Appenzell Part 2: the Cheese, please

Appenzell in the Morning
Early morning in Appenzell

Around our visit to the Alpabzug, unsurprisingly, we also took an interest in, you guessed it, cheese. And that brought us to the small town of Stein. On the edge of this village in the canton of Appenzell Ausserrhoden, there is a complex of two buildings that do a magnificent job in telling the story of local agriculture. There is a museum which displays beautiful folk are with lots of cows and flowers, a live person in a shed who makes cheese with traditional equipment that you can buy in the gift shop (yes, you heard right: go to a museum to buy cheese) and a host of other bits and pieces of local history. It’s a modern, light building with plenty of room for all the art and artefacts. Next door is the Schaukäserei, a place that explains the history and the art of cheesemaking in the region, wrapped around a large cheesemaking facility.

Appenzell Museum Stein
Senner Hut: Butter churn on the right, harmonic cowbells in the back

One of the best exhibits is a film that shows an interview with an old Senn, who tells the story of his growing up with a dozen siblings on a farm where the diet consisted largely of bread and dairy products: butter, whey, cheese, milk. Sennen spend their days in summer herding cows, milking them and either transporting the milk down the mountain or turning it into cheese right there in a shed in the meadows. Even today these men and women work in the open with most of their interactions limited to their bovine charges. The old man’s eyes light up when he speaks about the cows, how he likes talking to them and rubbing their heads.

He goes on to explain how the cheese he was used to was normally low-fat: the cream would be scooped off the milk and turned into butter that could be sold at higher prices, and almost immediately: butter provided cash-flow. In the town of Appenzell they still sell this cheese, and call it Rässchäs, sharp cheese. And that, my cheese friends, is not an understatement. This cheese combines and surpasses the sharp saltiness of really old Dutch cheese with the potent stink of a Munster. In fact, a quick scientific survey of everyone in the family irrefutably concluded that it is was worse than any cheese I had ever dared to bring into the home. Räss in flavor and smell, indeed. It is the kind of cheese that will put hair on your chest – I thought it was impressive in the best possible way.

Appenzell Museum Stein II
Mid-19th century drawing in the Appenzeller Museum
Appenzell Costumes
Appenzeller traditional dress

The unusual cheese choices in this part of Switzerland don’t end there. I picked up a few slices of Schlipferkäse at a cheese shop that seems to specialize in unusual cheeses. It came with an interesting recipe: soak a slice or two overnight in lukewarm water (cover it up, but do not refrigerate). The next morning, pour off the water, cover the cheese with some cream, add salt, pepper and cumin as you like, and eat it for breakfast with some boiled potatoes with the skin still on – Gschwellti, as the Swiss call them. Yup – true recipe. I tried it without the Gschwellti and it’s quite pleasant, although I doubt I would often want to go through the trouble. To me some hard cheese with a slicer is easier and less work.

Cheese from Appenzell
Clockwise from top left: Suurchäs, Schlipferkäse, Urnäscher Brauchtumskäse, Rässchäs

Finally, I got a piece of Suurchäs, sour cheese. This cheese is produced in the neighboring district of Toggenburg, the modern incarnation of a medieval county with the same name. it is made of skimmed milk and therefore has a lot of protein, without much fat. It is white, with a fresh and somewhat sour taste, and as it gets older, a shiny layer develops on the surface that looks a bit like bacon, and is hence called ‘speck’. All three of these cheeses are rather acquired tastes, but not so much the fourth cheese I brought home from Appenzell. It came from the neighboring community of Urnäsch, where the family farms work together in a cooperative that markets several local cheeses very professionally. One of them is made with milk only from cows that have horns – there is some evidence that the milk of these animals tastes a bit different. I got some Urnäscher Brauchtumskäse, heritage cheese, if you will. This one comes in three different ages and mine had ripened for somewhere between 6 and 8 months. It is not a miracle that it won a Super Gold award at the World Cheese Awards a few years ago, because it is salty, creamy, and chockful of flavor. And yes, to make it a nice round number, we did purchase a piece of Appenzeller Edel-Würzig, marketed as superior spicy on the Appenzeller website. The secretive men (and, recently, a young boy) that appear on large billboards throughout Switzerland tell you through their silence that you’ll never know the exact composition of the herb bouquet that finds it’s way into the cheese. And if you would, they may just decide to never let you leave, to protect the trade secret. Things could be worse.

Secret of Appenzell
Sshhhh….

 

Appenzell, Swiss Postcard

Goats and Appenzell boy
In the lead: boy with Appenzell goats

There are cow parades at the end of summer, and then there is the Alpabzug in Appenzell. In the most conservative cantons in Switzerland, where voting is still done by raising hands in the voting square of the town in some places (and women had to fight for much of the 20th century to join in the voting), tradition is on full display when the cows come home in a carefully choreographed ritual. Ahead of the cows comes a young boy wearing yellow pants and a red vest, a little leather cap on his head and a dangling earring in his right ear. He carries a richly decorated Fahreimer, a wooden bucket, on his shoulder.

Goat Girls in Appenzell
Goat Girls

Then come the Appenzell goats, ushered along by one or more girls who control them with twigs and branches. Next up are the three lead cows, with bells that are carefully calibrated to be in harmony. They are preceded by a Senn, a cowhearder, in the same dress as the young boy. Behind them are three Sennen, also with red vests but wearing brown pants. These men sing or jodel along with the bells, and keep an eye on where the cows go. This is no trivial matter because some of the cows just do not follow protocol all that well.

Senn in Urnaesch
Senn with lead cows
Unruly Cows in Appenzell
Unruly Bovines

The herd follows, cows and calves, and assorted humans to keep them in line. Next is a horse-drawn cart, the Ledi, which carries all the implements needed for cheese making. Much of these are no longer in use, but they do make for a beautiful display. Concluding the procession is the owner of the cows, in white shirt, often with bib suspenders, and brown pants. He may have his son along, and his dog, and sometimes he’ll pull a bull along. There are variations – in Appenzell itself I saw a teenage girl pulling the bull (“I cannot believe dad is making me do this” on her face), and you may see some chickens carried along on a wagon, or a pig or so. But mostly, the order is adhered to and everyone goes about it with a curious mix of cheerful solemnness.

White brown cow
Gorgeous Cow
Senn II
Zaure: singing along with the bells
Cart
Ledi: the cart with the cheese-making utentils
Farmer will bull in Appenzell
Farmer with his son and a bull
Daughter with dog
Daughter with the Bläss, the herding dog 

We went to Urnäsch in the Canton of Appenzell Ausserrhoden, while overnighting in the canton next door: Appenzell Innerrhoden. Not an unimportant detail, as our stated goal is to spend time in every Swiss canton in the course of the time we will spend here. Urnäsch is small and everyone seems to know each other, and everyone is out to cheer on their farming neighbors. I think there were people along the way who did not just greet the farmer and his family, but also individual cows. There was a market set up where one could buy sausages, Appenzell folk art and – you guessed right! – cheese. In the main street is a delightful museum that tells stories of the very rich folk art and traditions of the area. It is house in an old building with lots and lots of rooms, so you are clambering up and down stairs, watching you head under the low ceilings all the while ooh-ing and aah-ing at the colorful art that fills each room. I am not normally a fan of these attic-like museums, but this one absolutely works – I can only recommend it.

House in the Rock
Berggasthaus Aescher under the Ebenalp

Our day continued up to the nearby Ebenalp to what is perhaps the most famous restaurant in all of Switzerland: the Berggasthaus Aescher, squeezed onto a narrow ledge under an enormous overhang. As tourist sites go, it does get a lot of traffic, but we were comfortably seated and found the food, service and views absolutely worth the climb.

Going to Church in Appenzell
Going to church in Appenzell

The next morning, our tradition-filled extravaganza continued as we saw local women in traditional dress enter the church across the street from our hotel. Appenzell is easily one of the most picturesque of all Swiss cantons – a living, breathing, voting postcard.

Alphorns and Storks in Alsace. And cows, of course.

Alsatian Costumes
Traditional Dancers

My second ‘cows are coming home’ event in the past month was a Transhumance, and with that, I was of course in France. Check that: I was in Alsace, and you can read in a previous post what that means. If you don’t want to read that previous post: be that way, fine. Suffice to say that Alsace is just not all that French. One of the great discoveries here in the tri-country area is just how little the people that live there seem to care about such trivial matters as international borders. In St. Louis, right on the border to Switzerland, you can hear people on the market ask for something in Swiss German; they don’t bat an eyelash if the answer comes back in Alsatian, and a third person may feel the need to chime in and do so in French.

Alphorns
Alphorns in front of Munster’s church

And so the cows’ homecoming in this part of France is celebrated with folkloric dancing, music, and (wait for it) Alphorns. And if you’re shy about your abilities in French here, just try your best German and especially the older people will respond in Alsatian – a dialect that’s very close to the German they speak across the border, or to the dialect of Basel, for that matter.

What is unique about the Transhumance in the town of Munster (nothing to do with Munster, Germany, or the Peace of Westphalia, for those of you who remember that from history books) are the cows themselves. The first time I was in Munster, it was in winter so I could not find any in the snow-dusted pastures, and a few weeks ago I was in a cheese museum that is supposed to have them, but I was told that they had not come down from the mountains yet….

Vosgesienne II
Proud Cow
Vosgesienne III
Vache en tricolore
Vosgesienne I
And another one…

The elusive cows I am speaking of are tough ladies. They weather wind and rain and cold up in the high meadows of the Vosges Mountains, and so they’re called Vosgesiennes. With their characteristic black and white coloring, they’re some very good-looking bovines, and if you are a purist, you want your stinky Munster cheese to come from Vosgesienne milk. While they are the undisputed stars of the Fête de la Transhumance et de la Tourte, there is an awful lot more to see and do in Munster. The other part of the celebration is the tourte, a pie of well-seasoned ground pork and onions, but there are a lot of other delicacies to try.

Tourtes
Tourtes

Among them is Siaskass, a mixture of fresh cheese, crème fraiche (sour cream, but better), sugar and kirsch. There is smoked saucisson, spectacular farmer’s bread and candies from the mountains made with pine sap or a liquor made of mirabelles. For kids, there are random farm animals to pet, adding to a joyful, chaotic party that brings traffic through town to a screeching halt. And way over everyone’s head, dwelling in comfortable, I daresay luxurious nests perched like gargoyles on the church roof are the flying fortresses that are the official bird of Alsace. To make sure no one can ever miss it: there is a Pharmacie de la Cigogne, next to the Hotel de la Cigogne, which has an enormous Cigogne on its façade. There are Cigognes in the fields on the way to Munster and they hover over the church before landing onto their comfortable pads. The people from the Munster Valley love their cows, but they revere their storks.

Stork
Over everything and everyone, the stork

 

Beautiful Sheep

Aletsch Glacier
Aletsch Glacier in the background, sheep in the foreground

The end of summer is nigh, and in some parts of Switzerland, it is nigher than in others. Go up into the mountains and the air is getting very crisp already. Time to bring the animals in from their summer pastures. And while in August, you still have to wait a while for the cows to come home, in the canton of Wallis (Valais), the sheep that roam the high meadows overlooking the Aletsch glacier are ready to come down from the mountain meadows.

Here come the sheep
Here come the sheep

That’s actually entirely untrue. The sheep are not ready to do anything, but their owners believe that the last weekend of August is a good time to have them all rounded up and marched down. And for that purpose, they employ a dozen or so young men who spend a few days rounding up the animals before they bring them to a centuries-old sorting pen on the Belalp (yes, that’s bel alp, as in “beautiful alpine meadow”), high on a mountain slope above the charming little town of Blatten. The place where the sheep roam is so remote and high up (almost 10,000 feet) that wolves and bear can’t find them and they are left entirely on their own for the summer. Small wonder that the official march down the mountain sometimes becomes a bit chaotic – the sheep are borderline feral. This time around, at one point some 10 animals near the end of their march changed their minds, turned around and charged headlong into the procession that followed them, increasing the already impressive bleating and bell-clanging noise level on the Belalp.

Sheep to the Belalp
Confusion on the trail – which way is up?

Watching animals come down the mountain at the end of summer is a spectator sport in Switzerland, one that I have embraced with abandon. The Alpabzug (or Alpabgang, or Transhumance, or Désalpe) is a rural celebration with a lot of pageantry that is cherished by Swiss people young and old and, increasingly, by visitors from all over. But most Alpabzüge are with cows, with a few goats thrown in for good measure, or a chicken or two. The sheep of the Belalp don’t see quite as many onlookers, even if it feels a bit crowded up there, but that’s simply because there isn’t a lot of room.

There is something timeless and poetic about the sheep’s homecoming. The local darlings are the Walliser Schwarznasen – Valais Blacknose sheep. So much so that to a farmer in these parts, a sheep (“Schaf”) is a Blacknose; every other four-legged woolly animal is a Mutte. And while there is a sort of sheep that’s actually called that, the word is often used to dismiss ‘those others’ as not worthy of the name sheep.

Saaser Mutte
Not a real sheep: Saaser Mutte

So Sheep and Mutten, once gathered at the end of their alpine trek, eventually make their way to the Färricha, a complex of pens made with local stones, that becomes the scene of sheep sorting the next morning. The sheep, several hundred of them, overnight in the main pen until, a few hours after sunrise, the sorting begins.

Faerricha
Färricha
Ready for sorting sheep
Morning prayer for a good sheep rodeo
ornery ovid II
This one almost got away
ornery ovid III
Escape artist

To attend the sorting and counting of the sheep, a process whereby the sheep owners pull, push, jump, run and dive for their sheep in the bleating melee, one has to get up early to get on the gondola and walk another 20 minutes or so, but it is the best thing about the whole affair: before the sorting starts, the young men who are paid by the owners to get the sheep down line up on the wall of the main pen, say a prayer plus a few solemn words and then join the ovine rodeo. And as I mentioned, the sheep are often in no mood to cooperate. So some owners who appear to be cursed with particularly ornery sheep, do find themselves wrestling each sheep into their smaller pen, to get a full account. And on occasion, a sheep may decide it has other ideas – it’s great fun to watch, even if it is all over in an hour or so. Then, mass is celebrated under the blue sky and everyone goes home after that. There is a brilliant documentary about the sheep here. It’s in German and Walliserdeutsch, but the images are breathtaking, and the theme refers back to the timeless aspect of the Schafscheid, the sheep sorting: one of the men who brings down the sheep explains that that this has been done for hundreds of years, and that he wants to see it continued for some hundreds more. And the fact that the sheep are practically uneconomical (the wool sells for pennies, the meat’s not all that great, apparently) matters not at all. A veritable glow comes over this sheep wrangler’s face when he earnestly and rhetorically asks: have you ever seen a more beautiful sheep?

Sheep on the Belalp
Sheep on the Belalp

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

Planet of the Sheep – Texel

14 Thousand sheep live on Texel, the Netherlands’ largest island in the Wadden Sea, and that’s just about as many as there are people who call the island home. I know that if you are from the Croatian Island of Pag, that’s not a lot, and if you are from New Zealand, the 1:1 ratio is positively laughable: there are almost 10 sheep for each New Zealander. But in a country as densely packed as the Netherlands, Texel has a LOT of sheep. They are everywhere, and it really doesn’t help that the native breed, the Texelaar, is neatly organized in four color groups: white, black, blue and Badger-face (yes, I know that’s really not a color, but I did not create the taxonomy). on top of the Texelaars, there are many other kinds of sheep – there is a farm where you can look at a few dozen different kinds. And don’t turn your nose up at a farm full o’ sheep, because after a few days on the island you’ll succumb, if only because, well, sheep are everywhere.

Dasgezicht Sheep II
Badger-faced Texel Sheep
Blue
Blue Texel Sheep

We discovered Texel one fine March a year and a half ago. This is where most regular tourists to the island start laughing hysterically, because there is absolutely no chance of reasonable weather this early in the season, and the overwhelming majority of visitors descend upon the beaches when there is a reasonable guarantee of a bit of sunshine and balmy temperatures. So we had much of the island to ourselves. Ourselves and the sheep of course.

boet II
Boet
boet I
Another boet

Texel’s most iconic building is not its lighthouse (even if it is a strapping, tall lighthouse Texelaars can be proud of), no. It is the boet. Yes, boet. You pronounce that boot, but shorter. And the building is also shorter. Shorter than you would expect, it looks a bit like a building that was finished simply when the builders ran out of bricks. That is of course not what actually happened, because there are lots of these boets on the island and they may run out of bricks, but they would learn of their mistakes after a few tries, wouldn’t you think? The boet’s door is in the flat slide of the building and they are usually built with the low sloping side towards the southwest, from where the prevailing winds come. This allows the sheep to seek shelter behind the barn. They usually do not spend a lot of time inside: boets are storage units and utility buildings, not really stables. Just like windmills these buildings, once testimonies of engineering genius, have long become obsolete, but the islanders are so fond of them that the few that remain are lovingly restored and cared for. There is even a book about boets and yes of course, I had to get that.

Floris_Claesz_van_Dijck_Stillleben_mit_Käse
Floris van Dyck’s Cheeses – Texel on top

“I thought this was a blog about effing cheese”, I can hear you think (you kiss your mamma with that mouth?) – so here goes: yes, even though meat and wool are bigger business than cheese, the sheep do produce milk from March to September, and much of that finds its way into cheese.  It’s been that way forever, as you can see on the Still Life with Cheeses, by Floris Claesz. van Dyck. This was painted around 1615 – the dark green cheese on top, almost black, is a sheep cheese from Texel. Some 50 years before Floris painted his cheeses, Ludovic Guicciardini, an Italian traveler, sang the praises of Texel cheese, saying it had an incomparable taste. He may not have known how right he was. To make this green cheese, some sheep poop would be put in a linen sachet, which was then steeped in water like a tea bag. The green ‘juice’ was added to the milk as the first step in the cheese making process…

Orekees
Orekéés

No, the cheese I brought home from Texel did not have poop in. Modern regulations prohibited this peculiar food additive in 1928. But my sheep cheese did have a little bit of extra green in it. In this case it was Sea Lavender (there’s some debate about what plant this actually is, it may be Sea Aster). The green leaves are finely chopped up and added to the cheese, which is otherwise made the way most Dutch cheeses are made: the curd is ‘cooked’ and pressed and out comes a semi-hard cheese with a nice, creamy consistency that gains flavor with age. The typical sheepy flavor is not particularly well developed in this process – the same is true for Dutch goat cheeses made this way; their goatiness is a mere whiff. This is not to say that the Orekéés was flavorless, far from it. The Sea Lavender/ Aster adds silty tones to the ephemeral sheepiness, along with a bit of texture. Add the above creaminess and out comes one very fine cheese. The judges of BBC’s Good Food Show in 2014 agreed, curing it the best Dutch cheese of that year. Rest assured, the sheep on Texel have not allowed this to go to their heads. They’re just as relaxed and easy going as ever. You should really go to Texel to meet them. And once you’ve had enough, there are some fine fish restaurants, a museum dedicated to the beachcomber culture of the islands, a place that rescues seals and educates the public about marine life (among other things with an exhibit showcasing an impressive sperm whale penis) and miles and miles of sandy beaches, rolling dunes, the occasional pheasant and the best rhubarb jam in the world, possibly in the universe, at the Windroos.

Lighthouse II
Texel Lighthouse

An embarrassment of cheeses

Riquewihr
Riquewihr in Alsace, where this story begins

Can there be such a thing as too much cheese? Until recently, I would have responded to that question with the superior yet generous smile of one who can accurately fathom the stupidity of the person asking the question. “Forgive them, for they know not what they ask” I would think, and busy myself with something far more important, such as the next chapter in Italian Cheese: A Guide To Its Discovery and Appreciation, 293 Traditional Types. Yes, that is a splendid book, and no, I am not providing a link to it on Amazon, because there are better ways to get it – support your local bookstore or library before they are all gone – but that’s for another time and another soapbox.

So, can there be such a thing as too much cheese? I will let you be the judge of it, but in our house, we certainly lived through a bit of a crisis brought on by events I’d like to collectively refer to as cheesemageddon. It all started with a visit in Riquewihr, a cute-as-a-button town in Alsace, that has a cheese cellar in the main street, les Caves d’Affinage de Riquewihr. Despite the fact that the place has a bit of a touristy flavor to it, I found some cheeses I liked: a Tomme D’Alsace (probably really just a Tomme de Savoie made in Alsace), a piece of semi-hard goat cheese and a Munster fermier.

Mont Blanc
Mont Blanc

A few days later I found myself in Savoy, and boy, do they take their cheese seriously up there. The region sits smack dab to the south of Lake Geneva and is as mountainous as next-door Switzerland. It is home to the Mont Blanc, the tallest peak in the Alps at 4,808 meters (that’s 15,774 feet for you non-metric folks) and lots of alpine meadows and cows to cavort in those meadows. Because of all the cavorting, those cows are exceedingly happy and as everyone from California knows, happy cows produce great milk. And do they ever know how to turn great milk in to spectacular cheese in Savoy.

Just how spectacular, I learned at the Coopérative fruitière du Val d’Arly in the small town of Flumet, just after I had spent some time marveling at all three cow races that the cheesemakers of Savoy love so dearly: the Montbéliarde, the Tarentaise and the Abondance. At the coop, they sell mountains of cheese, and they even have a little cheese exhibit along with a stand with free leaflets – pretty much one for each of the great Savoy cheeses. With the cows, the leaflets and the enormous cases full of enormous cases, I found myself with my back against the wall, silently cried uncle and bought enough cheese for a small orphanage: a whole Tommette brébis fermière (good but not sensational), a hefty slice of Abondance (sensational – fruity, full of complexity, as if you yourself are munching on all those alpine herbs and flowers), a chunk of Beaufort Été (of course it matters that it is a summer cheese rather than a winter one – in winter the cows get hay, in summer those French alpine herbs and flowers) and of course a Reblochon fermier. The Abondance comes from a valley with the same name, and can be made only with the milk of the three aforementioned cows. It is easily recognized by the clearly concave shape of the cheese’s side (same as with the Beaufort, by the way) which comes from the mold used during the cheese making process. The Beaufort comes from the region centered on the town with the same name, which is home to a very large facility where one can learn about the cheese, taste it and buy it – it’s the busiest business in Beaufort, which makes an otherwise sleepy impression. These two, along with the Reblochon make up the holy trinity of Savoy cheeses – at least in my book. The latter takes its name from a cheeky practice of Savoy farmers from the 13th century: these men hardly if ever owned the landed they had their cows graze on, so they owed the local count or abbey a usage fee, which was determined by the amount of milk obtained from the cows. On the day the usage fee was determined, the cunning farmer would ostensibly squeeze his cows dry, only to go back into the barn after the official had left for a little re-squeeze, which yielded a much smaller, but milkfat-richer amount of milk, of which a washed rind soft cheese was produced. Linguists among you have already figured out that this scofflaw procedure, the re-squeeze, was locally known as reblocher and that is how the cheese got its name. Today no such devious behavior is involved in making the cheese, which comes in two varieties: Reblochon with a red label is produced in large facilities that collect milk from several farms while a green label (it is stuck on the cheese before the final layer of white mold forms, so it is not easy to see) indicates a Reblochon made on the farm, from one herd of cows, and while the milk is as fresh as it can be. Purist of course swear by the latter. In both cases the milk used is unpasteurized which means it can sadly not be sold in the US – for your own protection, of course.

Tarentaise
Tarentaise
Abondance
Abondance
Montbeliarde
Montbéliarde

With my small mountain of cheese I eventually descended from the mountains, but not before I stopped in Annecy, where I visited the gorgeous Fromagerie of Pierre Gay, who has a cellar where he ripens his cheeses right under the store – and a large glass panel in the floor to prove it. It’s very cool to be browsing the store and to look down on the wheels of Abondance and Beaufort and the other innumerable cheesy highlights he is looking after. While it was late when I got there, and I was a bit more restrained, I still picked up a chunk of Vacherin des Bauges (the Savoy cousin of the Vacherin Mont d’Or), a piece of Persillé de Tignes (a delightful blue goat cheese without any visible traces of mold, but a flavor that leaves no doubt) and a Trèfle fermier, an ash-covered goat cheese in the shape of a clover.

Two days on, and I found myself in a cheese shop in Dijon and I met three cheeses I had to take how, and now our mid-size Swiss fridge started to creak at the seams, and all yogurt, pickles, bell peppers, leftovers and milk strangely started to taste like Reblochon. We enlisted the help of a friend and organized an evening of cheese tasting. He obliged and battled valiantly and with his effort, we made a very decent dent. He later confessed he had been overserved a bit but he felt it was for a noble cause, namely to help us not drown in fromage.

My epic cheese journey to Savoy and Burgundy took place in the second half of the week after our visit to Alsace, and the battle of the cheese bulge followed during the weekend. Somewhat relieved, I went to work on Monday, where an Italian friend from Genoa paid me a surprise visit. With a small but well-executed flourish, he swung one of those large silvery bags you get at the supermarket for cold stuff onto my desk, where it landed with a foreboding thud. He knows of my fatal attraction to cheese, and his voice had just the right amount of operatic flair, when he proclaimed: I brought you… cheese.

Details of the five generous chunks of cheese from Piedmont, collectively weighing in at a little under three kilos or about six pounds are for another post.

 

The King of Cheeses, the Cheese of Kings

Children and Brie
Future cheese connoisseurs

The story goes that Charlemagne, that most magnificent of kings, liked Brie so much that he told the bishop who introduced him to the cheese to send two cartloads of  the fromage to Aix-la-Chapelle (now Aachen, Germany) so that the king of kings would always have some to nibble on. And, so the story goes, many other people in exalted positions with crowns on their head were of the same opinion in the centuries to come – a great marketing story if nothing else.

The Sanctum Sanctorum of Brie is in a basement of a small farm in the middle of Jouarre, a town in the département Seine-et-Marne (the modern incarnation of the ancient Brie region), a little under an hour east of Paris. It looks nothing like you would expect it to look. Stéphane Ganot and his sister Isabelle who run the 120-year-old family business are the high priest and priestess in the temple and again, they look like mere humans, not too tall, not too short, not too thick, not too thin. Sounds underwhelming, doesn’t it? And yet I felt, at the end of a long day on which it rained off and on, after visiting a champagne cellar, an old Picardie mill, a Viollet-le-Duc castle and a terrible roadside café, that we had arrived at the epicenter of cheese in France. The Fromagerie Ganot is where local farmers bring their ordinary brie tourtes (Brie de Meaux, Brie de Melun, Brie de Nangis, Brie de Provins) and Stéphane and Isabelle elevate them, with a lot of care, know-how, patience and modern technology to little mold-covered pieces of heaven.

In the Brie Museum
Old form for Brie de Meaux

Stéphane and Isabelle aren’t making any Brie. They collect Brie from neighboring farmers and make that Brie better. They are affineurs. They keep the cheese at the exact right temperature, the exact right moisture, turn it exactly when it needs to be turned and in that way, they tease the very most out of the potential that the farmer puts in. Compared to the actual cheese making, affinage takes time and, if you believe brother and sister Ganot, is half science and half art. And they share their art in small doses and only at certain times. Getting a spot on their tour feels a bit like winning the cheese lottery. Because as enthusiastic as they present their trade and their cheese, they don’t have all the time in the world, because they have tourtes to turn.

Stephane Ganot
Stephane leading through the small museum

in the attic of one of the buildings on the farm, they carefully explain, with a slide show and in a small museum, some of the finer details of their trade. The land in the Seine-et-Marne region is getting more expensive every year, they say, and as a result there is less and less land for the cows to graze on. So they’re not exactly in a booming business, also because Brie is probably the most ripped-off cheese in the world: it did not get an AOC (now AOP) protection until 1980, by which time this cheese had already been copied around the world from Brazil to Wisconsin and from Japan to California.

The Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée designations stipulate things like the geographical region in which the product must be produced, the methods of production, the ingredients etc., etc. Since the EU took over the regulation of foodstuffs, they’re called AOPs, Appellation d’Origine Protégée. In Kathe Lison’s book The Whole Fromage, she explains with great insight how sometimes, these rules end up leaving out cheese makers who just have a slightly different way of making their cheese – long traditions and generations of know-how notwithstanding. In the case of brie, there are two kinds that have an AOC protection – Brie de Melun and Brie de Meaux, and there are others that go without – not that this perturbs the Ganots: the other Bries are handled with just as much love and expertise.

Isabelle Ganot
Love and expertise: in the Ganot cave

So is the Brie Noir, also without an AOC, and a bit of an oddball in the Brie palette: the name normally evokes visions of ivory colored, creamy, flavorful goodness, and Brie Noir is a decided departure from that: it is grey-brown, chewy and has a very strong flavor. It is best enjoyed as an ingredient in other dishes, and during the tasting we enjoyed it was served in the form of thin shavings. Lo and behold, the shavings are a much better way to eat this cheese (basically a Brie that has been allowed to ripen, ripen and ripen some more – up to 10 months, where 4 weeks is normal for regular Brie) that in bite-size chunks: the latter just become a chewy chore with a flavor too intense to enjoy.

With the farm land in the old Brie region becoming ever more expensive, Korean, Japanese and Brazilian counterfeits being produced in ever larger quantities, is there hope? Yes, darn it, yes! Because the French give a damn. They want Brie from Brie. They want to be sure that the milk is raw, that the process to get to the perfect cheese involves people, not machines. And, most importantly: they pass on the passion. the majority of the participants of the Brie-tour were kids. Kids who asked questions, who touched the things they were allowed to touch, and who expertly sampled the cheeses. And kids who will grow up to be the kind of adults Brie needs: the staunch defenders of the real deal. After our tour we were able to spend a small fortune on an enormous chunk of Brie de Meaux (the cheeses are larger than the Brie de Melun and the flavor is somewhat milder) a jar of local honey, some Brie de Melun and a few Petits Cœurs, small hearts, made of a combination of crème fraîche and cream (yes indeed, think OMG) which lasted us the remainder of the week in Brittany which, for all of its other tremendous qualities, is not a particularly cheesy part of France.

Brie de Melun
Brie de Melun
Brie de Meaux
Brie de Meaux, still under wraps

Seewis im Prättigau – Alpabgang (Week 41)

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.

Alpziger
Alpziger Cheese – made by only one family

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.

Seewis im Prattigau Alpabgang (21)
No, it does not get more Swiss than this

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.

Seewis im Prattigau Alpabgang (3)
Always more cowbell, please

Seewis im Prattigau Alpabgang (12)

Seewis im Prattigau Alpabgang (10)Seewis im Prattigau Alpabgang (1)

See Naples and die! – San Diego, Sciò Sciò and Sfogliatelle (Week 42)

naples-sky-ii
The Sky over Naples, Vesuvio and Capri

There are another 11 weeks to go in my year of cheese and I have decided to ditch the format I have used so far for something a little bit more free flowing. Not that my previous rambles have been paragons of structured writing, but I am doing away with the listing at the top of the post (the “cheese – producer – where” bit) and I am having as much or as little cheese as I want. There are weeks where I munch away at the cheeses we got during some wild cheese-buying spree (our weekend in the Jura Mountains comes to mind) and nothing new enters our life – such was the case in the weeks after the Désalpe. Conversely, when I travel, there are new places to be explored and with them come new cheeses to write about. The past week has been one of those. After I ventured into the wild world of Greek cheese, I arrived in Naples and I had to get some Mozzarella di Bufala Campana.

mozzarellaaaaah
Mozzarellaaaaaah….

That’s a mouthful in more than one ways. It’s a cheese that is made from the milk of water buffalo in the Campania region of Italy, just south of Naples. And it’s a mouthful because you can’t really eat a tiny bit of it. The idea is that you get it as fresh as possible, and you buy it in a bag in some liquid, mostly a light brine, in a few cases whey. And you take a ball out of the liquid and you stick the whole thing in your mouth. Just like that. You can buy it in smaller and larger balls, sometimes in braids. It is a cheese that is kneaded, much like a dough, while hot water is poured on it and with that, it gets a degree of elasticity. No, that doesn’t mean the cheese is chewy. It has just a little give before it breaks when you bite into it – think of it as al dente: not too hard, not to soft – just right. Obviously, you run of the mill mozzarella doesn’t delight quite like this. My cheese was one day old, was as white as porcelain and had that perfect textural balance – and it really just tastes like cream. Nice, clean, ever so slightly salty cream. The Consorzio Tutela di Bufala Campana – a club that promotes this particular cheese, has some cool pictures of the magnificent bufala this cheese comes from on their website. The saddest thing about fresh Mozzarella is the what all the other Mozzarella tastes like. If you meet an Italian abroad who seems to be carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders – he’s probably just homesick for some Mozzarella di Bufala Campana that was still milk two days ago.

So the cheese was reason enough to love Naples, but there was a lot more. It is not a particularly clean city, there is quite a bit of graffiti and as a port, it has it big industrial zones right on the water – welcome to cranes and containers. But let it grow on you for half an hour and it becomes a glorious display of disorderly conduct, from the way people get their coffee and pastries at Scaturchio to how they hand their laundry in the impossibly narrow streets where you have to look up, up, up to see the sky and to the way the makers of terra cotta nativity characters display their things with a decent sprinkling of soccer players. More than anyone else in that particular category of Saints, Diego Maradona, the Argentinian enfant terrible is still revered. Mixed in with the nativities are also local characters made from terra cotta. I brought one home and Christine is insisting that I am putting him in a room where she doesn’t have to look at him.

scio-scio
Scio Scio

His name is Sciò Sciò, he has a hump that you’re supposed to rub for good luck, so I don’t get the problem. Finally – not finally, there is a lot more, but the post needs to come to an end at some stage – there are the pastries. Two in particular I must speak of: the pastiera, originally eaten at Easter (really, the Neapolitans don’t want to eat these all the time??) which is made with ricotta cheese, eggs, wheat berries and some very, very fine orange flavor. I got one in a beautiful box to take home to the family (much appreciated, best husband/dad in the world) and the sfogliatelle, where I must give a shout out to my friend Patricia who introduced them to me.

sfogliatelle
Sfogliatelle

These ricotta-filled shells are made of crackly, superthin, deliciously buttery layers of dough. Bite into one and you will find yourself in the middle of an explosion of razor thin crumbles: so much goodness is such a little pastry!

mosaic-in-herculaneum
Roman mosaic in Herculaneum

Visitors come to Naples, give it a passing glance and continue to Pompeii or Herculaneum. Yes, those are some very awesome ruins, centuries old. But when have those ancient Romans every given you anything good to eat ?

naples-cloister
Pastoral Scene in the Cloister of Santa Chiara
naples-balconies
Street in Naples’ Old City
naples-i-see-ice-cream
I see….. ice cream
mozzarella
Italians are serious about their Mozzarella