The Future has arrived in Appenzell!? (Week 48)

appenzell-hills
Land of the Future: Appenzell

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.

appenzeller
Noble-Flavorful in Purple Branding

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.

appenzeller-iii
Casein mark – real Appenzeller

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.

appenzeller-farm
Appenzell Farm
main-street-in-appenzell
Main Street in Appenzell
Advertisements

Lincolnshire Poacher (Week 27)

Lincolnshire Poacher
Gold from Lincolnshire, England

Cheese: Lincolnshire Poacher

Producer: Ulceby Grange Farm

Where: Alford, Lincolnshire, England

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.

 

Tomme de Vache (Week 37)

tomme-de-vache-ii
Ah, my goodness….

Cheese: Tomme de Vache

Producer: La Fleurette

Where: Rougemont, Vaud, Switzerland

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.

tomme-de-vache-i
Fleurette (CH), Brin d’Amour (F, top left), Muehlestein (CH, middle), Biermutschli (CH) and Holzhofer Extra Rezent (CH, bottom right) – there is more than Gruyere and Emmental here!

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.

Emmentaler (Week 35)

emmentaler-2
What’s in a hole?

Cheese: Emmentaler rezent

Producer:

Where: Emmental, Bern, Switzerland

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.

wirth
Wirth’s stall on the Basel Market

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)

holy-holes
Holy holes!

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.

emmentaler
Emmentaler Crater

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.

cheese-plate-with-emmentaler
Cheese selection from Wirth’s in Basel: the Boss on the left, Biermutschli (top) and raw milk Epoisses in the middle and the ‘cheese of the week’ (dang it! forgot what it was) on the right.

 

Salamanca (Week 24)

Plaza Major Salamanca
Plaza Major in the evening

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.

Plaza Major Salamanca II
Salamanca’c City Hall

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.

Nave of Salamanca cathedral
Vaulting in Salamanca’s New Cathedral

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).

Portal of Salamanca cathedral
Nativity Portal of Salamanca’s New Cathedral

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.

Salamanca University
The Catholic Kings on the Facade of the University of Salamanca

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).

House with the Shells Salamanca
Casa de las Conchas in Salamanca

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).

Pastries in Salamanca
Bakery in Salamanca

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.

Rivas Counter in Salamanca
Rivas’ Queso Counter in Salamanca’s Covered Market

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.

Four Square (Week 9)

Four Square
Four Square at the Wheel House

Cheese: Four Square

Producer: Bleating Heart Creamery

Where: Tomales, California

At the Wheel House, I picked up a piece of Four Square along with a chunk of Hooligan (I went back for more of that weeks later, so see Week 21) and two other cheeses that were somewhat less remarkable.

Cheese Platter & Four Square
Clockwise from bottom left: Seascape from Central Coast Creamery, Hooligan, Humble from Parish Hill Creamery and Four Square

The Four Square was irresistible, because who would not want to try a four milk cheese? Seana Doughty is the driving force behind Bleating Heart Cheese, the company that creates this cheese (it will be available again this summer, but I got one of the very last pieces of it, it is a limited offering). She and her husband Dave Dalton appear to have a lot of passion for the art of cheese making, a healthy disregard for tradition if it suits them (I am sure purists have nothing good to say about a four-milk cheese) and a sense of humor about the whole thing. The best part about their website is the ‘stories’ section where they present the milk producers. The place that has the water buffalo is Double 8 Dairy and they have their own fun video that shows the daily work on the farm. That one definitely is worth a view.

Four Square is made with equal parts cow, sheep, buffalo and goat milk, ripened on redwood planks, washed with a brine every few days for 2-3 months. The squares have developed a very nice orange hue by that time. The cheese is fragrant in the best possible cheesy way and the semi-soft, pale ivory paste has a smooth, creamy texture and an easy, slightly salty taste. It is not overly complex but very pleasant – I may have been a tad disappointed with that, having expected something multi-layered that would take advanced placement classes in cheese appreciation to truly decipher. Instead it was just a very nicely balanced, full-flavored piece of cheese that can be enjoyed without or with rind, the latter for a salty flavor enhancement.

Four Square 2
Four Square: Buffalo, Cow, Goat & Sheep all in one!

Top 5 cheeses thus far and an explanation (Week 32)

Goats
Dutch White Goat and two Toggenburger friends

High time, 32 weeks into my 52 cheeses project, to have a list: the most enjoyable cheeses thus far. Notice how I did not say the best cheeses thus far? I don’t aspire to be a cheese arbiter, I will leave that to people with better developed palates and a more astute choice of words. I simply look at which cheese encounters provided me with the most all-around joy, and here is what I came up with, in no particular order.

The Remeker is a favorite because I just think this is what God intended when he said: ‘there be Dutch cheese’. It is really that simple, and the encounters with the brown cows certainly did add to the fondness I have for this cheese. The Hooligan is just so much fun because it is in the house, really. Put it in the refrigerator and you cannot open the door without thinking ‘wow, something’s not right here’. Aside from that, it is just a very flavorful, smooth experience. Except when you mix in some crunchy rind. Then it is a crunchy experience. Two for the price of one! The Azeitão is small enough to spoon it out in one sitting. There is a lot of freshness, some tang, a bit of bitter, creaminess, and what is there not to like about a cheese with an ã in the name? The Mua was a surprise with its chamomile rind, which gives it such an inimitable flavor, and finally, for sheer fresh, delicious ooziness, the Croix Catal, which also deserves many points for looks, was unbeatable.

So there you have it: 3 cow’s milk cheese, 1 goat, 1 sheep. Five different countries and honestly, that is a coincidence, I had no desire to create some inclusive-diverse-feel-good list that gave each country its due. There are obviously a lot of honorable mentions, my list will change over time and I do not mean no disrespect to any of the cheeses I tried.

And then to the explanation: most blogs, I hear, do not make it past 10 posts. A few months ago it looked like mine would become a statistic as well. I did eat my cheeses, I did hone in on the cheese of that week and I made my notes, but I couldn’t find much time to write. So in two bursts, I am catching up and until early October, thanks to the wonderful technology of WordPress, my blog will continue to spit out posts on a regular basis, every few days, until I am completely caught up. In the meantime, I will be going forward sticking to one cheese and one post a week (two if there is anything interesting from the travel front) and in 2o weeks we’ll see which cheeses walk away with that coveted 52cheeses.com Gold Medal for 2016….