor. And yes, to make it a nice round number, we did purchase a piece of Appenzeller Edel-Würzig, marketed as superior spicy on the Appenzeller website. The secretive men (and, recently, a young boy) that appear on large billboards throughout Switzerland tell you through their silence that you’ll never know the exact composition of the herb bouquet that finds it’s way into the cheese. And if you would, they may just decide to never let you leave, to protect the trade secret. Things could be worse.

Secret of Appenzell
Sshhhh….

 

Appenzell, Swiss Postcard

Goats and Appenzell boy
In the lead: boy with Appenzell goats

There are cow parades at the end of summer, and then there is the Alpabzug in Appenzell. In the most conservative cantons in Switzerland, where voting is still done by raising hands in the voting square of the town in some places (and women had to fight for much of the 20th century to join in the voting), tradition is on full display when the cows come home in a carefully choreographed ritual. Ahead of the cows comes a young boy wearing yellow pants and a red vest, a little leather cap on his head and a dangling earring in his right ear. He carries a richly decorated Fahreimer, a wooden bucket, on his shoulder.

Goat Girls in Appenzell
Goat Girls

Then come the Appenzell goats, ushered along by one or more girls who control them with twigs and branches. Next up are the three lead cows, with bells that are carefully calibrated to be in harmony. They are preceded by a Senn, a cowhearder, in the same dress as the young boy. Behind them are three Sennen, also with red vests but wearing brown pants. These men sing or jodel along with the bells, and keep an eye on where the cows go. This is no trivial matter because some of the cows just do not follow protocol all that well.

Senn in Urnaesch
Senn with lead cows
Unruly Cows in Appenzell
Unruly Bovines

The herd follows, cows and calves, and assorted humans to keep them in line. Next is a horse-drawn cart, the Ledi, which carries all the implements needed for cheese making. Much of these are no longer in use, but they do make for a beautiful display. Concluding the procession is the owner of the cows, in white shirt, often with bib suspenders, and brown pants. He may have his son along, and his dog, and sometimes he’ll pull a bull along. There are variations – in Appenzell itself I saw a teenage girl pulling the bull (“I cannot believe dad is making me do this” on her face), and you may see some chickens carried along on a wagon, or a pig or so. But mostly, the order is adhered to and everyone goes about it with a curious mix of cheerful solemnness.

White brown cow
Gorgeous Cow
Senn II
Zaure: singing along with the bells
Cart
Ledi: the cart with the cheese-making utentils
Farmer will bull in Appenzell
Farmer with his son and a bull
Daughter with dog
Daughter with the Bläss, the herding dog 

We went to Urnäsch in the Canton of Appenzell Ausserrhoden, while overnighting in the canton next door: Appenzell Innerrhoden. Not an unimportant detail, as our stated goal is to spend time in every Swiss canton in the course of the time we will spend here. Urnäsch is small and everyone seems to know each other, and everyone is out to cheer on their farming neighbors. I think there were people along the way who did not just greet the farmer and his family, but also individual cows. There was a market set up where one could buy sausages, Appenzell folk art and – you guessed right! – cheese. In the main street is a delightful museum that tells stories of the very rich folk art and traditions of the area. It is house in an old building with lots and lots of rooms, so you are clambering up and down stairs, watching you head under the low ceilings all the while ooh-ing and aah-ing at the colorful art that fills each room. I am not normally a fan of these attic-like museums, but this one absolutely works – I can only recommend it.

House in the Rock
Berggasthaus Aescher under the Ebenalp

Our day continued up to the nearby Ebenalp to what is perhaps the most famous restaurant in all of Switzerland: the Berggasthaus Aescher, squeezed onto a narrow ledge under an enormous overhang. As tourist sites go, it does get a lot of traffic, but we were comfortably seated and found the food, service and views absolutely worth the climb.

Going to Church in Appenzell
Going to church in Appenzell

The next morning, our tradition-filled extravaganza continued as we saw local women in traditional dress enter the church across the street from our hotel. Appenzell is easily one of the most picturesque of all Swiss cantons – a living, breathing, voting postcard.

Alphorns and Storks in Alsace. And cows, of course.

Alsatian Costumes
Traditional Dancers

My second ‘cows are coming home’ event in the past month was a Transhumance, and with that, I was of course in France. Check that: I was in Alsace, and you can read in a previous post what that means. If you don’t want to read that previous post: be that way, fine. Suffice to say that Alsace is just not all that French. One of the great discoveries here in the tri-country area is just how little the people that live there seem to care about such trivial matters as international borders. In St. Louis, right on the border to Switzerland, you can hear people on the market ask for something in Swiss German; they don’t bat an eyelash if the answer comes back in Alsatian, and a third person may feel the need to chime in and do so in French.

Alphorns
Alphorns in front of Munster’s church

And so the cows’ homecoming in this part of France is celebrated with folkloric dancing, music, and (wait for it) Alphorns. And if you’re shy about your abilities in French here, just try your best German and especially the older people will respond in Alsatian – a dialect that’s very close to the German they speak across the border, or to the dialect of Basel, for that matter.

What is unique about the Transhumance in the town of Munster (nothing to do with Munster, Germany, or the Peace of Westphalia, for those of you who remember that from history books) are the cows themselves. The first time I was in Munster, it was in winter so I could not find any in the snow-dusted pastures, and a few weeks ago I was in a cheese museum that is supposed to have them, but I was told that they had not come down from the mountains yet….

Vosgesienne II
Proud Cow
Vosgesienne III
Vache en tricolore
Vosgesienne I
And another one…

The elusive cows I am speaking of are tough ladies. They weather wind and rain and cold up in the high meadows of the Vosges Mountains, and so they’re called Vosgesiennes. With their characteristic black and white coloring, they’re some very good-looking bovines, and if you are a purist, you want your stinky Munster cheese to come from Vosgesienne milk. While they are the undisputed stars of the Fête de la Transhumance et de la Tourte, there is an awful lot more to see and do in Munster. The other part of the celebration is the tourte, a pie of well-seasoned ground pork and onions, but there are a lot of other delicacies to try.

Tourtes
Tourtes

Among them is Siaskass, a mixture of fresh cheese, crème fraiche (sour cream, but better), sugar and kirsch. There is smoked saucisson, spectacular farmer’s bread and candies from the mountains made with pine sap or a liquor made of mirabelles. For kids, there are random farm animals to pet, adding to a joyful, chaotic party that brings traffic through town to a screeching halt. And way over everyone’s head, dwelling in comfortable, I daresay luxurious nests perched like gargoyles on the church roof are the flying fortresses that are the official bird of Alsace. To make sure no one can ever miss it: there is a Pharmacie de la Cigogne, next to the Hotel de la Cigogne, which has an enormous Cigogne on its façade. There are Cigognes in the fields on the way to Munster and they hover over the church before landing onto their comfortable pads. The people from the Munster Valley love their cows, but they revere their storks.

Stork
Over everything and everyone, the stork

 

Beautiful Sheep

Aletsch Glacier
Aletsch Glacier in the background, sheep in the foreground

The end of summer is nigh, and in some parts of Switzerland, it is nigher than in others. Go up into the mountains and the air is getting very crisp already. Time to bring the animals in from their summer pastures. And while in August, you still have to wait a while for the cows to come home, in the canton of Wallis (Valais), the sheep that roam the high meadows overlooking the Aletsch glacier are ready to come down from the mountain meadows.

Here come the sheep
Here come the sheep

That’s actually entirely untrue. The sheep are not ready to do anything, but their owners believe that the last weekend of August is a good time to have them all rounded up and marched down. And for that purpose, they employ a dozen or so young men who spend a few days rounding up the animals before they bring them to a centuries-old sorting pen on the Belalp (yes, that’s bel alp, as in “beautiful alpine meadow”), high on a mountain slope above the charming little town of Blatten. The place where the sheep roam is so remote and high up (almost 10,000 feet) that wolves and bear can’t find them and they are left entirely on their own for the summer. Small wonder that the official march down the mountain sometimes becomes a bit chaotic – the sheep are borderline feral. This time around, at one point some 10 animals near the end of their march changed their minds, turned around and charged headlong into the procession that followed them, increasing the already impressive bleating and bell-clanging noise level on the Belalp.

Sheep to the Belalp
Confusion on the trail – which way is up?

Watching animals come down the mountain at the end of summer is a spectator sport in Switzerland, one that I have embraced with abandon. The Alpabzug (or Alpabgang, or Transhumance, or Désalpe) is a rural celebration with a lot of pageantry that is cherished by Swiss people young and old and, increasingly, by visitors from all over. But most Alpabzüge are with cows, with a few goats thrown in for good measure, or a chicken or two. The sheep of the Belalp don’t see quite as many onlookers, even if it feels a bit crowded up there, but that’s simply because there isn’t a lot of room.

There is something timeless and poetic about the sheep’s homecoming. The local darlings are the Walliser Schwarznasen – Valais Blacknose sheep. So much so that to a farmer in these parts, a sheep (“Schaf”) is a Blacknose; every other four-legged woolly animal is a Mutte. And while there is a sort of sheep that’s actually called that, the word is often used to dismiss ‘those others’ as not worthy of the name sheep.

Saaser Mutte
Not a real sheep: Saaser Mutte

So Sheep and Mutten, once gathered at the end of their alpine trek, eventually make their way to the Färricha, a complex of pens made with local stones, that becomes the scene of sheep sorting the next morning. The sheep, several hundred of them, overnight in the main pen until, a few hours after sunrise, the sorting begins.

Faerricha
Färricha
Ready for sorting sheep
Morning prayer for a good sheep rodeo
ornery ovid II
This one almost got away
ornery ovid III
Escape artist

To attend the sorting and counting of the sheep, a process whereby the sheep owners pull, push, jump, run and dive for their sheep in the bleating melee, one has to get up early to get on the gondola and walk another 20 minutes or so, but it is the best thing about the whole affair: before the sorting starts, the young men who are paid by the owners to get the sheep down line up on the wall of the main pen, say a prayer plus a few solemn words and then join the ovine rodeo. And as I mentioned, the sheep are often in no mood to cooperate. So some owners who appear to be cursed with particularly ornery sheep, do find themselves wrestling each sheep into their smaller pen, to get a full account. And on occasion, a sheep may decide it has other ideas – it’s great fun to watch, even if it is all over in an hour or so. Then, mass is celebrated under the blue sky and everyone goes home after that. There is a brilliant documentary about the sheep here. It’s in German and Walliserdeutsch, but the images are breathtaking, and the theme refers back to the timeless aspect of the Schafscheid, the sheep sorting: one of the men who brings down the sheep explains that that this has been done for hundreds of years, and that he wants to see it continued for some hundreds more. And the fact that the sheep are practically uneconomical (the wool sells for pennies, the meat’s not all that great, apparently) matters not at all. A veritable glow comes over this sheep wrangler’s face when he earnestly and rhetorically asks: have you ever seen a more beautiful sheep?

Sheep on the Belalp
Sheep on the Belalp

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

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