It just so happened that one of my local purveyors of fine cheese announced the arrival of some American cheese. From no less than Jasper Hill Farm. This is a rare occasion worth celebrating. Being a European we have more than enough cheese to dig into, but then there are some artisan American cheeses that really is worth savouring.
I think most Europeans are pretty ignorant when it comes to American cheese. All the more important that we get introduced to some of the real gems. Philadelphia is the most famous American cheese around here. American brand rather, just as the Jarlsberg is more of a Norwegian brand, a strong one though, than a Norwegian cheese.
Cellars of Jasper Hill
Direct from Greensboro, Vermont, USA there came Bayley Hazen Blue and Harbison. The first from unpasteurised cows milk, and a cheese that truly belongs to this blog. Te other one, Harbison, from pasteurised cows milk, and as such not really something I deal a lot with. But alas, it is a good one.
No need to exclude it, taste is more important than anything, in my opinion at least. And this is a good cheese.
Raw-Milk Cheese Appreciation Day
Having said that though, this Saturday is Raw-Milk Cheese Appreciation Day. 18th April that is. Make it an opportunity to savor some unpasteurised cheese, of any kind really. Well, not all my readers have that opportunity, but still there are possibilities. Se your local cheesemonger, they will help you out.
Must admit that I am not very well versed in Spanish cheese. Manchego of course. And the I once bought an insanely good cheese at the Malaga airport, Spain that is. I remember the taste, but have no idea of what cheese it was. Except that it was quite small, kind of portion cheese and relatively soft. Maybe it was a little blue, as well, but that’s just speculation. However, it brings me to another cheese that is on my list, namely
Unpasteurized blue cheese from Asturias in northern Spain. It’s around the middle of the Spanish Biscay coast, just west of Bilbao. And a little inland. Are you going there, go visit the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao as well. Enough of that.
Cow and cow and / or !
Basically a cow’s milk cheese, but it can also be mixed with goat and/or sheep’s milk. Especially when it is mixed cheese it has a strong taste. Anyway a very, very good cheese, by all means. I do not have much experience with this cheese, but it is claimed that this is perhaps Europe’s best blue cheese. Hence obviously the interest from my side.
A DO-cheese. Or PDO in EU language. That is the origin protection. For example, should you make Cabrales, the milk needs come only from animals born and raised in Asturias, more specifically the mountains called Picos de Europa. As with so many blue cheeses this is also matured in caves. Limestone caves just up in the Picos de Europa mountains. Two to five months.
Originally, this cheese was wrapped in maple leaves. But that was previously. Now it is required that it is packed in dark green aluminum foil. Are you on a trip, then it may happen that you’ll find a cheese that is still wrapped in maple leaves. However, it is outside the rules, you know. Then you at least know it is an artisanal cheese.
Good as it is so it is also frequently used for cooking. Including hot sauces, or just melted over grilled meat. But eat it plain. Some good country style bread with fresh figs, but also good with some quality salami or other regional dried sausages.
This cheese goes well with a mature, full bodied Spanish red wine. Local cider as well, or a somewhat sweet sherry. No, not Bristol Cream. Rather a Lustau VOS Oloroso 20 Years. Not cheap, but then it’s a good cheese, too.
Thinking of it, there is not much positive to be said about the Middle Ages. A rather depressive period in European history. Inquisition, witch burning, The Black Death and lots more. From a Norwegian perspective during the early Middle Ages we had the Vikings running around.
But in the midst of all this darkness that we associate with the Middle Ages, there was actually a beam of light when it comes to the development of cheese. The very beginning of cheese started several thousand years earlier, but cheese as we know it today, and quite a few of the cheeses we enjoy with great pleasure, were created during this rather dull part of history. So not all negative.
Charles the Great
So here he reappears, Charles the Great. This is the very early part of the Middle Ages, the Inquisition and all that comes much later. But he laid a foundation, Charles the Great, because he was very fond of cheese.
With all his warfare he obviously needed an excellent nutrient. Moreover, he was an eager advocate for the distribution of the, after all, limited knowledge there was about making of cheese. We have come a long way since then, just mentioning it. But, as said, he laid a foundation, and that was an important one.
Battle at Stiklestad
That was 1030. But about that time have mentions of Swiss Sbrintz, at 1070 Roquefort is mentioned (That is just four years after the Battle of Stamford Bridge). About the same time we hear of, not we; they, Italian Taleggio and Gorgonzola. In Norway we made Skyr, fought battles to get the land Christianised, which was what the battle at Stiklestad in 1030 was more or less all about.
Skyr was later taken to Iceland where it has survived up till this day, while forgotten in Norway. Well, not altogether forgotten, still made for home use on farms on the west coast.
The dark Middle Ages
Enough said. About 1100 – 1200 things really started to happen. The Dutch develops their cheese greatness. Even today Holland is one of the world’s leading cheese exporters. But alas, most of it boring, made by industrial dairies.
If we look at the era from 1100 till 1400 there is one factor that is especially important for the development of cheese. The monks tarting to use copper vats for making cheese. Up till then they had used vats of stone or clay. The latter we know from wine making as well; the use of amphora. To some extent, in some areas there is a revival of amphoras, mostly for natural or orange wine making. Probably not so for cheese, even though wooden vats are still in use.
Cheese was very common as a barter, not to mention tithing. The church and monasteries demanded their share, of course. The alpine farmers used cheese to free themselves from the monasteries and land owners and started to cultivate pastures in the hillsides to lay the foundation for alpine cheese as we know it today.
From 1400 onward, cheese becomes an international commodity, lasting till about 1700th century, when decline set in because of all the wars raging. Religious wars, 30 years war and so on with a consequential decline in the economy, hitting cheese as a commodity hard.
The Age of Enlightenment
The above was followed by the Age of Enlightenment and the timid beginnings of cheese making as we still know it. The industrial revolution enables large scale industrial production, not necessarily a qualitative advancement, but still. Building of railways making way for effective distribution and chemists researching bacterial activity in cheese making, among other things, and pasteurization is discovered. Pasteurization is such an important discovery in most aspects, but not necessarily for cheese making, though.
There is a lot of cheese in France. Incredibly lots of very good cheese, so to pick five standard-bearers is next to hopeless and not possible without doing injustice to some. These are cheeses that are both excellent and famous “osteperler”, but no hidden gems, and they are all on my list of personal favourites. However, there are others as well on my personal list. But these five cheeses below are some that you probably both know and have tasted. If not, it is high time you try them out.
A surprise to find Beaufort on the list and not Comté? Comté is probably more famous, and if you are served cheese in France I am pretty sure Comté is one of the cheeses you are served. Comté is by far the most popular cheese in France, any style. But in my opinion Beaufort from Savoie is better and more exclusive. Fantastically tight texture, slightly crystallised. Moderately sweet and fine, nutty taste. Aroma of grass and herbs, especially the summer and mountain editions. Fascinating as well, that one cheese, weighing about 45 kilos, requires the day production of milk from 45 cows. Easy production planning at least, 45 cows give one cheese a day, 90 cows give two. From raw milk of course and quite available, at least from cheese mongers. Matured for a minimum of five months, but oftentimes longer. The last one I tasted was a Chalet d’alpage matured for 24 months. Almost indescribable. A Vin Jaune from Savoie is a fine paring. Is has a touch of flor to it.
Epoisses. For the connoisseur, this one. From Burgundy. Stinky and sticky as the Brits would say. Very typical for soft or semi soft washed rind cheeses. Munster is an other one, from Alsace. But now it’s all about Epoisses.
I always buy the raw milk variety, as this cheese might both be made from raw or pasteurised cow’s milk. Comes in a round wooden container. Epoisses is a fine cheese, washed in brine and Marc de Bourgogne. Smell is opulent, while the flavours are quite mild. Meat is a word that strikes me when I taste it, windfall as well. This is a fine cheese to pair with some northern Burgundy reds.
Crottin de Chavignol
The list has got to include a chèvre, of course. There’s a few to choose from to say it the least. This one is from the Berry province in Loire, perhaps the area mostly associated with chèvre. Like most other chèvre the taste differs a lot from young to matured. Turns drier as it matures. Mostly consumed young while it is moist and with fine acidity and flavour is more delicate. As it matures it develops a touch of blueing on the outside, which is normal. Sancerre with this one, on the balcony at sunset a mild summer evening.
Probably one of the most famous French cheeses, if not the most famous often called the King of (the) Blues. Only raw ewe’s milk. From the Midi-Pyrénées, or Occitanie as it has been for a while.
There are seven producers of Roquefort and my personal favourite is Carles. One of the small producers.
Roquefort is matured for three to nine months in the limestone caves at Mont Combalou in Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. Important to note that it does not have to be made there, only matured. That does not mean it could be made anywhere. The area from which milk can be collected has been narrowed quite a lot as the AOP regulations have been revised. Very salty and savoury. Of fall the blues the Roquefort is the saltiest, in my my opinion at least. Could be the reason a glass of Sauternes pairs so well. Texture is something between soft and crumbly, and at times towards soggy. Melts on your tongue. There is a lot of fine blues out there, but there is something special with Roquefort.
Vacherin du Haut-Doubs
Some other time of year, and it could be an other cheese as my fifth choice. A cult cheese from the French Jura, and Swiss as well, but I prefer the French as it is made from raw cow’s milk.
In popular speech is is called just Mont d’Or irrespective of it being French or Swiss. The correct name of the French variety is Vacherin du Haut-Doubs. The most common size comes in a wooden box. What’s so fantastic with this cheese is if you heat it for a while you have a ready single portion fondue. Into the oven at 180 degrees centigrade for 25 minutes. Voila! Pair it with a white Burgundy or Chardonnay from the Jura where it comes from.
Now you’ve got a small cheese plate. The odd man out regarding wine is the Roquefort, the others can work very well together with one wine, preferable white. So have yourself a glass of Sauternes with the Roquefort. Well deserved.