13 years after we first visited Saint-Cergue, there were now three of us. And all three of us gazed in awe at the magnificent beasts, the colorful traditions and – of course – the cheese….
a few more images –
“What on earth” you could hear those Swiss mountain farmers think “are we going to do with all that friggin’ milk?” That’s when some smarty-pants came up with the idea of making cheese. A lot of milk goes into a single cheese, you can roll the wheels down the mountain (ok, they really don’t do that, but they could, if you ask me), and you can keep the cheese for months. Fast forward a lot more cows and of course, the question becomes “what on earth” – exactly: “are we going to do with all that friggin’ cheese?”
You eat it. your neighbors eat it, the people one town over eat it. And visitors eat it. A lot. and then you send it all over the world so everyone eats it. Problem solved and worldwide reputation established. We found ourselves in the epicenter of cheesiness this weekend, as we witnessed a spectacle where the-cows-that-make-the-milk-the-farmers-turn-into-the-cheese-that-gets-sold-around-the-globe are brought down from their summer pastures, where the mountain herbs on which the cows feast give the milk that je-ne-sais-quoi that makes the mountain cheese so yummy, to the winter pastures and stables where they wait until spring.
The town of Saint-Cergue has turned this chore into something people from the US, Sweden, Belgium, France, and Japan travel for thousands of miles to witness: cows with big old bells (Bruce Dickinson!) around their necks, some with flowery headdresses are poked and prodded down the mountains, do a few tours around the town, spray the pavement with poop and disappear, all this to the delight of the visitors, who feast on Tomme Vaudoise grillée and on Tartiflette, a stew of onions, bacon, potatoes and Reblochon, and thus help to take care of some cheese for which the locals now no longer need worry about transportation costs.
Why, you say, is this area an epi-cheese-center? Because it is frontier country. We overnighted in a hotel that straddles the border between Switzerland and France. And both countries face the above-mentioned ‘what to do with’ dilemma. So they are fiercely competitive. On the Swiss side, the Tomme Vaudoise is the innocent-looking vanguard of the Gruyere and Emmentaler forces a little further inland. The Vacherin Mont d’Or has been claimed as a Swiss cheese, but the French will never recognize it as such. On the French side, there are the formidable stacks of Comté wheels, fittingly being aged in a old fortress in Les Rousses, the Morbier, and the Bleus – those of Gex and of the Haut Jura. for the cheese lovers, this pitched battle makes the border region a Cheese Wonderland. Ah, I had to restrain myself – 0vercome with emotion while looking at the cows, I could have kissed any of those dewy-eyed pretty ladies. Instead, I whispered a quiet “Thank you” in each ear.
Brothers Simon and Tim Jones of Lincolnshire Poacher Cheese are certifiable cheese nuts whose web pages are brimming with enthusiasm and idealism. They run their place on wind and solar, heat their milk with straw pellets and even pump heat out of the ground. And we’re not even talking about the cows yet. Their 230 Holstein Frisians munch on food that is largely grown on the farm, a family operation since 1917 (they also have a few Ayrshire cows – that’s a Scottish breed, but they blend right in because they look like red Holsteins, pretty much). As the Joneses do not use pesti- and other cides, the cows live among happy healthy bugs and critters of all kinds. Their farm sits 7 miles or so away from the North Sea near the town of Alford, which has a windmill with five sails as its claim to fame. A very disturbing sight for a Dutchman. Anyone who knows something about windmills understands that more than four sails is just wrong, and in England apparently that are some mills that even have six sails. One needn’t wonder why the Empire couldn’t last.
The piece of Lincolnshire Poacher I had was relatively young, had a fresh clean taste and a beautiful yellow color. I liked it a lot, but I will be looking out for their more mature cheese, because I believe that there is more flavor and goodness to be had with age. Some of it is aged over 3 years. You can listen to Simon Jones explain this and more on a beautiful little video; their website is also a treasure trove of information, photos of happy cows and of the assistant cheesemaker who apparently likes to play the trombone when he is not up to his elbows in curds.
The Lincolnshire Poacher is originally a traditional song that has been adopted as an anthem of sorts of Lincolnshire county. It is used as the official march of several military units. Benjamin Britten even arranged a version, but that one is for the dogs. Chris Sarjeant plays the tune in this video. It has crappy sound quality, but the crowd sings along and he picks a mean guitar.
When I was bound apprentice in famous Lincolnshire,
Full well I serv’d my master, for more than seven year,
Till I took up to poaching, as you shall quickly hear.
Oh, ’tis my delight on a shining night, in the season of the year.
Ah, our new Swiss Life. After I picked up what I needed from the local web provider, I walked across the street that makes up downtown Reinach to the local butcher and deli, who also sells cheese. I wanted something for dinner, so I got that, some Unser Bier (see Week 33) and this little cheese, wrapped in a white piece of paper with a cheerful blue logo printed on it. And thus, I stepped into the world of Michel Beroud, a cheesemaker in a town that can arguably be considered the cradle of Swiss Alpine cheeses.
The Fleurette, as the story goes, was the nickname of a woman who came to help pack cheese and showed up every day in an apron with flowers all over. This cheese comes from raw cow’s milk, and the cows that make that milk live their lives chewing on grass that grows on an altitude of about 3,300 ft (or hay of that same grass). Mixed in with the grass is clover, wild cumin and other yummy greens that all find their way in the fine flavor the cheese and a fine flavor and texture it is! Oozing out of its perfect white bloomy rind is a white, creamy fresh-tasting goop that, at 2 weeks ripening, has quite a bit of structure and depth. I know, I know, that sounds convoluted – ok, so it is a bit saltier and has a bit more flavor that you would expect from such a cheese. Beroud makes some other cheeses as well, so I believe I may soon be back at my friendly neighborhood cheese store. But read my post for Week 38 – you’ll find that there is more in this corner of the planet in the way of cheese opportunities.
Just southeast of Syracuse in New York is Cazenovia, and don’t say “well, everybody knows that”. Cazenovia is home to a little over 7,000 souls and at least one ridiculously photogenic farm, Meadowood. Oh, be that way, don’t take my word for it. Look at their website and then agree with me, that’s fine. Meadowood is home to a herd of East Frisian sheep. Apparently these woolly wonders are the best that sheepdom has to offer in versatility: they produce a lot of milk, compared to other sheep, they provide fine wool and if all else fails, they don’t taste so bad either. The perfect package for a relatively small farm. The cheesemaker here is a woman by the name of Veronica Predraza, and
You can listen to a radio interview with her here. I just thought that I could put that in here, because I have not yet had the opportunity to link with a radio program. You can skip the first 2:12 minutes.
Veronica gave us Ledyard, this week’s cheese. She clearly knows her stuff and ended up borrowing an Italian tradition – that of the leaf-wrapped robiolas – for this particular cheese. so you take your soft ewe’s milk cheese, soak some grape leafs in beer (Deep Purple, a beer made with Concord grapes added for flavor and the purple color), slap ‘em on the cheese to create a neatly wrapped package, let it age for 4-6 weeks and voilà, you got yourself a cheese that is something else altogether. Ledyard is fresh, with some herbal notes, a bit of yeast and a bit of fruit, and yes, this time around I mean all of this high-falutin’ stuff: the cheese packs a lot of different flavors in each bit, and they all seem to be vying for attention, not all together, but one after another, which makes eating the cheese pleasantly confusing (is it a vegetable? No! Is it cream? No! Is it a drink? No!)
Notable: Ledyard became this week’s cheese after a pitched battle with the other cheeses I got from DTLA Cheese, a battle that took the shape of a true cheese orgy: the Smoked Kashar from Parish Hill Creamery in Vermont, the formidable Bandage Wrapped Cheddar from Fiscalini in Modesto in the Golden State, the Adair from Jacobs and Brichford in Indiana’s Whitewater Valley and the take-no-prisoners stinky Dorset cheese from Consider Bardwell Farm of West Pawlet in Vermont. Given the strong field – much better and more competitive than the republic presidential slate. And because of that, let’s show all of the contestants: drrrrrrrummrollllll:
In today’s popular parlance, this cheese is a boss. In particular the kind that is ripened some 18 months, and that the Swiss call ‘rezent’, which has nothing to do with recent, on the contrary. The word means something like ‘sharp’, and that tasty sharpness is reached after ageing for a good long while.
The valley of the Emme in the Canton of Bern has seen people make cheese for some 800 years, most of the time just for their own use, and to give some of it in exchange for their lease of the pastures to their feudal lords. Only in the early 19th century did it become more widespread and then it took off. Emmentaler is one of the most copied cheeses in the world – heck, even Kraft slices come in something that vaguely resembles the Swiss King of Cheese. I am frankly surprised the Swiss have not ever considered severing ties with the US for that abomination. Emmentaler as protected by the AOP designation is now made in a fairly sizeable part of Switzerland, not just in the Emme Valley, but the stipulations about its production are still quite stringent: raw milk, no silage for the cows, a certain percentage of the diet of the cows has to come from fresh grass etc.
My ‘rezenter Emmentaler’ came from the Wirth cheese stand on Basel’s main market, and like in many other places, the cheese is not presented as from a particular producer – so it is anyone’s guess if the cheese is actually from that fabled valley, or from a place in the neigborhood that fits the bill laid out in the rules of the AOP. So yes, I am lying up there where it says ‘where’… all I know for sure is the cheese is from Switzerland (if it isn’t, someone else is lying)
Of course all of this is fine and good, but really, the only thing everyone always wanted to know about Emmentaler is: where do the holes come from? Meet Propionibacterium freudenreichii. Freudi, as I like to call him, is a bacteria that inhabits, well, us – there are quadrillions of them in our skin. Freudi is also useful in the production of certain cheeses, and when he is done with his useful reductive work, he leaves flavor and a lot of gas, CO₂ to be exact. The gas finds tiny little bits of haydust in the cheese, enters the minute little capillaries in the hay and voom! it expands and creates a hole.
If that sounds farfetched, don’t take my word for it. Buy a copy of the study by some Emmentaler-obsessed Swiss scientists in Bern (it will set you back $40, so you may just want to trust me on this one). Raw milk contains more bacteria than pasteurized milk (among them also lactobacillus helveticus, a colleague of Freudi who does a lot of groundwork for him, before he gets started with the whole gasmaking operation) and winter milk has more haydust in it than summer milk, so you know what to do when you want big holes in your cheese. The holes ought to be round, poorly shaped holes may very well point to poor performance on the part of the bacteria and hence poor quality cheese. And the salt crystals and the occasional ‘tear’ of salt water in the bigger holes of the more ripened cheese: it’s all part of the fun. I am sure that you are familiar with the sweet, sour taste of Swiss cheese. Add to that the multi-layered depth owed to raw milk and a natural production process and then, bam! compound that with the body and complexity that comes from 18 months of careful ageing – and there’s a cheese to bow in front of, and chant: ‘we’re not worthy, not worthy, not worthy’, before taking a big fat bite.
Ah, Salamanca. What a delight, what a delight. And what better place to soak up this delight but the Plaza Major. As a visitor, it is your job to see as much of a city as you can, but in this case, one could easily be forgiven if all available time is spent here, where the heart of the city beats. It gets brutally hot here during the day, so in the morning or after sunset is clearly the best time to hang out here, drink coffee or a glass of wine, depending on the time of day, and observe the going-ons on what is easily one of the most beautiful squares in Europe. The Plaza Major was started under King Philip V, who had successfully waged a war of succession (“I am the king” “No, I am the king” “No you’re not!” and so on, and so forth) with some important backing from the city of Salamanca. The grateful new king paid for the plaza, which was designed by one of the younger Churriguera brothers, Alberto, his nephew Manuel and Andrés Garcia de Quiñones.
In the Iberian Peninsula, they know a thing or two about architectural decoration – in most styles, there is a lot of it (probably a link to the Moorish past): in Portugal, the Manueline style is Gothic on steroids, the Plateresque is over-the-top Renaissance and the crazy bombastic baroque is named Churrigueresque after the aforementioned family. The brothers new a thing or two about making a building look positively spectacular. They actually went easy on the Plaza Major – the better Churrigueresque is seen in many churches of the period, and the style actually had somewhat of a revival in southern California with San Diego’s 1915 Panama-California exposition. A number of those buildings can still be found in Balboa Park. But back to Salamanca, drinks, cool night air and idle musings while blowing smoke from a Cuban cigar….
Where was I in those idle musings? OK, back to my contemplation on the job of the visitor, because beyond the square there are a host of other things to see here. The university has a number of splendid buildings (it is one of the oldest universities in Europe, founded in 1134), and then there is the cathedral, no wait, two cathedrals for the price of one. And that’s quite literally: you pay an entrance fee in the Gothic new cathedral and after you are done there, you can move on to the Romanesque church, which is right next door.
Usually when the church builders of yore created the great Gothic buildings, they plonked them right on top of the Romanesque church that was already there, taking it apart bit by bit to make room for the new and improved. Here, they decided to build the new building right next to the old one. I am a great fan of church art and architecture and the two cathedrals of Salamanca along with the cloisters are sort of a church-orgasm (no offense intended).
From Romanesque to Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque, the four major styles of the 600 years it took to build this complex are all splendidly represented in what is in essence one big labyrinth of a building. Both the outside and the inside are worth a great many oohs and ahs, so take your time here. The University buildings are in the same area, in fact most of Salamanca’s must sees are in a relatively small area. The oldest university building in particular has a facade that is a textbook example of the Plateresque style: Renaissance with a very high ‘look-at-all-that-stuff!’ factor.
Another building worth a mention is the Casa de las Conchas, the House of Shells. It was built by one Rodrigo Arias de Maldonado, a knight in the order of St. James and the scallop shell (coquille Saint-Jaques, as the French would say) is a symbol not only of the Saint himself, but of the pilgrims who visit Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northern Spain. Even today, as the road to Santiago is experiencing a revival, people carry a shell on their backpack. If you don’t believe me, rent the movie The Way, starring Martin Sheen and somehow featuring a big burly Dutch character named Joost (weird). This building has hundreds of these shells on the facade. Today it is the city’s public library and it is another must see (so much for hanging out in the plaza, I realize I am starting to harangue now).
In the streets between the Plaza Major and the Cathedral there are lots of restaurants, small shops and bakeries with windows too good to pass by without stopping. None of it seems very good for the waistline and yet I did not see many residents with particularly inflated physiques. That reassured me into trying various tasty treats – I recommend the Madrileño for its stunning crumbing qualities (center right in the picture).
Finally, just off the Plaza Major is the covered market from the early 20th century, a temple of delicacies offered in clean, well-organized stalls. My runaway favorite here was the Rivas business, 4th generation merchants that offer all kinds of meats and a fine selection of raw milk cheese.
The three cheeses I bought here (a hard goat’s milk cheese, a hard sheep’s milk cheese and a torta, a runny sheep’s milk delicacy) were part of the cheesy dinner in the Douro Valley.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.