Cheese 107-Skyr

This time, it’s personal.  Today’s cheese has eluded me for decades.  But that’s all over now.

When I was a little girl my Icelandic grandma made a delicious dairy treat for us “from the old country” called skyr.  Skyr was a thick yoghurt type desert, only better.  Not that there’s anything wrong with yoghurt-but skyr is more tangy, somehow more fulsome, and most importantly, only grandma knew how to make it.  It was special.  Grandma died when I was 17 years old taking with her endless games of cribbage, trips to the Bingo hall,and of course-her secret recipe for skyr. I’m going to be honest, skyr kind of dropped off my radar then.  I didn’t realize how much I longed for it until about 3 years ago, when my mother, my sister and I planned a trip to Iceland.   Imagine my surprise to find skyr waiting for me at the airport in Reykjavik. I mean, it was literally everywhere!  Skyr is so beloved and dominant in Iceland that in the Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s famous outdoor geothermal spa, there is a swim up skyr bar.  That’s right , a swim up skyr bar.  What kind of country has a swim up skyr bar?  I quickly acquainted myself with skyr in Iceland and ate it every single day, it was heaven.

Now wait, I know at this point you are thinking to yourself this is a cheese blog, silly, not yoghurt, but here it is…SKYR IS CHEESE!!!!!  Even though it looks and acts like yoghurt, it’s actually made with rennet, and thus is a cheese.  Technicality! It’s like a soft special cheese traditionally made of raw skimmed cow’s milk. Icelanders really dig their skyr.  They have been making and eating skyr since the 9th century, and it continues to be a big part of the diet in Iceland. As it is a cheese, it actually allowed them to store milk for longer than normal, which was quite handy on those ocean voyages while they were dong their important Viking work such as discovering some continents and pillaging others. Skyr these days is especially popular with people trying to gain muscle or lose fat-and who doesn’t want that?  It is a shockingly great source of low-fat protein. It’s actually a perfect food.  Can you tell I love skyr?  This message was brought to you by skyr.

When I returned back to Canada I recognized that I needed skyr, and I needed it all the time-in my stomach.  Alas, skyr is nowhere to be found in all of Canada.  Trust me, I looked.  Not to be foiled, I figured if I could get some skyr starter and a yoghurt maker, I should be good to go making my own.  First, I was under the impression I needed raw cow’s milk to make skyr.  I looked high and low and eventually discovered that it was highly illegal to sell raw milk in Canada, so that was out. It turns out that most skyr these days uses pasteurized milk, so I still had hope. Then I realized that I also needed real skyr as a starter, to seed my batch-it’s a special bacteria you see, you can’t just fake Streptococcus salivarius subsp.thermophilus, you know? I should have brought some back from Iceland, but I was too freaked out to sneak it across the border, fearing some dairy related border incident.  Once again, I was foiled.  I tried various other pathetic techniques like kefir grains and butter milk, but nothing was skyr, nothing was real and nothing worked.  It was a failure.

Finally, last week, while in New York City I was reunited with skyr.  An American company “Siggi’s Skyr” is making skyr in the USA using Icelandic skyr techniques and starter.  It certainly appears to be the real thing.  Of course, it’s not here in Canada, nor in my fridge, but at last! Although for some reason it hasn’t come to Canada, Siggi’s skyr is everywhere in New York, which seems to be a waste to me.  I saw it in at least 3 stores in Manhattan, it sits beside the yoghurt-even though, as I have made clear, it is a cheese.  It’s much more expensive than yoghurt, at least twice the price, so that’s a little prohibitive.  But really, it’s skyr, it’s worth it.

Siggi’s skyr comes in a couple of different flavours, mostly kind of weird ones like pomegranate and passionfruit and coconut, not your tradition Icelandic flavours.  Although it apparently comes in a drinkable form, I only sampled the firmer skyr in a bucket.  Siggi’s skyr comes in a plastic tub, when the lid is removed the interior is already mixed.  It’s thick, much thicker than yoghurt, and has no discernible smell.  This is not an aged cheese, it’s the love child of cream cheese and yoghurt, it’s extremely fresh and spoils easily.

Here goes….

Hmmm.  Well, a little bit of a let down!  Serves me right for all the build up.  I’m just not crazy about the texture of this skyr, I find it a little thicker and grainier than I remember.  It’s really thick, especially if you are thinking yoghurt, you need to chew this stuff (just a little bit).  The taste is also not what I was looking for. I am sampling the passionfruit flavour and it just doesn’t seem sweet enough for me.  This skyr is sweetened with agave, and I think the agave could be a little more generous. Actually, a lot more generous, come on! The skyr I ate in Iceland also had a real lemony tang to it that I am missing here, this seems more subdued, and I’m not sure why that is.  While I think skyr in general is fabulous, I’m not sure if I’m the hugest fan of Siggi’s skyr.  Total bummer!  However, now that I know it’s in the USA, I think it’s time to try my hand at skyr making at home again.  All I needed was some Streptococcus salivarius subsp.thermophilus and a jug of skimmed milk to make Willow’s Skyr, and that-my friends, is definitely my slice (or spoon) of cheese!

Cheese 106-Tarentaise AND a field trip to Murray’s cheese

I have just returned from an epic trip to the East Coast of the USA, specifically New York and Washington DC. I’m sure you know what was on my mind…cheese! What goes better with a Big Apple than a Big Cheese?  Top of my list along with the MOMA and the Statue of Liberty was one of the greatest cheese shops in the world,  the legendary Murray’s Cheese shop in Greenwich Village, New York.  Murray’s has been on my radar since the inception of this blog as a true pioneer and leader in the world of affinage and cheese.  They actually have 4 of their own limestone caves underneath their shop (alas, not open to the public) and they work with many local and European producers to bring some amazing cheese to the palate of lucky New Yorker’s.  I couldn’t resist buying their shirt, “make cheese, not war,” as a child of hippies and lover of cheese, I couldn’t say it better myself!

I have to admit that my heart almost stopped beating as I approached Murray’s-yes, I’m that much of a geek.  Inside this mecca of fromage I found-to my chagrine-only a regular amount of cheese.  I was actually a little disappointed in the number and variety of cheeses present, easily under 50, and certainly nothing like the cheese shops I have been frequenting in Vancouver.  It just goes to show that just because something is well-known doesn’t mean it’s the ultimate.  As well, although the cheese was nicely displayed, I didn’t find the cheese love here that I was expecting.  It was like going to the Vatican and finding a bunch of atheists.  Weird. I tried to engage the cheese monger in some cheesey talk and they seemed a little busy.  Oh well, I did talk a stranger into trying Stilton, so my work was well done. One of the things I suspect is limiting the cheeses available in the USA is different rules about raw milk cheese, I did not see a single Canadian cheese in the shop, and did see only a small handful of raw milk, and all very aged.

Of course, I did have to eat a cheese from Murray’s.  It was hard to choose as I had either already reviewed most of the cheese there, or it was local American variety I had not heard of.  I eventually chose Tarentaise as my chosen fromage as it had a flag on it saying “staff favourite“, and I am a sucker for a little flag. Tarentaise is an organic raw milk cow’s cheese made by  Jeremy Stephenson at Spring Brook farm in Vermont, and a local take on the great French cheese, Abondance, reviewed earlier in this blog.  Tarentaise is a farmstead cheese, meaning it is made by the very folks who tend the cattle, a real pasture to cheese operation. The name Tarentaise refers to a type of cattle in France used to make another type of cheese, but this operation uses Jersey cows to make its Tarentaise.  Strange. Maybe they just liked the name.

According to their website, Tarentaise is made in the “traditional method” meaning that it is made in a copper vat, which is essential to creating this style of alpine cheese. They use the same cultures and techniques developed  in the Alps to make Abondance. The curds are cut by hand with a harp, (can this be true?) stirred, cooked and transferred in a large cheese cloth to be pressed. After the cheese enters the aging room, the rinds are rubbed by hand with a culture.

Each Jersey cow on this certified organic farm has its own name, and they milk these cows by hand with buckets, which, I don’t think ANYONE else does these days, that’s very old timey. This cheese continues its good karma as the farm is actually used as a location to allow city kids to learn about being around animals and working on farms, so it’s all pretty far out here.  Organic cows, hand milking, copper pots and urban kids getting a feel for the country, but what about the cheese?

Tarentaise  is a handsome Alpine type cheese, strong and firm and well aged.  Oh, and did I mention that this one is CAVE AGED?  Oh yes, I do love me some cave aged cheese.  It is a pale yellow cheese with a natural dark brown rind, the paste gets darker and it approaches to rind as is common in Alpine cheeses.  It’s very mild in odour.  It waits for me in the hotel room in New York, it’s impatient, and so am I.

Here goes…

Hmmm.  Well, it is an alpine type cheese, no doubt about theat, it actually reminds me of the Alpindon cheese made here in BC I reviewed a little while back. It’s little spicy and also fruity. It’s a mild sweet cheddary cheese with a creamy toothsome paste  There is a delightful tyrosine crunch in this cheese which I adore, it’s like little pop rocks in the cheese paste and denotes a great affinage in a cheese. As with all Alpine cheeses, I just wish there was a little more salt, but that’s just me.  Tarentiase, I appreciate your dedication to the art of cheese, and you really do win for hand milking, but as for taste, I can get me a good raw milk alpine cheese here in Canada, and none of your ilk are salty enough for my palate anyway, but it was nice to meet you.

Cheese 105-Allegretto

Another week, another cheese. I am about to hop on a plane to New York, and I hope to report back on the cheese of that fair city next week. While my family looks to museums and American landmarks to visit- for me, it’s all about Murray’s Cave Cheese Shop.  Mecca.  Ahh.  Yes, soon Murray’s Cheese Cave, you and I will be one, in a sort of Turuphile folie a deux! In the meantime, let me leave you with yet another cheese from Quebec to tide you over whilst I visit the wonders of fromage abroad.

Today’s cheese, Allegretto, has been alluding me for sometime.  Each time I go to the cheese shop to look for it they are “just out of it and getting some in soon.”  I find this extremely vexatious, thus imagine my joy to find a half round ready for the snacking. Allegretto is a sheep’s milk cheese from Quebec made of thermalized milk.  This is pretty significant on two levels.  First, sheep have tiny little udders.  It’s udderly impossible to get much milk out of those wee things, so we really must appreciate sheep’s milk cheese for the effort put into simply supplying the milk.  Secondly, as far as I can see, this is the only thermalized sheep’s milk cheese out there, everything else is either pasteurized (boring) or raw (dangerous!) so this one kind of allows one to appreciate the best of both worlds.

Before I get to the cheese, I want to discuss the word terroir-which I realize I have not investigated yet in this blog, despite its’ importance to the world of cheese.  Terroir is a French word which comes from the word terre meaning land. Terroir is often used in relation to wine and cheese to explain the special characteristics that the climate and geography have on the creation of a certain product-this explains the basis of the AOC (in France) and DOP or PDO designations in the rest of Europe, which basically state that a product can only be made in a certain area using certain techniques to be able to call itself by the designated name of that product.  This is because the terroir is only specific to a certain area.  Only a unique terroir can create a specific taste profile.  Of course, others think this is just an excuse to basically copyright a popular product and limit its name to only a handful of folks.  You choose.   The reason I bring up terroir today is that there’s an awful lot of chat on the net about the importance of terroir to Allegretto.

Allegretto is only made from the milk of one sheep herd which is grazed in one specific area-the pastures of the Abitibi region of Quebec. The area’s Nordic climate (aka Canada) results in pastures with a higher sugar content, which is passed along to the sheep creating sweeter milk.  This explains why Allegretto is so sweet compared to other sheep’s milk cheeses not from the same terroir.  It also explains why so many cheeses which are fundamentally the same thing, are called different names.  Pecorino, Manchego and Allegretto are virtually the same cheese- yes, but the terroir sets them apart. Mystery solved.

Allegretto is a relatively new cheese.  Its producer, La Vache à Maillotte  (translating into Jersey Cow) was founded in 1996.  It specializes in a variety of cheeses including cow and sheep cheese.  La Vache à Maillotte  is located in La Sarre in the Abitibi region of Quebec.  According to their website La Vache à Maillotte is “Canada approved.” I really have no idea what that means, but it certainly sounds good.  La Vache à Maillotte has partnered up with sheep farmer Tommy Lavoie, who ensures the quality of feed and care given his herd are consistent with the nordic terroir so important to the taste of Allegretto’s essential flavour. You see, I told you it’s all about the terroir with this cheese.

Allegretto is a pressed cheese, aged a minimum 120 days. While ripening, the exterior of the cheese is washed every two days with brine to develop its natural rind. As already mentioned, Allegretto is neither a raw milk nor pasteurized cheese, it is thermalized. Thermalization heats the milk to a lower temperature, which destroys most of the potentially bad bacteria but keeps some of the flavour from the beneficial microbes. Hopefully any remaining harmful bacteria die off during the aging process. A cheese made from raw or thermalized milk cannot be sold younger than 60 days in Canada. Thus my Allegretto is at least 2 months old, but  I am guessing it’s a little older than that.

Allegretto was the Grand champion in the  Caseus d’Argent cheese competition in 2004 and the overall class 8 winner (Best lamb milk cheese) in the 6th edition of the Quebec specialty cheese contest.  Bravo, Allegretto!

My little wedge of Allegretto sits patiently on my desk.  It’s a handsome cheese with a firm paste of a buttery yellow which grows darker as it approaches the rind.  There is a natural rind with a cheesecloth pattern which is light white in colour. This cheese smells marvelous.  It’s intense, but not foul, I just want to sink my teeth into it’s ewey gooey goodness- and I shall.

Here goes… Well, it’s good, but it’s missing that sweet I was expecting.  This is really a salty cheese more than anything else.  Perhaps those sheep were grazing on some salt licks along with their Nordic Terroir. Don’t get me wrong-it’s toothsome and yummy, but SALTY. Allegretto has a nutty taste with a hint of lamb.  It reminds me a little of the Lamb Chopper Gouda I sampled a while back. The texture is lovely, its chewy and melty, but alas, there is no tyrosine crunch to report.  It actually tastes a little like grapes now that I eat it more, that’s interesting, it is a fruity little cheese.  Mmmm.  Actually, the more I eat it, the more I like it, it’s a beautiful cheese, I would just dial back a little on the salt-but that’s just me.

OK Allegretto, get on my cheese board, you salty little monster, you are my slice of cheese.

Cheese 104-Mimolette


since writing this post I ran into some real mimolette in NYC and here is a photo! Check out the great mite rind

Full disclosure: I have had a cheese crush on Mimolette for months.  Not that I have ever tasted it-let’s be clear-but the very idea, nay the very notion of this cheese has made me shiver with cheese pleasure. Why is this, you might rightly ask, and here it is, the sordid truth: Mimolette is created with the aid of CHEESE MITES.  That’s right.  CHEESE MITES.  Since I started this journey into cheese, this  folly du fromage– I have heard rumours of bug-based cheeses.  We aren’t just talking bugs metaphorically in the bacterial state-but actual freaking BUG-BASED cheeses.  To my knowledge, this is the only one legally sold in Canada.  Of course, I have waxed on about Casu Marzu here before, a Pecorino served with live bug larvae from Sardinia.  Alas, Casu Marzu is even illegal and impossible to find in Sardinia! I have had to focus my bug and cheese obsession instead on the lovely and evasive Mimolette, which until yesterday, I had not been able to find in the entire city of Vancouver.

Perhaps you are wondering why a young lass such as myself is so interested in bug-based cheeses. The truth is, there used to be a lot more bugs in our cheese.  Think about it: old milk, damp cellars, no DEET: things happened.  In some types of cheese, this was even encouraged, and thus there is a secret little dirty history of bugs and cheese that we have virtually sanitized out of existence: except Mimolette.  It’s like a vestigial cheese from the glory days of cheese and bugs.  Only Mimolette embraces it’s buggy past.

Mimolette is a cheese traditionally produced  around the city of  Lille in France. It is also known as Boule de Lille after its city of origin, or vieux Hollande for being made after the tradition of Edam cheese.  It’s also known in some areas as commissiekaas. Mimolette was -according to cheese legend-and you know how I love me a cheese legend-originally made by the request of  King Louis X IV who was looking for a native French product to replace the then very popular dutch cheese, Edam. Import laws of the time forbade the importation of foreign cheese, so a new type of Edam needed to be developed for those French with a hankering for Edam. To differentiate it from Edam he had it colored orange with the natural cheese dye, annatto. Mimolette is a cow’s milk cheese, made from pasteurized milk.  Its name comes from the French word molle, meaning “soft”. This refers to the softness of the crust when young – with age it becomes harder. It has a gray crust and orange  flesh.  The cheese has a similar appearance, at first glance, to a cantaloupe.

But…wait, let’s get back to that crust, shall we?  The greyish crust of Mimolette is the result of CHEESE MITES intentionally introduced to add flavor by their burrowing and digestive action on the surface of the cheese.  Mimolette cheese uses Acarus siro mites (also known as flour mites) Their spitting and digesting was originally a happy coincidence, but now is purposefully introduced to add flavor to the cheese.  As the Acarus siro mites burrow through the cheese and devour the rind, they promote air flow and flavor development.  The mites are reportedly gone before the cheese is sold.  Reportedly.

Mimolette can be consumed at different stages of aging. When younger, its taste resembles that of Parmigiano Reggiano.  It’s also eaten  “extra-old” (extra-vieille). At that point, it can become rather hard to chew. The mites don’t actual enter into the eating of this cheese.  Or so they say.

My little wedge of Mimolette is hugely disappointing to me.  If you look carefully at the photo you will see that there is no grey cratered mite crust.  This is simply unacceptable.  In fact, there appears to be an orange wax rind a la gouda or Edam.  It looks like this little slice has been heinously sanitized for export.  If indeed it is real Mimolette, the mitey crust has been removed and replaced with a little plasticky wrap, and that almost brings me to tears. Let’s hope it was due to some mean kind of import rules, I can’t stand to think that no mites were used in the creation of my cheese.

So really, this Mimolette just looks like some cheddar cheese to me now, after all that excitement.  It’s dark orange in hue and has a firm paste throughout.  If I look very closely near where the rind was removed I do see faint white etchings in the cheese. I choose to believe that these are mite castings, as that pleases me.  We shall never know the truth.

Here goes…

Well, it’s kind of boring after all of that build up.  Sigh. It is kind of like an Edam, and well, Edam’s actually also a bit of a yawner for me.  It’s pleasant enough, It’s a slightly salty, slightly lemony, slighty chewy, slightly flavourful cheese, but really, nothing to write home about.  It’s inoffensive and mild and if you didn’t know better-you would assume it was just some insipid cheddar.  I’m just crestfallen over Mimolette.  No mites and no bite. Alas, Mimolette, despite all the build up, there’s nothing mitey about you-you are not my slice of cheese.


Cheese 103-Okanagan Goat Cheese

Hello everyone, did you have a good week eating cheese?  I must admit, after the 100 day cheese sprint it’s quite a relief to be only blogging once a week.  It makes tracking down that one special cheese all the more important. I am looking for suggestions, so please add a comment if there’s a cheese you haven’t seen here yet that you would like to see profiled!  I am trying to focus on Canadian cheeses at this time-but I am open-minded, just saying.

Imagine my delight to find yet another local BC cheese producer that I had not yet sampled-in my own local Buy Low.  Really, it never fails to surprise me what cheese is making it into my local market.  Today’s cheese is Okanagan Goat cheese.  It’s a soft unripened chevre by Happy Days Goat Dairy. Needless to say, this is a goat’s milk cheese.  This one is factory made and made from pasteurized milk.

Happy Days Goat Dairy was founded in 1993 by Donat Koller, an artisan cheese maker originally from Switzerland who came to Canada to start a cheese making business. Thank you Donat Koller!  Happy Days started as a family farm and cheese making operation in Salmon Arm, which supplied local customers and stores in the Okanagan with milk and cheese.  Over time the business grew and at this point it is the largest provider of goat milk products in Western Canada.  Bravo, Happy Days!  They are now spread out over Western Canada and have 3 processing plants and 14 local goat milk farmers in Alberta and British Columbia. According to their website, all goats have a year-round diet of hay and grains, and all of their products are guaranteed free of antibiotics and growth hormones.

Happy Days is huge.  Besides cheese they supply retail stores and the food service industry with a variety of goat milk, goat milk cheeses, goat milk yoghurt, and goat milk ice cream, which probably explains why they are in my local market.  I also have to say that despite my new-found love for goat cheese, I don’t know if goat’s milk ice cream is really one of those products I can ever get behind, but to each their own. Their Chilliwack location is on the Chilliwack circle farm tour.  You can check out their processing plant and purchase cheese at their store on site called “Heavenly Cheese,” which I missed the last time I was out that way due to torrential rains.  Darn it.

The cheese I am trying today is also available in Garlic and Parsley, Lemon Pepper, Olive Oil and Rosemary varieties.  This cheese was a winner in 2009 taking two first prizes at the PNE and the Royal Toronto cheese competitions, and 5th place at the Cheese World Championship in 2008.  As you know-I hope-I am a cheese purist, and thus am sampling the unflavoured variety at this time, but it’s nice to know there are options out there.

Interestingly, Okanagan Goat Cheese is the first cheese reviewed here in my blog that is the traditional chevre, soft unripened goat’s milk cheese in a log form.  Before this blog, I thought that this was what all goat cheese-apart from feta looked like. But I was wrong, oh was I wrong!  Okanagan goat cheese is a fat little log wrapped in plastic. When released from its casing this is a very soft and creamy cheese.  It’s pure white-that’s the goat-goats don’t pass on the colour of carotene like cows do. The cheese smells very mildly of goat, it’s pretty chilled out.

Here goes…

Yummy!  It’s lemony, that’s my first hit, then goaty.  It’s a strange combination of the two, but in a good way. It’s quite tart.  Really, this is a cream cheese more than anything, it’s that fresh lemony taste of a very young cheese.  It’s quite mild, with a nice balance of salt.  This one could go either way and would pair nicely with a savoury or sweet. The texture is just mad good.  It’s perfectly creamy and unctuous, but not overly cloying.

Mmm, I like it!  If you are looking for a nice local chevre, look no further than Happy Days Okanagan Goat cheese, it’s my slice of cheese.