Croix Catal (Week 31)

Croix Catal
The Occitan Cross

Cheese: Croix Catal

Producer: Le Mas de Catal

Where: Rudelle, Lot, France

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.

Croix Catal II
White Goodness

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.

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!

Hooligan (Week 21)

Hooligan I
Stinky Glory – do you smell it?

Cheese: Hooligan

Producer: Cato Corner Farm

Where: Colchester, Connecticut

If Cato Corner Farm’s Hooligan could enter a stink-off with a Munster from Alsace, I do not know who would come out on top. Take a piece home with you and forewarn the people in your household, because there is no way you are going to be able to wrap this baby in a way that will prevent the odor to stay inside the paper. Raw milk from Jersey and Brown Swiss cows guarantee that the Hooligan is also  very creamy – there is nothing not to like about this cheese. Cut off the rind, which is washed with brine and buttermilk during the ripening process, or leave a little on for a bit of extra intense flavor and crunchiness.

Hooligan II
Cheese Counter at the Wheelhouse

You can eat it young, when it tastes like grass and grazing cow, or wait for it to start running and take in every last bit of bold flavor – not for the faint-hearted. If you think brie is quite an assertive cheese, pass on the Hooligan. Mark Gilman, the man in charge of creating the cheeses at Cato Corner consulted with French and Belgian cheese makers, who know a thing or two about stink, to come up with the Hooligan. His mother runs the farm and looks after the herd of less than 50 cows. Cato Corner’s website, which has gorgeous ‘portraits’ of its cheeses, suggests to have a beer with the Hooligan, or sweet white wine. I say suspend with the niceties and just start eating that bad boy. There is more than enough in there to keep your taste buds busy. This is one of my favorite American cheeses.

Berkswell II
Berkswell Flying Saucer Goat Cheese

I got the Hooligan and the Wheel House in Culver City, and with it, I picked up a piece of Grayson, a washed rind cheese with small holes, and a nice strong flavor – nothing too funky, but pretty salty. I also got a slice of Berskswell sheep’s milk cheese. It comes from England, from a creamery called Rams Hall, that’s operated by Stephen Fletcher.The town is not far from Coventry, and they drain the whey from the cheese in colanders, which give the cheeses their typical form – round and flat, with a ridge running along the width of the cheese. It has a distinct scent – it pales in comparison to the Hooligan but is is pretty robust. The cheese has a nice, quite complex and rich flavor, and it is not your typical sheep’s cheese. The people at Rams Hall age their cheeses for at least 6 months, which helps to allow all the flavor to unfold, of course. The milk comes from some 350 Frisian sheep. Apparently these animals are prized for their even, friendly temperament. Being half Frisian myself, I think I am qualified to say that what goes for the sheep from Friesland does not go for the people there.

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….

Καλαθάκι Λήμνου, A Tale of Two Islands (Week 14)

Kalathaki Lemnos II
Kalathaki, still wrapped up

Cheese: Kalathaki Lemnou

Producer: Lemnos Markakis

Where: Myrina, on the Island of Lemnos, Greece

Yes, you guessed it, that’s a Greek cheese I am taking about. I picked it up during a brief stop on a cruise, in the town of Thira on the idyllic Island of Santorini, which more or less lives off tourism and agriculture. I found my cheese in a small, non-descript store that sold local products, and this one looked quite interesting. Little did I know that the island has its very own cheese, Chloro. For various reasons, I had not been able to do any homework on Greek cheese. I did find out later that the particular cheese I picked up comes from an island that was only about 40 miles away from a tiny beach in Yeniköy, in Turkey, where I would dip into the Aegean Sea a few days later. But back for a moment to Santorini.

Oia Santorini II
Santorini Island, Village of Oia

3,500 years ago, the people here were none too happy. That was because they got caught up in the Minoan eruption, a spectacular volcanic event that did extensive damage to the old Minoans and their civilization and created the Santorini we know today, a semicircle of sorts surrounding a lagoon with a small island in the middle. Volcanologists see a giant water-filled caldera, where the rest of us just see a string of pretty villages with white walls perched atop some very steep cliffs like icing on a gigantic cake. Thera, where I landed, is the least attractive of the little towns on the island so next time I am there I will have a double mission: see the tiny little towns with the blue-domed churches and get a piece of the Chloro cheese, even if the name does not sound inviting at all.

The cheese I did end up with was still interesting and, since I did not have high expectations, a very pleasant surprise. The Kalathaki was fresh and salty (it spends 3 weeks in a brine bath), with a bit of tang and since goat’s milk and sheep’s milk are mixed together to create it, you do get two flavors for the price of one, and they strike a nice balance, I found. I haven’t been a big fan of feta, perhaps because of the omnipresence of the factory produced stuff that is called upon every time olives and greens meet in a salad.

Kalathaki Lemnos
Imprint of the wicker basket that gives the cheese its name

This cheese matures for about 60 days in a small wicker basket and the imprint the basket leaves behind gives the cheese its name: Kalathaki means basket. It is one of more than 20 cheeses in Greece that has a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO, OR DOP, or AOP, depending on which EU language you are using). The sheep and the goats who deliver the milk for this cheese are largely allowed to roam around so what you get in the cheese is the flora and the climate of the island in a relatively straightforward way. Dedicated promotors of the cheese claim that is was around in Homer’s days – but the great poet didn’t really write about it, so it is not that easy to verify.

Santorini Church
Santorini, Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in Thira
Santorini with 2 ships
Santorini, cruise ships docked in the caldera