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.
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.
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.
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.
We spent last Christmas in the Netherlands and part of the Christmas Eve ohmygoodnessIatetoomuch dinner was a cheese plate. Christine’s only demand was that there would be a camembert au lait cru; otherwise, I though it a splendid idea to have only Dutch cheeses. I picked up an order from l’Amuse, a very well-established cheese monger in Amsterdam; highly recommended if you are ever in the city and you are tired of the Rijksmuseum, the van Gogh and the touristy cheese places in the canal belt. L’Amuse is a few tram stops away, and my trek out there was rewarded with a splendid suggestion from the gentleman I corresponded with: don’t take the hangkaas, take the Remeker instead. The prille Remeker became everyone’s favorite cheese (the blue goat cheese from Drenthe was somewhat of a bomb). So when I had the chance, I visited mother Ouendag, drove about 30 minutes through the drab countryside to visit the farm of Irene and Dirk-Jan van de Voort.
They keep a herd of Jersey cows, and go about making raw milk cheese with an incredible zeal. Irene wrote a book and in it you can read about a family hovering between passion and obsession about making the best dang cheese you can image. And, by golly, I do not believe Dutch cheese ever tasted so good. I got a piece of ‘pril’ – 3 months old; a piece of ‘ryp’ (8-9 months); and a piece of Olde Remeker, which has ripened 13 months. All three of them were absolutely worth the trip. They’re creamy, extremely flavorful, salty but not too salty, complex, and the taste stays with you for a while. When I took my leave from mom, I left some Remeker for her, brought some for Molly, who had to endure the craziness of the hunt for cheese #3, and a nice chunk of ryp for the family. ‘t was a sad day when that Remeker ran out, but I will be back there for more. The bread and the gooseberry-elderberry blossom jam I picked up there were also to die for.