Yah, that sounds none too appealing, right? Cheese from the pit? Unless of course you are a hardened cheese aficionado who likes ’em gooey, stinky, moldy and any other variety that makes mere mortals go: ewww….
With the Formaggio di Fossa, it is actually not all that bad. Don’t think of some dank smelly, crusted hole in the ground: instead, think of a pleasant, regular, straw lined hole in the ground, where the cheese (it can be a sheep’s milk cheese, a cow’s milk cheese or a mix), wrapped in canvas bags, is carefully stacked on wooden planks, before the pit is covered and sealed and the cheese allowed to mature for 80-100 days – the technical term is anaerobic fermentation, and the 80 days is the legal minimum, the 100 days the legal maximum. You see, the cheese enjoys DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) status, and that means there are some stringent rules that govern exactly how and where the cheese is produced. The pits are dug in soft tufa rock in the Marche Region of Italy, on the Adriatic Coast, around the town of Sogliano al Rubicone – on the Rubicon, that very same river Julius Caesar once crossed, yelling “alea jacta est, suckers!” . Ancona is one of the major towns here, and that is where I got my cheese from the pit.
In this case, it was a sheep’s cheese, which made it a Pecorino di Fossa, and of course the pecoras have to be from the Marche region before you get the coveted DOP seal. The pits are very carefully prepared: straw is burned in them to get rid of the damp air and to reduce bacteria that may interfere with the ripening process. The pits are lined with straw for insulation and that straw is kept in place with an intricate frame of reeds and wooden hoops – it all has to be just so. The feast of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, November 25, is traditionally the day the cheese is hauled out of the pit, but the DOP today allows for infossatura (when the cheese descends into the pit) between March 1 and September 21, which means the cheese can come out much sooner or later than St. Catherine’s Day. I am sure cheese snobs will be able to tell November 25 cheese from cheese pulled out on any other day, but I was quite happy with my chunk. The ripening in the pit gives the cheese a light caramel color and the texture is a bit greasy – not all that appealing, to be honest – but the flavor is very distinct. it is a bit musty, really fills the mouth and there is quite a bit of sharpness. We use it mainly as a grating cheese, and you need just a bit to give your pasta dish a lot of extra flavor, it really packs a punch.
The city of Ancona doesn’t reveal its charms easily, by the way, even if it does have some interesting squares and streets. It is home to Antonio Budano’s Re Formaggio, a place of pilgrimage for cheese lovers, but I arrived there during the looooong afternoon break and I was unable to hang around until the King of Cheese came back from his nap. I found a small friendly store that sold cheese, salami, prosciutto and delicious homemade pies next to the covered market so I was able to score.
The cheese was sold to me by Sauro Zannotti, the proprietor of said small friendly store, along with a piece of aged Pecorino and a very young Pecorino, so that I could compare and appreciate the special qualities of the pit cheese. Ah, and of course there was pie. I cannot be entirely certain, but Sauro seemed so proud of the homemade pie that he left me convinced it was his very own wife who baked it. And even if my plastic-wrapped Pecorino di Fossa did not look as cool as the cloth-wrapped chunks that come out of the pits, it has made many a pasta dish in our household bring back pleasant memories of yet another successful cheese hunt.
Saint-Louis is the first city in Alsace after crossing the French-Swiss border on the northern edge of Basel. It’s not a particularly pretty place – there are some scattered half-timbered houses with a bit of charm, and the main crossing in town is overlooked by a turreted hotel from the Belle-Époque that barely deserves the grandiose name “de l’Europe” but altogether, it is rather unremarkable. But it is in France, in wonderful, food-obsessed France, and you don’t have to look too far to experience that. More than 800 kilometers from the Normand fishing port of Courseulles-sur-Mer where I fell on my backside next to the fishmarket right where the fishing ships come and go (another story for another post), the local LeClerc has an impressive, outsized poisson & fruits de mer section, and around this time of year the patrons of the cheese section in that same LeClerc are positively giddy with the news that the Mont d’Or is here again, announcing the beginning of fall. And some weeks ago, on the weekly market which is brimming with good stuff, I was confronted with that food-lovin’ essence of France, distilled in a simple question when Christine asked for a melon (‘t was the season of the charentais jaune, and nous l’adorons). The response came from a man who in no way resembled a snooty French food connoisseur – he looked more like someone you’d want to steer clear from if you saw him in that alley next to the train station – but he never missed a beat and retorted: “Un melon pour le weekend, madame?”
So let that sink in for a moment. When was the last time someone at your local supermarket had the audacity to inquire exactly when you planned to feast on the foodstuffs you were about to purchase? And how likely would it have been that you would retort: “Xuse me, but I do not believe that is any of your business!” Exactly, that’s my point.
But years of going to the market with her aunt Colette had prepared Christine for this moment and where lesser American women would have faltered, she simply answered “Oui, pour le week-end”. Our rustic fruit vendor then sorted, looked, sniffed, gently squeezed through his merchandise and then it dawned on me that his impertinence had only one goal: to make sure that the particular melon he was going to present to Christine would do the very last bit of ripening to the absolute, unequivocal, impeccable pinnacle of ripeness in the few hours it would take us to complete our market visit, drive home, unload groceries, drop off the Swiss Mobility car, return home by tram, walk in the door and carve up that superfragrantilicious globe of orange goodness in the privacy of our own kitchen. In other words, our new best friend had asked Christine: “Are you looking for a random piece of fruit that will faintly taste like a melon whenever you decide to eat it, or do you want to do as the French do, and experience melon perfection?”
So there you have it. The difference between eating for sustenance and experiencing exquisite food pleasure is all in timing. Which leads me to cheese. Or rather, it led me to cheese because after our close encounter of the fruit kind, it was time for cheese. Around the corner from the fruit stand is the cheese truck of Aux Saveurs des Lys, St. Louis’ very own purveyor and affineur of fine cheeses. And because I knew that only hours after the charentais would be gone, I was going to conquer a Neufchâtel with my name on it in his display case, I spoke unto the fine cheese monger with the authority of a true connoisseur de fromage: “un Neufchâtel pour le week-end, s’il vout plait!”
That evening, only hours after we had wiped the melon juice off our chins, I was awarded for my perfect instruction to that sublime purveyor of cheeses as I savored the ripened-to-perfection Neufchâtel. No, we’re not talking about American Neufchâtel, a cheese mongrel that you should feel free to use in any recipe that calls for cream cheese if you care that Neufchâtel has less fat than cream cheese. The French Neufchâtel is a heart-shaped cheese from Normandy, and in the home of the Camembert, the Livarot and the Pont-l’Évêque, it is safe to assume that no one gives a damn about the fat content of the cheese, at least not for the reasons that would prompt someone to make said substitution when baking a cheesecake.
For no good reason whatsoever, the Neufchâtel had been the only one of the great Normand cheeses I had not yet savored. When I did, I exclaimed (in my head, the family doesn’t enjoy exclamations): “Neufchâtel, where have you been all my life?” It is somewhat embarrassing to pretend to know a bit about cheese and to stumble across a well-known cheese that harbors such a revelation, but there it was.
Neufchâtel is a soft cheese with a bloomy rind and at first sight, you may be forgiven for thinking that some smarmy French marketer dreamed up a heart-shaped Camembert to be in stores just in time for Valentine’s Day. But thankfully, this is not the case. Cheese lore says Neufchâtel has been around since the 6th century, only 300 years after St. Valentine was martyred (His story is so short on details that he received a demotion of sorts in the late sixties, and he’s been a benchwarmer for the Catholic calendar ever since), and centuries before Valentine became associated with heart-shaped boxes of chocolate, poorly written poetry and teenage heart palpitations and angst. More than its shape, it’s Neufchâtel’s flavor that sets it apart from Camembert. The former is saltier and sharper than the latter – think of “Camembert meets old Dutch cheese”- you get a mushroomy bouquet, a whiff of barn, a mouth full of cream….but wait, there is more! There’s that strong spine of saltiness, a hint of sharpness….. And with my taste buds having had their education in the Low Countries, the Neufchâtel is pretty much the best of both worlds for me. The particular specimen I enjoyed was relatively young – the cheese is aged a minimum of 10 days, but it is also sold in a more ripened version, when it is more dark ivory in color and a bit more wrinkly.
Neufchâtel received its AOC in 1969, that year of the Demotion of Saint Valentine (oh, the irony), and there is a story that young French maidens, on the occasion of New Year’s day, gave their English sweethearts the heart shaped cheeses to remember them by. This was during the Hundred Years’ War between France and England, and it is pretty symptomatic for that conflict that many people had a hard time figuring out whose side they were on. Apparently no one considered the gifting of the cheese as treasonous. Neufchâtel is best enjoyed between April and August, so perhaps it was just a way to get rid of some over-ripe cheese no French lad in his right mind would still accept as a token of true love. Who knows?
Towards the end of the 19th century, when the cheese was becoming a best-seller, there appeared a more verifiable connection to England, when Harrods in London re-introduced the descendants of those soldiers of yore to the heart-shaped version of the cheese. Because believe it or not, there are also less romantic versions – bricks, squares, rolls, but who cares? In fact, what is wrong, I dare ask, with any French cheese maker that decides to not use the shape the damn cheese is so known for? Alas, while the process of making the cheese and the diet of the cows that produce the milk is regulated in the AOC designation, the shape is not. So any Grinch, Scrooge or other curmudgeon that likes to have a taste of that heavenly Neuchâtel without any of the saccharine overtones of romance: yes, there is one with your name on it too, at your local supplier of fine French cheeses. Just let them know if it is for this week-end, or for later.
Ha! Yes indeed, I made a reference to Blue Fenugreek in my previous post and then… nothing. So I owe it to those readers to whom trigonella caerulea matters a lot to follow-up, and I will begin Episode 2 of this weekend’s post with that.
So here goes: there was a purpose to our detour across the mountains of Glarus. I wanted to stop in the canton’s eponymous capital and pick up a Stöckli of Schabziger, the local cheese that is not produced anywhere else. But at the Milchmanufaktur’s cheese counter, nicknamed “Käseparadies”, my quest took an unexpected turn when the young woman who helped me assemble the day’s cheese collection showed me two different cheeses from Glarus. One was the Stöckli, the green, slightly tapered package containing hard cheese made from skim milk. The other was a small white container that looked a little less styled, a bit more home-made, and of course I could not resist. So I ended up with Glarner Alpziger, a cheese made by Siegfried and Myrtha Fischli from milk produced by cows who graze on the Änziunen-Rauti Alp where Schwyz and Glarus border each other. More accurately, the cheese is made from the whey that is left over after cheese making. Alpziger starts out as a slightly sour fresh cheese that is shaped into balls, gets salt and ground blue fenugreek mixed in and is then pressed by hand into small white tubs, one of which I ended up with. It is certainly an acquired taste, and I’ll need to experiment a bit more with it to get the most out of it, but the mere fact that it’s produced by a couple that refuses to give up on a tradition that’s been in the family for generations makes me want to savor every last bit.
And with that, we move to cows coming home. As last year and 14 years ago, Christine and I decided to see an Alpabgang, and drag along our kid and, this time around, a friend who had already had to suffer through the windy road through the Glarus mountains and who now had to make sense of our delight and cows parading down the street, decked out in flowers and greenery. The idea is the same everywhere: it may have started with a festive closure of summer grazing when the cows parade down the mountains through the villages to stables or winter pastures, but today it is a great excuse to throw a town-wide party and invite people from all over. In Seewis im Prättigau, in the canton of Graubünden, they know how to celebrate their livestock.
52cheeses is finally back with a vengeance, after a hiatus that turned out to be much longer than I anticipated. Week 40 concludes with tall tales of brain cheese, Wilhelm Tell the Great Dane, Blue Fenugreek, 12 Mutschlis and a Swiss army knife, in no particular order. But I am getting ahead of myself, and I need to go back to the Milchmanufaktur in Einsiedeln, Switzerland, a place known for it’s splendid baroque abbey.
That’s where our day started around a copper cauldron of coagulating milk from the alpine meadows of Schwyz, the most prominent of the three Urkantone, the founding cantons of the Swiss Confederacy (Confoederatio Helvetica in Latin, hence the CH on the cars and the CHF as the abbreviation for the Swiss Franc). That milk largely comes from the Swiss Braunvieh, a pretty brown-grayish cow that looks great in pastures and does well in all sorts of commercials as well.
As would-be cheesemakers, we rapidly set about cutting the thickening mass with a cheese harp, to let whey escape and create nice, regular hazelnut-size granules of curds under the watchful eye of a friendly cheesemaker named Thomas, the only one around the cauldron who knew what he was doing. The cauldron hung from a massive hook attached to a moveable beam in what can be best described as a movie set resembling a Swiss cheese-making hut. We toured the modern facility of Manufaktur, where a great variety of cheeses is made from the perfect milk these happy cows with healthy lifestyles produce. These cows never eat silage, they graze on alpine meadows with a wide variety of tasty herbs mixed in with the grass in summer and delicious hay in winter. Of course they oblige by providing milk of a superior quality, and today, we turned some of that milk into 12 Mutschlis – a small round cheese, the Swiss answer to the Tomme. Your read that right: twelve of them. We will be eating Mutschlis for a long time…
We learned an awful lot about making cheese, how each of the steps in the process involves decisions that determine the final result – the milk that goes into the cheese, the size of the curds, the composition of the brine bath, the strains of bacteria being used etc. and we got to taste whey, cheese curds, and all kinds of yoghurt, heavenly yoghurt, another product the Milchmanufaktur (‘what on earth are we to do with all this milk???”)
Upstairs, in the store and restaurant area I got – among others – a cheese that expresses the quirky humor of Peter Glauser, an affineur who launched the wildly successful Belper Knolle (he works in the city of Belp, near Bern). The cheese is called Blaues Hirnli, that’s Little Blue Brain in English. The cheese indeed looks like a little blue brain with a creased grey mold cover over the ivory white creamy body of the cheese – a fresh-cheese ball, seasoned with Himalaya-salt. Combine the creaminess of the fresh cheese and the nuance the salt draws out from it with the strong flavors of the green-gray, fuzzy rind and a star among cheeses is born. We left a token bit of the Blue Brain for tomorrow only so we would not have to confront our gluttony the moment we woke up the morning after (“really? We ate an entire brain?”) The other two cheeses I tried were Willi Schmid’s Hölzig Schaf, a washed-rind sheep’s milk cheese that’s kept together with a strip of mountain spruce bark (combines red-rind stinkiness and the strong sharp flavor of sheep cheese: this cheese talks back!) and Käserei Stofel’s Tannenkäse, a rich, creamy cow’s milk cheese coated in a very thin crust of pine bark (yup, you can eat it…). With that, the all-Swiss cheese plate for the evening was an almost mischievous feast. A shame I didn’t decide to also add a piece of Fette Berta, fat Berta, for good measure.
After the Milchmanufaktur, young master Charles tried his hand at making his own Swiss Army Knife in Brunnen and then we stopped in the canton of Uri, at the Wilhelm Tell statue. You will recall that he was the Swiss freedom fighter who slip an apple on his son’s head with a crossbow, forced into conducting such a harebrained experiment by the hated representative of the Austrian crown, Albrecht Gessler. We know his aim was true, the apple split, Gessler killed and Switzerland freed from the Austrian yoke. And because of all this, the small town of Altdorf, where Wilhelm performed his awesome feat, has an enormous statue of Tell and his son at the base of a tower adorned with murals that tell the tale.
Alas, Christine and Charlie climbed the tower and found out from a strategically located sign that Tell was in fact Palnatoki, a Danish crossbow man, who supposedly did all the Tell-things before Tell did them. In fact, Tell never really existed and the mere fact that the same applies to Palnatoki is small comfort to us at this point. Wilhelm Tell was Danish – I bet you Rossini did not see that one coming.
If Tell never existed, why oh why did we not return home despondently, you may ask? Because our final destination for the day was beyond the Tell statue, over the great mountains of the canton of Glarus, to the alpine heights of Graubünden, where we were to attend the Kuhspektakel, of which I will write in the second installment of this extended post…
So that was it! Two days ago, without any warning, 2016 came to a screeching halt and my 52 cheeses project right with it. After an identity crisis that lasted several seconds, I made some bold decisions: first off, I will keep eating cheese, and I will write about it. On the last day of the year I got a piece of Reblochon, and that will become the cheese of week 1, 2017. But my decisiveness didn’t stop there, because I also felt I needed some changes. More about that in a minute – first, let’s go back to see if I achieved the goals I set myself when I started this blog a year ago. This is what I wanted to do:
Eat (a bit of) 52 different cheeses in 2016
Understand more than I did before about cheese and everything related to it
Develop a new creative outlet for my own selfish purposes
Learn how to write a blog
So I ate more than my fair share of cheese – just tonight I finished the last of the Camembert and the Tomme de Montagne and a bit of a very nice goat cheese from the great cheese counter at Hieber – so on count 1, I scored more than 100%. I do know a thing or two about cheese I didn’t know before, I met some interesting cheese people and I have a list of places I’d like to visit one day, to meet some random animals and some of the people that help put their milk into cheese. This post will be number 76, so the part about learning how to write and keep up a blog – that’s covered as well. The one thing where I may have missed the mark is the whole creative outlet bit. The self-imposed number of 52 cheeses and then the extra posts I decided to write: it’s become a bit much, and the writing at times felt like work.
Which is the perfect segue into what’s going to be next: in 2017, under the now clearly misleading name 52cheeses, I will write about all sorts of food. Mainly beer, chocolate and of course cheese, but I am also trying to learn more about the clementines from Corsica I just bought – apparently they merit an AOP. I doubt that I will eat any French AOP hay anytime soon, but the whole certification thing is interesting – there is a Kirsch-brandy soaked cake from the city of Zug, in Switzerland that has a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI), a jaw-breaking gingerbread from Aachen in Germany with similar protection, Bratwursts from St. Gallen – the list goes on.
Travel allows the exploration of all this diverse culinary heritage, and one doesn’t always have to go that far. Remember Jim Nakano’s donuts? So I will not get to a post every week, but I will write as often as I have a good enough reason – a good enough food with a good enough story. Not sure how much I will enjoy Harðfiskur, but I absolutely want to find out. And obviously, 2017 will be the year where I tell the world about the great taste of fresh grey peas – Kapucijners in Dutch. There is nothing quite like it. Trust me. Or not, it doesn’t matter. I haven’t seen them outside of Holland, and it seems that even there, the fresh green kind is not nearly as popular as the disgusting, canned brown variety. Clearly, eating grey peas that are actually brown is asking for trouble.
Oh – happy new year, by the way. My favorites in 2016, in no particular order and with no disrespect to all the other cheeses: The Remeker, the Tomme de Jura, the Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, the Croix Catal and the Appenzell Edel-Würzig. But even putting it down on paper, or rather committing it to cyberspace where it will live forever, picking just five of them seems to be random and somewhat callous, and a strange way of closing the book on a year of cheesy surprises, highlights, chance encounters and even a few….interesting experiences. So by way of New Year’s Eve cheese fireworks, below are some pictures – the year in cheese.
The final cheese of the year is a tribute to my late mother in law, who crowned this one of her favorite cheeses. Steven Jenkins, in his Cheese Primer, has nothing good to say about the Mimolette, but he still gives it plenty of attention and somehow it makes it on his shortlist. Go figure. The Mimolette extra vielle I brought home is comparable to a ripe Dutch cheese, and that, of course, is what it originally set out to be. Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIVs Minister of Finance and pretty much everything else took a whole bunch of very protectionist measures and had the French make French versions of popular imports, among them the cheese from Holland. In order to get it to look the part (a saturated yellow,rather than the pale straw color of most cheeses of the time, annato, turning the cheese a slightly creepy orange that over the years has become its trademark.
The other interesting (if also slightly creepy) aspect of this cheese is in its rind. A good Mimolette is thoroughly pockmarked as a result of the happy actions of cheese mites, little bugs that munch away at the ripening cheese and supposedly give Mimolette its special flavor. True or not, the possibility of any mites still present in the cheese (they are dusted with an air gun before going on sale, and the bugs that manage to hang on do not live to tell the tale) makes it a cheese non grata in the US. You can get a version with a much smoother rind that never came anywhere near a cheese mite, but connoisseurs will tell you it is just not the same without bugs. Finally, Charles de Gaulle said it was his favorite cheese, and that should account for something, I guess. After all, it was de Gaulle who said of France “How can you govern a country that has 246 kinds of cheese?”. Never mind that the actual number of cheeses in the quote tends to vary, and that le Général thoroughly lowballed the number of different cheeses in the country – he provided cheese lovers around the world with something to put on napkins, fridge magnets, trivets, tiles, and plaques. And in a way, he caught the essence of the way the French look at their cheese – more than just a food, it helps define a region, a way of life, a people. The Mimolette, for its part, comes from the North, and is also known as the Boule de Lille. My mother in law, from the city of Soissons, liked her northerly cheeses. Her other favorite I will keep for next year: Maroilles, a stinker from the town with the same name originated only about an hour away from Lille.
In a few days my final post for the year: my top 5 after 52 weeks of cheese, and the plans for 2017.
If many more people would read my blog I could possibly start a real controversy by writing the below. Fortunately, there is such a tiny overlap between my readership and the people that will go to war over the question of the best blue cheese in the world, that I can, without causing drama and mayhem, proclaim that a good Roquefort is hands down the best blue cheese experience to be had anywhere in the world. It has all the musty flavor of other blue cheese, but none of the sharpness you find all too often in the less sophisticated blue cheeses. Wow, that just sounded very snobbish. But hey – it is Roquefort I am talking about. Pliny the Elder, the Roman chronicler who wrote some pretty unkind things about the Dutch delta dwellers, already mentions a cheese from the region in the year 79, so this is a very old cheese. It is made using penicillum roqueforti, the mold that gives it the irregular holes, filled with grey powdery stuff that gives this sheep’s milk cheese its musty flavor. And it is not just any old sheep’s milk that will do for Roquefort. The milk has to come from the Lacaune breed, named after a town in southern France about an hour’s drive from Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, where the caves are in which the Roquefort is ripened – and of course, no other caves will do. In the dripping dark millions of cheeses are ripened by a handful of large companies: Roquefort is big business in France, only Comté is produced in bigger quantities. And it is old business: already in the early 15th century the producers of Roquefort managed to get Charles VI of France, whose reign was an overall unhappy affair, to protect the cheese and its makers, in essence providing it with the first AOP, if you will. His successor gave the decree some teeth by arranging for the punishment of those producing fake Roquefort. So there you have it: mentioned by a stellar Roman historian and scientist, ranked as his personal #1 by Charlemagne among all cheeses, provided one of the oldest food protections in the world (the German Reinheitsgebot for beer was introduced more than a hundred years later) and fawned over throughout the ripening process – no wonder Roquefort claims the title of King of Cheeses.
The Plateau of Langres in the central-eastern part of France is where the Meuse and Seine rivers start. It is also where they make a cheese that is very recognizable. For lay people like myself, this is great. Without even looking much at it, you can take a bit, lick your chops, wait a moment for the imaginary drumroll and proclaim with supreme confidence: “ah… Langres”. Make sure you pronounce it right, though, because it may destroy the effect: it is not Langrès, but Langrr. And it requires a certain amount of exercise in the French language to make that now sound like a growl. Langrrr is pleasantly chewy (so just a bit, not like you need special tools), has a fresh, vaguely tart taste which reminds me a bit of quark, the stuff they use in Germany to bake cheese cake. The rind is edible and beautiful and although the cheese comes in different sizes, I have to say that the petit in the little box would be a star on any cheese plateau.
Langres has a washed rind, and because the cheese is never turned during the 2-3 weeks of affinage, it ends up with the appearance of a deflated soufflé: if you want, you can pour Marc de Bourgogne, a pomace brandy from Burgundy in the cavity and let it sit a bit before tucking into the cheese. Because of the washed rind, there is a bit of a perfume, but Langres is not a real stinker. The milk for this cheese is supposed to come from French Simmental, Montbéliard or Swiss Braunvieh cows, all cows that can stand a bit of cold and coincidentally all cows that have quite a bit of brown in their hides. Speaking of color, the Langres is colored with a bit of anatto, which helps to make this just one very pretty cheese.
Savoy today is a corner of France tucked away between Lake Geneva and Italy, in the high Alps. For some 7 centuries, the Counts, Dukes and later Kings of Savoy managed to build and maintain a nifty little state that was at times quite powerful. Today their palaces around Turin are one of the most popular attractions in that region, and in one of the royal chapels visitors can see the famous Turin shroud. None of this has anything to do with cheese, which is why the story stops here, for now. Aside from the rich Counts, Dukes and later Kings of Savoy, the isolated high country was populated by relatively poor farmers, who would take the cream of their cows’ milk to make butter, and the partially skimmed milk to create simple, rustic looking cheeses: smallish rounds for their own use, the so-called tommes. The word has an etymology that goes back to the Celts and that gives you an idea of just how ancient the cheese is. Today, the Tomme de Savoie is a lowly cheese no longer: it is one of the most popular exports from the region and it is protected with an AOP. It has a thick, grey-brown rind (you could eat it but why would you do it – it’s not good and too thick) and a nice pale yellow paste with quite a few small holes. It is a semi-soft cheese with a lot of flavor, as long as it has had the time to ripen a bit. My piece had a nice intense edge to it. The flavor subtly changes with the season, depending on whether the cows are in their summer pastures or fed on hay. This week’s cheese and those for the subsequent three weeks all came from the enormous stall of Au Saveurs des Terroirs on the Sunday market in the city of Versailles, a few blocks away from the famous Palace. Buying cheese here is not for the fainthearted. First, there is just an enormous amount of cheese in all shapes and sizes and then, there are the rules. The line forms counter clockwise, and you do not stand still in front of the cheese you have picked so that you can point at it and make sure they understand you correctly. A good French customer stands neatly in line, waits for the next person that can help them and rattles off their list of cheeses, without having them anywhere near. So I left like an amateur as I struggled to remember all the cheeses I had seen and wanted to buy in my few dry-runs. In the end, I came away with a bag-full of French cheese classics, and next time, I will be a bit more confident in my ability to summon from memory just what I would want. A cheesy new-year’s resolution!
I thought Raymond Chandler had the market for suspenseful stories of crime and corruption cornered generations ago. I still think there is no private eye quite like Philip Marlowe anywhere in the real or in the fictional world, but I did learn today that even in our mountain paradise of the Confoederatio Helvetica (yup, that’s where the CH comes from), rackets are alive and well, and naturally, in a country like this, one of the more interesting rackets is the production of cheese knockoffs. That’s right, there are people who produce cheap, nasty cheeses and sell them as real Gruyeres, Emmentalers or Appenzellers.
The latter is a cheese that is marketed as the most flavorful in Switzerland. Interestingly, it is not protected by an AOP or something like it – it is a brand that is aggressively protected by the folks that collect the milk from some 50-odd farms and turn that into a hard cheese that is repeatedly washed in an herbal brine which is the great secret of this cheese. Depending on who you ask, there is just a handful of people who know the original recipe – I have read somewhere there were only two; a risky approach if you ask me.
What is interesting about the Appenzell – oh wait, let’s first talk about the actual cheese that got me going: I got a piece of Appenzell that is marketed as the Edel-Würzig variety. It really sounds fine for a cheese in German, even if the translation in English becomes a bit over-the-top and stilted: I give you the Appenzell Noble – Flavorful. OK, so that didn’t work. I can guarantee you that the flavor itself absolutely does, because here is a cheese that is creamy, salty, fresh, clean and oh so, eh – flavorful. It really is as good as the name implies. We have been eating it for a few days and we’re on our second chunk – we tend to eat it in slices about a third of an inch thick.
The cheese is not inexpensive and here we are back in the murky world of the cheese forgers, and why, of all places, Appenzell is such an interesting locale in this respect. This canton is one of the most conservative places in Europe. Not until the early days of 1990 (nope, that’s not a typo) were women allowed to vote here, and when the cows come down from the summer pastures in the fall, traffic through the main streets in the towns is likely to come to a screeching halt – people respect traditions, and cheese is an important one. They have been cranking out cheese at least since the 13th century, but probably a lot longer. But when it comes to combating cheese fraud, the canton is at the cutting edge: the marketing organization that watches out for the brand has teamed up with the Swiss government to isolate certain strands of lactic acid bacteria which are used in the cheese making process, and use them as ‘fingerprints’ for the cheese. How 21st century is that? Most hard cheeses have a casein mark in them – an identifier like a code that usually tells a buyer where the cheese is from and when it was produced.
That mark in an Appenzeller is almost as big as the cheese itself, so it is almost impossible to buy a chunk without the reassurance that you have a real Appenzeller in your hands. But with this modern method, even the casein mark is not necessary: a single slice of cheese without any rind can be identified – think of it as a DNA test for cheese. I am sure that the cheese mafia has recently left Appenzell, and gone on to places where women have been voting for close to 100 years now, but where a cheese doesn’t yet have a paternity test developed for them.