13 years after we first visited Saint-Cergue, there were now three of us. And all three of us gazed in awe at the magnificent beasts, the colorful traditions and – of course – the cheese….
a few more images –
“What on earth” you could hear those Swiss mountain farmers think “are we going to do with all that friggin’ milk?” That’s when some smarty-pants came up with the idea of making cheese. A lot of milk goes into a single cheese, you can roll the wheels down the mountain (ok, they really don’t do that, but they could, if you ask me), and you can keep the cheese for months. Fast forward a lot more cows and of course, the question becomes “what on earth” – exactly: “are we going to do with all that friggin’ cheese?”
You eat it. your neighbors eat it, the people one town over eat it. And visitors eat it. A lot. and then you send it all over the world so everyone eats it. Problem solved and worldwide reputation established. We found ourselves in the epicenter of cheesiness this weekend, as we witnessed a spectacle where the-cows-that-make-the-milk-the-farmers-turn-into-the-cheese-that-gets-sold-around-the-globe are brought down from their summer pastures, where the mountain herbs on which the cows feast give the milk that je-ne-sais-quoi that makes the mountain cheese so yummy, to the winter pastures and stables where they wait until spring.
The town of Saint-Cergue has turned this chore into something people from the US, Sweden, Belgium, France, and Japan travel for thousands of miles to witness: cows with big old bells (Bruce Dickinson!) around their necks, some with flowery headdresses are poked and prodded down the mountains, do a few tours around the town, spray the pavement with poop and disappear, all this to the delight of the visitors, who feast on Tomme Vaudoise grillée and on Tartiflette, a stew of onions, bacon, potatoes and Reblochon, and thus help to take care of some cheese for which the locals now no longer need worry about transportation costs.
Why, you say, is this area an epi-cheese-center? Because it is frontier country. We overnighted in a hotel that straddles the border between Switzerland and France. And both countries face the above-mentioned ‘what to do with’ dilemma. So they are fiercely competitive. On the Swiss side, the Tomme Vaudoise is the innocent-looking vanguard of the Gruyere and Emmentaler forces a little further inland. The Vacherin Mont d’Or has been claimed as a Swiss cheese, but the French will never recognize it as such. On the French side, there are the formidable stacks of Comté wheels, fittingly being aged in a old fortress in Les Rousses, the Morbier, and the Bleus – those of Gex and of the Haut Jura. for the cheese lovers, this pitched battle makes the border region a Cheese Wonderland. Ah, I had to restrain myself – 0vercome with emotion while looking at the cows, I could have kissed any of those dewy-eyed pretty ladies. Instead, I whispered a quiet “Thank you” in each ear.
Phew! After moving to Switzerland, traveling back to the US to get my travel documents sorted, picking up the final dog to complete our household and a host of other things, I am finally caught up. This is why there will be a small avalanche of posts: weeks 33 through 37 will pour like lava from an erupting volcano (or like fondue from a toppled pan) onto these blog pages today and the only thing left to do for the week is to talk about my new cheese of the week which will come from Austria or Germany. That’s right, I am doing another one of those cheese cage matches, where two cheeses fight to the death for that prized title of Cheese of the Week.
In the meantime, I still have a lot of catch-up posts that will be released on a regular basis, one after another, until all of the Cheeses of the Week have been accounted for. The above picture is one I would like to dedicate to my family. While the biggest burden of the 52 cheeses project falls on my shoulder, they too pitch in where they can to lighten my load as I eat my way to the finish line, only 14 more cheeses away.
Look forward in this place and on Our Swiss Life for dueling accounts of this weekend’s adventure: the Désalpe in St. Cergue, Vaud, Switzerland, an all-cow extravaganza that features more cowbell than even Bruce Dickinson would care for, alpenmacaroni in ridiculously large pans and all manner of other things we look forward to, based on our first cow encounter of the third kind, a lifetime ago.
In Salamanca I bought a well-ripened Torta del Casar, a sheep’s milk cheese named after the town of Casar de Cáceres where this cheese originated, in the Extremadura, a region in Western Spain. There are a lot of producers in the area, mine was from the creamery of the brothers Pajuelo (Santiago is the brother who is still alive, Ignacio has passed away). They brand their torta Manjar Extremeño. Which probably translates as ‘delicacy from the Extremadura’ or something like that. Cáceres has UNESCO World Heritage status and the cheese befits its origin, because it is monumental. Like some other cheeses on the Iberian Peninsula, cardoon thistle pistils are used in curdling the milk, and this process leaves a faint bitterness in the cheese, that only adds to the complex flavors in this bad boy. It has a distinct smell and an equally distinct taste.
It is a big fat mouthful, especially when eaten as intended: put the torta on the table, slice of its top (the rind is quite hard as does not get eaten) and start spooning. The milk for the torta comes from Merino and Entrefina sheep and because both are not prodigious producers, it takes the milk of a small herd of sheep to make a single cheese. In turn, that makes Torta del Casar one of the most expensive cheeses in Spain. Cured for a minimum of two months, it is worth getting a cheese that is a little older to get the full benefit of the full-flavored runniness that makes this such an excellent experience. In 1999 the Torta received its DPO protection. There are at least another 3 tortas in Spain (Torta de Barros, Torta del Canarejal, and Torta la Serena) that are eaten in a similar fashion and have similar flavors. Collect them all! This one was eaten with colleagues as the sun was setting over the Douro Valley in Portugal, together with some other splendid cheeses from Salamanca, a dinner where cheese was the main course.
Ah, Salamanca. What a delight, what a delight. And what better place to soak up this delight but the Plaza Major. As a visitor, it is your job to see as much of a city as you can, but in this case, one could easily be forgiven if all available time is spent here, where the heart of the city beats. It gets brutally hot here during the day, so in the morning or after sunset is clearly the best time to hang out here, drink coffee or a glass of wine, depending on the time of day, and observe the going-ons on what is easily one of the most beautiful squares in Europe. The Plaza Major was started under King Philip V, who had successfully waged a war of succession (“I am the king” “No, I am the king” “No you’re not!” and so on, and so forth) with some important backing from the city of Salamanca. The grateful new king paid for the plaza, which was designed by one of the younger Churriguera brothers, Alberto, his nephew Manuel and Andrés Garcia de Quiñones.
In the Iberian Peninsula, they know a thing or two about architectural decoration – in most styles, there is a lot of it (probably a link to the Moorish past): in Portugal, the Manueline style is Gothic on steroids, the Plateresque is over-the-top Renaissance and the crazy bombastic baroque is named Churrigueresque after the aforementioned family. The brothers new a thing or two about making a building look positively spectacular. They actually went easy on the Plaza Major – the better Churrigueresque is seen in many churches of the period, and the style actually had somewhat of a revival in southern California with San Diego’s 1915 Panama-California exposition. A number of those buildings can still be found in Balboa Park. But back to Salamanca, drinks, cool night air and idle musings while blowing smoke from a Cuban cigar….
Where was I in those idle musings? OK, back to my contemplation on the job of the visitor, because beyond the square there are a host of other things to see here. The university has a number of splendid buildings (it is one of the oldest universities in Europe, founded in 1134), and then there is the cathedral, no wait, two cathedrals for the price of one. And that’s quite literally: you pay an entrance fee in the Gothic new cathedral and after you are done there, you can move on to the Romanesque church, which is right next door.
Usually when the church builders of yore created the great Gothic buildings, they plonked them right on top of the Romanesque church that was already there, taking it apart bit by bit to make room for the new and improved. Here, they decided to build the new building right next to the old one. I am a great fan of church art and architecture and the two cathedrals of Salamanca along with the cloisters are sort of a church-orgasm (no offense intended).
From Romanesque to Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque, the four major styles of the 600 years it took to build this complex are all splendidly represented in what is in essence one big labyrinth of a building. Both the outside and the inside are worth a great many oohs and ahs, so take your time here. The University buildings are in the same area, in fact most of Salamanca’s must sees are in a relatively small area. The oldest university building in particular has a facade that is a textbook example of the Plateresque style: Renaissance with a very high ‘look-at-all-that-stuff!’ factor.
Another building worth a mention is the Casa de las Conchas, the House of Shells. It was built by one Rodrigo Arias de Maldonado, a knight in the order of St. James and the scallop shell (coquille Saint-Jaques, as the French would say) is a symbol not only of the Saint himself, but of the pilgrims who visit Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northern Spain. Even today, as the road to Santiago is experiencing a revival, people carry a shell on their backpack. If you don’t believe me, rent the movie The Way, starring Martin Sheen and somehow featuring a big burly Dutch character named Joost (weird). This building has hundreds of these shells on the facade. Today it is the city’s public library and it is another must see (so much for hanging out in the plaza, I realize I am starting to harangue now).
In the streets between the Plaza Major and the Cathedral there are lots of restaurants, small shops and bakeries with windows too good to pass by without stopping. None of it seems very good for the waistline and yet I did not see many residents with particularly inflated physiques. That reassured me into trying various tasty treats – I recommend the Madrileño for its stunning crumbing qualities (center right in the picture).
Finally, just off the Plaza Major is the covered market from the early 20th century, a temple of delicacies offered in clean, well-organized stalls. My runaway favorite here was the Rivas business, 4th generation merchants that offer all kinds of meats and a fine selection of raw milk cheese.
The three cheeses I bought here (a hard goat’s milk cheese, a hard sheep’s milk cheese and a torta, a runny sheep’s milk delicacy) were part of the cheesy dinner in the Douro Valley.
Just about 20 miles from Milan is a small town called Caselle Lurani and in that town is an easy to miss creamery that turns out this cheese, among others, that is actually on an endangered species list of sorts. Pannerone, a cheese made from afternoon cow’s milk (2% more milkfat, apparently, than the morning take) has a few things that make it unique, and give it an acquired taste which may be why it is not nearly as widespread as it once was. In fact, the creamery run by the Carena family is the only producer left. Pannerone’s (comes from panéra, which means cream) unique qualities come from an unusual production process; the whey is allowed to run off naturally, there is no pressing involved at all and that makes for a soft cheese. Then, it sits for four or five days at 28-32 degrees until all the whey has drained. No salt is added to the cheese, so the bacteria that are at work here are solely responsible for the flavor. The cheeses look impressive in the cheese counter, which is how I happened upon it: a cylinder is about 8 inches high and a foot in diameter. It has lots of little holes and a nice pale ivory color.
My next challenge was to get a piece, after I identified what I wanted. That went through the point-and-use-exaggerated-facial-expressions method, because even if Venice is inundated with visitors from abroad, a lot of merchants do not speak anything but Italian, and my Italian is non-existent. It was clear what the message directly aimed at me was to convey: ‘no, this is not what you want.’
‘But it most certainly is!’ said my English words and my facial expressions and my body language. The gentleman I spoke to decided to bring in the big guns, the owner of the shop, who reiterated: ‘bee-ter!’. I was certainly not going to like it. After this final attempt to dissuade me, I just had to have it, and the experience of finally sinking my teeth into it was rewarding: not that it would make it to the top of my list, but my buying the cheese over some local objection and then reading up on it made the tasting feel like the end of a journey.
It is creamy and a bit sweetish at first, but it does develop an unusual, mildly bitter flavor in the mouth soon afterwards. It could do with some fruit, to counterbalance the bitter taste, and that is a popular combination in many recommendations. Pannerone has a D.O.P designation and the Slow Food organization recognize it’s uniqueness as well – they are in fact the people talking about it as if it is an endangered species worthy of preservation. Things look good though, at the Carena Creamery: the descendants of Angelo Carena who passed on to that great dairy in the sky two years ago seem to have fun doing what they are doing, judging by the images on their website, adn a determination to carry on the good work, all the way down to the youngest members of the family. Great-grandpa would be proud!
Of course there are too many people in Venice. On the Ponte Rialto, visitors from India cross selfie sticks with the Chinese as if they are swords and pickpockets must have lobbyists working city hall to get a spot in the area because it just seems such a safe bet that in that line of work you can earn a very healthy living here. But even in season, it only takes a few turns and you are in a neighborhood of quiet streets and alleys, lined with pastel-colored houses hundreds of years old, an occasional view of a narrow canal opening up as you venture further into the medieval maze. Venice is always, always, worth your time. This week’s visit was very short, I knew the cruise ship I was on would leave with or without me.
I practically ran from the Piazza di Roma to my first destination: a cheese shop I had found online right across a canal from the Santa Maria Formosa, a church with a split personality: it has a well-proportioned baroque facade on the north side, but on the side facing the canal and the cheese shop, it looks like a Renaissance church. There is a generation between the two facades. The tower is the best part of the complex: it has some very robust, simple patterns that segment the structure and give it a certain visual rhythm. They did towers quite well in Venice, centuries ago.
Prosciutto e Parmigiano’s website is in two languages and raises the specter of a slick experience, but I was pleasantly surprised: the owner spoke some English, but body parts other than our mouths had to be deployed frequently to ensure that I got what I thought I wanted: some buffalo mozzarella di campagna (try it and you’ll immediately understand why these globs of cheese candy usually are finished off in a single seating); a piece of straw-coated Tuscan Pecorino, and a thick slice of Asiago, the sharpest Provolone Stagionato I have ever tasted, and a piece of Vezzena di Lavarone.
With my singular mission (get the cheese) accomplished, I began my quest back to the Piazza di Roma across the Rialto Bridge through the maze of water and stone. And that’s when Venice kept its promise: in the Campo Cesare Battisti già della Bella Vienna (really, you still ask what is in a name?) I stumbled across the Casa del Parmigiano, Giuliano Aliani’s cheese shop, and – but of course – I got even more cheese. A piece of bright yellow Piacentinu Ennese, given its unusual color by adding some saffron to the cheese (it also has peppercorns); the Pannerone Lodigiano that became the cheese of the week, and the Montasio Friulano.
And a little closer to my destination I came past the beautiful courtyard of the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista, the building of a religious organization which used to house a piece of the true cross of Jesus. Of course, so many of those pieces existed that the cross poor Jesus carried up Golgotha hill must have been absolutely humongous. The initial inhabitants were so-called flagellants, people that would viciously whip their own backs in a gesture of penance during certain celebrations. Right after this place was founded the city, wisely, outlawed this gruesome practice: who wants blood spraying through the streets? The courtyard has a beautiful Renaissance gateway, dreamed up by architect Pietro Lombardo near the end of the 15th century. After some time looking around I returned to the ship, picking up some rolls and pan pistacchio on the way. With more than half a dozen cheeses in my bag, I was destined for a cheese-arama…
Oh boy, Madrid is hot. In July and August, the highs are routinely in the 90s but I was there in June and I was dripping my way around. I ended up here because of Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, 3rd duke of Alba. No, I was not going to meet him for some tapas and a glass of sangria. He’s dead, and that is not such a bad thing. First off, he would be 508 years old and probably reeking a bit. Secondly, he was a meanie. When my people revolted against Spanish rule, that nasty King Philip II (we hates him) sent the duke to the Low Countries where he truly unfolded all his potential to be a monumental ass. And then, to top it off, he was a thief. He stole all kinds of things from the Nassaus, the family that led the revolt and among the pilfered goods was a triptych by Jheronimus Bosch, the Garden of Earthly Delights. According to at least one historian, the duke of Alba had the secretary of the Nassaus, who knew where the painting had been hidden, pretty much tortured to death, so that he was able to take it and bring it to Spain. This is not where the sordid story stops. Apparently, a big reason to get the painting was that his lord was very fond of the work of the Dutch master, and now he, Fernando, could come home to Spain with one of the best things Bosch had ever painted. His Dukeness, so the story goes, always felt somewhat underappreciated by the king, whose bacon he saved again, and again, and again. In your face, you ungrateful monarch! I have the best Bosch ever!
Alas, it did not last. Eventually, the triptych became part of the royal collection and therefore, I had to go to Madrid to see it. On the occasion of the 500th anniversary of his death, the Prado threw El Bosco a party in the shape of a major exhibition. This was my second one after Den Bosch so I am having a good Bosch year on top of a good cheese year. The Prado exhibit was, admittedly, more impressive than the one in the Noordbrabants Museum. And even if my main reason to visit the Prado was Bosch, there is a mountain of other art to see there: Goya’s pinturas negras, some splendid works by El Greco, and enormous amounts of lush nudity in the numerous works by Peter Paul Rubens, that cheeky purveyor of 17th century super-soft porn.
On my way to Portugal, I had to change planes in Madrid, so I added a single day and for my very brief time, I decided I could reasonably spend the afternoon pursuing cheese after overloading on that other culture in the morning. Initially, I was to go to the Poncelet cheese bar near my hotel, but that was closed by the time I got there, because I ended up wandering the old city for much of the afternoon. So after I had already spent a bit of time at what had become my favorite place in all of Madrid – the Mercado de San Miguel – I went right back there, for more food and more cheese.
I had already picked up a bit of cheese tapas-style, at Mya, a cheese stall that sells portions of the best Spanish cheeses, but also a lot of international ones. The covered market is, yes indeed, a highlight for tourists and, yes, quite gentrified, but still: it is a delight for the senses – all of them.
The smells obviously are incredible, as are the flavors. But on top of that, the food looks gorgeous and the place is just teeming with activity and noises. Before I went for some cheese to take with me to my hotel room, I decided to have some other foods as well, and I settled on a stand that sold all manners of seafood.
Here, I had to try to barnacles, which are such strange-looking shellfish that they practically dare you to eat them. I also tried some smooth clams and washed it all down with a glass of crisp dry white.
I then headed to the cheese place, got a piece of San Simon da Costa, a smoked cow’s milk cheese, a chunk of Manchego, a hard sheep’s milk cheese and half a Mua, the 23rd cheese of the week – see my post for that one. I returned to my hotel by metro, which is a rather ugly (think bad 1970s-colored tiles) but very clean and safe way to get around in Madrid. Perfect also because it is underground and air-conditioned – so the dripping can be brought under control.
We all know someone in our circle of friends and acquaintances who is like this: you come to visit and one of the first things they’ll say is: “Oh, never mind all the stuff lying around, I meant to tidy up, but…” And you pick up a stack of magazines to sit down on the couch. And never once does this entry give you a sense that you are not welcome, on the contrary: you are welcomed into someone’s home and there is no pretense, no tension, no attempt to keep up appearances. Porto is like that. It is rough around the edges, it has some buildings that are starting to fall apart, and some that are much further along on their inevitable way to oblivion. There are also corners with new life, new vitality and high hopes. Most of all, it is a city that feels lived in. Who has time to clean up every last little bit of the house when you need that time to live? Cascading down from its hills to the banks of the Douro River, the streets of Porto are not for the fainthearted and here and there they turn into stairs. One of the hills is crowned by the cathedral, the Sé, another by the Torre dos Clérigos, at 249 feet the tallest church tower in Portugal. It was designed by Niccoló Nasoni, along with the church attached to it. Nasoni, an Italian who spend the better part of his life in Portugal, was directly or indirectly responsible for much of baroque Porto. A third hill is home to city hall, the Câmara Municipal.
And then, there are churches everywhere, many of them clad in the typical tiles, the azulejos, which sometimes just cover walls in simple patterns, and in other places combine to create huge panels telling epic stories. Many ordinary houses are clad in the former, the best examples of the latter may be Porto’s main train station, the Estação de São Bento and the igrejas (churches) do Carmo and de Santo Idelfonso.
Porto has a world-famous bookstore which, like Tom Cruise, is much smaller in real life than in the pictures. Livraria Lello routinely ranks as one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world and it gets so many visitors that they have started to charge an entrance fee: 3 euros, good as a credit towards any purchase you make. One can frown on this of course, but shouldn’t a long line to get into a bookstore be reason for rejoicing? Though it wasn’t as big as I imagined, it is still a pretty cool bookstore, even if I think Dominicanen in Maastricht has the edge. You can be the judge, see below.
I stayed in a beautiful little hotel in town, Porto A.S. 1829. It is located in a building that for 5 generations was home to a family owned shop for stationary, pens and paper of all kinds. The hotel still has a gift shop with a very strong focus on just such items, and on my floor, there was a display in the hallway showcasing two old typewriters. The room itself was small and it still reminded me of an old office. I had a view of the Sé and the streets below – unbeatable.
I spent my time making miles to get to know the city, which takes a bit of stamina, but it otherwise unproblematic, at there are myriad little restaurants, cafes and shops that provide all kinds of sustenance.
An almost bizarre highlight in Porto is the Igreja de São Francisco, on the edge of Ribeira, the quarter along the river with the narrow streets, the laundry hanging from the windows and the plethora of restaurants that served grilled fish. I am not sure St. Francis, who was a simple man by all accounts, and who stayed away from luxury, would approve. The interior is largely carved wood that has been covered in gold – some sources claim total of 1000 lbs, although that sounds too round of a figure to be true. What is true is that as you walk into the church, it is almost overwhelming and perhaps even a little obscene. But hey, I am a big fan of churches and this one easily makes my top ten. I get it, hundreds of people could have been clothed and fed with the money had they simply painted the wood, and it does on occasion give me pause. But honestly – look at all that GOLD !
It would be easy to fill another two posts with the things one can see with the assistance of some serious leg power and good shoes, but I will not try to be exhaustive, even if I ended up exhausted. Porto is something you need to experience. Just go there. And don’t miss the gold.
This week, we traveled. Not very far, but still. The 605 Freeway does not look like an Tuscan country road or a two-lane highway winding over the hills of Burgundy. But our goal was the L.A. version of something you’d look for in those more exotic locales halfway around the world: someone with an idea to make the best food he could think of, and who then turned that into a career. Jim Nakano is such a man. Since 1974, he has been making donuts in a non-descript little place on an absolutely forgettable stretch of Route 66 in Glendora, about half hours’ drive east of Downtown L.A. At some point, he made a deal with a local strawberry farmer and began to produce strawberry donuts: tasty doughballs overstuffed with fresh strawberries. Nakano’s store, the Donut Man by now is a part of local folklore, and was featured in an episode of California Gold, hosted by the late, irrepressible Huell Howser and, more recently, in a little video by our favorite food critic, Jonathan Gold. In fact, he has become so popular that recently, some I-don’t-get-all-the-hype detractors have appeared on the scene. The three of us do get the hype. Not far into the first bite, we agreed that the strawberry donuts alone had been worth the hour-or-so drive out to Glendora. The strawberries were firm and juicy, with light glaze, the donut was fresh and fluffy and the glaze here too was restrained, so that the tastes of fruit and fried dough were not crowded out.
Our next stop today was Claremont. Christine lived in this town for a while and she loves coming back here, it is easy to understand why. Most houses have a lot of charm, there are old, towering trees that provide shade, and they come in all shapes and sizes, and the colleges lend the place a great amount of flair.
We strolled the main drag through town, peeked into a few of the unique stores such as the Folk Music Center and Rhino Records, and finally walked into the Cheese Cave, the second purveyor of delicacies of the day. In my post about cheese shops in LA, there is more about this place – for now it suffices to say that we left after spending 30 minutes and a few bucks north of $80 with cheese and a host of other items, both edible and non-edible, that surely would make our lives better. Yes, it is that kind of a store.
After carefully storing our precious purchases in the cooler bag (on the house from the nice Cheese Cave people!) under a seat in the car, we went for a walk through the colleges and we ended up spending a lot of time deciphering the graduation graffiti of every class since 1931 on what has been dubbed Graffiti Wall at Scripps College.
More food was on the program in El Monte, where we had dined a few years ago in a small hole in the wall restaurant that had spectacular Mexican food. We found the address with only one wrong turn, but alas, it had new owners and we immediately felt guilt for not returning sooner. We were sure we could have kept the restaurant from going out of business, and if they had left for a better location, we would have known where they were. Regrets, bitter regrets. Undaunted, we still sat down at the new placed, Teresia’s Mexican Grill (careful, the website starts playing happy Mexican music) and ordered from the new menu; Christine had Aguachiles (supposed to cure hangovers), a dish made with shrimp sprinkled with lots of lime juice, onions, cucumber, and avocado. We shared some Queso Fundido, melted cheese with Chorizo, I had chicken in mole, Charlie ate shrimp tacos and we all shared a ridiculously large Buñuelo, a fried pancake, in essence, with cinnamon, sugar and topped with chocolate sauce.
Even if it wasn’t exactly what we had dreamed of for the last few years, it was fresh, surprising and pleasing and altogether much too much so we left content and in the knowledge that the Champions League Final between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid had just gone into overtime. We watched the final minutes tick away with the chef – the restaurant was empty except for us, so he was able to tend to the important matters in life. By the time we came home we had spent considerable time on the ugly (if efficient, on a Saturday) Southland freeways, but all three of us agreed that we should consider ourselves lucky to live in the ethnic patchwork of LA, where new food adventures are just waiting to be discovered everywhere, as long as you take the right exit.