Cheese 143 St. Albert Cheddar-Extra Old and Extra Yummy

My husband returned home earlier this week from a business trip in Ontario. Like all good husbands returning from a business trip, he brought me a gift, but like the best husband in the word, this gift was a cheese not available locally! Take this to heart, fair readers. If you are returning from abroad and considering which gift to bring home, why not cheese? Cheese says “I love you” more than silly jewels or horrid flowers.

I have never seen this cheese before, as it seems to be available only in Ontario. This charming-looking cheddar has an old-timey wrapper-which I do appreciate. It’s from the St Albert Cheese folks, in Ontario. According to their website, people have been making cheese here under the auspices of St Albert since the end of the 19th century, and not just any cheese- but a “highly renowned Cheddar” the St-Albert.
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Since its humble beginnings, five generations have continued the tradition of cheese making in St Albert. St Albert is actually run by the St-Albert Cooperative Cheese Manufacturing Association. The cooperative came together with the “collective will of a handful of Eastern Ontario milk producers determined to process their own milk,” and also includes a dairy bar, open to thousands of visitors each year. According to a tip I found online, if you go to the dairy itself, you can watch the cheese-making from a glassed-in gallery…and buy cheese “off-cuts” at a reduced price. Sounds like fun.

It looks like St Albert’s is a pretty big deal in Ontario, they have a robust line up of cheeses, and are available widely. Interestingly, it looks like there was a terrible fire last February at the cheese plant that nearly ruined operations. Thankfully, other cheese-makers stepped in (under supervision) to save the cheese. OK, now I almost want to weep, that’s one of the sweetest things ever. The St Albert’s folks also have their very own store for their products, it’s called Cheddar et Cetera . All of the cheese at St Albert’s is made of pasteurized, local (to Ontario) cow’s milk (non-organic.)

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As I remove the wrapper (once again charmed by the old-timey drawing of a cow) a yummy, sharp cheddary smell emerges. Oh goody! It’s a pale white and yellow cheese with faint signs of cheddaring in the paste. I don’t see any crystals. This is the “extra-old” or “très fort”- actually, I like the phrase “très fort” better…but how old is extra aged?

Here goes…

Mmmmm. Damn fine cheese! This is a real cheddar, it tastes like what I want cheddar to be, but so often cheddar isn’t. It’s sharp and is making my saliva glands squeak happily. It’s a great mixture of salt and that astringent aged taste, but it’s also just a tiny bit sweet. It breaks apart in your mouth,  crumbles, and then dissipates. There’s a very subtle crunch of tyrosine in the paste, to remind you that this is cheddar you are eating.  It’s good, it’s really good!

Damn Ontario, they just get everything.

If you see this cheese, buy it and eat it, you will be happy.

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Cheese 142 Le Chimay à la Bière-a Stinky Little Trappist Cheese

Before I started my journey into cheese, I was under the impression that the really stinky cheeses were blue. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this was incorrect. Although blue cheeses can be raunchy, the REAL stinkers are washed-rind cheeses, sometimes called “smear-rind” cheese. The reason for this is the extra bacterial goodness they have-because sometimes, internal paste bacteria just isn’t good enough! As these special cheeses age, they are regularly “washed” or smeared with something or other that encourages bacteria to bloom all along the surface. These surface bacteria generally smell something like feet, giving these cheeses that fabulous “I haven’t showered forever and have just walked 20 miles through the jungle and now removed my socks” odour that I am so very fond of.

Thus, I have great hopes for today’s cheese, a beer-smeared Belgian cow’s cheese, made by Trappist monks in their very own Abbey. I’m not really sure why Trappist monks have such a connection with smeared-cheeses, but they do, and let’s not quibble. People who dedicate their lives to prayer and smeared cheese are a-ok in my books, so a minute of quite reflection and thanks for the monks of Chimay.

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Trappist monks have been making cheese in the Abbey of Notre-Dame de Scourmont since 1876. Chimay country is cow country, and there is a long history of farmstead cheese-making in this area (just north of the French border.) Chimay cheese continues this tradition, and is made from the milk of local cows around the abbey- although this is a modernized operation, (praise the lord!) The monks of Chimay make four kinds of cheese, but they also make several types of beer. In this case, their cheese is smeared with their beer, bringing together the very best of both worlds. Interestingly, one of the ales made at the monastery is exclusively for the monks. Jealous!

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The store-created label on my sample of cheese says that it is made of raw milk, but the Chimay website refers to pasteurization, so I’m going to go with this one being a pasteurized cheese. If it’s really important to you, check this one out for yourself, as there is some ambiguity.   It’s a handsome cheese, with a gorgeous orange natural washed-rind, a little bumpy, like a yeasty sandpaper created by the development of the Bacterium Linens culture. It almost smells like a bread rising, mixed with a little bit of cheese, mmmm, cheese bread. The interior paste is quite yellow and giving, there are a few small eyes in the paste.

Here goes…

Mmmm, it’s quite supple and smooth, with just a hint of armpit. The interior paste is just divine, the texture is so inviting and springy and sticky. The rind is more intense with a faint whiff of ammonia-but not overwhelming. The rind is ever so slightly bitter, but this is common in beer-smeared cheeses, it’s not off-putting, and has tiny little salt crystal crunch which mixes in nicely with the paste. Actually, it’s pretty tame for a washed-rind cheese. This would be a good “starter” washed-rind cheese for the stinky cheese newbie, one gets that feeling of old feet without being overwhelmed-plus the texture is just divine.

Nicely done!

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Cheese 141 Pecorino Affienato, a Hairy little “Honey” of a Cheese

I just received results this morning for my genetic heritage test, and I am thrilled to learn that I am 1% Italian. I always felt drawn to Italy, and the lovely foods and specifically cheeses there, but now I truly know that it is my blood that is drawn to all things Italian. Thus today, both my blood and I present an Italian cheese-and this one’s a looker.

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Have you ever peered into the cheese case of a store and wondered, “what the hell is that?” I actually do all the time, but this one takes the cake. Pecorino Affientato is a sheep milk cheese that is covered in a layer of hay. Actually, it really looks like fine dry grass to me, hay seems more robust than this . It looks like a weird, hairy, ancient sort of rustic cheese. It’s a little frightening to behold, but I shall soldier on. My Italian ancestors ate this sort of cheese, and so shall I! Sheep milk cheese has a long history in Italy, specifically in the area of Tuscany, where the tradition also occurs of wrapping the cheese in “straw” (which you don’t eat, silly) to give the cheese an extra-grassy flavour.

As if that wasn’t enough, this cheese is ALSO infused with honey-right in the cheese. This pecorino (remember, there are hundreds of pecorino cheeses, pecorino just means sheep milk cheese) is made on a commune in Tuscany. And by commune, I don’t mean hippie-type commune, alas, although “grass” is involved. These people actually produce something besides hazy memories . This commune was started in the 1970’s by a group of friends, and the farm has run as a co-operative since. They do everything on site here, they raise the sheep, milk the sheep, create the cheese, package it, and send it away to be consumed by lucky folk across the world. All the people who work on the farm also live on it.

Il Forteto makes a wide variety of cheese, including some DOP designated pecorino cheese. They made the  Pecorino Bigio which I reviewed previously and wasn’t that crazy for,  and Pecorino Doro which I also reviewed and ADORED, but the Affienato is perhaps the most interesting pecorino. Bigio is covered in ash, and Doro is really aged…but honey and hay, now THAT’S something!

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My little wedge of hairy-looking Pecorino Affientato is simpering beside me here. It’s honey-coloured with a fine rosemary looking hay covering-which I shall not eat. It really smells barny. Like a sheep hanging out in a bale of hay with some honey combs lying around. The paste is firm, there are no eyes.

Here goes…

Hmmmm. This one is goooood. It is sweet and melts across your tongue. It’s herbaceous and grassy, it somehow reminds me of camomile tea. As you approach the rind there is a distinctive grassy note. The sheep taste is present, of course, but it is much moister than most pecorino cheese, I suspect that hay covering was retaining some of the moisture. The honey is quite subtle here, if you didn’t know about it, you might just assume it was from the sheep milk. This is a really groovy cheese and it would make an excellent addition to any cheese board, it’s showy and spectacular.

Bravo!

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Cheese 140 Etorki-A Modern Basque Twist on an Ancient “Sheepy” Favourite

When we think of the noble beasts who give us cheese, what kind of images come to mind? Cows? Of course. Goats? Maybe, but how many of us think of sheep?  Poor, maligned sheep are really the progenitors of cheese. That ancient mythical shepherd who forgot a skein of milk in a cave that became the world’s first cheese… that would have been sheep milk. Yes, the first cheese was a sheep’s cheese. Shepherds herded sheep, (and sometimes goats) but really, cows are very new on the scene, yet they have all the glory. That’s kind of sad for a sheep cheese lover like me.  One almost has to go back to the “Old Country” to find a decent sheep cheese, and there’s nothing more “old country” than Basque.

Today’s cheese, Etorki, is a Basque cheese, named in homage for the great history of sheep cheese making in this region. In fact, the word “etorki” is a Basque word meaning “origin.” Basque sheep farmers have been making a cheese kind of like this, for close to 4000 years.  Alas, or perhaps, luckily, my cheese is not 4000 years old. Etorki was first created in the 1970’s (like me) and is produced by the  Fromagerie des Chaumes at Mauléon, in southwestern France. Etorki is a pasteurized cheese, made in the style of ancient Pyrenees cheese, but this time with a few modern conveniences-such as pasteurization and vacuum packing- thrown in for good measure.

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Local, black or red-faced Manech ewes provide all of the milk for Etorki cheese. In total, flocks of 620 local shepherds and dairy farmers pool their milk to make this cheese.  It takes a total of six gallons of milk to produce just one wheel of Etorki, which is an awful lot of milk when one considers the size of a sheep’s udder. It’s udderly impressive! Etorki is made in a limited run- only from late December to mid July. As is traditional in this region, Etorki curds are pressed but not cooked. After they are unmolded, the cheese is brined for 2 hours before being dried and having salt rubbed on the rind. This rind salt-rubbing happens several times during the first week, then the cheese is vacuum-sealed  before going into affinage for three to six months.

My Etorki has a rusty, bumpy natural rind because of the molds formed during pressing. The rind is orange with white speckles and according to sources-inedible-so I shall stay away. The interior paste is creamy and has small eyes. The smell is faint, yet inviting. It’s mysterious and delicious smelling, but subtle and beckoning. I can wait no longer…

Oh, my jaw just squelched! Do you know that funny twinge you get sometimes with cheese? That’s actually your salivary glands going a little crazy. It’s a creamy, voluptuous, caramel-tasting cheese. It’s much softer than I anticipated, more like a very young gouda. It melts in the mouth and yields to the teeth. There’s something almost floral in the taste. It’s very subtle, yet completely compelling. Actually, I love this cheese, the texture is perfect and the taste mysterious and well-balanced. I was worried about all that salt-brining and rubbing, but stay away from the rind and it’s not an issue.

I will definitely be eating Etorki again, it’s a keeper!
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