No really. This will officially be my cheesiest post, based on weight of course.
Sure, I’ve covered raclette in depth, while other cheeses have popped up in random posts, but this time I’m going all out with a full dairy overload. Here are five very special cheeses that I haven’t stopped thinking about.
Let’s start in Poland. I had read about oscypek – a protected smoked cheese from the Tatra Mountains, so it was on my radar. The cheese gods were clearly looking down on me on that trip because within ten minutes of alighting at Krakow train station, Maz and I stumbled across a food market with an entire stand dedicated to oscypek. Score!
Made from salted sheep and cow milk, the cheese is formed into decorative shapes, brined and cured in hot smoke. Each little cheese is heated to order on the barbeque and served with a dollop of cranberry sauce.
The sharp, salty, smoked ooziness of the cheese was sublime with the fruity tang of the cranberry. We loved it so much we had seconds that night and came back the following two nights. I think the lady at the stand thought we were a bit strange. This was a culinary highlight of the year and I’m on a mission to track it down in Sydney.
The award for the most bizarre looking cheese on the list would go to this Romanian beauty. The first time I spotted it in a market outside of Dracula’s ‘castle’, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was dealing with. Small pieces of fire wood? Bit odd to find that in the cheese display. Maybe a derivative of fresh coconut? But then it was winter in eastern Europe, not exactly a climate in which one would expect a tropical fruit. After a bit of investigation I discovered it was cheese in bark. Why hadn’t I thought of that before?
This Transylvanian specialty goes back to the 14th century when farmers figured if bark was good enough to protect trees it was good enough for storing their excess cheese. Bark is stripped from the fir tree, softened with hot whey and then sewn, yes sewn, into a tube with a disk on either end for the base and lid. The cheese inside is aged for 60 days and takes on aromatic fir flavours from the bark. The result is a nutty, salty, woody tasting cheese, so distinct it’s recognised by the Slow Food movement that protects traditional products.
I was lucky enough to work with THE authority on cheese in Australia, Will Studd, a few years ago. Will has his own TV series called Cheese Slices and is the unequivocal poster boy for all things dairy. He would tell me about the cheeses that were rocking his world and sometimes a package would arrive a few days later with said cheese inside. On one occasion the package contained what Will referred to as ‘caramel cheese’ from Norway and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
Called brunost in Norway and mesost in Sweden, it’s like the love child between dulche de leche and cheese. The sugars in the milk are caramelised to deliver a rich brown colour and a sweet, slightly salty taste. I stumbled across it at a market in Stockholm with my local man-on-the-ground Hally and had to buy some immediately. It’s popular in open top sandwiches but Hally and I just wolfed it down on crackers. If you can never decide between dessert and cheese to round off a meal then this is for you!
Truffles are more affordable in Eastern Europe than anywhere else I’ve been and I took full advantage of this fact. I stocked up on truffle salt in Budapest and truffle cheese was next on the list to conquer. Only I kept finding it at the most inopportune times – like on a day I had no access to a fridge or was about to board a flight. I couldn’t put a plane neighbour through that.
It wasn’t until I hit London in December that I could finally buy a wedge, filled with a layer of rich truffle cream. In fact I believe Neven and I ate the whole wedge before we left the store (well the store was Harvey Nichols and they encourage that sort of thing). Often truffle oil (which contains no real truffle) is passed off in dishes as the real thing but you can’t lie with cheese – it’s easy to see the flecks of real truffle and know you’ve bagged a winner.
Now here’s a cheese that literally stopped me in my tracks due to its bright pop of green. Gouda was already top of mind when I discovered this at the Turkish markets in Berlin’s Kreuzberg because I’d just learnt the proper way to pronounce it – ‘how-da’, rather than the brash ‘gou-dar’ that I’d heard from Aussies all my life. Adding wasabi to anything can be a risky move but judging by how quickly these wedges were disappearing I’d say it was working out.
I’m not sure what my chances are of coming across all these exotic cheeses in Sydney. Does anyone have any leads?