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.
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.
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.
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.