Appenzell Part 2: the Cheese, please

Appenzell in the Morning
Early morning in Appenzell

Around our visit to the Alpabzug, unsurprisingly, we also took an interest in, you guessed it, cheese. And that brought us to the small town of Stein. On the edge of this village in the canton of Appenzell Ausserrhoden, there is a complex of two buildings that do a magnificent job in telling the story of local agriculture. There is a museum which displays beautiful folk are with lots of cows and flowers, a live person in a shed who makes cheese with traditional equipment that you can buy in the gift shop (yes, you heard right: go to a museum to buy cheese) and a host of other bits and pieces of local history. It’s a modern, light building with plenty of room for all the art and artefacts. Next door is the Schaukäserei, a place that explains the history and the art of cheesemaking in the region, wrapped around a large cheesemaking facility.

Appenzell Museum Stein
Senner Hut: Butter churn on the right, harmonic cowbells in the back

One of the best exhibits is a film that shows an interview with an old Senn, who tells the story of his growing up with a dozen siblings on a farm where the diet consisted largely of bread and dairy products: butter, whey, cheese, milk. Sennen spend their days in summer herding cows, milking them and either transporting the milk down the mountain or turning it into cheese right there in a shed in the meadows. Even today these men and women work in the open with most of their interactions limited to their bovine charges. The old man’s eyes light up when he speaks about the cows, how he likes talking to them and rubbing their heads.

He goes on to explain how the cheese he was used to was normally low-fat: the cream would be scooped off the milk and turned into butter that could be sold at higher prices, and almost immediately: butter provided cash-flow. In the town of Appenzell they still sell this cheese, and call it Rässchäs, sharp cheese. And that, my cheese friends, is not an understatement. This cheese combines and surpasses the sharp saltiness of really old Dutch cheese with the potent stink of a Munster. In fact, a quick scientific survey of everyone in the family irrefutably concluded that it is was worse than any cheese I had ever dared to bring into the home. Räss in flavor and smell, indeed. It is the kind of cheese that will put hair on your chest – I thought it was impressive in the best possible way.

Appenzell Museum Stein II
Mid-19th century drawing in the Appenzeller Museum
Appenzell Costumes
Appenzeller traditional dress

The unusual cheese choices in this part of Switzerland don’t end there. I picked up a few slices of Schlipferkäse at a cheese shop that seems to specialize in unusual cheeses. It came with an interesting recipe: soak a slice or two overnight in lukewarm water (cover it up, but do not refrigerate). The next morning, pour off the water, cover the cheese with some cream, add salt, pepper and cumin as you like, and eat it for breakfast with some boiled potatoes with the skin still on – Gschwellti, as the Swiss call them. Yup – true recipe. I tried it without the Gschwellti and it’s quite pleasant, although I doubt I would often want to go through the trouble. To me some hard cheese with a slicer is easier and less work.

Cheese from Appenzell
Clockwise from top left: Suurchäs, Schlipferkäse, Urnäscher Brauchtumskäse, Rässchäs

Finally, I got a piece of Suurchäs, sour cheese. This cheese is produced in the neighboring district of Toggenburg, the modern incarnation of a medieval county with the same name. it is made of skimmed milk and therefore has a lot of protein, without much fat. It is white, with a fresh and somewhat sour taste, and as it gets older, a shiny layer develops on the surface that looks a bit like bacon, and is hence called ‘speck’. All three of these cheeses are rather acquired tastes, but not so much the fourth cheese I brought home from Appenzell. It came from the neighboring community of Urnäsch, where the family farms work together in a cooperative that markets several local cheeses very professionally. One of them is made with milk only from cows that have horns – there is some evidence that the milk of these animals tastes a bit different. I got some Urnäscher Brauchtumskäse, heritage cheese, if you will. This one comes in three different ages and mine had ripened for somewhere between 6 and 8 months. It is not a miracle that it won a Super Gold award at the World Cheese Awards a few years ago, because it is salty, creamy, and chockful of flavor. And yes, to make it a nice round number, we did purchase a piece of Appenzeller Edel-Würzig, marketed as superior spicy on the Appenzeller website. The secretive men (and, recently, a young boy) that appear on large billboards throughout Switzerland tell you through their silence that you’ll never know the exact composition of the herb bouquet that finds it’s way into the cheese. And if you would, they may just decide to never let you leave, to protect the trade secret. Things could be worse.

Secret of Appenzell
Sshhhh….

 

In Ticino we call it Formaggio – Swiss Cheese

Paradiso
Boat stop on Lugano – Paradiso. We would have to agree.

Growing up I had little idea that there was anything beyond the large yellow wheels of Gouda cheese my mother would pick a pound or two from at the cheese vendor. Fast forward many years later, to the late eighties in the U.S. I had extended my knowledge of cheese, which by now also included the big French cheeses along with Parmesan, which came in powdered form in a cardboard container. And now, here I was introduced to the wondrous world of Kraft cheeses: orange for cheddar, yellow for American and white for Swiss cheese, and the latter would often have a few holes thrown in for good measure. I am pretty sure Kraft employs some underpaid immigrants to punch those holes in the cheese to make it more Swiss.

Today I have completely arrived in the land of Swiss cheese and regularly slather Raclette onto pretty much anything edible. We visit cheese festivals, inhale the healthy country air complete with cowpoop and we are patiently ticking down the list of Swiss AOP cheeses. This weekend we went over the hump: there are 12 cheeses with the Swiss AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) designation, and I picked up cheese number 7, a chunk of mountain cheese from Ticino, from the Piora Valley, to be exact. The latter is important, I was told, because the Piora valley, at some 6,000 feet, yields the very best of the Ticino cheeses. The beginnings of this cheese, which now commands rather steep prices, were quite humble. It was really because the poorest farmers had nowhere else to go that they herded their cows up these remote valleys – some pastureland was better than none, they must have thought. Eventually of course, people started to notice some differences in the quality of the cheese based on the pastureland it came from. Up in the high valleys, cows munch on as many as 150 different herbs and grasses, a smorgasboard that includes the blue gentian, a flower that inspired one of the absolute classics of German Schlager-Music, blau blüht der Enzian. You may click the link at your own risk – the German singer Heino could just rock your world.

Salumeria
Gabbani for meats, wines and cheeses

Only about 300 cows forage in the Piora Valley, so getting my hands on a piece of that cheese felt like an important milepost. I got it at the Formaggeria Gabbani, just across the street from the Salumeria Gabbani, and next door to the Enoteca Gabbani – you get the picture. With it, I got a piece of soft Ticino cheese and some rhubarb jam. Oh yes, that was in Lugano – funny you should ask. Of course it is delightful, stretching lazily along the eponymous lake – beautiful shops, beautiful cars, beautiful people but down to earth enough to not feel naked without a Rolex and a Jaguar. Ticino is Italy’s expensive, better organized and more polite little sister. The houses are more colorful, the sun more plentiful and the dishes more flavorful than in the part of Switzerland we inhabit – la vita è bella in Lugano. The Grand Café al Porto’s desserts and the food at La Tinera only helped to cement our assessment.

Cafe Lugano
Grand Café al Porto
Lake Lugano
On Lake Lugano

And then there was the cheese, of course. The mountain cheese from the Piora Valley is almost sweet, very smooth and rounded, without edges but not boring. It tastes like a really well composed piece of music, without any dissonance. The Formagella from Isone I bought is, in a way, a downtime cheese, made during the time cows are not out in the pastures. Often goat milk and cow milk are used together: the cow milk is skimmed and the cream is used to make butter – if only goat’s milk is used, the cheese is a bit fatter. The piece we had was a bit older and had a lot of flavor to it.

Ticino cheese
Clockwise from top left: Formagella di Isone, Piora Mountain Cheese, Schnokeloch, T’chiot Biloute

We enjoyed both of our Ticino cheeses with friends who complemented the dinner table with salami and smoked ham from Salumeria Gabbani – we all had traveled to Lugano together and in the food on our plates we relived the compelling combination of Italian flair and Swiss perfection of the city on the lake.

Dinner
Dinner!

The Future has arrived in Appenzell!? (Week 48)

appenzell-hills
Land of the Future: Appenzell

I thought Raymond Chandler had the market for suspenseful stories of crime and corruption cornered generations ago. I still think there is no private eye quite like Philip Marlowe anywhere in the real or in the fictional world, but I did learn today that even in our mountain paradise of the Confoederatio Helvetica (yup, that’s where the CH comes from), rackets are alive and well, and naturally, in a country like this, one of the more interesting rackets is the production of cheese knockoffs. That’s right, there are people who produce cheap, nasty cheeses and sell them as real Gruyeres, Emmentalers or Appenzellers.

The latter is a cheese that is marketed as the most flavorful in Switzerland. Interestingly, it is not protected by an AOP or something like it – it is a brand that is aggressively protected by the folks that collect the milk from some 50-odd farms and turn that into a hard cheese that is repeatedly washed in an herbal brine which is the great secret of this cheese. Depending on who you ask, there is just a handful of people who know the original recipe – I have read somewhere there were only two; a risky approach if you ask me.

appenzeller
Noble-Flavorful in Purple Branding

What is interesting about the Appenzell – oh wait, let’s first talk about the actual cheese that got me going: I got a piece of Appenzell that is marketed as the Edel-Würzig variety. It really sounds fine for a cheese in German, even if the translation in English becomes a bit over-the-top and stilted: I give you the Appenzell Noble – Flavorful.  OK, so that didn’t work. I can guarantee you that the flavor itself absolutely does, because here is a cheese that is creamy, salty, fresh, clean and oh so, eh – flavorful. It really is as good as the name implies. We have been eating it for a few days and we’re on our second chunk – we tend to eat it in slices about a third of an inch thick.

The cheese is not inexpensive and here we are back in the murky world of the cheese forgers, and why, of all places, Appenzell is such an interesting locale in this respect. This canton is one of the most conservative places in Europe. Not until the early days of 1990 (nope, that’s not a typo) were women allowed to vote here, and when the cows come down from the summer pastures in the fall, traffic through the main streets in the towns is likely to come to a screeching halt – people respect traditions, and cheese is an important one. They have been cranking out cheese at least since the 13th century, but probably a lot longer. But when it comes to combating cheese fraud, the canton is at the cutting edge: the marketing organization that watches out for the brand has teamed up with the Swiss government to isolate certain strands of lactic acid bacteria which are used in the cheese making process, and use them as ‘fingerprints’ for the cheese. How 21st century is that? Most hard cheeses have a casein mark in them – an identifier like a code that usually tells a buyer where the cheese is from and when it was produced.

appenzeller-iii
Casein mark – real Appenzeller

That mark in an Appenzeller is almost as big as the cheese itself, so it is almost impossible to buy a chunk without the reassurance that you have a real Appenzeller in your hands. But with this modern method, even the casein mark is not necessary: a single slice of cheese without any rind can be identified – think of it as a DNA test for cheese. I am sure that the cheese mafia has recently left Appenzell, and gone on to places where women have been voting for close to 100 years now, but where a cheese doesn’t yet have a paternity test developed for them.

appenzeller-farm
Appenzell Farm
main-street-in-appenzell
Main Street in Appenzell

Willi Schmid, my friend. Fearless maker of Mühlistein. (Week 43)

muhlestein-iiA nice, interesting chäs from Switzerland was my cheese of the week this time, number 42. Willi Schmid made it for me. Technically, that is incorrect, he doesn’t even know me, but eating his cheese and looking at his website, you do get the impression that this cheese is made just for you. Start with the interesting shape: a whole wheel does have a hole in it, which gives it the appearance of a millstone. The German word for millstone is Mühlstein, and because the Swiss just can’t help themselves, they throw in an ‘i’, so that it sounds a bit more cheerful. And there you have it: with a thin rind of grey mold, the wheel doesn’t just have the shape, it also has the color.

muhlestein
Complete Millstone

Cut it up and you’ll have a beautiful yellow color, and a semi-hard, flavorful cheese that has a bit of mushroom with some slightly sour notes as well. And as always when I use some slightly convoluted language to describe the cheese I have the urge to say: “it’s just a really good cheese!” Willi does a whole lot more than this one, made with milk from his Jersey cows. He also creates goat, sheep and buffalo cheeses and he sells many of them directly on the farm in Toggenburg. He doesn’t realize it yet, but Willi is my friend. Toggenburg, we’ll be there soon.

Tomme de Vache (Week 37)

tomme-de-vache-ii
Ah, my goodness….

Cheese: Tomme de Vache

Producer: La Fleurette

Where: Rougemont, Vaud, Switzerland

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.

tomme-de-vache-i
Fleurette (CH), Brin d’Amour (F, top left), Muehlestein (CH, middle), Biermutschli (CH) and Holzhofer Extra Rezent (CH, bottom right) – there is more than Gruyere and Emmental here!

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.

Emmentaler (Week 35)

emmentaler-2
What’s in a hole?

Cheese: Emmentaler rezent

Producer:

Where: Emmental, Bern, Switzerland

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.

wirth
Wirth’s stall on the Basel Market

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)

holy-holes
Holy holes!

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.

emmentaler
Emmentaler Crater

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.

cheese-plate-with-emmentaler
Cheese selection from Wirth’s in Basel: the Boss on the left, Biermutschli (top) and raw milk Epoisses in the middle and the ‘cheese of the week’ (dang it! forgot what it was) on the right.

 

Biermutschli – Made in Basel (Week 33)

biermutschli-ii
Mutschli+Beer+Hops+a little smoke = Biermutschli

Cheese: Biermutschli

Producer: Käserei Reckenkien, Familie Stoll

Where: Mümliswil, Solothurn, Switzerland

The Swiss buy Swiss. Of course they buy German cars and Korean cell phones. But when you go to any grocery store, it is very easy to find out where your food is coming from, and the information doesn’t just reassure buyers that they’re getting ‘made in Switzerland’. Often, the canton is identified as well, and I have seen cheeses with perky little signs that tell you the family farm whence the Käse came from, and this not just in high end cheese shops. Of course, it makes many things quite expensive, because anyone in Switzerland engaged in producing your foodstuffs is paid a decent wage, generous benefits and excellent but expensive healthcare. The Biermustschli is a case in point.

A Mutschli is basically a small round semi-hard cheese somewhere between one and 10 lbs (so much smaller that many of those huge wheels the Swiss roll down the mountains). And this particular cheese comes from the town of Mümliswil, about an hour from Basel. It is made of raw milk and the cows are fed grass or hay exclusively. In ripening of the Biermutschli involves washing the rind with beer and hops; they also smoke the cheese a bit. And the beer used is Unser Bier, literally ‘our beer’, which comes with a tagline that epitomizes the fondness the Swiss have for locally produced things: Bier von hier statt von dort – beer from here instead of from there. Unser Bier got started with a guy who brewed 18 liters of beer in a pasta pan – the rest is history. They create some unusual brews – their summer beer has elderflowers in it, and for the fall they do pumpkin beer.

unser-bier-mutschli
Mutschli and Summer Beer with elderflower

The guy with the crown sticking out his tongue in the logo of Unser Bier is Basel’s famous Lällekönig, the name for a mechanical device in the shape of a human face with moving eyes and a tongue that moved in and out. Originally, this could be seen on the Rhinetower, and it was connected to the clock on that tower, which stood on the city-side of the old bridge across the river. Eventually, the Tongueking (the character wore a crown) became quite famous and today, with the tower and the original Lällekönig long gone, there is a replacement on the facade of the restaurant at the city end of the bridge. The people on the Grossbasel side of the river like to think the King is sticking out his tongue in the direction of Kleinbasel (little Basel, formerly an independent suburb – across the water, think of Oakland), but there is no historical evidence that the person who made the machine wanted to do anything else that createan entertaining contraption – and he succeeded. And of course, today the red tongue is on the Mutschli, a delightful cheese that just has the perfect balance of smokey, yeasty, a faint touch of bitter and a lot of creamy body – we went back to the market square, to the Wirth cheese stand, a week after we hand a conservative slice to try it to buy our own whole Mutschli. Soon e Kääs!