Cheese

Slow Cheese is Better

 Thanks guys. 

Thanks guys. 

 'You going too quick, you need to slow down, no robot here, cheese is made with love' said Toski in his broken English, clutching his hand to his chest with emotion. 'Cheese in big factories - no love, all same, käse should come from the heart' he continued, making me drop my bucket into the cloudy whey and realize in an instant that he was completely right. I love cheese and I work with cheese and yet as I watched my sinking bucket become completely engulfed by small, fluffy curds I realized that I was no different from a robot in a factory, simply trying to get the job finished so that I could move on to the next task. It suddenly struck me that here I was, making handmade cheese in a rural Austrian village and yet I was still trying to move as fast as possible to get 'the job done.' Whether a by-product of living a life in the city or simply growing up in a world in where 'getting ahead' and 'moving quickly' go hand in hand, I seem to spend little or no time living and learning in the moment.

My wife and I were fortunate enough to be able to volunteer for two weeks at the cheese making facility of Robert Strasser; an advocate of quality dairy products, raw milk and the slow food movement. Of the several people who work for him we spent most of our time with Toski, who as well as being an excellent cheesemaker could also speak no less than five languages! A native of Kosovo and the youngest of ten children, Toski grew up in rural Yugoslavia in the 1960s with no access to running water or electricity at home. Coming from a middle class English household during the 90s, Toski's early life seemed like an age gone by to me and one which was extremely difficult. Yet conversations about it reveal that he enjoyed it. ’Life was good' he told me, 'no television, no rush, a simple life.' This plain and uncluttered upbringing no doubt had an influence on his attitude to life and despite the fact he still works very hard, he does it thoroughly and meticulously rather than hurriedly and stressfully. Toski absolutely believes that the way a cheese is made affects it's flavour, it's character and it's overall happiness and why wouldn't that be correct? After all, cheese is a living organism and all living organisms require a certain degree of comfort if they are to thrive.

 Milk from down the road

Milk from down the road

Like many other areas of food production, cheesemaking is surely an art. Under human guidance, cheesemaking is a skill that is learned, honed and tailored in order to create the best taste. Under robotics without the intervention of human influence, the skill element is removed and the aim is simply to increase production to the highest possible yield. Nevertheless, in order for any cheese making business to be successful, machines are absolutely necessary. The crucial difference between cheesemaking being an art as opposed to being a production line is that machines should aid the making of the cheese instead of control the making of the cheese.

 Getting ready for maturing

Getting ready for maturing

Cheese made by hands may be non-conforming and create anomalies in terms of shape and flavour (especially if it is me who is making it!) yet it tastes so much better than when people's hands have been eliminated and removed from the cheese making process. In large scale factories, the closest a human hand gets to touching a product is pressing a button to start a robot. At Robert Strasser's farm, raw milk is collected from local farms within an hour of when the cheese starts to be made. The milk is then handled no less than six or seven times on it's journey to be sold as cheese. To give a brief overview: Curds and whey are separated with the help of hands; the cheese is cut into shape by hands; the cheese is washed for up to three weeks by hands and then it is finally packaged by hands. All this interaction creates a personal attachment to the product that is going to be consumed by so many people. Customers can also visit the farm to buy their cheese directly from the cooler and build a relationship of openness and trust with the owner and the cheesemaker.

The day after Toski had left me pondering my priorities when he told me to stop being so rough with the curds, Robert told me that 'a cheese is like a child' in the sense that if you care for it when it is first made then it will continue to grow up into a well-rounded, confident adult. Care for the product and attention to detail are two hallmarks of any cheesemaker and evidently high on the agenda of importance for both Toski and Robert. Based on my experience cheesemaking here, I have decided that I am going to spend less time being a robot and more time to fully learning skills and completing tasks thoroughly. There are always going to be times when we are rushed and machine-like, it's the nature of living a busy existence but when it comes to food I am going to try and take it slow. Slow food is better food.

 Making cheese slower

Making cheese slower

Tête du Moine

Tête du Moine really is a cute little cheese. It can immediately be picked out of a line of cheeses due to it being almost as round as it is tall. There are certain phrases in other languages that have an air of prestige about them, a sense of importance, a sense of style. However, when they are translated into English they don't sound half as fancy. Tête du Moine converts into English as 'Monk's Head.' As a phrase, Tête du Moine sounds regal, ancient and sophisticated just like the Swiss like to portray themselves. Monk's Head sounds like a deserted, failing pub in Northern England and not at all appetizing.

 Cheese shop with traditional dress! 

Cheese shop with traditional dress! 

We bought this cheese in Courmayeur (which is possibly the closest Italian town to the Swiss border) in a fantastic fromagerie where the employers wore traditional red gowns to work. As we entered the shop I almost felt as though we were being transported back in time to an era where people valued a sense of style in retail establishments. Both ladies in red attire had their hair tied back and traditional clogs on their feet making them actually look like they were at work in a cheese shop. Whether it is part of the gimmick or not, cheese is stylish in Italy and so are the people who sell it.

Tête du Moine is a small cheese with a unique shape and a stinky odor. We bought a section of a wheel to take hiking with us on the Tour du Mont Blanc in the hope that it would last a few days. Traditionally, I believe you are supposed to eat it by scraping slivers off with a knife which allows oxygen to hit the surface changing the taste of the cheese. After a long day hiking we were far too hungry to mess around with shavings so we simply cut chunks off and ate it with bread. It tastes nowhere near as strong as it smells as one lucky hiker found out on our trip. Recently returning from the shower in the refuge he complained that there must be a hiker near by with terrible smelling boots. Once we revealed that it was probably the cheese he could smell he retracted in horror only to be pleasantly surprised when we forced him to try it!

 So it's not the best picture of Tête du Moine but we had just walked 12 miles in the rain!

So it's not the best picture of Tête du Moine but we had just walked 12 miles in the rain!

As the name suggests the cheese was first made by monks in what is believed to have been the 8th century. No matter where you go in Europe, monks are always brilliant at making cheese. Or at least they used to be. Regular invasions by all sorts of invaders meant that monks needed to stay on their toes and hold onto their robes. Perhaps cheese was used to save their skins. Their vast knowledge of self sufficiency, resilience, dislike for waste and simple lifestyle has proven an excellent combination for the progression of cheese through the ages.

Tête du Moine is a raw cow milk cheese made only in the Jura mountain area of Switzerland and it's said to be great with white wine although I wouldn't know because I don't like white wine! It's shiny silver foil package can be found in many cheese shops nationally and internationally with it's AOP designated status clearly visible on the label. Whether you are eating it under the name of Tête du Moine or Monk's Head, one thing is for sure, it tastes pretty good!

Matos Cheese Factory - Satisfyingly simple!

Artisan cheese in California is rife. Come to think of it anything and everything that can be considered artisan, local, home-grown, solar-powered, alternately-lived, organic, sustainable or farm-table-y can be found in California. It's a little overwhelming and can almost make the above words redundant. As a result they lose their significance and it can be difficult to tell what is a trend and what is authentic. With that in mind, sometimes it is refreshing to visit somewhere that keeps things plain and simple. A place where there is no merchandise for sale. A place that doesn't have signage telling you absolutely everything you need to know. A place that doesn't have a Twitter account or an Instagram or even a website. A place that has been making the same cheese for years and yet still only accepts cash or checks. Lots of these locations can be found in other countries but this is the consumer capital of the world so these places are few and far between.

One such spot is the Matos Cheese Factory in Marin county, California. The only cheese made at the farm is St. Jorge which is themed on the fromage that comes from the Portuguese Azores. The family, originally from Portugal, have been making cheese on and off since Jack was a lad. All the cheese is made from raw milk and it is available in two stages of aging.

How your experience may go?

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You enter the farm by driving down a long dirt road that passes a variety of cow breeds all chewing on the cud and staring at you. The road ends in a tiny space just enough for three cars. The farm seems deserted and just when you start to ask the inquisitive cows for directions you see a tiny sign saying 'cheese' in a window of a room so small that it looks like it may be home to a family of mice. Almost feeling like you must be in the wrong place you'll turn the handle on the wooden door and enter a miniature space that has nothing in it except a small desk and another door that houses all the aging cheeses. As previously mentioned the company only make one cheese but it is offered at two levels of aging. You should ask the very friendly girl behind the counter to try them both and to see the wheels at their various stages of maturation in the back room. Finally, buying a piece is a good idea - you can get a fairly big wedge for $5 and feed your face with it as part of a picnic.

 St. Jorge on Advocado

St. Jorge on Advocado

In all honesty, having tried it before I'm not a big fan of the younger version of the cheese but the aged version is spicy, floral and fruity. Not only is it a great tasting cheese but it would be real good grated on top of a pasta dish to add a punch of flavor. Matos factory is open 9-5 daily and amazingly it's part of the official California cheese trail. Unlike Cowgirl Creamery or Marin, don't expect any frills here, just simple cheese tasting with a friendly atmosphere.

Chizu - Cheese in Japanese

Chizu is a pocket sized establishment in central Portland, OR. We had read about it before arriving in the city and we were eager to visit. Essentially it is a bar/eatery that serves cheese, wine and beer all encompassed by a Japanese theme. It's Japanese in the sense that everything in the place is minimalist and it is covered with miniature origami birds. Additionally, Portland receives a lot of visitors from Japan who often pick it as a second city to visit after checking out San Fransisco. The brainchild behind Chizu is the man who also owns The Cheese Bar; a cheese shop in west Portland that has over 200 cheeses. I guess he saw a good business opportunity based on the clientele and therefore Chizu was born.

Having now been to Chizu I can confidently declare that it indeed is pretty fun. It's the sort of idea that would work in Portland because the city is so hip it hurts. Hipsters like ideas, specialty food, local product and beer and Chizu has the lot. If Chizu was opened in downbeat country town it would fail worse than a failure who has failed to notice that he had in fact failed. You take a seat at the tiny bar in front of a wide selection of cheeses behind a glass case and pick up a menu that lists all of them on it. It's not restaurant, it's not take out its simply gourmet with a casual feel. You can either choose your own cheese plate and accompanying beverage or you can ask one of the very friendly and knowledgable staff to assist you in making a taste sensation.

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Our cheesemonger (who turned out to be a relative of Benjamin Franklin!) was excellent. I picked the cheese and she provided the customer experience whilst preparing our cheese board with a selection of dried fruit, salted nuts and crostini. Attention to detail goes into the layout of the boards and just enough cheese is given so that you get a few good bites but not so much that it's overwhelming. Considering the potentially high brow connotations that one may have with the eatery the prices were very reasonable - we had four cheeses washed down with two ciders and we paid $25. The fruit and nuts were part of the deal. I think that's a steal.

If we ever go back to Portland, we'll definitely go back to Chizu.

Loleta - Cheesemaking Without the Fuss

We left the giant trees of the Redwood forests in Northern California to make our way to Willits to see a friend who was working at a place called The Grange Farm for Adaptive Agriculture. Intrigued towards what we were going to find on an adaptive agriculture farm we decided to brainstorm what it might be like. In order to brainstorm we needed fuel to think. Therefore, cheese.

We decided to stop at a dot on the map named 'Loleta' which apparently held a small cheese factory within the limits of the town. We peered out of the windows of the car at rural Humboldt county, green and lush pastures aren't necessarily what one thinks of when conjuring up an image of California but this was certainly the case amongst these parts. The vibrancy of the fields reminded me of my home country, England, with its rolling hills and farm buildings.

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The shop was on a side street opposite a derelict building with smashed windows, it hardly seemed like a good location from the outside. However, when we went in we could clearly see that it was a popular location. First opened in 1982 I think the factory must look the same today as it did 35 years ago. The shop had a simple cheese case that was filled with what I like to refer to as 'solid no frill cheese!' There was a large selection of Jack, Cheddar and Havarti that was infused with different flavors and each cheese had a respective sample to try.

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Filling our faces with cheese I looked up to the picture on the wall and saw an image of Guy Fieri from Diners, Drive-in's and Dives when he visited the establishment a few years ago. He was stood with Bob Laffranchi, the owner of Loleta Cheese. Guy Fieri was quoted as saying 'it was the real deal'. On a side note I think Fieri's spiked hair would make an excellent spot to place cheese and pickled onions for a party!

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Being on a strict budget we decided to by the end piece of a Monterey Jack for our 'make it yourself and eat it out of the trunk on the side of the road' picnic. The end pieces were ridiculously cheaply priced at $2, it would have been rude not to buy one. As we set off on our merry way we saw the cows that made our cheese possible. We thanked them udderly...

Rogue River Dairy

Once you reach Southern Oregon everything seems to be named Rogue. The Rogue River Farm Stand and Dairy can be found not far from the meandering Rogue River after a long winding drive through Rogue State Forest. There is something about the word rogue that is pretty cool. A rogue to me is a mischievous swindler, a lovable bad guy - the Honorable Sheriff of Nottingham, Captain Jack, The Black Mustache....

So anyway, we were bumbling through backcountry Oregon feeling like rogues in search of Rogue River cheese. Our initial intentions were to go to the shop and cheese making facility in Central Point but because we got there so early the place was closed. Therefore we decided to continue on to the Dairy and Farm Stand in Grants Pass and I'm glad we did! When we arrived there were no cars in the parking lot and all we could see were cows - I guess Sunday is a quiet day for eating cheese. There was a milking parlor to the left, calves to the right and a pretty lawn with three picnic tables donning respective Rogue Creamery umbrellas to provide some shade from the hot sun. We hadn't even entered the shop and I already wanted to have my lunch there.

After viewing the outdoor premises we decided to venture inside. We were greeted by a lady stood behind a humble counter offering selections of Rogue cheeses. She was real friendly and directed us towards the cheese curd samples for the day; the lavender cheese curds were particularly good! The lady was one of only six (seven?) staff that work at this organically aimed establishment including all the herds people and merchandisers which surprised me considering the popularity of their product. I knew that the company had just started moving towards robotic milking and the lady (can't believe I didn't get her name) told me that despite the robotics costing an extremely large amount that they have greatly improved production. I was amazed to discover that each cow has a chip in its ear which automatically knows when the cow needs milking. Providing I have the information correct, the cow walks up to the milking barrier and if the chip sends a message that the cow has a full udder then it opens and allows the cow in to be milked! The milk is then transferred to Central Point to be made into cheese.

We tried the Caveman Blue and the Oregonzola (both wonderful) and then we discovered that they make grilled cheese sandwiches or as I prefer to call them - 'cheese toasties!' There were two to choose from so we decided to get one of each! The first was a 'Sebbie' that consisted of a delicious melting cheese made with a local chocolate stout and the second was a 'Classic' which was made with Caveman Blue and honey. We took 'em outside and ate them under the shade of the umbrellas on the lawn. The whole time we were eating, a cow was staring at us as if to say 'you've got me to thank for that sandwich' and I would totally agree (with a little help from Rogue River Creamery of course!)

Rogue River is a relatively new company and they are expanding fast. They export nationally and internationally. It's really not surprising why. If you forgive the pun, their cheeses, like their cows, are outstanding in their field and I have a special regard for their line of blues. Every blue cheese I have had from Rogue has been incredible - my favourite still being the smokey blue which is the best smoked cheese in the west!

Thank you Rogue River Creamery.

Thank you cows.

Good Thunder - Thunderously Good!

If you have ever been in a tent during a storm in the middle of nowhere , then you will have undoubtedly heard wild cracks of thunder that cause you to believe that the gods are wielding hammers and deciding the fate of the universe. Although at first it can be terrifying, once you sit back and relax you find it to be heart-poundingly exciting. This comparison is not unlike lots of people's approaches to washed rind cheeses. On first impression, most people recoil in horror at an orange (sometimes sticky, sometimes wrinkly) rinded cheese only to be pleasantly surprised and even heart-poundingly excited when they cut one open and try a piece. 

Good Thunder is a great name for a cheese. It's a good cheese and it hits you like thunder. Good Thunder is the name of a town with approximately 600 people near the town of Blue Earth, Minnesota. It's a little washed rind square which is soaked in Surly Bender beer a few times during it's production. It may look like an insignificant little square on the surface but underneath the surface lies a bright, chalky, dense cheese that tastes amazing! 

Cheese-o-meter rating: 9/10

 

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Roquefort Papillion: Ravishingly Pleasing!

Roquefort is one of the world's most well-known and well-loved cheeses. Produced for centuries and matured in the Combalou Cave systems of Southern France it's historic story of discovery is one of chance and coincidence. Way back in time, when Jack was just a lad, it is said that a shepherd sat down to rest in a cave with a bag of rye bread and sheep's cheese. However, it was not food that he had on his mind but instead the pursuit of a stunning shepherdess! In his haste he set off to track her down (and presumably start a family of mini shepherds) but as his mind was all a flutter he forgot to take his food with him. Sources say that only when he realized he was as hungry as a hippo on a hamster's diet did he return to the cave to find that his cheese had all this weird green and blue mold on it. Famished, he demolished the lot at once and was pleasantly surprised to find it tasted bloody fantastic!

 Pretty Papillon

Pretty Papillon

Roquefort has protected status of origin, it has been revered by kings and it has seen and survived many wars. In comparison with the Roquefort produced for centuries, Papillon is a toddler of a producer. First made in 1906 it is only just getting it's adult teeth. The are only 7 producers of Roquefort and Papillon is one of the largest.

It is pretty much the best sheep's milk blue cheese that there is. The milk comes from Lacaune Sheepand whatever it is that these ewe's eat, the milk they produce is so rich! The flavor is not for the faint-hearted. It's bold, it's intense, it's salty and it's powerful. In all honesty, it's a little strong for me but I can absolutely appreciate what an incredible cheese it really is! When the outer silver foil is pulled back the inside is like a picture of modern art; a bright white paste, interjected with blue and green mold. As a bonus, this particular one is organic!

If you want a piece of history eat it with rye bread.
If you want it warmed up put it on a burger.
If you wanna get sloshed, eat it with a stout!

Cheese-o-meter rating: 8/10

 

Fonterra Sharp Cheddar: Your dad's favorite cheese!

A lively customer walked straight for me this week, extremely eager to tell me something. He had a manic look in his otherwise friendly eyes and I waited with trepidation for what was coming next. 'I'm 42 and I never knew' he exclaimed. He waited impatiently, anticipating my reaction. On realizing that he wasn't going to kill me with the block of cheese that he was holding aloft I offered a reply. 'You're 42?' I said. The man was looking positively radiant and not a day over 30. This was not the answer he wanted and he brushed it aside immediately. 'I just never knew' he repeated, a bemused look on his face somewhere between concern and awe. I finally ventured with the response he was waiting for. 'Never knew what?' I said. 'I'm 42 and I never realized that cheddar could actually taste so good. I never believed the hype. I thought that ordinary cheddar, cheap cheddar that I usually buy was worth the price and that there was no difference. I've literally spent my whole life EATING BORING CHEDDAR' he said animatedly.

 Cheddar Mountain; the highest peak in New Zealand

Cheddar Mountain; the highest peak in New Zealand

The piece of cheese that he was holding above his head like a caveman wielding a prehistoric tool was Fonterra, New Zealand Sharp Cheddar. If you put hundreds of cheddar's in a line, it is pretty good. Not the best, but nowhere near the bottom of the pile either. This gentleman with the secret aging cream was amazed at the price as well as the taste and on comparison he realized he was actually getting more 'better cheddar' per pound than his 'usual cheap cheddar.' Once he had made his point we exchanged pleasantries and off he went on his merry way. I never did find out what cheap cheddar he had been eating all those years!


As a company, Fonterra is pretty big. However, big doesn't necessarily mean bad. They are committed to responsible dairy farming and they have projects in place to promote sustainable farming, preserving wetlands and taking care of cattle. The cheese is made with milk from grass-fed cows. It pretty much melts in your mouth, it's incredibly flavorful and it leaves you thinking 'I'm just going to have to have another piece!'