Möckli, Röllchen or Rosetten?

Möckli, Röllchen or Rosetten?

Sbrinz II
Choices, choices: chunks, rolls or rosettes?

How would you like your cheese? Switzerland is a country with quite a few rules, which makes life orderly and predictable. Because this makes the quality of life and the quality of most products high, people are on board following the rules. And so a Swiss person knows that some of his cheese has big holes, some of it goes into fondue, other cheeses go into Raclette (even if there is an overlap here) – and then there are the cheeses that are sliced, diced, planed and chopped in a very specific way. One of those is Sbrinz, a cheese named after a town in the canton of Bern. Brienz is a village to the southeast of the Swiss capital, and in the heart of the Alps. From here, pack trains were readied for their trek across the Alps and the animals often carried a cheese with them, a very hard cheese that the Italians, who were on the receiving end of the pack trains called lo sbrinzo, the cheese from Brienz (they clearly added a few letters in translation). The name stuck, and now even the Swiss call the cheese Sbrinz. The cheese’s website carefully explains that there are three ways in which one can enjoy this cheese: use a sharp stubby knife (like the one you would use for Parmigiano), to hack small chunks off – those would be the Möckli – or use a cheese plane to get the rolls (Röllchen, you guessed it) or you can just grate it.

Sbrinz
Sbrinz in rolls

The explanation comes with links where you can get your own cheese pick, your cheese plane, or your grater: the marketing is quite impressive. We learned that Sbrinz does not do well in Raclette, it is too dry and doesn’t melt nicely. Otherwise, it is a fine cheese, just not one that I would buy the implements for, so if we have to have it, I will continue to get it in lil’ rolls at the local supermarket. Sbrinz is an AOP cheese, which means there are lots of rules to follow before you can call your Sbrinz a Sbrinz. Raw milk is used, cows don’t get fed any silage, and the cheese has to be ripened for at least 18 months. There is even a test, and the cheese has to score a minimum number of points before it can be called a Sbrinz. Even the name Hobelkäse (‘Plane Cheese’) is protected.

Rosetten II
Cheese, Art, or both ?

Another cheese that requires a specific implement for slicing it very thinly is the Tête de Moine, the Monk’s Head cheese – it is a loaf in the shape of a short thick tube, and in order to enjoy it, you are supposed to use a plane on a spindle that you can stick in the top of the cheese; by swiveling the plane perpendicularly to the surface of the cheese, thin slivers of cheese are shaved off. The process yields the so-called Rosetten, a thin, wavy flourish of cheese, not unlike some kind of flower. The thin layers melt in your mouth and the flavor really gets to unfold very nicely. While it is not made for it (and I may be jeopardizing future chances of becoming a Swiss citizen with this confession), we tried it in the Raclette maker and it was quite good. The classic, the younger version, is wrapped in silver foil, the older reserve in gold. The cheese has its origins in the monastery of Bellelay, also in the canton of Bern, but in the French-speaking borderlands with the Swiss Jura. The monks here for centuries paid their rent in cheese – at least since the late 12th century. The French Revolution saw the monks thrown out of the abbey but the cheese making continued. The invention of the nifty machine in 1981 really allowed the Tête de Moine to take flight – the little rosettes were just too cute to pass up, and the cheese because a party favorite.

Girolle
Swiss Circular Cheese Plane. Girolle sounds much better.

The plane is known as a Girolle and here, too, the question is whether to spend 40 big ones on a machine before you have a gram of cheese, or to buy the ready-made rosettes in the store. So far, I haven’t been swayed towards the purchase of a machine, so I get mine in little plastic containers. Give me another 10 years in Switzerland and I am sure I will shake my head in disbelief of my former self, as I walk to my kitchen cabinet that stores all my various cheese saws, planes, drills, and knifes. I will know then better than I do now that, in order to enjoy cheese, there must be rules and there must be implements.

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Sable de Wissant & the Question of Terroir (Week 18)

Sable de Wissant
Yeasty Delight: Sable de Wissant, washed in beer

Cheese: Sable de Wissant

Producer: Fromagerie Sainte Godeleine

Where: Wierre-Effroy, France

So let’s get to the second part of the title first. Terroir is a word sometimes used by the pretentious and the pretenders to talk about whatever expensive red or white they are swirling in their glass. Since it is foreign, it is supposed to help lend instant credibility to whatever comes before or after the use of the t-word. To the people who invented it (oui, les Français) it actually means something, and it is not only used for wine, although that is the field of food & drink appreciation where it is heard the most. Terroir, in a nutshell, ties a product to the land, to the climate, and to the traditions that impart a product its particular qualities. In cheese-speak, a Frenchman tastes the lush green pastures of Normandy, the houses that seems to grow out of the ground on which they stand, the lazy cows that chew and chew and the thick pillowy clouds full of rain when he tucks into a chunk of Pont l’évêque cheese. It is the concept that a food belongs somewhere, has a pedigree and a history that is not interchangeable. The cherished French AOCs (Appellation d’origine contrôlée), which have been replaced by the EU’s AOPs are related to the idea that you can’t uproot a product, transplant it to somewhere else and expect it to be the same. And what does all of this have to do with this week’s cheese?

Sable de Wissant is not a particularly old cheese with a long history going back to Charlemagne or Louis XIV. It goes back to Antoine Bernard and the 1990s, when this man, who raised goats for a living, decided to get into the cheese business. That did not seem an obvious choice because Antoine’s creamery is in the far northwest of France, an area many people in parts of the country more blessed with natural beauty and culture lovingly refer to as the sticks. Antoine first traveled around, learned on farms and monasteries and then set about creating cheese with a solid sense of terroir: the raw cow’s milk for the cheese comes from local farms and the beer used to wash the cheese and give it its unique yeasty flavor is brewed in Wissant, another small town in those very same sticks. And so here is a relatively newcomer to that fabled plethora of 246 French cheeses Charles de Gaulle talked about (“how can one govern a country that has 246 different cheeses), and it is all about local flavor, local products, and local labor of love – terroir, in essence. The cheese is semi-soft, smells like a nice white beer and has a creamy, soft but not runny texture and a full, rich flavor which combines yeast, barnyard and butter in just the right proportions. Well, done, les frères Bernard! And well done by the Cloche à Fromage in Strasbourg, on the opposite end of the country, for offering this delicious creaminess to the folks in Alsace.

Camembert de Normandie (Week 34)

camembert-i
AOP – the Real McCoy

Cheese: Camembert de Normandie

Producer: E. Graindorge

Where: Livarot, Calvados, France

In a French supermarket on the very edge of the Hexagon (the French call their country L’Hexagone sometimes, because of its shape), I experienced one of the blessings of living in the heart of Europe. It is 500 miles to Livarot, but I was able to get my fresh, raw milk Camembert from that very town in Normandy. Because in the US, the FDA watches over you and makes sure you don’t do anything that could be bad for you, you are not able to have a raw milk Camembert unless you leave the country. In our case, we also left the country but we did so in a car and we were back home again for dinner. We brought home a Camembert from E. Graindorge, a rather large producer, with a history going back to 1910, to grandpa Eugène. They have a slick, well done website, and the cheese can be ordered online. They produce some 11 different cheeses, all from the milk of those Normand cows that is transformed into some of the best cheese in the world. Among these cheeses, they feature the blockbusters, Livarot, Pont-l’évêque, Neufchâtel and Camembert de Normandie. All four of them carry the AOP designation, and the other three one day each deserve their own post. The Camembert, a soft cow’s milk cheese with a white bloomy rind really needs no introduction – it is produced all over the world, which explains the long official name of the cheese we brought home: any old cheesemaker can produce a cheese that looks the part and call it Camembert, but Camembert de Normandie is autre chose: something entirely different.

camembert-ii
Curds are hand-ladled into the mold – the seal guarantees it!

The cheese with the AOP seal is made from milk from Normandie cows, the curds are scooped into the mold by hand (very carefully, to guarantee just the right texture, and the milk is always raw. Marie Harel, an intrepid farm woman from Vimoutiers helped a man of the cloth, a certain abbot Bonvoust, as he was hiding from the French revolutionaries and he taught her a method of cheese making from his native Brie, which she adapted to create Camembert as we know it today. All of this happened in the waning years of the 18th century, and most, if not all of it, is entirely made up. Marie Harel did exist, but the cheese bit is unlikely, even if the story is a good one, and there is even a statue celebrating her ‘invention’ in Vimoutiers, paid for by an American who claimed to have had tremendous health benefits from eating copious amounts of Camembert. Whatever the origins of the cheese are or aren’t, Marie Harel’s descendants for many years just rudely claimed to own the exclusive rights to this cheese and tried hard to box other farmers out of the lucrative business of supplying Paris with the very popular cheese. Eventually other farmers got in on the action as well, and it wasn’t before long that Camembert was discovered elsewhere. So the early marketing and subsequent success of the cheese set the stage for widespread imitation and eventually necessitated the current clarification to the name. And yes, there is a difference, and it is huge.

camembert-iii
Sadly, we were too greedy: should’ve poked it gently before cutting it. a ripe cheese gives a bit more than one that isn’t quite done. The lighter, drier part in the middle isn’t quite there yet. Camembert is OK, but not divine at this stage.

A ripe Camembert de Normandie tastes like the Almighty intended cheese to taste. It has a bold aroma, a creamy consistency, and it adds a bit of a kick to a mouthful of barnyardy, mushroomy flavor. But never mind the adjectives, because there are certain things in life you just recognize when you experience them, even for the first time. Every bite from a real Camembert that has ripened to that ‘just right’ stage is, well, just right – but on a cosmic scale.

Sainte-Maure de Touraine (Week 32)

Sainte Maure I
Sainte-Maure de Touraine: start cutting on the right

Cheese: Sainte-Maure de Touraine

Producer: Cloche D’Or

Where: Pont-de-Ruan, Indre-et-Loire, France

Week 32 has an excellent example of why I enjoy the 52 cheeses process. The start this time was inauspicious: we are in the process of moving from one country to another and time is precious: not exactly the best of times to seek out a cheese monger and ponder myriad choices. So, at a local Géant supermarket in Alsace, I found one of the few raw milk cheeses they had (the fact that the vast majority of the cheeses on offer were made of pasteurized milk shows that the country is going to hell in a hand basket) and took it home. And that’s always when it starts to get interesting: there is the tasting, and there is the research. The tasting yields pleasure, the research yields the stories, and these, for the purpose of this blog are probably more important. Let’s face it: most people have very little idea what it means when they read: ‘the cheese is nutty, with caramel overtones and some faint floral notes’. There is certainly room for elaboration at one point and I am not against using those kinds of words – but most folks that bite into a piece of cheese go one of two ways: “I like it!” or “Meh”, (Those that go “Eww, that’s disgusting” should have stayed away from that Munster in the first place.) so I would never take any flowery cheese description’s word for it, and just make up my own mind – and encourage others to disagree with my assessment.

So here is the story on Saint-Maure de Touraine. Let’s begin with the first part. ‘Maure’ of course comes from a word for ‘black’ (think ‘Moorish’) and the saint in question may have been some ancient deity in charge of fermentation – seems very fitting for a cheese to adopt this name. There may be a relation also to the Moors that stayed in France after the Saracens (yes, that’s kind of the same as the Moors) suffered defeat at the hands of Charles Martel in 732. They may have introduced goat cheese making in southern France – more specifically their women, because cheese making was a woman’s job. Skeptics point out that there were goat herds well before the Moors’ defeat, but it makes for a good story. The other excellent story related to this cheese is the notion that you need to cut the log at its widest end first. Get it wrong and the goat from which the milk came will lose its milk-producing mojo (I think I screwed up here). But onto the second part of the name, before I forget.

Sainte Maure II
Rye Straw with the Name of the Producer

Touraine today lives on as a marketing concept: it is a somewhat well-defined tourist region encompassing much of the Loire Valley around Tours. In the olden days, it was first a county and then a duchy centered on the city of Tours, erstwhile capital of the Celtic tribe of the Turones (I am using capital in the most liberal sense of the word). Aside from tourism, Touraine also exists in the world of cheese, because since 1990, the Sainte-Maure de Touraine is protected with an AOP and can only be produced in what used to be the old duchy. And it has a very cool proof of authenticity: a rye straw is to run through the length of the log, and when you pull it out, you’ll find the producer’s name engraved on the straw. No straw, no name, no AOP.

Sainte Maure III
A straw runs through it

My log came from Cloche d’Or. Most Sainte-Maure de Touraine is produced by large companies, and this is no exception. Cloche d’Or collects raw goat’s milk from about 150 farmers and churns out some 64o tonnes of the cheese every year. Not exactly your mom and pop cheesemakers, and interesting that such large enterprises busy themselves with making raw milk cheese. Sainte-Maure is a dense, creamy goat cheese with a typical slightly acidic flavor: while not particularly surprising, it is a very solid and thoroughly tasty contribution to the world of goat cheeses. A cheese that does its job, nothing more, but certainly nothing less. A day after my purchase there was but a sad stump left of the once formidable log.

Raclette (Week 6)

Raclette Cheese

Left to right: Valais AOP, Baselbieter, Sheep Raclette cheese

Cheese: Valais Raclette AOP

Producer: –

Where: Valais Canton, Switzerland

I returned from a business trip to Basel, Switzerland with a suitcase full of Raclette cheese. OK, that’s a grave exaggeration, but I had enough for a meal for three. Raclette is originally a cheese from the Valais Canton in Switzerland, but it is also used to describe a meal of melted cheese. So while there is the cheese with the official designation and protection (AOP) from Valais, there are a lot of different cheeses sold as Raclette cheese. These are semi-hard cheeses, often sold in slices, to be melted in the little pans of a raclette-maker, and then poured onto potatoes, bread or veggies (or anything else you think of, as long as it will taste good with a coating of molten cheese.  The alleged history of the cheese is spectacular: in Roman times, it had already been around for centuries, and some even used it in lieu of money. And then, in the Middle Ages, Léon the Valaisian farmer came by, had the brilliant idea to melt the cheese and the rest… well, is even more history.

I brought some local (‘Baselbieter’) cheese, some made of sheep’s milk, and some Valais AOP Raclette, the Real Deal. In a traditional setting, an entire wheel of Raclette may be cut in half, and put close to an open fire with the cut side. Imagine a sturdy Swiss herdsman walking around the table scraping off portions of melted cheese off the big wheel, onto his fellow men’s plates.

We did have to imagine the open fire and the Swiss herder, because we poured the melted cheese from our little pans in the comfort of our home in southern California. One promotional site describes the cheese as “a source of pleasure and conviviality” – and really, we had a very convivial evening.

Ready for Raclette
Ready for Raclette

Raclette cheese is perfect for melting, it slips easily out of the little pans, often without the help of the little scrapers. We had a variety of potatoes and three colors of cauliflower, and we got quite creative with the meats. The Swiss eat prodigious amounts of thinly sliced cured meat, much of it from the Cantons of Graubünden and Valais. I did not bring any, so with the help of Chaz Christianson, whom we met at the cured meats counter of the Cheesemongers of Sherman Oaks we added an eclectic mix of international delicacies – one juicier than the next. More about our visit there in the next post.  The Raclette from Valais – Wallis, as the German-speaking Swiss call it – was the clear winner. Not only did it melt to a perfectly smooth, fragrant goop, its robust, somewhat tangy taste only got better with the melting.

Cured Meats at Cheesemongers of Sherman Oaks
Chaz’ Counter of delicious meats

Banon AOP (Week 5)

Banon 1

Banon: goat cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves

Cheese: Banon AOP

Producer: Fromagerie de Banon

Where: Banon, France

I spent the first few days of this week in Avignon, and the Cheese Primer suggests that two of the ‘worthy’ cheeses from Provence/ Dauphiné region are the Banon and the Saint Marcellin. Steven Jenkins is the author of this book, which I bought quite a few years ago and which is starting to show its age: it was published in 1996 and back then it won a James Beard award, but unfortunately, it has by now missed 20 years of development – nothing in his book about the splendid new cheeses in the US (he dedicates a chapter to the US, but the pickings are slim), or any of the newer creations in Europe. In fact, it even predates the AOP designation of the Banon, which was awarded in 2003. At some point in this blog, I will write something about the Appellation d’Origine Protégée, but for now it suffices to say that this designation indicates to consumers that they are buying the real deal, in this case a cheese that is produced according to certain rules in a certain area, using certain ingredients, in this case raw goat milk.

It is a little round cheese, about three inches in diameter and an inch thick, with a nice white rind and a smooth creamy paste. Banon are wrapped in chestnut after 5 to 10 days of ripening. The leaves are soaked in water or a water & vinegar mix and this takes out much of the tannin, but the overall idea of this wrapping is that the leaves do not just protect the cheese but also impart some flavor. The leaves are carefully folded around the cheese and kept in place with a strand of natural raffia. If nothing else, the cheese looks very pretty and it makes for a good story. The cheese is named for the small market town that sits on a 2,600 feet ridge about 60 miles east of Avignon. There is a legend that Antoninus Pius, Roman emperor from 138 to 161, ate so much Banon that he fell ill and died a few days later. I am not quite sure why the people that are selling this cheese think they need to tell this story.

Local farmers who used their goats (‘poor man’s cows’) for milk produced cheese for their own use and sold any surplus in the nearby towns. Today the region in which Banon is produced is carefully delineated, outside of it, farmers can wrap their cheese in chestnut leaves all they want, but it’s no Banon!

The second cheese I bought was the Saint Marcellin, named after a town two hours north of Avignon, a little over a half hour from the banks of the Rhône. It is ridiculously creamy, packs a lot of flavor and a bit of a bite when thoroughly ripened. That big glob of cheese on the bread is Saint Marcellin.

Saint Marcellin
Creamy goodness: Saint Marcellin

The bread by the way is typical for the region: walnuts and grapes, soaked in red wine for a while, are kneaded into the dough – pain vigneron. It is the kind of bread you can just keep munching away at until it is miraculously gone.

Third cheese! The Pélardon is from the Cévennes region, in the Massif Central, quite a ways from Avignon, so it didn’t fit in my plan of having strictly regional cheeses, but my companion, Magalie insisted, and she’s a chef, so I did as I was told. It was worth it: it is dry, has the typical goat flavor with nice complexity – a good one all around. One of the great things about some of the AOPs is that they prescribe what the animals eat and where they eat it – in this way, these rules ensure that the consumer knows that their cheese comes from goats who have a decent life. The Pélardon has an AOP designation as well.

Delice du Ministre
Tres delicieux: Delice du Ministre

For good measure, I bought three other cheeses (and I thought I showed great restraint): a goat cheese from the Chevrerie du Pesillon, one from the Terrasson farm, and finally a Délice du Ministre from Givors, a town along the Rhône. This last cheese has its roots in a small town called Vinay, not far from Saint Marcellin and I cannot figure out why it is not better known. The only thing I have learned that it received its name because high ranking government official in the past would have goatees, and were subsequently referred to as goats. Délice du Ministre is thus a reverse-play on that nickname. It was a delightful surprise, I actually liked it the best of all of six cheese – perhaps it was a draw between the Saint Marcellin and the Délice.

On the plate with the six cheeses, they are, from center top clockwise: the Saint Marcellin (cow’s milk, by the way), the Pesillon, the Pélardon AOP, the Délice du Ministre and the Terrasson (with the grey mold). The Banon sits in the center.

French Goat Cheeses
On ne peut jamais avoir trop de fromage!