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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Regional Cheese

So I'm on an online community, and there's a meme going around claiming March as "Question Month." Those who post this meme entice their friends by writing, "Is there anything you've ever wanted to ask me?"
This is the first year I've offered this up to my friends, and of course my first question was about cheese. I thought it would be a good entry for this here cheese blog, so here it is, slightly edited to serve the purposes of this blog and my readers. I hope you enjoy it!


Question: In your expert opinion, what region of what country produces the best cheeses?

Ooh, I love these kinds of questions! Not just because they are about cheese, a subject about which I can speak and write for about two hours (or so I've estimated) without the use of any notes or research materials. I love these kinds of questions because there are no simple or easy answers!

So on to the answer.

There is not one region or one country I would say produces the best cheeses. There are MANY, depending on what kind of cheeses you love the most.

I love many kinds, and here are some of the regions I think are putting out kick-ass cheeses.

First, let's keep it somewhat local and talk about Vermont. Anyone who has been there or lived there knows it's gorgeous, and what makes it gorgeous is its relative cleanliness and lovely terrain, and that adds up to great terroir. The soil feeds the plants that feed the animals that give the milk that feeds the cheese vats that make the cheese that feed you and me.
The world knows all about Vermont cheddar, and that's just fine, but lots of Vermont isn't all that well suited to raising cows. Hilly, scrubby terrain makes sheep and goats happy, and a farmer also needs far less land - field or scrub, flat or hilly - on which to raise sheep and goats. So some enterprising folks in Vermont have been raising sheep and goats and milking them to make cheese. This has been going on here and there for about 30 years (at least), but the last decade has seen an explosion of small-scale cheesemakers in Vermont, and most of them are milking sheep and goats, and they are making FANTASTIC cheese. Did you know that in all of the USA, teeny tiny Vermont has the highest number of artisan cheesemakers per capita? Sure, Wisconsin and California have tons of cheesemakers, but too few of them are artisanal; most are on an industrial (read: factory) scale. So yay Vermont!
Look for anything made by Jasper Hill, Blue Ledge, Willow Hill and Twig Farm, to name JUST a few!

Speaking of cheddar, we all know there's a plethora of shitty cheddar out there. So, other than the Vermont varieties, where in the world does good cheddar come from? Was there ever a time and place where cheddar was consistently awesome?
Yes, that time is now and the place is Somerset, England, cheddar's ancestral home.
I've not been to England, but Somerset must have some gorgeous pastures because the cheddar that comes from there can only come from happy cows.
The EU recently assigned just a few Somerset cheddarmakers with a PDO status, which means "Protected Designation of Origin" - if you are into French food and wine and know what AOC means, PDO is the same thing. This PDO means the specific cheesemakers are making cheddar in its ancestral home (as I said before), using the same traditional recipes and methods used since cheddar was first developed. If you buy PDO cheddar, you are getting the real deal.
Of the PDO cheddars, my favorite is Montgomery's Cheddar.
In fact, it's one of my favorite cheeses in the whole world.
Neal's Yard is one of the more popular purveyors of Montgomery's.

Another region I'm quite fond of, and this has been somewhat of a recent discovery, is Northern Italy, specifically the Alps, Piedmonts, the Alta Lange, the Po River Valley, etc.
Barring Parmigiano-Reggiano, which is an absolutely genius cheese, many of the Northern Italian cheeses are quite delicate, especially compared with such Southern Italian favorites as Provolone and Pecorino Romano. Hell, even all the Tuscan Pecorinos seem like ball-busters compared with the lovely Northern Italian cheeses.
So what's so great about these cheeses?
Many of them are small, hand-made on a very small scale, very young (i.e. fresh, not aged long at all) and gentle. Not dull, but made in a way that allows the nuances of the very good milk to come through. They are also quite rich.
Most halfway decent cheese shops will have La Tur, Robiola Bosina, Tuma de l'Paja, Rocchetta or Cravanzina.
Harder to find are the cheeses made by Cora. These folks are crazy with their handmade cheeses - wrapping them in chestnut leaves, cabbage leaves, etc. Cora cheeses are PRICEY, but abso-motherfucking-lutely worth every penny.
Another Northern Italian cheese worth mentioning is Fontina Val d'Aosta. I'm sure most of you are thinking of the shitty industrial "Fontina" made who-the-hell-knows-where. Well, they are not even supposed to be called "Fontina" at this point because the REAL Fontina Val d'Aosta is a DOP (same as PDO and AOC) cheese so no other cheese is allowed to call itself "Fontina." Anyway, Fontina Val d'Aosta is a gently pungent, fruity and nutty cheese which, if it were aged longer and were a little more firm, would remind you of the best of the Alpine cheeses such as Gruyere, Appenzeller and Hoch Ybrig.

Speaking of which, the Alps! Swiss, Italian and of course French. Grasses and flowers grow in the Alps that grow nowhere else, and the air, soil and water is so pure up there, only a gorgeous cheese could be borne from that terroir. Lucky for us, a multitude of gorgeous cheeses come from the Alps, so nobody has to do without! In addition the three I listed above, also look for Beaufort d'Alpage (made only with summer milk), REAL Emmentaler and Comte. With Comte, the longer it's aged, the more balanced and less acidic it gets, BTW.

The Basque region - the Pyrenees - of France produce one of my favorite types of cheese. It has one official, AOC name, but many dairies make it. That cheese is called Ossau Iraty. Always always always demand a raw milk Ossau. There's no reason to accept a pasteurized version. I would say Ossau is the perfect cheese. It is probably the best balanced cheese in the world, and by that I mean the various nuances of flavor come together in such a way that no one flavor stands out. It's aged at least 6 months and made from sheep milk, and something about it is so perfect. There are so many flavors in there I run out of words to describe them. F'real. It looks rustic, it tastes rustic. Find it. You won't be disappointed.

Oh, back to Italy. I know Tuscany is sort of cliche at this point, but they make some kick-ass Pecorinos. I'm not talking about the cheese everyone calls "Pecorino" which is really Pecorino Romano. See, Pecorino just means "sheep cheese" in Italian, and the second name often refers to its provenance. Hence, P. Romano is from Rome, right? (Well, it used to be, but now most of it is made on Sardinia, an island with waaaay more sheep than people.) Anyway, Tuscany makes verrrry delicious sheep cheeses, and whether they are aged for just about a month or a year or more, I like every single one of them. Yes, it's true. I have never met a Pecorino Toscano I haven't liked.

Back to France again! I'll briefly mention the Loire Valley, because that's where all those lovely goat cheeses come from. You know the ones: Sainte-Maure de Touraine, Valencay, Crottin (which means horse dropping)... Yes, the Loire Valley makes all those fresh, young goat cheeses. Some with ash on the outside, others are naked. All are so damn good. So why does this specific region of France have so many goats anyway? Thank the Arabs! Specifically, the Moors. When they invaded Spain a kazillion years ago (I know, I could look up the dates, but I'm trying to write this whole thing without having to look ANYTHING up - I consider it a personal challenge), they brought with them their goats. Well, they continued north into France's Loire River Valley and hung around for awhile. Eventually, the French kicked their asses out, but they kept their goats, and their goat-cheese recipes! And now France - and not the Middle East - is known worldwide for having delectable chevre! Pretty clever of them.

Oh, and Spain and Portugal. These are relatively new regions to us cheese lovers here in the USA. It's only been, oh, maybe 10 years or so since any recognizable amount of cheese has been coming from the Iberian peninsula, and Spain has definitely taken the lead in popularity. but watch out for those Portuguese, because they have some fascinating cheeses. I know everyone loves Manchego, but at this point it's so damn mass-produced it's really hard to find a good source for handmade Manchego. Stick with Roncal if you want a good aged sheep cheese from Spain. Also, check out Spain's goat cheeses (thanks again to the Moors): Monte Enebro will make you pee your pants it's so good. Neval is a big cloud of goat love. Mmm... For folks who like a little bite in their queso, look for any cheese that's thistle-renneted. Torta del Casar is one that comes to mind.

OK, I think that's enough.

This list is by no means comprehensive or exhaustive, although you might be getting pretty damn exhausted reading it har har. I didn't mention Flanders and Burgundy and Champagne - regions that produce incredible washed-rind cheeses. I also didn't mention Corsica, an island that produces crazy herb-encrusted sheep cheeses. And what about all the blues from near the French coast?

Oy. I could go on for-evah! And I think I have...


cheese underground lady said...

This is a great list of cheeses! I have to, however, plug Wisconsin a bit -- I don't think you're giving us enough credit. Currently, 99 of our 133 cheese plants are making at least one type of specialty cheese, and about 40 of these are considered solely artisan or farmstead cheesemakers. We're making everything from a small batch, seasonal, organic cheddar to a grass-based, washed rind beaufort. Wisconsin is really coming into its own on the artisan and specialty cheese scene, and we're only getting better. We have more goats and more goat cheesemakers here than any other state, and we're beginning to dominate the sheep's milk cheese scene as well. Very few of our cheese plants are "factory farm plants" -- 99 percent of our farms are family owned and we average under 90 dairy cows per farm, unlike bigger states hosting mega farms with thousands of cows. In fact, if you'd like a Wisconsin directory of all of our farmstead, artisan and specialty cheesmakers, email me and I'll send you one. It's a great publication with lots of photos of our rock star cheesmakers. Visit: www.cheeseunderground.com

Rachael said...

Wow, and I always thought cheddar was just cheddar, no matter who made it- Thanks for being the very beginning of my cheese education!!

Wendy M. Levy said...

Well thanks Rachael! What an enviable place to be: at the beginning of your cheese education. Have fun learning, and keep eating!

Dr Burger said...

Nice! I only recently checked out your blog, but have enjoyed the post and will be back to read more.