I am cheating again for this week, because this goat cheese is one that I had a while ago after my visit to La Cloche à Fromage in Strasbourg. I think it is a perfect choice for cheating a bit because this is one very fine goat cheese. It comes from southern France, and the cross on the cheese makes that clear: it is the Occitan Cross used by local rulers in Provence and Languedoc back in the days when France wasn’t as large as it is today, and the people in the south spoke Occitan (the langue d’Oc), a language still alive in a large part of the country and south of the border in Catalonia. The cross is white on a background of ash, which is used on many goat cheeses in France. The alkaline ash lowers the surface acidity of the cheese, and that in turn allows the molds that form a rind to develop better.
Inside, the Croix Catal is a beautiful white, and mine was ripe enough for the paste to ooze a bit, with flavor fully developed. As goat cheeses go, this was one of the best I have ever had. It had everything that makes a goat cheese a goat cheese, but is was unusually creamy, very fresh and clean – just délicieux. It is made on a farm with a little over 200 goats in Rudelle, a tiny little town of less than 200 souls with a remarkable fortified church with crenelated walls. Rudelle is in the French département Lot, named after the river that flows through it.
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.
Week 32 has an excellent example of why I enjoy the 52 cheeses process. The start this time was inauspicious: we are in the process of moving from one country to another and time is precious: not exactly the best of times to seek out a cheese monger and ponder myriad choices. So, at a local Géant supermarket in Alsace, I found one of the few raw milk cheeses they had (the fact that the vast majority of the cheeses on offer were made of pasteurized milk shows that the country is going to hell in a hand basket) and took it home. And that’s always when it starts to get interesting: there is the tasting, and there is the research. The tasting yields pleasure, the research yields the stories, and these, for the purpose of this blog are probably more important. Let’s face it: most people have very little idea what it means when they read: ‘the cheese is nutty, with caramel overtones and some faint floral notes’. There is certainly room for elaboration at one point and I am not against using those kinds of words – but most folks that bite into a piece of cheese go one of two ways: “I like it!” or “Meh”, (Those that go “Eww, that’s disgusting” should have stayed away from that Munster in the first place.) so I would never take any flowery cheese description’s word for it, and just make up my own mind – and encourage others to disagree with my assessment.
So here is the story on Saint-Maure de Touraine. Let’s begin with the first part. ‘Maure’ of course comes from a word for ‘black’ (think ‘Moorish’) and the saint in question may have been some ancient deity in charge of fermentation – seems very fitting for a cheese to adopt this name. There may be a relation also to the Moors that stayed in France after the Saracens (yes, that’s kind of the same as the Moors) suffered defeat at the hands of Charles Martel in 732. They may have introduced goat cheese making in southern France – more specifically their women, because cheese making was a woman’s job. Skeptics point out that there were goat herds well before the Moors’ defeat, but it makes for a good story. The other excellent story related to this cheese is the notion that you need to cut the log at its widest end first. Get it wrong and the goat from which the milk came will lose its milk-producing mojo (I think I screwed up here). But onto the second part of the name, before I forget.
Touraine today lives on as a marketing concept: it is a somewhat well-defined tourist region encompassing much of the Loire Valley around Tours. In the olden days, it was first a county and then a duchy centered on the city of Tours, erstwhile capital of the Celtic tribe of the Turones (I am using capital in the most liberal sense of the word). Aside from tourism, Touraine also exists in the world of cheese, because since 1990, the Sainte-Maure de Touraine is protected with an AOP and can only be produced in what used to be the old duchy. And it has a very cool proof of authenticity: a rye straw is to run through the length of the log, and when you pull it out, you’ll find the producer’s name engraved on the straw. No straw, no name, no AOP.
My log came from Cloche d’Or. Most Sainte-Maure de Touraine is produced by large companies, and this is no exception. Cloche d’Or collects raw goat’s milk from about 150 farmers and churns out some 64o tonnes of the cheese every year. Not exactly your mom and pop cheesemakers, and interesting that such large enterprises busy themselves with making raw milk cheese. Sainte-Maure is a dense, creamy goat cheese with a typical slightly acidic flavor: while not particularly surprising, it is a very solid and thoroughly tasty contribution to the world of goat cheeses. A cheese that does its job, nothing more, but certainly nothing less. A day after my purchase there was but a sad stump left of the once formidable log.
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….
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.