Loire Valley: Cheese 24/7

Chambord
Not too shabby: Chateau Chambord

A few months ago I had occasion to visit France (any excuse will do, really, so I will not get into the wherefore and the why). Our destination was a small chateau in the Loire Valley which now serves as a pleasant bed & breakfast with a very friendly and thoroughly philosophical host. We spent three days there and used our time to explore from the castle of Chambord in the east to Nantes in the west.

The Loire is the country’s longest river, and its valley is known as the garden of France. The rolling hills with deep soils are perfect for agriculture and the small towns and the many, many chateaux add enough charm to the region to drown out the annoyance of having to share the very best of these chateaux with hordes of tourists and innumerable French school classes who are forced to learn about Francois I, the king who was in no small measure responsible for the way the valley looks today. He went on an ill-advised conquest to Italy and came back inspired by the Italian Renaissance – the rest, as they say, is history, but there is more to it, of course.

Chenonceaux
Chenonceau

Before architects and artisans, largely imported from Italy, turned the Loire Valley in this incomparable chateau-a-rama, the landscape was dotted with medieval fortifications, because at one point, this was the frontier. Depending on how far back you want to go, the enemy at the gate may have been the dastardly English or the Saracens, the invaders from the Middle East and North Africa. They were routed so thoroughly, as history is told, that they left many of their worldly belongings behind – among them, their goats. This may very well be a mere legend, but in the absence of a better story, we’ll go with this: so many goats were left behind in the Loire Valley that the re-conquering French were left pulling out their hair: what to do with all the goats and all that goatmilk? Obviously, as the French do in most crisis situations, they considered cheese as a solution, and voilà, the region’s reputation as a prodigious producer of goat cheese was born. Even though the Loire Valley provides ample grazing opportunities for cows, there just isn’t anything in the way of cow’s cheese that can compete with Sainte-Maure de Touraine, Selles-sur-Cher, Pouligny-Saint-Pierre, Crottin de Chavignol and Valençay, the quintet of Loire Valley goat cheeses the area is famous for.

Limousin Cow
Friendly neighborhood cow

On one particularly pleasant evening (we had already gone for a walk along the Cher, a tributary of the Loire; ordered some very tasty savory crepes from a food truck – yes, a food truck in rural France – and chatted with some very friendly Limousin cows), a roadside sign caught Christine’s eye. She suggested we follow it, and where I understood ‘distributeur 24 h/24 h” to be a cheese distributor where trucks bound for all of France were carrying cheese to the six corners of the Hexagone around the clock, she knew exactly what this was.

Of course, someone had to come up with the perfect solution for that all-too-often occurring disaster: there is a sudden great need for goat cheese, but none can be found anywhere in the pantry – the cave, as the French would call it – quel horreur! Enter the distributeur 24 h/ 24 h: the cheese vending machine!

Distributeur 24
24/7 cheese

After following the signs around several tight turns and lazy bends in the road, we arrived at the farm owned and run by a couple whose picture adorned a board near the open gate to their property, Sandra and Rémi Mabilleau. They were shown holding some friendly furry goats below a statement of great poetic and philosophical force: “One can’t buy happiness – but one can buy cheese, which is virtually the same thing.”

Mabiquette
Cheese is happiness…

And then, not far from that sign, there it was: the vending machine. A log of fresh goat cheese coated in ash from door number 5 set us back a mere 4 euros. Once we arrived in our modest room in the small chateau we immediately tucked into a snow-white piece of goat dairy candy, which tasted as fresh as the cheese was white. As my taste buds were getting overwhelmed with the crisp, tangy, creamy revelation that unfolded itself in my mouth, I had visions of domestic tranquility being restored in the middle of the night after a derailed family gathering, a depression narrowly averted, a relationship salvaged in this small corner of the universe – because not far away, with round-the-clock reliability, a log of happiness-inducing, peace-making, splendid goat cheese could be had for only 4 euros, and some deft pushing of vending machine buttons.

Chevre
snow-white goat cheese
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Return to Ancona

Trajan Arch
Trajan’s Arch & Shipyards

A while ago I returned to Ancona, and this time I was determined to visit the King of Cheese, the Re Formaggio, a cheese shop that was closed for the day the last time I tried to barge into the door. Even more so than on the previous visit, the city surprised me with what I am tempted to call Ancona Moments. The place is rather unassuming, with a big shipyard on its doorstep and a center that is a strange mismatch of all kinds of architectural styles and crimes against good taste, but you stumble across interesting bits and pieces on a regular basis. There is, for instance, Trajan’s Arch, built for that very same emperor who has a famous column in Rome, a market whereupon that column sits and a ruined bridge across the Danube near Drobeta-Turnu Severin in Romania all named after him. The arch is dwarfed by the cruise ships that are being built right behind it, and it stands a bit forlorn among the ramps and cranes of the shipyard. But it predates all that is being built around it by a cool 18 centuries: it was completed by 115.

Santa Maria della Piazza Ancona
Santa Maria della Piazza

Not far from the arch is the Romanesque church of Santa Maria della Piazza, with a beautifully structured façade showing a few fantastic looking animals. It never seizes to amaze me how worshippers back then thought of the Holy Trinity and the angels, but also of dragons, mermaids, chimeras and all these other creatures that can be found in the art that adorns the churches of the period; and doing so without any qualms about the false idol bit (Exodus 20:3-5).

Pistacchio Cake
Pistacchio Cake
Pizza di Formaggio
Pizza di Formaggio

Musing about my Ancona Moments I enjoyed an equally surprising piece of pistacchio cake in a café not far from the King of Cheese, where I picked up a few treasures. Pizza for instance. No, not what you think. Pizza (lord knows why, I never got a good explanation) in Ancona is a sort of huge muffin, made of fluffy if somewhat greasy bread, with big chunks of cheese baked in. A very tasty treat, although I think it ought to be eaten family style, as in: it takes a lot of people to finish one of them, because they are huge.

As always when I am in Italy I managed to buy a piece of cheese that came with an explanation I did not at all understand, and so I can report it was a bit dry and crumbly, but in a good way, and had a bit of a blue cheese flavor, but that all, folks. I bought a rather colossal chunk of Trentingrana Malga Rolle, a super hard cheese that you need to cut with a Tagliagrana, a cheese pick in essence, that is deployed to aggressively hack away at a big wheel of immutable cheese in the hope of breaking it down to more practical pieces. The cheese comes from a farm at a mountain pass in the shadow of the Pala di San Martino, at 9,800-feet peak in the Dolomites. It’s in the region of Trentino, and the cows that give the milk for it get to munch on a fine selection of alpine herbs, which gives the cheese that certain something extra. Trentingrana basically means had cheese from the region around the city of Trento; weeks later, we’re still grating it our pasta.

Pecorino di Fossa
Pecorino di Fossa

The piece de resistance of my cheese purchase was of course a raw milk bit of Pecorino di Fossa. There was nothing wrong with the first bit I bought here a while ago, but this cheese was something else. From the amber color to the slightly rank odor and from the slightly oily touch to the sticky texture to the intense flavor, this was a cheese that had gone through an awful lot before ending up on the shelves of the King of Cheese. The church of Santa Maria della Piazza, pistacchio cake and Marche-style pizza notwithstanding, it was the Pecorino di Fossa that made my return to Ancona a triumph worthy of that grand imperial roman arch.

Japan: where’s the cheese?

Japan New Year's
New Year’s Prayers and Wishes at a Temple in Tokyo

If you are in Japan, have limited time and you’re eager to check as many tourist attraction boxes as you can, don’t go looking for Japanese cheese. It is pretty labor intensive and a bit frustrating at times. Even in the basement of the large department stores, those incredible cornucopias of carefully prepared and packaged foods that offer anything you can actually eat (and some things you should really stay away from, if you ask me); even there you will not normally find homegrown products. There is no shortage of raclette, of Roquefort or Parmigiano. But Japanese cheese, not so much.

Of course, there are very few places in Japan suitable for herds of cows and there just isn’t much culinary history that involves dairy. But the Japanese, to their enormous credit, are obsessive about good food, eager to try new things and open to experimenting. Which made the hunt for Japanese cheese in Tokyo more than a little interesting. On a side note: we did not starve because I managed to keep the cheese-sleuthing to a bearable level, so we had a lot of time to try many other things from the Japanese table, including the much-hyped-but-really-not-all-that-dangerous fugu (watch the entire episode of the Simpsons that explains the possible dangers of eating poorly prepared puffer fish – season 2, episode 11.)

One of the first cheese experiences we had was in a restaurant that was purportedly all about cheese – what could possibly go wrong? We were in for more than one surprise. First off, we showed up for lunch time and the cheese dish the restaurant focused on, fondue, was only served in the evening. I opted for the next best thing which, in my mind, really is only a distantly related cousin: cheesecake. Purists may even accuse me of cheating but hold your horses for a moment. The cheesecake I was served didn’t just look like a big slice of cartoon cheese with holes in all the right places, it actually had small pieces of cheese in it.

Japanese Cheesecake
Cheesecake with …cheese?

Keep an open mind, now. Surprisingly, it worked quite well. And let’s be honest: 10 years ago no one would have put caramel and salt together either. At the airport, we found another creative departure from established cheesy tradition: carefully wrapped sweet sandwich cookies with a thin layer of cheese between them, using different kinds of cheese: I picked Roquefort and Camembert. As far as I am concerned, the cookies were quite good, whereas the cheesecake with real cheese was more of an …interesting flavor.

We were in Tokyo over New Year’s and the one purveyor of Hokkaido cheese was out of town for the holiday, otherwise finding Japanese cheese would have in fact been a slam dunk. Mr. Konno, alas, was off on a little vacation: the Voice of Cheese was closed. Konno-san has dozens of cheeses from small producers in Hokkaido, among them the Sakura cheese that is matured on cherry leaves. The small wheels of this cheese resemble Camemberts and they are sold with a little pickled cherry on the top, which makes them look a bit like round Japanese flags. Sakura cheese won a medal at the mountain cheese Olympics some 15 years ago and it is pretty much the only Japanese cheese you would have ever heard of.

Japanese Cheese
Shimuzu Farm red rind cheese

I enjoyed the sweet taste of success in one of the last food basements I visited: a red rind cheese from the Shimuzu farm in the Japanese Alps and some raclette, which we would teppanyaki with friends later in the day. Both were carefully crafted copies of European cheeses, unfortunately without much in the way of an identifiable Japanese touch. Not that I really need an excuse to travel to Japan again – it is hands down one of my favorite countries in the world – but now I know to come back for Mr. Konno’s cheese, and to discover what else the Japanese have come up with when it comes to チーズ. Heck, I might even go to Hokkaido for some cheese and to share a hot pool with those mountain monkeys.

Teppanyaki
Teppanyaki – raclette cheese bottom left….

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.