Posts Tagged 'mountain cheese'

Holy Cheese and Holy Men: Swiss, Irish, Japanese

“True believers may be likened to those mites in the cheese which eat their way into it, and penetrate into the centre by feeding upon all that lies in their way as they advance. We eat our way into the word of God, we live upon what we learn, tunnelling through the truth with receptive minds.” — Spurgeon

I want to draw attention to some lovely pictures of Swiss alpine cheesemaking.

There’s a website called FX Cuisine, composed by a Swiss polyglot and gourmand named François-Xavier (FX). It seems that Mr. FX likes to make food, photograph it, and write little captions for his pictures. He also like to take pictures of other people making food; and he tours around quite a bit to document European foods concocted in alarmingly enticing settings. Recently, he photographed the skinning, butchering, and whole-roasting of a wild boar, in medieval style, over an open fire in an old stone French castle. Without the fine work of Mr. FX, some of us would die without ever having seen a senescent castle dog barking at a gutted corpse of wild boar that dangles head-down from the stone wall, blood dropping among windstrewn flower petals and dust.

Some of us still might.

Mr. FX lives on Lake Geneva, so he has the chance to visit some Swiss alpine dairies as they make their summer cheeses. (Take a look at the beginning of my earlier post, “Taleggio and the ‘Foul Sloth’ of Avignon,” for some words on alpine summer cheese.) I’ve seen two of his photojournalistic pieces on this process: Swiss Alps Cheesemaking and Hard Core Swiss Vacherin Cheese. I recommend that you look at them, if only for a moment. Both entries show cheese made in gargantuan copper cauldrons over open flames; cooked, drained, and pressed all in cluttered, humble mountain chalets.

(The enormous kettles that hang from swiveling wooden mini-cranes were around, like most of the technology you’ll see in those pieces, long before the industrial era.)

I don’t expect that cheese made on this scale is exported to the U.S. But maybe. There’s a lot more to Swiss cheese than I know about; but I do know some things. Here they are:


Steve Jenkins, in his Cheese Primer, tells us that “the people who made the earliest Swiss cheeses over a thousand years ago were called Sennen, meaning ‘mountain people.'” Despite a little effort — all I have to give — I’ve not been able to corroborate the existence of this ancient cheesemaking people called Sennen. Though his book is impressively long, sometimes I just can’t trust Steve Jenkins. Not surprised.

(I was able to confirm the existence of ancient ascetics called sennen; but they lived in Japan, and I doubt they invented Swiss cheese. Who knows. According to The Oxford Essential Dictionary of Foreign Terms in English, the sennen [also spelled “sennin,” and probably a lot of other transliterations] are wise old men of the mountains that have attained, by discipline and meditation, magical powers and immortality.)

Maybe a sennen, maybe nobody.

Maybe a sennen, maybe nobody.


Another source, Judy Ridgway’s Cheese Companion: The Connoisseur’s Guide, makes the more extraordinary and verifiable claim that

Many centuries before the birth of Christ, the Celtic ancestors of the Swiss used to make cheese in rough vessels slung over wood fires, cutting and stirring the curds with branches of pine. The resultant cheese had a tough rind which was impenetrable enough to thwart the ravages of both time and the weather.

The Celtic Helvetians had settled into what-is-now-Switzerland by the 2nd century BC; and a couple of centuries later Pliny the Elder wrote of their cheese, caseus helveticus. So maybe Ridgway alludes to them. Many consider Pliny’s comment the first historical reference to Swiss cheese; and many consider that specific cheese to have been what is now called Sbrinz.

Sbrinz is a piquant and powerful cheese, mighty enough that Middle Age doctors, doing the best they could, prescribed doses of it to cure illness — as some Russians still prescribe vodka. (Max MacCalman, author of a more recent Connoisseur’s Guide to cheese, compares your first taste of Sbrinz to “first beholding the Grand Canyon” because of the cheese’s ability to “cause sensory overload.” I haven’t been able to buy Sbrinz yet myself — I might have to order some on the Internet — but consider me somewhat skeptical: or less of a cheese connoisseur than Max: or more of a canyon connoisseur: or just dull.) During an extraordinarily protracted two to four and a half years of aging, the flavors of Sbrinz condense and amplify, the paste hardens and crystallizes, so that the cheese is generally used for grating, like Parmiggiano Reggiano — but its creamier and less salty than Reggiano, I’ve heard. In fact, let the heaven’s shake, it’s been suggested that early Roman legionnaires carried Sbrinz back to the Seven Hills of Rome and on the way Sbrinz served as the originary inspiration for Parmiggiano Reggiano. I’m sure there have been bloodsplattered squabbles over a boast like that.

not quite as attractive on his coin as Thomas Jefferson.

Antoninus: not quite as attractive on his coin as Thomas Jefferson.

Whether or not the Swiss (or Helvetians) deserve that lofty point of pride, they can at least boast of killing a Roman Emperor, a good deed anybody ought to be proud of. Except that this one seemed to be decent, mostly. The reign of Emperor Antoninus Pius — aka Antonin the Pious, aka Imperator Caesar Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pontifex Maximus — was the most peaceful in all the Principate (the period from Augustus through the 3rd century AD). He did not leave Rome much, did not bother extending the domains, pillaging for sport, disciplining the conquered, or slaying whomever he pleased in the palace. Still — as one legend has it — death struck from without, unforeseen; and this meek ruler suffered one of the Barbarians’ first blows: for he was stricken with fever and died after gorging himself beyond wisdom on delicious, delicious Swiss cheese.

Sbrinz comes in 88 pound wheels made with 110 gallons of Brown Swiss milk. Which is very large. I wonder how far Antoninus made it into his — although his wheel may not have been that big, because says the practice of making gigantic Swiss cheeses didn’t come about till the Middle Ages, as a way of circumventing pay-per-cheese tolls on the highways. Others have suggested that the huge wheels are emblems of cooperative living and farsighted planning for rough winters. I don’t know. But I do know that Emmental (much more widely produced than Sbrinz in the modern era; the source of what everyone glibly calls “Swiss”) comes in 175-220 pound wheels the size of tractor tires. I write that, but even I don’t believe it. To make one wheel of Emmental requires a day’s milk from six to eight herds of ten to fifteen cows each. Mr. FX’s simple and lonesome cheesemakers were not making Sbrinz or Emmental, I suppose, no matter how big their copper kettles.


Christ and his monkish follower. Neither seems pleased.

Christ and his monkish follower. Neither seems pleased.

Another fantastic Swiss cheese is called Appenzeller, and it originated at the Abbey of St. Gallen in northeastern Switzerland. This abbey was founded in 616 AD by St. Gallus, a disciple of St. Columbanus; and the cheese must have been birthed soon after, in time to be praised by His Holy Roman Highness Emperor Charlemagne himself (a famous praiser of cheese, 747-814 AD). It was the Irish Columbanus (540-615 AD) who instigated the re-conversion of Europe, after Christianity had faded with the decline of the Roman Empire. During the darkest of the Dark Ages, the culture and the learning of classical and Christian civilization were briefly detoured, cloistered up in isolated Irish monasteries; and so were the accrued accomplishments in cheesemaking. The Barbarians went back to mushy cheeses and worse: butter and cream. Yes, they lived like hogs. When Columbanus left Ireland on his peregrinatio — a self imposed, missionary exile for the sake of the Church — he founded monasteries all over Europe, and carried with him some Irish monastic discipline, some of the culture of Rome (and of Greece, through Rome), and much of the know-how to make good hard cheese.

To accomplish all this, Columbanus had to leave his poor mother back at home on the island, though she didn’t want him to go, not at all. “His mother’s prostrate body the fiery Columbanus in holy zeal bestrode,” wrote James Joyce in Ulysses. So in the heat of righteous zeal and the sorrow of neglected motherlove the monastic cheeses of the mainland were born, at last, in the province of Appenzell and elsewhere.

These famous hard Swiss cheeses — and let’s add Swiss Gruyère to the list — are all cooked, pressed, lightly salted, and brushed as they age. Appenzeller is brushed with a potent blend of pepper, herbs, and white wine or cider that makes for a taste uniquely fruity and tangy. Leave it to the monks for that kind of panache, I guess. Sbrinz is rubbed with oil.


The Swiss today have developed some sort of wondrous agricultural system that I don’t know much of anything about yet, except that they seem able to retain a lot of stunningly pastoral landscape while still doing what must be done to stay alive and make wonderful cheese. The Swiss system of name protection is especially strict, its standards especially high; and the result is a nation with fewer cheese-names than Italy or France, but perhaps a greater reputation for consistent excellence. By law, Swiss cheese is always produced on the small-scale of regional co-ops — some still-operational co-ops predate the Swiss Federation — and the milk is always fresh as a weeping bloody umbilicized babe, just hours out of the teat.

Have you been wondering why some Swiss cheese has holes in it? Well, well, curious soul: bacteria, like people, sometimes fart; and when cheese bacteria fart, they create the vacated regions you notice on your slice — just as friends flee your own gassy toots. Look at The Straight Dope’s answer to this question for more satisfaction. Holes are going out of style, it seems; so you might not want to bother thinking about them. Lord knows there’s a lot to think about.

The kettle, the fire, the cheese.

The kettle, the fire, the cheese.

Taleggio, and the “Foul Sloth” of Avignon

The voice of life and salvation says: Why will a person eat of some cheese and still wish to remain ignorant of the nature of that cheese?

“He who distinguishes the true savor of his food can never be a glutton; he who does not cannot be otherwise.” — Thoreau

Of Alpine Cheeses

While common wisdom might claim that cattle prefer flat lush lowlands that pamper their bulk, leaving the rough spots and steep slopes for more agile, rugged, stoic ruminants, in fact not all cows just frown and moo at a little exertion. The Alps, severe as they are, have long harbored dairy-based, cattle-rearing cultures, whose herds make seasonal migrations up and downhill in rhythm with the blossom and fade of mountain meadows (they call these vertical movements transhumance). With the rampant abundance of high-altitude springtime and summer — after the great white burden has lifted — with grasses, flowers, and herbs all ripe and exuberant — then these hardy bovine breeds enjoy some of the most delicious pastures in the world; and they make from it, in the mystery of their bowels, some of that same world’s most coveted milk. By creating hard mountain cheeses like Beaufort, Comté, Gruyère, or just about everything Swiss, the cattlemen transform this rich milk into massive, sturdy wheels that last them through brutal and snowdrenched and stark alpine winters.*

But this post is not about those hard cheeses, or, per the footnote, those godless alpine marmots. It is about a softer and stinkier cheese of the Alps.


This is hero cheese.

This is hero cheese.

On the Italian side of the Alps there are also cows; and when transhumance-ing herds make their autumnal journey down from the peaks to more temperate fields, they are still milked on the way, and cheese is still made. Lombard dialect calls these cows stracche — tired — and the family of cheese made from such weary beast teats is called stracchino. One member of this lineage, our chosen cheese for now, is Taleggio: ancient, lusty, pungent, and meaty. (Another famous one is Gorgonzola, reserved for a future post.)

So Taleggio is made in and named for the Val Taleggio, which is gouged out of mountainside by the River Enna (“val” being Italian for valley). Here’s a map I drew:


Until the late 19th century, Taleggio was all made in the Val, but since then factory cheesemaking has taken some commercial production downhill and out of Lombardy to parts of Piedmont and Venetia. The method, standardized over centuries and awarded D.O.P. (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) protection in 1996, goes something like this: Curds are left uncooked and cut large, hazlenut-size, contributing to a velvet-cream texture; they are turned and cut again, then heated gently in square molds for up to a day before aging. While they mature in conditions that mimic the humid cool caves of the Val, the rinds are washed weekly with brine. Thirty to forty days of aging bring the cheese-squares to an edible ripeness. That’s not long (which is why raw milk Taleggio is illegal in the US, where raw cheeses must be aged at least 60 days), and they can stand to sit some more: the flavors will intensify from moderately tart, with a Swiss-like tang, to deep, rounded, and beefy. The smell also intensifies, even more dramatically, to furnish at its fullness a pungency too robust for the faint of spirit and weak of will.

Taleggio’s redolence of rain-wet grass and body odor, cooked greens and baking bread results from the brine washings, which clean some bacteria off the rind but also foster the growth of Brevibacterium linens, the characteristic infection of washed-rind cheeses — what makes them stink well and colors them orange. (More on that category to come, sometime). A particular blend of yeast, molds, and bacteria flourish on this rind; they come to sweeten the cheese, and break down proteins and fats to make for a doughy thick smoothness. The best Taleggio I’ve known has a wonderfully balanced, complex and lasting flavor: some fresh salt and tang mellowed, widened and warmed by grass and meat flavors, some scrambled egg, a slight sourness on the swallow, a fruity aftertaste.

Very <i>stracche</i> people and animals crossing the Alps with Hannibal.

Very stracche (tired) people and animals crossing the Alps with Hannibal.

Some of my sources claim that Taleggio is old enough to have been mentioned by Cicero, Cato, and Pliny. The rest, more conservative, probably more accurate, report that it was birthed to human hands somewhere between the 9th and 11th centuries. While medieval washed-rined cheeses are generally associated with monasteries — ironically, the monkish charge of cleanliness bred such strange new bacteria, o how symbolic — I haven’t found anything to indicate that Taleggio was another monastic innovation. Well then, what kind of person ate Taleggio?

In case you need more reason to consume this cheese, know that you will place yourself in the company of well-cultured aristocracy. My limited research finds Taleggio at the tables of two glorious medieval feasts. It was served for the wedding celebration of Francesco Sforza and Bianca Maria Visconti in 1411. (These names should mean nothing to you; so here’s a good line on Sfroza from Machiavelli’s Prince: “Francesco Sforza, through being martial, from a private person became Duke of Milan; and [his] sons, through avoiding hardships and troubles of arms, from dukes became private persons.” Now you’re educated.) Taleggio also appeared, a little earlier, at the coronation of Pope Clement VI in 1344.

Pope and Culinary Sophisticate Clement VI

Culinary sophisticate, Pope Clement VI

Like other Avignon popes, Clement VI appreciated and encouraged deliciousness in food and drink. He did not claim perfection or even sainthood, just lived, in his own words, “as a sinner among sinners,” more of a statesman than an infallible mouthpiece of God. Still it seems he worked few fine deeds in his time: in addition to eating and serving Taleggio, he was renowned for reliably sumptuous generosity (sumptuous enough to gobble through the papal treasury); he condemned the massacres of Jews that were becoming widespread after the outbreak of plague in 1348-9; he issued a Bull against the creepy, proliferating groups of traveling Flagellants, labeling their leaders “masters of error”; and he patronized art and learning, like any decent aristocrat.

Nevertheless, the luxuriousness of Clement’s Avignon lifestyle has irritated some critics, ancient and modern, and provoked vicious tirades. I’ll quote two here — because these are the kinds of quotations I live for. First, Petrarch, in a letter, sometime, wrote of Clement’s Avignon:

Instead of holy solitude we find a criminal host and crowds of the most infamous satellites; instead of soberness, licentious banquets; instead of pious pilgrimages, preternatural and foul sloth; instead of the bare feet of the apostles, the snowy coursers of brigands fly past us, the horses decked in gold and fed on gold, soon to be shod with gold, if the Lord does not check this slavish luxury. In short, we seem to be among the kings of the Persians or Parthians, before whom we must fall down and worship, and who cannot be approached except presents be offered. O ye unkempt and emaciated old men, is it for this you labored? Is it for this that you have sown the field of the Lord and watered it with your holy blood? But let us leave the subject.

I have been so depressed and overcome that the heaviness of my soul has passed into bodily affliction, so that I am really ill and can only give voice to sighs and groans. (Quoted from The Petrarchan Grotto.)

Next, a modern outcry: the first item on a list of crimes intended to place Clement VI among the 10 Most Evil People of the 14th Century CE:

Pope Clement VI during the massive death and misery of the world did celebrate by continuing endless drug fuelled sex parties and great banquets of the finest food.

I’m pleased to assume that one such “finest food” was Taleggio; and it speaks to the wonders of the modern world that peasants like us can now enjoy the same grand cheese that played some part in those famed excesses of Avignon.

(If it matters to you, the New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd edition, states quite baldly that “the incriminations against [Clement VI’s] moral conduct are unfounded.” Let our consciences rest.)

(Posts won’t all be this long in the future. It’s just that right now I’m unemployed.)

* Of Marmots

Concerning the brutality of alpine winters: I think David Attenborough once taught me that alpine marmots have adapted to the endless freeze by becoming some of the most cruel creatures on earth (although still not comparable, of course, of course, to humans and parasites — two beasts that convinced Mark Twain to hate God). These marmots must hibernate in little marmot-holes while the snow is out; and since those winters are so dreadfully long, they must be careful to keep just the right balance of huddled occupants, or else all of them could die. Spring comes, the marmots see the sun and all get frisky. But mother-marmot must be pragmatic, so, in accordance with Satan’s will, if any of her daughters get pregnant with a baby that the hole might not support — *gasp* — mother-marmot beats the poor daughter into bloody, unhappy miscarriage. Thank the stars that global warming might yet extinguish these monsters, according to YouTube.


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