Cheese 147 Hirten for Hirtenkäse: a Yummy Mountain Cheese

I stumbled across a new cheese yesterday, in the cheese remainder bin at Whole Foods. I’m overly fond of the remainder bin, and always spend a couple of minutes rooting around in it for something special. Today’s find was a new one to me, Hirten by Castello. Hirten is cheese giant Arlo (Castello’s) version of Hirtenkäse, or “herder’s cheese”,  a distinctive cow’s milk Mountain Cheese cheese made in the Allgäu area of Southern Germany. Hirten was made available for sale in 2012 in North America, which explains why it’s flown under my cheese radar thus far.

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Traditionally, cow herders bring their cows from the Alps down into the valley in Allgäu each fall, which marks the official start of the Almabtrieb, or descent. This special day is celebrated with a festival. During this festival the “lead cow” of each farmer is decorated with flowers as the herd is lead down from the mountains to their barns. Passers by great and cheer on the cows. Seriously! That’ s a sight that’s going on my bucket list.

That’s where the name Hirtenkäse comes from. It is German for “herdsman‘s cheese”. Hirtenkäse cheese was traditionally made from the milk from these cows, and has been made here for centuries from the pooled milk of many of these small farms.  The milk was pasteurized before the cheese was created, and then aged- traditionally only aged for 8 months prior to sale. The “Hirten” version I’m tasting today is an homage-I suspect- to this traditional Hirtenkäse: similar recipe, similar milk, but I’m not convinced that “Hirten” and “Hirtenkase” are exactly the same cheese.

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My little wedge of remainder Hirten looks quite dry and aged-I would have guessed this cheese was older than 8 months. There is a wax rind which I shall remove, of course. The interior is a creamy yellow, shot through with tyrosine (crystals) and it kind of looks like a Grana Padano or a Parmigiano-Reggiano a handsome, bold looking cheese, and quite showy. The smell is mild and, well, cheesy.

Here goes…
Mmmmm. This is a true Mountain cheese. It’s like a Comte crossed with a Gruyère. It’s creamier than it looks, it doesn’t crumble in the mouth, it dissipates. It’s a nice balance of sweet and salt, the faint crunch of crystal is there, but again, quite restrained. As you approach the rind, the taste gets a little funkier. That may be a mild understatement, ok it gets really funky towards the rind. Mmmm. Actually, I really dig this cheese, everything is perfectly balanced, it’s a big, handsome cheese with a strong cheese taste, but nothing pops, it’s all smooth sailing.

I quite like this Hirten, but I would love to compare it to the artisanal version- Hirtenkäse, as it’s hard to say how close this one comes to the original. I do like to think of the lead cow being covered in flowers coming down from the mountain, I’m just a little worried that this maybe didn’t happen in this case. Regardless, it’s a delicious cheese, and could be a proud addition to any cheese board.

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Cheese 146 Beautimous Beemster X-0-a Fine Dutch Cheese

Often, when it comes time to research my weekly cheese, I really have to dig. Many of the cheeses I discover are relatively unknown, or obscure. But not today’s cheese, this one is a little rock star. Pages and pages of information on the internet seem to clarify that Beemster XO-now known as Beemster Extra Aged, is a very special-and perhaps more importantly, ubiquitous cheese.

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I have been kind of  ignoring Beemster for a while-because it is so damn ubiquitous. It just seems to show up in every cheese case I see, saying “pick me! Eat me! I’m so yummy!” And that kind of extreme extraversion in a cheese I find a little off-putting, but what can I say, finally I have given in.

Beemster XO (you can check out the Beemster website here ) is a Dutch Gouda cheese made of pasteurized cow’s milk. It is not a super aged Gouda-despite the name-I have sampled Gouda over 4 years of age. This one is matured for 26 months, making it Beemster’s oldest cheese.  According to the Beemster folks, the reason they sell at the 26 age point  is to keep the cheese still a little moist and cuttable, while retaining that famous butter-scotchy aged Gouda taste. 26 months seems to be the tipping point-we shall see!

Beemster is actually a municipality in North Holland and it is also the name of the first “polder” in the Netherlands-which is land reclaimed from a lake bottom after the water was removed via windmills (seriously, can this get more fantastic?) The Beemster Polder was dried during the period 1609 through 1612. This famous Dutch ‘Polder’ was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999, making this my first Unesco World Heritage site terroir based cheese, hurrah!  It’s unique terroir is the result of the clay soil left behind in the polder- nutrient and mineral rich,with a distinctive slate blue colour. Apparently, this terroir yields grasses more fertile and thicker and longer than others, giving the milk produced here an especially sweet and creamy quality.

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The cheese makers at Beemster are all local residents of the polder, and the majority have learned their cheesemaking techniques from previous generations. The top-secret recipe for Beemster has been handed down since 1901 (I do love a top-secret cheese recipe, bonus marks for this!)  Beemster is run by a co-op of  farm families, and the co-op itself was formed in 1901. Prior to this, cheese here was made by hand by the farmers’ wives, each in their own kitchens. Forming the co-op streamlined  production, ensured consistency, and made sense financially. Over the years, this small co-op has stood by its original (top-secret) recipe.

Beemster XO is also quite the award winner, in the World Cheese awards of 2012 the Beemster Classic took home the gold and the Beemster Vlaskaas and XO took home silver medals.
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My little chunk of Beemster XO did slice nicely-as promised. Sometimes it is a real drag drying to cut through an aged gouda-but my steak knife did the trick with no complaints. It is a deep yellow cheese, darker towards the rind. There is a wax cover over the natural rind-and I shan’t eat that! The paste is even with small white pieces of crystal tyrosine pockets, which is always a good sign! We do want our aged cheeses to have that extra little crunch that tells us that Father Time has been doing some work here. It smells just great, inviting and cheesy.
Here goes…
Mmmm, it’s like butterscotch cheese! It’s sweet and rich and the texture is fantastic. It’s an intense and cheesy taste experience, not frightening, but the taste profile is substantial and rich.It’s chewy and sticks to your teeth for a while before melting into sweet bliss. It’s just full of crunchy tyrosine pockets. It’s almost like candy in a cheese form mixed with pop rocks. The taste is divine, but the texture is making me swoon. Great job, Beemster, you clearly deserve your place at the head of the cheese case. If you are looking for an easily found, super tasting (and chewing) aged gouda, this is an easy choice.

Cheese 145 Luscious Limburger-a Much Maligned Beauty

My step dad’s parents were great lovers of Limburger in his childhood. One parent or the other would stop-at any point in the day- and inquire, “want one?” If the other agreed, then a sandwich would be created. A specific sandwich: dark rye bread, thick slices of onion, brown mustard and smeared slabs of Limburger. These sandwiches were eaten wordlessly by his parents, but with great enjoyment. To my step dad, this was,  perhaps, the most vile concoction ever created. He never did sample this infamous sandwich, but his parents remained devoted to the Limburger sandwich all of their days. I have known this story for years, and thought it was original to his family. In researching this blog post, I discovered I was wrong. This was in fact, a famous sandwich! The Limburger Sandwich,  one connected with and enjoyed by working class folks around the world for over 130 years.

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Limburger is perhaps the most infamous of all cheeses for its stench. So let’s unpack that now, shall we?  That “something died in my toes 3 months ago” smell  of Limburger, is actually caused by a unique bacteria. Limburger is a washed rind cheese, and this bacterium is applied several times during the ripening. It functions to decompose the cheese, and by doing so it transforms the cheese in a few months time from a fresh curd- similar to feta- into  a stinky one that eventually smells a little like pee. This bacteria, Brevibacterium linens, is-in fact, the very same one found on human skin. Brevibacterium linens is also partly responsible for body and foot odour, so that familiar smell is no coincidence. It really does stink like feet, and armpits, and……

Originally made in the Belgian area of Limbourg-hence the name, Limburger is widely made and enjoyed in Germany as well. Limburger accompanied German and Belgian immigrants to America in the late 19th century. It was a taste of the old country and a nostalgic food that connected them to a home they had lost.  Limburger  was closely related and associated with these new immigrants, and jokes about the cheese and about the immigrants went hand in hand.  Vaudeville comedians called it the “cheese you can find in the dark.” The new world hybrid dialect of English, German and  Dutch was called “Limburger English.”  Limburger symbolized the lower class and also comedy. These new immigrants, they were so funny! They couldn’t speak correctly, and they ate weird cheese! Limburger and new immigrants were often maligned. In fact, in 1902, the Louisville, Kentucky’s health officer, Dr. M.K. Allen, banned Limburger and promised to prosecute any and all Limburger dealers. Determining that its bacteria made it “unwholesome.”

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As if that wasn’t enough, then Prohibition came, and virtually brought an end to Limburger. It was traditionally a pub cheese, served in a sandwich with beer, and when the taverns closed, there was such Limburger excess that it had to be fed to the hogs! (Lucky pigs.) Really, the story of Limburger is the story of the North American palate. As our appetite for cheese in North America has become more sanitized, our taste for Limburger has plummeted. That along with a century of jokes and insults make it no wonder that poor old Limburger is hard to find these days. Once the great cheese of the working man, Limburger has been relegated to the back of the cheese case.

My sample of Limburger is from the St. Mang company, in Germany. It’s made from pasteurized milk, and is in a pretty red foil package. When I peel back the wrap, I smell an ever so pleasant odour of feet, and perhaps just a little crotch-I shall admit that here, but it was simply charming! It’s no worse than a Taleggio or an Oka, and it is nowhere as gnarly as an Epoisses or a Stinking Bishop. I don’t know what all the fuss is about!  This is hardly the stinkiest cheese I have smelled, it’s just one of the many washed rind cheeses that use bacterium linens, and when you have bacterium linens, my friends, you have body odour. That’s just the way it is.

My Limburger is sticky and slightly orange and brown on the outside rind. It’s a rectangular cheese with a pattern of the cheese mould slightly imprinted. My cheese is “best before” 2 days from now, so I know it’s just perfect. It’s ready to smear on some rye bread with onions, which, alas, I do not possess. What a shame! Yes, this cheese does reek, let me be clear, but why is reeking such a bad thing? Why do we have to pretend we live in a world where yummy things don’t stink? I refuse, I embrace the reek.

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Here goes…

Mmmm. It’s like meat, and cheese, and asparagus, and salt, and arm pit, and shoes all rolled into one. Actually, it’s freaking great. It’s relatively mild…relatively…yes, the rind is more intense in flavour compared to the much milder interior paste, but the interior is just cheesy goodness. The rind is giving me wafts of uric acid (that means pee, by the way) and ammonia, but I really dig it. I really dig it! Did I mention I dig this? Holy Hannah, this cheese is really great, one million immigrants couldn’t be wrong. Go out and get some, pick up some rye bread, onions and brown mustard and get connected to your roots. Limburger, you are a keeper!

Cheese 144 A real “Dutch Treat” Opulent Oplegkaas-Boeren Goudse

One of the biggest issues for me in becoming educated about cheese, is that my family is getting educated about cheese too. In the past, I could simple buy a big block of cheap orange crap and throw it in their general direction-and they were happy. But oh, how things have changed. Last week, my teenager begged me for some gouda. Some very pricey gouda. A rare, raw milk, gouda. “Oh mommy, it looks so yummy, oh please!” She said.  And I relented, even though I wasn’t in the mood for expensive, raw milk gouda. Teenagers can be so demanding!

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Thus, today I bring you-literally out of the mouths of babes (because that’s where it’s going once I complete this post) a fabulous looking (and pricey) gouda: Oplegkaas, from Holland. Boeren Goudse Oplegkaas is a traditionally made gouda. It is typically aged 3-4 years before sale (opleg means ‘aged’ in Dutch.) Alas, I don’t know how old my sample is, but let’s assume three years minimum. It is  made from raw milk, and only from milk sourced during the summer season, when cows are grazed in the pastures of the peat meadows of the “Green Hart” region of Holland-between the cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Utrecht.

Gouda has a kind of great origin story. The actual town of Gouda became a central cheese market in the seventeenth century. The first “weighing rights” were granted in 1668 in the town of Gouda. Farmers and traders were obliged to weigh their cheeses here and taxes were imposed. It was a cheese based economy of sorts. Over the next 200 years or so dairy cooperatives took over most cheese production in Holland from individual farmers. Fortunately, the Gouda cheese makers resisted, and traditional farmstead cheesemaking has persisted in this region. Approximately 250 farmers in the Gouda region, still produce raw milk farmstead cheese (called boerenkaas). Their numbers are shrinking, so go out and get some, if you have a hankering for the real thing.

Like all Gouda, Boeren Goudse Oplegkaas is a washed-curd cheese. Washing the curd helps to removes part of the lactose, which reduces the acidity and bitterness in the aged cheese leaving it sweet and caramel-like in affinage.This Oplegkaas-Boeren Goudse is a true raw milk product. This means the milk and curd are not heated above 40 degrees celcius during the production, resulting in this cheese being labelled with the EU label for guaranteed Traditional Speciality (GTS). And for the record, gentle readers, that means I am back on raw milk cheese-who could stay away?

Only a handful of cheese makers still produce Gouda in this  traditional way, making the cheese in wooden molds lined with natural linen. The rind of the cheese forms naturally with a minimal use of plastic. No, this is not that red plastic covered crap you see in every market claiming to be “Gouda.” This, my friends, is the real thing.

My tiny sample of This Oplegkaas-Boeren Goudse-wrestled away from a teenager, is a handsome, tall chunk of cheese. I couldn’t get a shot of the larger round-sadly, but it’s clear that this came from a large cheese. It’s very firm and aged, and was challenging to cut-hence the crumble in the second shot. It smells just divine when I remove the wrapper. It’s been waiting for me, for years!  It’s a creamy yellow cheese, darker near the wax rind, there are some large eyes and it’s crusted with tyrosine crystals (mmm).

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Here goes…

Dry. Sweet. Crunchy. Caramel. Salivary glands working over time. Intense! Aged. Complex.Melting butterscotch. Hint of mould Crazy! WOW! OPLEGKAAS BOEREN GOUDSE!!!!!!

Go out there and support a Dutch tradition, with this ” Dutch Treat.” I’m keeping the rest of this one for myself.