Things Are Going Grate
With fall finally having arrived, and seems to be sticking around, all we want is a big bowl of pasta and naturally we’ll want to grate some cheese over it. We frequently reach for Parmigiano-Reggiano, but sometimes you need to mix it up, and that’s what this blog post is about, mixing it up.
The origins of many cheeses are lost to history, and in some cases are based in mythology, and a select few are a case of “which came first” senario. Sbrinz AOP is one of the latter. Sbrinz has been around since at least the 1600’s, though it existed before then surely, and is made only in the cantons of Lucerne, Schwyz, Obwalden and Nidwalden, Zug. Those regions lie on an ancient trade route into Italy, which also goes through what is now known as Emilia-Romagna, aka the home of Parmigiano-Reggiano. And the two cheeses share many similarities, they’re only made with raw milk, they cows only eat grasses that are from that region, they’re aged for at least a year (1.5 year minimum for Sbrinz though) and have a strict guidelines for appearance, smell, size, and taste. So which came first, Sbrinz or Parmigiano-Reggiano? Who cares as they are both delicious and distinctive cheese.
The Sbrinz that we get is made by a gentleman (and his family) named Andreas Gut, on Alp Chüneren, in Wiesenberg Switzerland with the milk of his 27 cows, and the milk from 6 of his neighbors. In the summers the Gut’s move house and herd up into the mountain pastures, this is called transhumance, and the cheeses that are made up in the mountains gets a special designation, Alpage. Alpage cheeses are only made in the summer months, and because the cows are eating nothing but grasses and wildflowers the cheeses have more depth and nuance and are considered by many to be the best. At the end of the summer the Gut’s, the herd, and the cheeses return to their home off the mountain, well the humans and cows do, the cheeses are sent the aging cellars at Gourmino International, affineurs extraordinair.
One of the things that makes Sbrinz so darned tasty is the time that it spends at the Gourmino aging cellars; Gourmino International was formed by a group of cheesemakers that pooled their resources and knowledge to create a place where their cheeses could be aged and then marketed. The Gut’s Sbrinz is aged for an average of three years, the AOP regulations only require half, which gives the cheese a more concentrated flavor. Another thing that makes it so good that that it is a full fat cheese, Parmigiano-Reggiano is only 75% fat because they skim the milk off one of the two milkings they use to make it, so you get all off that richness that gets super concentrated over time.
I can hear you going that’s all well and good but what does it taste like? Sbrinz tastes like flowers, and butter, it tastes like rocks and barnyards, it tastes like cooked cream, it tastes like sunshine in the mountains. It’s also sparkly AF due to the naturally occurring tyrosine crystals, aka cheese diamonds, that are densely packed in the paste.
If you want to spice things up some than you gotta try Belper Knolle, which over the recent couple of years has gained the nickname “poor man’s truffle.”
Belper Knolle is one of the new generations of cheeses coming out of Switzerland since the fall of the Swiss Cheese Mafia and cheesemakers are once again able to experiment and create new cheeses. Belper Knolle came into being after a series of familial negotiations, one of the cheesemaking Glausers didn’t want to make the same cheeses that his father and his father’s father had made, but at that time is Switzerland it wasn’t possible, so he moved to Canada. At one point he decided to return home to Switzerland, and said he’d rejoin the cheesemaking fold if he was allowed to make the cheeses he wanted to make, cheeses that his forfathers (and brother and nephew) didn’t make. And thus a vague idea went from being a pipe dream to a reality.
Belper Knolle translates to “tuber from Belp” a nod to its tuber like appearence and the town in which its made. Belpher Knolle is made from raw cow milk from neighbors’ farms that deliver their milk everyday on everything to a single take on a motorcycle to a tanker truck within an hour of milking. The creation of Belper Knolle was actually an accident, originally it was a fresh cheese that was mixed with local garlic, formed into balls and rolled in himalayan sea salt and four kind of dried pepper; but one day upon cleaning out the fridge a few dried out and forgotten Belper Knolles were discovered. After tasting the dried out cheeses Herr Glauser discovered a cheese that is a punch of flavor and truly unique to the market.
The key to Belper Knolle is that it’s not a cheese to cut into cubes and eaten, it is a grater or shaver (personally I love shaving it on a mandolin or truffle shaver) and its loves pasta and rice, it likes salad or potatos in any configuration (we like it on french fries) or even onto a steak.
Now we cannot write an article about cheeses to grate on pasta without talking about the King of Cheeses, Parmigiano-Reggiano.
I have to admit I have a personal fondness for Parmigiano-Reggiano, heck I took vacation time to go visit Giorgio Cravero and his cathedral of cheese in Bra Italy, Giorgio is the gentleman that ages our Parmigiano-Reggiano. That aside, one has to respect PR. It is one of the most imitated cheeses in the world, and is highly regulated and fiercely protected by il Consorzio del Parmigiano-Reggiano which is funded by the 335 diaries licensed to make Parmigiano-Reggiano. PR is a protected cheese, like Sbrinz and Époisses are, and there’s a 17 page long set of rules and guidelines that must be followed in order for a cheese to literally get the stamp of approval.
So what sets one PR apart from another if they all follow the same rules, on the producer level the biggest difference is something called prodotto di montagne, literally “product of the mountain,” does that sound familiar? That’s right prodotto di montagne is kinda like the Italian version of alpage, the cheeses must be made more that 600m above sea level, all of the cow’s feed must be from 600m above sea level, its aged at least 24 months and every batch is taste tested before getting its stamp. There are currently only 30 producers out of the 335 that have the possibility of getting their cheeses stamped with the prodotto di montagne stamp, provided the wheels pass the taste test.
Another way to set one PR producer’s cheese apart from another is the aging process, the affinage to use the French term, where and how the cheese is aged. The regulations stipulate a minimum again time, as well as the end result needs to look, smell, and taste like but doesn’t regulate how exactly its aged.
So after all that are you ready to meet our Parmigiano-Reggiano and learn why its currently the only PR that we sell?
Made at dairy 2659 by Massimo Libra at the Caseificio Sociale San Pietro, in Benedello (which is 700 meters above sea level) which is just south of Modena; using the milk of three herds of Freisian cows, 365 days a year. Massimo only makes seven wheels a day, and after spending almost a year at the latterie, the wheels get transferred to Giorgio Cravero’s aging facility on the edge of Bra.
Giorgio’s family has been aging PR since 1855 when Giorgio’s grandfather’s grandfather (who was also named Giorgio) bought a wagon load of PR and started aging it. What makes the Cravero family’s aging facility unique is that they let the temperature fluctuate throughout the year, unlike other houses where they ac/heat the space to have a consistent temperature all year round. By allowing the cheeses to experience the seasons the end result is a cheese that is softer and less brittle than you might be used to, it also has a more delicate flavor and a hint of sweetness and not of the bitterness usually found. Soft and sweet is one of the phrases Giorgio likes to use when talking about the cheese he ages.
By the way, did we mention that Massimo’s cheeses get that precious prodotto di montagne stamp, and is the only prodotto di montagne Parmigiano-Reggiano imported into the US.
Sbrinz Alpage, raw cow milk, animal rennet
Belper Knolle, raw cow milk, animal rennet
Parmigiano-Reggiano, raw cow milk, animal rennet