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
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Return to Ancona

Trajan Arch
Trajan’s Arch & Shipyards

A while ago I returned to Ancona, and this time I was determined to visit the King of Cheese, the Re Formaggio, a cheese shop that was closed for the day the last time I tried to barge into the door. Even more so than on the previous visit, the city surprised me with what I am tempted to call Ancona Moments. The place is rather unassuming, with a big shipyard on its doorstep and a center that is a strange mismatch of all kinds of architectural styles and crimes against good taste, but you stumble across interesting bits and pieces on a regular basis. There is, for instance, Trajan’s Arch, built for that very same emperor who has a famous column in Rome, a market whereupon that column sits and a ruined bridge across the Danube near Drobeta-Turnu Severin in Romania all named after him. The arch is dwarfed by the cruise ships that are being built right behind it, and it stands a bit forlorn among the ramps and cranes of the shipyard. But it predates all that is being built around it by a cool 18 centuries: it was completed by 115.

Santa Maria della Piazza Ancona
Santa Maria della Piazza

Not far from the arch is the Romanesque church of Santa Maria della Piazza, with a beautifully structured façade showing a few fantastic looking animals. It never seizes to amaze me how worshippers back then thought of the Holy Trinity and the angels, but also of dragons, mermaids, chimeras and all these other creatures that can be found in the art that adorns the churches of the period; and doing so without any qualms about the false idol bit (Exodus 20:3-5).

Pistacchio Cake
Pistacchio Cake
Pizza di Formaggio
Pizza di Formaggio

Musing about my Ancona Moments I enjoyed an equally surprising piece of pistacchio cake in a café not far from the King of Cheese, where I picked up a few treasures. Pizza for instance. No, not what you think. Pizza (lord knows why, I never got a good explanation) in Ancona is a sort of huge muffin, made of fluffy if somewhat greasy bread, with big chunks of cheese baked in. A very tasty treat, although I think it ought to be eaten family style, as in: it takes a lot of people to finish one of them, because they are huge.

As always when I am in Italy I managed to buy a piece of cheese that came with an explanation I did not at all understand, and so I can report it was a bit dry and crumbly, but in a good way, and had a bit of a blue cheese flavor, but that all, folks. I bought a rather colossal chunk of Trentingrana Malga Rolle, a super hard cheese that you need to cut with a Tagliagrana, a cheese pick in essence, that is deployed to aggressively hack away at a big wheel of immutable cheese in the hope of breaking it down to more practical pieces. The cheese comes from a farm at a mountain pass in the shadow of the Pala di San Martino, at 9,800-feet peak in the Dolomites. It’s in the region of Trentino, and the cows that give the milk for it get to munch on a fine selection of alpine herbs, which gives the cheese that certain something extra. Trentingrana basically means had cheese from the region around the city of Trento; weeks later, we’re still grating it our pasta.

Pecorino di Fossa
Pecorino di Fossa

The piece de resistance of my cheese purchase was of course a raw milk bit of Pecorino di Fossa. There was nothing wrong with the first bit I bought here a while ago, but this cheese was something else. From the amber color to the slightly rank odor and from the slightly oily touch to the sticky texture to the intense flavor, this was a cheese that had gone through an awful lot before ending up on the shelves of the King of Cheese. The church of Santa Maria della Piazza, pistacchio cake and Marche-style pizza notwithstanding, it was the Pecorino di Fossa that made my return to Ancona a triumph worthy of that grand imperial roman arch.

Ledyard (Week 36)

ledyard
It’s gone before you know it: must..eat…Led….yard

Cheese: Ledyard

Producer: Meadowood Farms

Where: Cazenovia, New York

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.

ledyard-ii
Ledyard – competition in the background

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:

smoked-kasar
Smoked Kashar from Parish Hill Creamery
cheddar
Bandage Wrapped Cheddar from Fiscalini Farms
adair
Adair from Jacobs and Brichford Farm
dorset
Dorset from Consider Bardwell Farm

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.

Paški Sir (Week 15)

Paski Sir II
Croatia’s Cheesy Pride: Paski Sir

Cheese: Paški Sir

Producer: Sirana Gligora

Where: Kolan, Pag Island, Croatia

So here is a picture of Pag, an island just off the coast of Croatia. There are less than 10,000 people who call the island home, but there are some 40,000 sheep. They’re a little smaller than average, these Paška Ovca, and they are indigenous to the island. From the coastal Velebit Mountains of Dalmatia, the Bora wind barrels down, picks up a lot of salt from the air over the water and drops some of that salty moisture on the pasture where the sheep run around, mostly freely. The herbs and grasses on the island the sheep feast on are pre-salted, if you will, like the grass in coastal Normandy around Issigny, where the best butter in the world comes from. These roaming sheep produce about half a liter of milk a day, so half a quart of milk. That is little, even by sheep standards (half a gallon is sort of average, compared to three quarters of a gallon from a goat and 8 gallons from a cow). Add to that the fact that the sheep are still often milked by hand in the fields where they graze and you have one labor intensive dairy operation going. But at the end of that long laborious process, there is Paški Sir, the cheese from Pag, which wins medals all over the world and makes Croatians proud.  Depending on who you believe, the farmers on Pag have been making cheese for hundreds of years (some writers believe since the days of the old Romans) and of course there is the popular suggestion that at one point it was used as currency, which seems a little farfetched. I am sure it may have been a barter unit in some sense, but it is hard to see that someone would buy a cow and say: “I’ll pay you 34 cheeses for that nice animal there”. One way or another, the cheese from Pag has very, very deep roots. Alberto Fortis, an Italian who traveled around Dalmatia in the 18th century wrote about the salt, the sage honey, the wool and the cheese from Pag in his Viaggio in Dalmazia, but by that time, it had already been around for a good long while. The Gligora family has been at it since 1916 and towards the end of the previous century father Ivan and son Šie have begun to take, as they say, the cheese to the next level. Among other things, they send their products all over the world provided you’re happy to pay the rather splendid shipping fees. You may find that is it more prudent to just wait until you travel to Croatia to get some. A competitor, Paška Sirana has an excellent video. Great images, and with English subtitles.

Paski Sir Cheese
Vino, Kruh i Sir. The cheeses from left to right: Kozlar, Dinarski and Paski Sir

Paški Sir is a cheese that needs a bit of time to unfold in your mouth, don’t eat it hastily. At first, it is what you’d expect from a sheep cheese: it is hard, crumbly and drier than most cow’s milk cheeses. And then, as it melts in your mouth, your tastebuds tell you: “wait, wait, there is more”. I will leave it to experts to give the complex flavors names; I will simply say that there is a lot to savor in an innocent looking piece of Paški Sir, and only if you take your time, will you discover why it gets those accolades the Croatians like to tout. I am sure it tastes great in a variety of dishes, but it is expensive enough that you want to carefully cut it up and eat it with a glass of Croatian red rather than in the mac and cheese from the crockpot. It has a nice crunch – most if it hits the market after aging for about a year so there are the little white protein crystals that lend the cheese even more texture. Shave it on your salad like you would Parmigiano, or eat it with figs – if you can get them, from Dalmatia. Aside from the Paški Sir, I also had a taste of Gligora’s Dinarski Sir, a crumbly, salty cow’s milk cheese from the Dinaric Alps and their Kozlar, a semi-hard goat cheese, also quite salty but very creamy and if fact, I ended up liking it at least as much as the cheese of the week. But I waited until we had left Croatian territorial waters before admitting that aloud. I am sure the Croatians would seriously frown on my preference and I wanted to stay out of trouble.

Raclette (Week 6)

Raclette Cheese

Left to right: Valais AOP, Baselbieter, Sheep Raclette cheese

Cheese: Valais Raclette AOP

Producer: –

Where: Valais Canton, Switzerland

I returned from a business trip to Basel, Switzerland with a suitcase full of Raclette cheese. OK, that’s a grave exaggeration, but I had enough for a meal for three. Raclette is originally a cheese from the Valais Canton in Switzerland, but it is also used to describe a meal of melted cheese. So while there is the cheese with the official designation and protection (AOP) from Valais, there are a lot of different cheeses sold as Raclette cheese. These are semi-hard cheeses, often sold in slices, to be melted in the little pans of a raclette-maker, and then poured onto potatoes, bread or veggies (or anything else you think of, as long as it will taste good with a coating of molten cheese.  The alleged history of the cheese is spectacular: in Roman times, it had already been around for centuries, and some even used it in lieu of money. And then, in the Middle Ages, Léon the Valaisian farmer came by, had the brilliant idea to melt the cheese and the rest… well, is even more history.

I brought some local (‘Baselbieter’) cheese, some made of sheep’s milk, and some Valais AOP Raclette, the Real Deal. In a traditional setting, an entire wheel of Raclette may be cut in half, and put close to an open fire with the cut side. Imagine a sturdy Swiss herdsman walking around the table scraping off portions of melted cheese off the big wheel, onto his fellow men’s plates.

We did have to imagine the open fire and the Swiss herder, because we poured the melted cheese from our little pans in the comfort of our home in southern California. One promotional site describes the cheese as “a source of pleasure and conviviality” – and really, we had a very convivial evening.

Ready for Raclette
Ready for Raclette

Raclette cheese is perfect for melting, it slips easily out of the little pans, often without the help of the little scrapers. We had a variety of potatoes and three colors of cauliflower, and we got quite creative with the meats. The Swiss eat prodigious amounts of thinly sliced cured meat, much of it from the Cantons of Graubünden and Valais. I did not bring any, so with the help of Chaz Christianson, whom we met at the cured meats counter of the Cheesemongers of Sherman Oaks we added an eclectic mix of international delicacies – one juicier than the next. More about our visit there in the next post.  The Raclette from Valais – Wallis, as the German-speaking Swiss call it – was the clear winner. Not only did it melt to a perfectly smooth, fragrant goop, its robust, somewhat tangy taste only got better with the melting.

Cured Meats at Cheesemongers of Sherman Oaks
Chaz’ Counter of delicious meats