Ah, our new Swiss Life. After I picked up what I needed from the local web provider, I walked across the street that makes up downtown Reinach to the local butcher and deli, who also sells cheese. I wanted something for dinner, so I got that, some Unser Bier (see Week 33) and this little cheese, wrapped in a white piece of paper with a cheerful blue logo printed on it. And thus, I stepped into the world of Michel Beroud, a cheesemaker in a town that can arguably be considered the cradle of Swiss Alpine cheeses.
The Fleurette, as the story goes, was the nickname of a woman who came to help pack cheese and showed up every day in an apron with flowers all over. This cheese comes from raw cow’s milk, and the cows that make that milk live their lives chewing on grass that grows on an altitude of about 3,300 ft (or hay of that same grass). Mixed in with the grass is clover, wild cumin and other yummy greens that all find their way in the fine flavor the cheese and a fine flavor and texture it is! Oozing out of its perfect white bloomy rind is a white, creamy fresh-tasting goop that, at 2 weeks ripening, has quite a bit of structure and depth. I know, I know, that sounds convoluted – ok, so it is a bit saltier and has a bit more flavor that you would expect from such a cheese. Beroud makes some other cheeses as well, so I believe I may soon be back at my friendly neighborhood cheese store. But read my post for Week 38 – you’ll find that there is more in this corner of the planet in the way of cheese opportunities.
Just southeast of Syracuse in New York is Cazenovia, and don’t say “well, everybody knows that”. Cazenovia is home to a little over 7,000 souls and at least one ridiculously photogenic farm, Meadowood. Oh, be that way, don’t take my word for it. Look at their website and then agree with me, that’s fine. Meadowood is home to a herd of East Frisian sheep. Apparently these woolly wonders are the best that sheepdom has to offer in versatility: they produce a lot of milk, compared to other sheep, they provide fine wool and if all else fails, they don’t taste so bad either. The perfect package for a relatively small farm. The cheesemaker here is a woman by the name of Veronica Predraza, and
You can listen to a radio interview with her here. I just thought that I could put that in here, because I have not yet had the opportunity to link with a radio program. You can skip the first 2:12 minutes.
Veronica gave us Ledyard, this week’s cheese. She clearly knows her stuff and ended up borrowing an Italian tradition – that of the leaf-wrapped robiolas – for this particular cheese. so you take your soft ewe’s milk cheese, soak some grape leafs in beer (Deep Purple, a beer made with Concord grapes added for flavor and the purple color), slap ‘em on the cheese to create a neatly wrapped package, let it age for 4-6 weeks and voilà, you got yourself a cheese that is something else altogether. Ledyard is fresh, with some herbal notes, a bit of yeast and a bit of fruit, and yes, this time around I mean all of this high-falutin’ stuff: the cheese packs a lot of different flavors in each bit, and they all seem to be vying for attention, not all together, but one after another, which makes eating the cheese pleasantly confusing (is it a vegetable? No! Is it cream? No! Is it a drink? No!)
Notable: Ledyard became this week’s cheese after a pitched battle with the other cheeses I got from DTLA Cheese, a battle that took the shape of a true cheese orgy: the Smoked Kashar from Parish Hill Creamery in Vermont, the formidable Bandage Wrapped Cheddar from Fiscalini in Modesto in the Golden State, the Adair from Jacobs and Brichford in Indiana’s Whitewater Valley and the take-no-prisoners stinky Dorset cheese from Consider Bardwell Farm of West Pawlet in Vermont. Given the strong field – much better and more competitive than the republic presidential slate. And because of that, let’s show all of the contestants: drrrrrrrummrollllll:
In today’s popular parlance, this cheese is a boss. In particular the kind that is ripened some 18 months, and that the Swiss call ‘rezent’, which has nothing to do with recent, on the contrary. The word means something like ‘sharp’, and that tasty sharpness is reached after ageing for a good long while.
The valley of the Emme in the Canton of Bern has seen people make cheese for some 800 years, most of the time just for their own use, and to give some of it in exchange for their lease of the pastures to their feudal lords. Only in the early 19th century did it become more widespread and then it took off. Emmentaler is one of the most copied cheeses in the world – heck, even Kraft slices come in something that vaguely resembles the Swiss King of Cheese. I am frankly surprised the Swiss have not ever considered severing ties with the US for that abomination. Emmentaler as protected by the AOP designation is now made in a fairly sizeable part of Switzerland, not just in the Emme Valley, but the stipulations about its production are still quite stringent: raw milk, no silage for the cows, a certain percentage of the diet of the cows has to come from fresh grass etc.
My ‘rezenter Emmentaler’ came from the Wirth cheese stand on Basel’s main market, and like in many other places, the cheese is not presented as from a particular producer – so it is anyone’s guess if the cheese is actually from that fabled valley, or from a place in the neigborhood that fits the bill laid out in the rules of the AOP. So yes, I am lying up there where it says ‘where’… all I know for sure is the cheese is from Switzerland (if it isn’t, someone else is lying)
Of course all of this is fine and good, but really, the only thing everyone always wanted to know about Emmentaler is: where do the holes come from? Meet Propionibacterium freudenreichii. Freudi, as I like to call him, is a bacteria that inhabits, well, us – there are quadrillions of them in our skin. Freudi is also useful in the production of certain cheeses, and when he is done with his useful reductive work, he leaves flavor and a lot of gas, CO₂ to be exact. The gas finds tiny little bits of haydust in the cheese, enters the minute little capillaries in the hay and voom! it expands and creates a hole.
If that sounds farfetched, don’t take my word for it. Buy a copy of the study by some Emmentaler-obsessed Swiss scientists in Bern (it will set you back $40, so you may just want to trust me on this one). Raw milk contains more bacteria than pasteurized milk (among them also lactobacillus helveticus, a colleague of Freudi who does a lot of groundwork for him, before he gets started with the whole gasmaking operation) and winter milk has more haydust in it than summer milk, so you know what to do when you want big holes in your cheese. The holes ought to be round, poorly shaped holes may very well point to poor performance on the part of the bacteria and hence poor quality cheese. And the salt crystals and the occasional ‘tear’ of salt water in the bigger holes of the more ripened cheese: it’s all part of the fun. I am sure that you are familiar with the sweet, sour taste of Swiss cheese. Add to that the multi-layered depth owed to raw milk and a natural production process and then, bam! compound that with the body and complexity that comes from 18 months of careful ageing – and there’s a cheese to bow in front of, and chant: ‘we’re not worthy, not worthy, not worthy’, before taking a big fat bite.
In a French supermarket on the very edge of the Hexagon (the French call their country L’Hexagone sometimes, because of its shape), I experienced one of the blessings of living in the heart of Europe. It is 500 miles to Livarot, but I was able to get my fresh, raw milk Camembert from that very town in Normandy. Because in the US, the FDA watches over you and makes sure you don’t do anything that could be bad for you, you are not able to have a raw milk Camembert unless you leave the country. In our case, we also left the country but we did so in a car and we were back home again for dinner. We brought home a Camembert from E. Graindorge, a rather large producer, with a history going back to 1910, to grandpa Eugène. They have a slick, well done website, and the cheese can be ordered online. They produce some 11 different cheeses, all from the milk of those Normand cows that is transformed into some of the best cheese in the world. Among these cheeses, they feature the blockbusters, Livarot, Pont-l’évêque, Neufchâtel and Camembert de Normandie. All four of them carry the AOP designation, and the other three one day each deserve their own post. The Camembert, a soft cow’s milk cheese with a white bloomy rind really needs no introduction – it is produced all over the world, which explains the long official name of the cheese we brought home: any old cheesemaker can produce a cheese that looks the part and call it Camembert, but Camembert de Normandie is autre chose: something entirely different.
The cheese with the AOP seal is made from milk from Normandie cows, the curds are scooped into the mold by hand (very carefully, to guarantee just the right texture, and the milk is always raw. Marie Harel, an intrepid farm woman from Vimoutiers helped a man of the cloth, a certain abbot Bonvoust, as he was hiding from the French revolutionaries and he taught her a method of cheese making from his native Brie, which she adapted to create Camembert as we know it today. All of this happened in the waning years of the 18th century, and most, if not all of it, is entirely made up. Marie Harel did exist, but the cheese bit is unlikely, even if the story is a good one, and there is even a statue celebrating her ‘invention’ in Vimoutiers, paid for by an American who claimed to have had tremendous health benefits from eating copious amounts of Camembert. Whatever the origins of the cheese are or aren’t, Marie Harel’s descendants for many years just rudely claimed to own the exclusive rights to this cheese and tried hard to box other farmers out of the lucrative business of supplying Paris with the very popular cheese. Eventually other farmers got in on the action as well, and it wasn’t before long that Camembert was discovered elsewhere. So the early marketing and subsequent success of the cheese set the stage for widespread imitation and eventually necessitated the current clarification to the name. And yes, there is a difference, and it is huge.
A ripe Camembert de Normandie tastes like the Almighty intended cheese to taste. It has a bold aroma, a creamy consistency, and it adds a bit of a kick to a mouthful of barnyardy, mushroomy flavor. But never mind the adjectives, because there are certain things in life you just recognize when you experience them, even for the first time. Every bite from a real Camembert that has ripened to that ‘just right’ stage is, well, just right – but on a cosmic scale.
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.
Mua (think ‘hmmwah’) is supposedly the onomatopoeia of the sound of a kiss. Yes, I just wrote onomatopoeia, and I freely admit that I had to look it up. In essence, it is a word that mimics the sound of what is described. So in Spain, a noisy smack on the cheek sounds like Mua, and Mua becomes a word to describe a kiss. Or a cheese, in this case. It comes in the shape of a heart, wrapped in a white paper dotted with red lips (“Mua!, mua!, mua!, mua!, mua!….).
The cheese comes from the island of Menorca, which has a very long tradition of cheese making: Spain’s famous Mahón cheese is from here, the Mua is a very recent addition to the cheese palette of the island. The milk for this cheese is produced by the Holstein or Menorquina cows that are largely allowed to roam in freedom over the pastures of the windswept island.
It comes in two varieties and mine had its white rind covered in crushed chamomile flowers, which gave it its very unusual flavor. The paste of the cheese is supple with a bit of a bite and very smooth. It is aged for a minimum of 45 days, which is enough to allow for a lot of flavor development. Mua with chamomile is a real standout, not something you’d find just anywhere.
I also picked up a piece of smoked cheese, the San Simon da Costa, which is protected with a DOP. It has a distinct smoky flavor and a sticky, dense paste which is very creamy. And of course, a piece of Manchego, that most Spanish of cheeses. Given its bold, well-rounded flavor, it is not difficult to see why Manchego is such a favorite. It is a hard cheese, but still very smooth and not all that crumbly. While some sheep’s milk cheese gets quite sharp with age, the Manchego is robust but never all that sharp. A king among the sheep’s milk cheeses.
I picked up 2 cheeses at C’est Cheese in Santa Barbara, and while I really did like the San Joaquin Gold, I thought the Tumbleweed was the winner in this match. I got a somewhat strange stubby piece that allowed me to cut it up in very thick slices and it went surprisingly fast. Tumbleweed is made with raw milk from grass-fed Holsteins and your tastebuds have to put in overtime to take it all in: it’s buttery, nutty, a little sweet and it somehow never ends. There is just a lot of flavor to be savored. I am sure it pairs great with a robust red wine (this cheese can easily take on a robust Bordeaux or so), I say leave it. Just have nothing but bread and cheese here – there is enough to keep your senses entertained.
Tumbleweed is made by the people at 5 Spoke Creamery in Goshen, in the county of Orange in the state of New York. Their name and their logo feature spokes in a bicycle wheel. The bicycle in turn is a symbol for taking time to do and to enjoy things. Their cows, Holsteins, are grass-fed and the milk used for cheese is raw. The website extolls the virtues of unpasteurized milk and they point out that 70% of all European cheese is raw. The cheese is aged up to 12 months and that of course helps the taste truly unfold. The creamery is in a farm that is over 110 years old but has been renovated to house a state-of-the-art sustainable operation that cranks out the dairy gold. Alan Glustoff owns 5 Spoke and you can see him at his farm in this video.
By the way, just because in my very informal taste test the San Joaquin Gold from Fiscalini’s came in second, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get some if you can lay your paws on it. They’ve been in the cheesemaking business for over a hundred years – and this particular cheese has a cow stamped into it – what is there not like ?
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.
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.
Ha! Johannes Gutenberg from Mainz was probably happy when he was able to finally leave Strasbourg behind after having spent some 14 years there between about 1434 and 1448. No one knows exactly how long he lived in the Alsatian city on the Rhine, but he was there: court documents show he was sued a number of times, most spectacularly by a woman who claimed he had promised to marry her, but then reneged on the promise. Back in Mainz, about 130 miles downstream, he continued work on his invention that would earn him worldwide fame: the printing press with movable type. So as time wore on the city of Strasbourg decided to honor the man who had left behind debts and at least one broken heart with a square and a statue, very close to the gorgeous red sandstone cathedral, one of the most beautiful Gothic Cathedrals in France – make that the world. Just off Place Gutenberg in the Rue des Tonneliers is la Cloche à Fromage. In fact, there is really two of them, one cheese shop, the other a cheese restaurant – same company, different experience. I decided to have my choucroute (sauerkraut with sausage and other assorted meats) at Aux Armes de Strasbourg right next to the statue of my pal Johannes, but I did pick up some cheese before I sat down there.
And that’s where the praise starts. La Cloche auf Fromage is not an enormous place: the cheese counter at a decent-sized Whole Foods may be just as big, but that’s where the comparison ends. Here are the five reasons why I just love a French cheese shop:
The French are fearless and know when to ignore food safety warnings: most of the cheese is made with raw milk. My wife in fact had an aunt who used to rail against EU regulations: “one day, they will take away our lait cru, and it’s all going to be over!” It hasn’t happened yet, aunt Collette, wherever you are…
The French value geography. Geography is terroir, and terroir is where the food meets the landscape. Terroir is the combination of soil, water, sun, wind, slope and so on that creates the particular environment which determines the qualities of the particular food. So neat little cards will not only tell you what kind of cheese you’re looking at, but also, where your cheese is from, and soon you can begin to build an image of the life and work of the people who produced the cheese. The better cheese shops in the US have adopted this level of care, but in France, this has always been par for the course.
The French are open when it comes to food. In a land so full of culinary traditions, there is still a lot of room for experimentation and so a cheese shop worth its salt will always carry some interesting new cheeses alongside the national and regional favorites.
The staff in these shops: they know what they are talking about; they respect the cheese and they know how to wrap it properly.
Finally: coming from the US, the prices will ensure that you walk out with a slightly bemused grin on your face: a cheese plate that would set you back the price of 20 lattes in the US can be put together for 15 euros here.
There are of course thousands of them all over the country, and it’d be far from me to even pretend that I could pass as an authority, but here are some of my favorite cheese mongers in France: there is Hisada in Paris, close to the Palais Royal. Of course it is jarring at first to walk into a cheese shop in Paris where the staff is Japanese, but once you see that they approach fromage with the same sensibility, flair and understanding of quality, it all makes perfect sense.
Benoit’s stand at Les Halles de Dijon specializes in the large cheeses from the Jura. They carry cheese from all over France though, and they have an very visible division of labor: the muscular guys are handling the Comtés, the Emmental and the Morbiers, while the daintier sellers wrap the Chèvres and other assorted small cheeses.
In Avignon, it’s the Maison du Fromage in Les Halles, and in Lyon the Halles de Lyon – Paul Bocuse are a food temple of sorts, where I would not dare to prefer one exquisite cheese monger over another.
Oh – and of course, if you are in Strasbourg, make sure to check out the magnificent cathedral. One cannot live of cheese alone.
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.
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.
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.