Fear No Terroir: Making the Case for Geo-specific Cheese
Posted on March 16th, 2011
I once asked a sales clerk what song was playing on the store’s sound system. She replied that she didn’t know, because Mega Fashion Headquarters sent each of its stores identical music playlists. Disheartened that there was no mysterious meeting of the sales clerks to vote on the music of the day, I also realized that every store sells the same items in more or less the same layout so a consumer will get the same experience shopping in Boston as in Los Angeles.
What does this tell us, other than that we still don’t know what sales clerks are whispering to one another on their headsets? It tells us that location doesn’t matter and that standardization is good… for sales.
But I’m here to tell you that, just like the SAT, standardization is another lie – an attempt at pretending environment doesn’t influence results; a failed effort to represent the product in a vacuum. Perhaps it’s comforting to find the same Subway franchises in Paris and New York, but food, like fashion, is influenced by culture, and culture is influenced by location. Prior to globalization, people didn’t get out much. We were products of our immediate environment–unlike today, when our homepage is BBC News and we eat Camembert for breakfast. What… you don’t? Regardless, geography matters a lot. So much so, that the French have a distinct word for it when relating to food: terroir. Naturally, let’s make cheese our case study.
Cheese, at its mouthwatering heart, was the ideal method of preserving milk prior to refrigeration. Once upon a time, we didn’t have cheese factories because everyone and their mother made cheese in the kitchen, from the milk of their own animal.
Lesson in Dairy Animal Husbandry:
A cow/goat/sheep goes into heat in the fall and gives birth in the spring. During the animal’s gestation (the winter), she doesn’t produce milk, in order to put her energy into creating a baby. When the offspring is born, just as humans do, the animal begins lactating in order to feed her young.
Because the winter was a time of root vegetables, meat if you were rich, and nothing fresh, the not-so-rich had to get creative. How would we get our regular dose of protein, fat and calcium? The answer: fermentation.
Today, however, most of us don’t own a cow, or a goat or even a sheep. In fact, cheese has moved from a necessary source of nutrition into the horrible realm of “luxury item.” I’ve even been told that this luxury isn’t good for us because it’s mostly fat! In the name of all things lactic, no! Queso is so much more than an energy-giving, vitamin-dissolving lipid. Cheese is a bite-sized representation of the very land we walk. Unfortunately, due to our 18th century detachment from our terroir and our reliance on factory-made fromage, this product, just like our national testing and our box-stores, has become standardized. Despair not, faithful food fiends. Let us look to Europe for inspiration.
‘Why,’ you wonder, ‘does France have so many different kinds of cheese?’ It may be because the French enjoy all things smelly, but it’s definitely because France is home to a wealth of microclimates. The three mountain ranges – the Pyrénées, the Massif Central and the Alps – are home to the hard, pressed cheeses that keep through blustery winters. The cool moisture of the Altantic Ocean sweeps across the northwestern plain, coaxing blossoming mushroom growth on bloomy cheeses. Meanwhile, the dry warmth of the Mediterranean moves north and west across the valleys, encouraging the making of fresh, rindless cheeses that you want to eat in a salad.
‘Still,’ you persist, ‘how does landscape influence cheese?’ Let’s ask Niccoló Brambilla, an affineur at the Luigi Guffanti caves in Arona, Italy. He will tell you the importance of terroir within a single mountain range: The Alps. In France, these mountains are relatively smooth and home to expansive, gentle pastures. When trekking through, you’ll find very large, hard cheeses like Beaufort, massive wheels weighing up to 110 pounds and stretching 16 to 28 inches wide. These cheeses were developed in the French Alps, specifically, because people needed a cheese that would keep through the long months of harsh winter.
Moulds, good and bad, develop in moisture and air. The French Alpine cheesemakers found that the best way to make a long-lasting cheese was to 1) make it large to reduce the ratio of surface area to mass, and 2) heat and press the curds, expelling much of the whey, which is mostly water. Furthermore, the gentle slopes of the mountains allowed for large cheeses, because neighbors could meet and cooperate, combining milk from different herds to make one giant cheese. Wide trails from high-altitude pastures to wintering villages also facilitated transport.
In contrast, the Alps in Italy are rugged and steep with smaller pastures that are accessed via precarious trails. Cooperation was difficult, as was transportation, so a smaller cheese was developed. The curds were still heated and pressed to limit moisture-happy moulds, but the rugged Italian landscape left its restrictive, if delectable, culinary mark on Italian Alpine cheeses. Now pack your mule and grab your hiking boots, because we’re headed southwest for another contrast in topography and taste. Terroir is so important that a single type of milk can produce cheese differences beyond size.
In the warm, dry Rhône river region of France you will find Picodon. This is a two to three inch-wide fresh goat’s cheese that is aged between two and four weeks; the ‘no weeks’ version is delicious, too. The Rhône basin consists of rolling hills, flat expanses and a mild climate suitable for long agricultural seasons (read: access to fresh produce and milk). Picodon didn’t need to feed people through the winter, nor did it need to be large because farmers were comfortable working independently, tending large herds across the wide, low land.
Meanwhile, in the Pyrénées of Cataluña, you will find the scrumptious Garrotxa. Bauma Cheesemaker, Toni Chueca, in Borredà, Spain, explains that while Garrotxa is also made from goat’s milk, it is a semi-soft cheese that speaks to the mountains that capture the humidity of the passing clouds. Garrotxa boasts a ravishing bluish-black rind of moisture-loving mushrooms that help to preserve the cheese for six to eight weeks. This centimeter-thick rind protects a beautifully white, delicate yet firm consistency that is sweet, nutty and exciting, enrapturing the heart and ensorcelling the tongue.
So while we have all been tempted by Velveeta’s easy-to-melt, unnaturally satisfying yellow hue, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of visiting your winter Farmer’s Market and local cheese shop. While you might get impeccable consistency in a vacuum-sealed brick o’ cheese (as you do in a Mega Fashion wardrobe), your whole body will open itself to the wonder that is your very own bioregion and neighborhood. If your tastebuds listen, they will hear Oregon’s wildflowers and Wisconsin’s grasses. They will feel Vermont’s mountains and Maine’s lakes. They will see the farmer’s difficult growing season, the herd’s recent births, and the cheesemaker who finally mastered her recipe.