Paški Sir (Week 15)

Paski Sir II
Croatia’s Cheesy Pride: Paski Sir

Cheese: Paški Sir

Producer: Sirana Gligora

Where: Kolan, Pag Island, Croatia

So here is a picture of Pag, an island just off the coast of Croatia. There are less than 10,000 people who call the island home, but there are some 40,000 sheep. They’re a little smaller than average, these Paška Ovca, and they are indigenous to the island. From the coastal Velebit Mountains of Dalmatia, the Bora wind barrels down, picks up a lot of salt from the air over the water and drops some of that salty moisture on the pasture where the sheep run around, mostly freely. The herbs and grasses on the island the sheep feast on are pre-salted, if you will, like the grass in coastal Normandy around Issigny, where the best butter in the world comes from. These roaming sheep produce about half a liter of milk a day, so half a quart of milk. That is little, even by sheep standards (half a gallon is sort of average, compared to three quarters of a gallon from a goat and 8 gallons from a cow). Add to that the fact that the sheep are still often milked by hand in the fields where they graze and you have one labor intensive dairy operation going. But at the end of that long laborious process, there is Paški Sir, the cheese from Pag, which wins medals all over the world and makes Croatians proud.  Depending on who you believe, the farmers on Pag have been making cheese for hundreds of years (some writers believe since the days of the old Romans) and of course there is the popular suggestion that at one point it was used as currency, which seems a little farfetched. I am sure it may have been a barter unit in some sense, but it is hard to see that someone would buy a cow and say: “I’ll pay you 34 cheeses for that nice animal there”. One way or another, the cheese from Pag has very, very deep roots. Alberto Fortis, an Italian who traveled around Dalmatia in the 18th century wrote about the salt, the sage honey, the wool and the cheese from Pag in his Viaggio in Dalmazia, but by that time, it had already been around for a good long while. The Gligora family has been at it since 1916 and towards the end of the previous century father Ivan and son Šie have begun to take, as they say, the cheese to the next level. Among other things, they send their products all over the world provided you’re happy to pay the rather splendid shipping fees. You may find that is it more prudent to just wait until you travel to Croatia to get some. A competitor, Paška Sirana has an excellent video. Great images, and with English subtitles.

Paski Sir Cheese
Vino, Kruh i Sir. The cheeses from left to right: Kozlar, Dinarski and Paski Sir

Paški Sir is a cheese that needs a bit of time to unfold in your mouth, don’t eat it hastily. At first, it is what you’d expect from a sheep cheese: it is hard, crumbly and drier than most cow’s milk cheeses. And then, as it melts in your mouth, your tastebuds tell you: “wait, wait, there is more”. I will leave it to experts to give the complex flavors names; I will simply say that there is a lot to savor in an innocent looking piece of Paški Sir, and only if you take your time, will you discover why it gets those accolades the Croatians like to tout. I am sure it tastes great in a variety of dishes, but it is expensive enough that you want to carefully cut it up and eat it with a glass of Croatian red rather than in the mac and cheese from the crockpot. It has a nice crunch – most if it hits the market after aging for about a year so there are the little white protein crystals that lend the cheese even more texture. Shave it on your salad like you would Parmigiano, or eat it with figs – if you can get them, from Dalmatia. Aside from the Paški Sir, I also had a taste of Gligora’s Dinarski Sir, a crumbly, salty cow’s milk cheese from the Dinaric Alps and their Kozlar, a semi-hard goat cheese, also quite salty but very creamy and if fact, I ended up liking it at least as much as the cheese of the week. But I waited until we had left Croatian territorial waters before admitting that aloud. I am sure the Croatians would seriously frown on my preference and I wanted to stay out of trouble.

Fourme d’Ambert (Week 16)

Fourme d'Ambert
Fourme d’ Ambert: slice of the old block

Cheese: Fourme d’Ambert

Producer: Société Fromagère du Livradois

Where: Fournols, Puy-de-Dôme, France

Think of this cheese as a blue with training wheels. That sounds a little unkind, as if the goal should be to graduate to the more challenging blues, and it’d be far from me to be the Penicillium Roqueforti Nazi. Fourme d’Ambert, as blue cheeses go, is not so sharp, very creamy and still has the musty flavor that comes with the blue mold. For some it could be an ideal gateway drug, others may decide that this is as moldy as they’d like it to get. Unlike its famous cousin Roquefort, this cheese is made with cow’s milk, which is a partial explanation for its smooth flavor; sheep’s milk often lends an edge to the cheese.

Legend has it that Julius Ceasar, on his way to Alesia where he defeated Gaul leader Vercingetorix, munched on some Fourme, which would make it a sort of a Benedict Arnold fromage. More reliable mention of the cheese dates back to the 9th century, where it was used as a currency, if you will: cheese makers, who did their work in stone huts in the summer pastures called Jasseries, paid for the use of the land with their cheese. The Fourme was mostly sold on the market of the town of Ambert, from which eventually it took its name.

The area in which, according to the regulations which bestow the AOP designation on Fourme d’Ambert, is largely in the Auvergne region, and the cows, who need a minimum of 150 outside grazing days, spent their time on land that is between 2,000 and 5,000 feet in altitude. Today the Jasseries are hardly used anymore and the milk is collected by a small number of rather large creameries, which determines the cheese’s designation as a fromage laitier, a factory-made cheese. That sounds worse than it should be because even if the cheese does not come from a single farm (fromage fermier) or is largely produced by hand (fromage artisanal), the entire set of rules still apply: the feed for the animals must come from the designated AOP area, cannot contain any GM products and, importantly, the milk has to be raw, not pasteurized.

The cheese is marketed after ripening at least 28 days, but a longer period is not uncommon. Some 20 liters of milk, a little more than 5 gallons, go into a Fourme (the word comes from the latin ‘forma’, which is the root, in French, for both forme (form), and fromage (cheese), so Fourme probably means cheese). The shape is always the same: a cylinder 19 centimeters (7.5 inches) in height and 13 centimers (5 inches) in diameter. It is sold by the slice or the half slice, and usually wrapped in foil. The rind is not really edible, but it is very thin, so there is no need to lose big parts of the creamy goodness. My Woodland Hills Whole Foods carries the l’Or des Dômes brand from the Société Fromagère du Livradois.

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Pattern on the Fourme d’Ambert rind

Downtown LA (Week 8)

Grand Central Market
In Grand Central Market

Oma, the cheese for week 8, came from DTLA Cheese in Grand Central market in the elusive heart of Los Angeles. In the mid-90s, the effort to revitalize downtown Los Angeles was in full swing. The Public Library had reopened, Pershing Square had been redone, there was a museum of neon art, the new metro stations shone and sparkled with public artworks and Angels Flight had just been brought back from the dead. Twenty years later, those efforts seem to be bearing fruit: there are more restaurants and bars, a great many lofts, some green spaces and there are plans for a do-over of Pershing Square which, in its 90s guise turned out to be somewhat of a bust.

To me, the intersection of Broadway and West 3rd Street is a place where, then as now, revitalization is necessary only in the slightest sense – there is no real need to make huge improvements on what’s there, because it has always been an interesting and colorful corner. There is the beautiful Bradbury Building from 1893 that’s been used in many movies (most famously in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner) with its cast iron stairwells and elevator shaft and the enormous skylight. As you exit the Bradbury onto West 3rd Street, you are face to face with an enormous mural of Anthony Quinn, who is dancing as Zorba the Greek. The mural is on the side of the Victor Clothing Company, where Quinn supposedly was a loyal customer. The Bradbury’s other rear exit leads to Biddy Mason Park, where a wall created by Sheila Levant de Bretteville recounts the remarkable life of Ms. Mason, who was born a slave, but eventually became one of the founders of L.A.’s First AME church. Additionally, Mason worked as a nurse and ended up owning quite a bit of property in the neighborhood. Across Broadway from the Bradbury is the former Million Dollar Theatre, which opened in 1918. Sid Grauman (yes, the one of Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard) had it built as one of the first of its kind in the country. It marks the northern end of the stretch along Broadway that has a great number of theaters, some of which are barely used anymore, and others that are being rediscovered. The L.A. Conservancy, which busies itself with protecting architectural icons of the past, has a great program every summer called Last Remaining Seats. They stage movies, often with live music or a Wurlitzer Movie Organ, in these old gems. For a few hours, anyone with a (reasonably priced) ticket can relive the glory days of L.A.’s own Broadway. It is worth it showing up on time, as the seats are all sold at the same price and late comers end up in the seats right under the ceiling…

The Million Dollar Theater has been part of the lineup for Last Remaining Seats in years past. The building also was known for years as the home to the Farmacia Y Botanica Million Dollar , but early in 2016, that business closed. It did not just sell basic drugstore items, but focused especially on votive candles, rosaries, saint statuettes, amulets, potions and spells. Anyone with great expectations or concerns in love, money, career, family or all of the above could go here and get the necessary spiritual accouterments needed to ward of the bad and bring in the good. Alas, it is all gone now, just like the plaques in the pavement honoring Latino greats from the movies, such as Pedro Armendáriz and Dolores del Rio.

Chiles Secos Grand Central Market
Chiles Secos !

Next door, though, the Grand Central market is thriving as it is currently trying to navigate the pitfalls of gentrification. The oldest market in Los Angeles, dating back to 1917, still sold day-old conchas, pigs ears and knuckles, fruit with blemishes and Chinese herbs when I first visited in the 90s. Today, the breakfast line for Eggslut is out on the street, there is a McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams outlet, a place where they cure salmon and other fish and a stand which offers German Currywurst. But some of the low-end merchants are still there, the produce is still inexpensive in many places, and Chiles Secos still sells mole – there is hope! Let’s pray that we won’t have to join in the Big Yellow Taxi refrain any time soon for any of these places that derive so much of their authentic charm from being a little worse for wear, a little tattered, a little rough around the edges.

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Yong Kim and fans
Yong Kim and fans

On this week’s visit to downtown, we also fulfilled one of Charlie’s recent dreams when we visited Seoul Sausage, a restaurant he had heard of because he watched the Great Food Truck Race on Netflix. A few years ago, three young Korean guys won that show – they had been Charlie’s favorites throughout all episodes. Yong Kim, one of the three stars of the reality TV-series was there and Charlie had his picture taken – ah, and of course we had the sausages and the famous rice balls. We also picked up a t-shirt with a profound message: “Make sausage, not war”. Peace, everyone.

Seoul Sausage
Sausage, not war

Cheeseshops in LA (Week 9)

Cheesemongers Sherman Oaks II
Cheesemongers of Sherman Oaks

In my quest for 52 cheeses in 2016, I either try to find some time during travels domestic or international, or I default to my neighborhood Whole Foods. That’s a very flexible concept, because as many Angelenos, my work neighborhood and my home neighborhood are quite a ways apart, and there are a number of stores that fit the bill. I like the Whole Foods in Woodland Hills a lot, because they carry a very wide variety of cheeses, many of them made with raw milk. From what I understand, each store can order from a very big list that WF central decides on, and it seems clear that some stores have a fierce resident cheese monger while others don’t. I am certainly not a fan of the one in the Rolling Hills Plaza – had more than one disappointment there.

Of course between getting my Cheese in Avignon or in Woodland Hills there is a third way: local travel. And a bit of travel it always is, in the City of Angels. We try to combine any weekend quest for cheese with other food destinations in the same area, heck, we even throw in a little local culture on occasion. Here are, in no particular order, the mongers we have visited thus far in the 52 Cheeses Year.

Cheesemongers of Sherman Oaks sits on a strip along Ventura Boulevard that has a lot of upscale, trendy shops and restaurants, and they fit right in. They do cheese, cured meats, they do sandwiches and they sell all the paraphernalia that go with these foods. It is a modern, airy looking place and the owners, Kia Burton (cheese girl) and Chaz Christianson (meat guy) clearly enjoy what they are doing. We met and chatted with Chaz and admired both the selection of spectacular meats and the lovingly laid out cheese counter.

DTLA Cheese
DTLA Cheese in Grand Central Market

DTLA Cheese in the Grand Central Market is a different place entirely. Because the market now is always busy, there is never a boring moment at the cheese counter, and I suspect that much of their income is from their mac and cheese (well-deserved income, I would say) and their sandwiches.

cheeese
Grilled Cheeeeese Sandwich

The folks there are friendly, and seem to enjoy working there. The owners are two sisters, Marnie and Lydia Clarke, and their other store is the Cheese Cave, which is possibly the most cluttered among the four places listed here, but I mean cluttered in a good way: who would not want a silver cow in the window, and who would not want to walk out of a place with sixteen items you didn’t know you needed?

Claremont Cheese Cave II
Cheese Cave: Window Dressing

In Culver City, in a neighborhood that is, well, soon-to-be-but-not-quite-yet gentrified, is the Wheel House, where they do tastings and classes and make sandwiches, sell $15 jars of jam that’s worth 16 dollars at least and where I have picked up some smelly chunks of Hooligan, one of my favorite cheeses in their assortment. They consider themselves as much of wine shop as a cheese monger.

Wheel House
Wheel House Wine and Cheese in Culver City

All four of these are completely worth the visit and they are so much more than your local Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. Be prepared to spend a little money; they all sell much more that what you really need (but they’re so attractive that you forget what you really need and go for what you really want), and good cheese is not cheap.

Basel, Switzerland (Week 6)

Zum roten Engel
Cafe zum Roten Engel, Basel

I travel to Basel on a fairly regular basis, and while most people in Europe associate that city with the pharmaceutical industries on the edge of the old city and most North Americans don’t associate it with anything in particular, there are enough nooks and crannies that make it a pleasant place to visit. There is, for instance, the Andreasplatz, a small square with lots of ivy covering the ancient walls, a few small shops and Café zum Roten Engel (In the Red Angel). It’s tiny, it has a tiny terrace and a tiny counter, but the Wähe comes in generous slices, as does the coffee or tea to go with it. Wähe is the Swiss version of a fruit tart; there are savory kinds as well and I’d be compelled to say they’re the Swiss version of a quiche. Whatever is in season is slapped into them – good ones are not too sweet and there is more fruit than the cream & eggs filling, so the whole thing is relatively flat.

The Rheinsprung is another delightful place, or rather, a road. From near the Middle Bridge it goes up rather steeply towards the square next to the Münster (the city’s cathedral) and about 100 yards in on the left side, there is the so-called blue house, a baroque mansion that was built for a silk merchant in the second half of the 18th century. It has a ridiculously ornate wrought-iron fence and local guides tell the story of how this house and its neighbor played an important role in the history of Basel’s pharmaceutical industry.

Blue House Basel
Das blaue Haus

Both mansions were owned by silk traders (brothers, in fact) and in order to dye silk, an industry developed first in France, and then in the surrounding countries. Basel was favored because of the permissive legal climate when it came to the chemical processes involved in creating artificial dyes (it was easy to steal other people’s secrets without repercussions), and its location on the Rhine river, whose waters provided transportation. The river was also a cheap and easy way to wash away the chemical leftovers. At the end of the Rheinsprung is the Münsterberg, the promontory with the best river view in Basel, and the cathedral itself, which has a beautiful Romanesque north gate, the Galluspforte.

Basel Munster
Basler Munster

A little bit more up and down from the cathedral will have you going up the steps of the Lohnhofgässlein lined with thick-walled age-old houses in pastel colors.

Lohnhofgasslein
Lohnhofgasslein

Eventually, all roads in the old city will converge on the lower-lying areas, the Barfüsserplatz (Bare-footer Square, named after the Franciscan monks who had a monastery here) or the market square in front of city hall, are rather garish red-colored house that has medieval roots but received its current skin in the late 19th century. This little bit of Basel can be bitten off in about an hour and a half. The Red Angel is not far from the market square and if it is too hot for coffee and Wähe, there is Moevenpick ice cream on the square at the eponymous restaurant.

Basel City Hall
Basel City Hall

Brandrood (Week 17)

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Michiel Cassuto on his farm

Cheese: Brandrood

Producer: Michiel Cassuto

Where: Ede, Gelderland

Michiel Cassuto has a beautiful farm, beautiful cows and beautiful looking cheese. Oh, and it tastes great too. Brandrood, if you will, is the Dutch version of a Gruyère: it comes in great wheels, has a natural rind (which makes for beautiful colors and patterns) and has the consistency and flavor of those cheeses from farther south. Like the other cheeses from the Gelderse Vallei, they are a far cry from the yellow stuff you can buy in pre-wrapped chunks at Schiphol airport; think of filet mignon vs. hot dog – it may both be meat (sort of) but it not quite the same. Brandrood has a bold flavor that lasts, some nuttiness and a bit of a sharper edge, but all very well balanced.

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Brandrood cheese with a beautifully mottled rind

The farmer, who does everything himself, writes on his website that he grew up wanting to milk cows. And boy, does he live his dream. The Brandrood is a cow breed (“fire-red”) that has been around for centuries, but almost died out. They are beautiful beasts, and when I asked Mr. Cassuto (the name is Italian only because long-time-ago ancestors came from Italy, Michiel is as Dutch as vanillevla) if I could get a little closer to the cows to take a picture he casually suggested I should just climb over the fence, mind the cow pies and get as close as I wanted.

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Brandrood cows

Cassuto has about two dozen of them, there aren’t many more than about a thousand still around. They do not yield an awful lot of milk so for many years they have not been bred a great deal and that has threatened their survival, hence their inclusion on the list of the Slow Food Foundation of Biodiversity. Leaving the farm, itself hundreds of years old, I felt good about the Brandrood’s chances of long-term survival – if you have friends like Michiel Cassuto who’s clearly in it as much for the love of it as for the money, things are looking up.

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Engelenhove, Michiel Cassuto’s farm

Gelderse Vallei, the Netherlands (Week 19)

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Spring in Gelderland

Not far from where my dear old mother lives in the Netherlands is an area known as the Gelderse Vallei. A valley in the Netherlands is a rare thing, given that much of the country is as flat as a pancake – for there to be valleys you’d need mountains or at least hills, and those are few and far between in Holland. But here, between two glacial moraines left after the last ice age, it’s there: the Valley of Gelderland. The southern part of this area is known as het Binnenveld, an area with a diverse mix of farms. Many of the farmers here are trying new things (or go back to really old things for that matter) and their eagerness to experiment is supported by the proximity of Wageningen University & Research Centre, the 21st-century guise of the venerable national agricultural university and the initiative Food Valley, a cooperation between 8 local communities that promotes knowledge and information about healthy food and sustainable agriculture. The latter claim sounds a bit pompous and vague but driving around the area it quickly becomes apparent what it means: small, crooked country roads provide access to beautiful farms where an agricultural cornucopia is being produced, from fruit juices to pork and from fresh advocaat (a drink made with eggs, sugar and brandy) to honey. A local bakery makes rusks out of locally grown Spelt while a bit further down the road a farm store sells eggs, advokaat, fruit juice, jams and a host of other things, all locally produced. And, of course, there’s cheese. I have posted something about Remeker already, but there are other farmers in the area that also produce cheeses from a particular breed of animal, usually valuing quality more than quantity, when it comes to the milk the cows give.

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Blaarkop cow at the De Hooilanden Farm

There is Michiel Cassuto and his Brandrood herd; the de Hooilanden Farm with its Blaarkop cows; Welgelegen, a farm with Montbéliard cows and the van Dijk family farm with 1,200 Saanen goats.  The latter three have their raw milk cheeses aged and marketed by the Meester-Affineurs (“master agers”), a company that takes its mission to produce a natural product very seriously. As an example, they have successfully fought off mandates to disinfect the boards on which the cheeses ripen. They did so with the assistance of a local company that did the tests to show the boards were fine without getting sprayed. Given that they work with raw milk cheese, they do have very strict hygiene rules: for example, in winter the tails and the udders of the cows need to remain cleanly shaven… close proximity to the other animals and the conditions inside a barn require more stringent rules, clearly. The Master Agers have a clean, crisp website, and they ship. So I was able to order a decent chunk of each of their three cheese and try them a week after my visit in the Food Valley.

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Wallabies at the van Steenbergen farm. No, they are not kept for their meat

I had visited the van Steenbergen farm, which has a delightful farm store that sells beautiful things from all over the region, along with their own eggs. They have chickens, cows and wallabies. Wallabies ?! “Yah, we had some leftover land and my husband had read an article about wallabies so we thought: why not?” the woman who runs the store said. Believe it or not, she said it with such conviction that it sounded like the absolute best thing to do. Wallabies in the Food Valley. Of course.

Meester Affineurs (2)
Clockwise from top: Saanen, Montbeliard, Blaarkop

The Saanen is basically a Gouda cheese with a goat twist, or a chèvre with a Gouda twist – a semi-hard cheese with a pale ivory paste, very creamy, initially without an outspoken goatiness. Kind of sweet, delicious. You need to keep it in your mouth a while for the goat flavor to really unfold, but then it packs a nice punch. The Montbéliard has a lot of small holes in it – nutty, with a pleasant chewiness, a bit of barnyard and salty. The Blaarkop was similar, perhaps a little sharper than and not as creamy as the Montbéliard. The picture shows the trio the way the Dutch eat their cheese: in slices, on a rusk or a slice of bread.

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Jersey Cow at the De Grote Voort farm, where Remeker cheese is made

 

Hooilander Graskaas (Week 19)

Hooilander Graskaas
At the self-service

Cheese: Hooilander Graskaas

Producer: De Hooilanden

Where: Bennekom, Gelderland, the Netherlands

Lodewijk and Fleur Pool are the farmers at the Hooilanden (the Hay Lands), a farm that sits at the end of a long, somewhat twisted country road in the Gelderse Vallei. I visited their farm, saw the cows and bought a piece of cheese, all the while not meeting anyone. There were signs that told me where to go and what to do, and that, the Pools must have decided, should suffice. I picked up a piece of Hooilander Graskaas. Grass-cheese is made using milk from cows who feed on fresh grass rather than hay, it is creamy and quite mild, and the piece I got was still quite young; it had not ripened more than 8 weeks. Often young cheeses (the Dutch tend to select their cheese, most of which is the same ‘Gouda-style’ kind of cheese, based on its age and use 5 or 6 age labels to differentiate) in the Netherlands do not have a lot of flavor yet, but this one does, surprisingly so. It is a creamy, flavor-packed delight, not too salty but not as bland as many young cheeses taste. It has a very clean finish, the flavors do not linger all that much: a perfect cheese to cut up in cubes and eat as a snack with a glass of cold beer.

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Blaarkop cows at De Hooilanden

An added bonus was certainly to meet the friendly cows that provide the milk and to have such a sense of place associated with what’s on the plate. In my next post, there is more about the area and about the other cheese Lodewijk and Fleur make: Blaarkop (“Blisterhead”), named after the cow breed they keep here. The blaarkop has been around in the Netherlands since the late Middle Ages and they are easily recognized by the oval colored spots (the blisters around their eyes. They have always been dual-purpose, and this is how it is at Hooilanden: you can buy cheese and steak here…

Hooilanden Store
Store: butter, cheese, meat, raw milk

Azeitão (Week 24)

Cheese Vendor
Friendly Portuguese Cheesemonger

Cheese: Azeitão

Producer: Queijaria Artesanal Victor Fernandez

Where: Palmela, Portugal

At the Mercado da Ribeira, I found my cheeses at the Manteigaria Silva, where a very friendly Portuguese man took the time to carefully explain exactly what he was giving me. While I got four different pieces of cheese, my pick for the week was clearly the Azeitão.  This creamy sheep’s milk cheese comes from a town with the same name, less than 20 miles south of Lisbon. Some of the neighboring towns are also allowed to produce it (the cheese has a Denominação de Origem Protegida (DOP) designation, so there are rules); mine came from the creamery of Victor Fernandes, and the British Guild of Fine Food agrees with me that this is one fine cheese.

Azeitao II
Azeitao

Just like the Spanish Torta del Casar, the way to eat this puppy is to slice off the top, take a spoon to it and go to town. Sure, you can take a piece of bread and slather the delicious goop all over it; add a sip of wine if you want. But if no one is looking, why bother? I ate mine straight up, and I must confess it did not take long. Yes, it is that good.

azeitao III
Ready to scoop

The official leader of the pack of Portuguese cheeses is the Serra da Estrela, named for the mountain range where the sheep live that provide the milk. There are two different breeds, the Bordaleira Serra da Estrela and Churra Mondequeira, both of which do well in the rather unfriendly climate with long harsh winters and hot summers. Old Lucius Columella, a roman expert on agriculture already wrote about these sheep and the cheese made with their milk. They packed me a chunk of Estrela Velho, ripened for 18 months. It’s no longer runny, of course, but semi-hard. To me, the mix of tang, sweetness and saltiness was not that different from the Azeitão, even if the Estrela was sharper and obviously has a completely different texture: both are wonderfully complex (but not complicated) cheeses, they somehow seem a bit related.

Esrella Vieho
Serra da Estrela

A third cheese I tried that was interesting was also from the Estrela Mountains: Queijo da Cabra da Serra da Estrela – a goat cheese with a straw-colored rind and a semi-soft pale white paste. If found that the eating the rind made this cheese a bit too salty, but cut it away and you’re left with a nice, robust goat cheese that packs a bit of a punch. Quite a nice cheese, but not really a match for the other two.

Cabra da Estrella II
Queijo da Cabra da Serra da Estrela; quite a mouthful, literally

 

Lisbon, Portugal (Week 24)

Lisboa azulejos
Azulejos panel of Lisbon from the water

“No”, said the people that were kind enough to make reservations for me at the end of my week traveling in the Douro area. “You need to change your schedule and not go back to Porto until Monday. On Sunday, we celebrate the feast of St. Anthony in Lisbon, and you don’t want to miss that.” So I did as I was told and ended up in Lisbon, more than thirty years after my first visit, on the day the Lisboetas celebrate their saint. You see, St. Anthony of Padua, as it turns out, wasn’t from Padua at all: he started his life in Lisbon as Fernando Martins de Bulhões, and after a stint as an Augustinian, he became a Franciscan when he heard about the martyrdom of five Franciscans in Morocco, an event depicted in all its gruesome detail in the church of St. Francis in Porto. He did eventually make his way to Italy and he did die in the city he has become associated with.

Bride
Getting hitched on St. Anthony’s Day

Saint Anthony is a big deal in Lisbon. The saint of lost articles is believed to help Portuguese men and women find their mate, and Sílvia Monteiro, the woman who took me around pointed to a motorcade of oldtimers, each with a bride in them, on the way to the church of St. Anthony. That’s where the couples get a blessing, before they walk to the cathedral of Lisbon, right next door, to get hitched. Apparently, the city pays for the dresses of the stars of this parade – they tend to be picked based on their wealth, or rather lack thereof.

Pao de sao Antonio
Pao de Santo Antonio

 

In the narthex of the Church of Santo Antônio, people were selling bread. You are to take a piece of bread, wrap a little note with a prayer with it and stick it in the frame of a picture of the saint. It goes back to the legend of a woman whose son was brought back from the dead by our intrepid saint: in gratitude, she donated her son’s weight in wheat to feed the poor.

St Anthony
Makeshift throne for Santo Antonio 

If you do not yet have a girl to take to the altar, help can be had by buying a terra cotta pot with a green globe of basil (manjerico), often with a (paper) carnation pinned to it: add a little poem for your loved one and hand it to her with a flourish: guaranteed to work (I think).

Saint Anthony in a can
This clever lady sold Santo Antonio in a sardine can

Of course the best of all the Saint Anthony stories is where he’s walking along the beach in Rimini, thoroughly disgusted with his inability to reach people. As he is muttering to himself the fishes from the sea begin listening to him, lining up to hear him preach: success! And that’s all you need, in Lisbon, to start grilling sardines on pretty much every street corner of Alfama, the old quarter under the cathedral, on the Feast of St. Anthony. Sardines, Sangria, a salad with grilled green peppers: eat it and you will feel that melancholy in your soul that says: if only for a little while, I am now Portuguese.

Pasteis Belem
In the Fabrica de Pasteis de Belem

But wait, there is more in the way of food and religion here: there are the Pastéis de Bélem, the small egg-yolk custard pastries originally created by the monks of the  Jerónimos Monastery in Bélem, a suburb of Lisbon and today sold all over the country. The egg whites were used to starch the monks habits, hence the yolk surplus. There is the venerable institution of the Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém, not far from the actual monastery itself, which is a stunning example of the typical Portuguese version of Gothic architecture, the Manueline style. They serve them warm there, and they are spectacular, even if the size of the place and the number of patrons inside do give you the sense of being in a fábrica, a factory. Sure, these things probably make your cholesterol go through the roof, but honestly, they are worth taking a few months off your life.

Jeronimos
San Jeronimos, vaulting in the nave of the church
Jeronimos V
San Jeronimos, in the cloister
Jeronimos III
San Jeronimos South Portal, early 16th century

And finally, a food with a dark religious side: in 1497, King Manuel I of Portugal, the same ruler after whom the architectural style was named, followed his neighbors, Spanish King and Queen Ferdinand and Isabella, as he expelled all Jews from the country. Those remaining had to convert and give up their sinful ways, and one way to demonstrate that they were now part of the team was by eating sausage – pork, that is. So along came the Alheira, a sausage made with a lot of garlic, chicken or game, and bread – a pork-imposter as it were. (Paella, laced with shellfish and sausage, is said to have the same mean-spirited roots.)

Sausage
The Alheira is the yellowish sausage; behind it is Morcela (black pudding)

With Sílvia, I walked the streets, sipped coffee at Café A Brasileira, bought a drawing showing famous Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa on a donkey at the Livraria Sá da Costa Editora, and a felt St. Anthony from a friendly lady who had set up under a leafy tree on the edge of Alfama. She dropped me after several educational and entertaining hours at the Mercado da Ribeira, a hip, modern market with a plethora of eateries, a cheese and meats shop where I got my Portuguese cheese and giant screens to follow the European Championship soccer games. I enjoyed some delicious cod (I believe it is actually illegal to spend more than 3 days in Portugal without eating the national fish) and a glass of wine before I walked on, in the relentless heat, and made my way to Alfama where, as the afternoon slid into the early evening, I used a few Spanish words, my hands and some creative facial expressions to order my sardines. As the square where I sat, sharing a table with a friendly Portuguese woman and her mom (“your Portuguese is very good – not really”) was getting increasingly crowded, my soul began to feel heavy with each bite of a sardine. The vague sadness that stems from the loss of empire, the notion that centuries past may have been the best of times and the certainty that even with Cristiano Ronaldo on the team, the European Championship was a very, very long shot. For a fleeting moment, on the Calçadinha de São Miguel, I too, was Portuguese.

In Alfama
Sardine hanging from the sky in Alfama
Sardines
Sardines

As I strolled back to my hotel in the early evening, with shadows lengthening but the sun still sizzling, Fado music from speakers tumbling out of sidewalk cafes, I realized it had all been a dream. I was not Portuguese at all, I had to pack for a long drive to Porto the next morning, and the saint of lost articles was a fraud: somewhere in the city of St. Anthony, I had not found, but lost my sunglasses. Maldição! As if I needed a reason to return to Lisbon.

Lissabon
Lisbon from the Miradouro (viewpoint) da Graca