Feta and Casere
The Greeks have a name for it—Feta. Their neighbors call it Greek cheese. Feta is to cheese what Hymettus is to honey. The two together make ambrosial manna. Feta is soft and as blinding white as a plate of fresh Ricotta smothered with sour cream. The whiteness is preserved by shipping the cheese all the way from Greece in kegs sloshing full of milk, the milk being renewed from time to time. Having been cured in brine, this great sheep-milk curd is slightly salty and somewhat sharp, but superbly spicy.
When first we tasted it fresh from the keg with salty milk dripping through our fingers, we gave it full marks. This was at the Staikos Brothers Greek-import store on West 23rd Street in Manhattan. We then compared Feta with thin wisps of its grown-up brother, Casere. This gray and greasy, hard and brittle palate-tickler of sheep's milk made us bleat for more Feta.
Gorgonzola, least pretentious of the Blues triumvirate (including Roquefort and Stilton) is nonetheless by common consent monarch of all other Blues from Argentina to Denmark. In England, indeed, many epicures consider Gorgonzola greater than Stilton, which is the highest praise any cheese can get there. Like all great cheeses it has been widely imitated, but never equaled. Imported Gorgonzola, when fruity ripe, is still firm but creamy and golden inside with rich green veins running through. Very pungent and highly flavored, it is eaten sliced or crumbled to flavor salad dressings, like Roquefort.
Hablé Crème Chantilly
The name Hablé Crème Chantilly sounds French, but the cheese is Swedish and actually lives up to the blurb in the imported package: "The overall characteristic is indescribable and delightful freshness."
This exclusive product of the Walk Gärd Creamery was hailed by Sheila Hibben in The New Yorker of May 6, 1950, as enthusiastically as Brillat-Savarin would have greeted a new dish, or the Planetarium a new star:
Endeavoring to be as restrained as I can, I shall merely suggest that the arrival of Crème Chantilly is a historic event and that in reporting on it I feel something of the responsibility that the contemporaries of Madame Harel, the famous cheese-making lady of Normandy, must have felt when they were passing judgment on the first Camembert.
Miss Hibben goes on to say that only a fromage à la crème made in Quebec had come anywhere near her impression of the new Swedish triumph. She quotes the last word from the makers themselves: "This is a very special product that has never been made on this earth before," and speaks of "the elusive flavor of mushrooms" before summing up, "the exquisitely textured curd and the unexpectedly fresh flavor combine to make it one of the most subtly enjoyable foods that have come my way in a long time."
And so say we—all of us.
Hand cheese has this niche in our Cheese Hall of Fame not because we consider it great, but because it is usually included among the eighteen varieties on which the hundreds of others are based. It is named from having been molded into its final shape by hand. Universally popular with Germanic races, it is too strong for the others. To our mind, Hand cheese never had anything that Allgäuer or Limburger hasn't improved upon.
It is the only cheese that is commonly melted into steins of beer and drunk instead of eaten. It is usually studded with caraway seeds, the most natural spice for curds.
Limburger has always been popular in America, ever since it was brought over by German-American immigrants; but England never took to it. This is eloquently expressed in the following entry in the English Encyclopedia of Practical Cookery:
Limburger cheese is chiefly famous for its pungently offensive odor. It is made from skimmed milk, and allowed to partially decompose before pressing. It is very little known in this country, and might be less so with advantage to consumers.
But this is libel. Butter-soft and sapid, Limburger has brought gustatory pleasure to millions of hardy gastronomes since it came to light in the province of Lüttich in Belgium. It has been Americanized for almost a century and is by now one of the very few cheeses successfully imitated here, chiefly in New York and Wisconsin.
Early Wisconsiners will never forget the Limburger Rebellion in Green County, when the people rose in protest against the Limburger caravan that was accustomed to park in the little town of Monroe where it was marketed. They threatened to stage a modern Boston Tea Party and dump the odoriferous bricks in the river, when five or six wagonloads were left ripening in the sun in front of the town bank. The Limburger was finally stored safely underground.
Livarot has been described as decadent, "The very Verlaine of them all," and Victor Meusy personifies it in a poem dedicated to all the great French cheeses, of which we give a free translation:
Like Limburger, this male cheese, often caraway-flavored, does not fare well in England. Although over here we consider Münster far milder than Limburger, the English writer Eric Weir in When Madame Cooks will have none of it:
I cannot think why this cheese was not thrown from the aeroplanes during the war to spread panic amongst enemy troops. It would have proved far more efficacious than those nasty deadly gases that kill people permanently.
Although originally from Normandy, Neufchâtel, like Limburger, was so long ago welcomed to America and made so splendidly at home here that we may consider it our very own. All we have against it is that it has served as the model for too many processed abominations.
Parmesan, Romano, Pecorino, Pecorino Romano
Parmesan when young, soft and slightly crumbly is eaten on bread. But when well aged, let us say up to a century, it becomes Rock of Gibraltar of cheeses and really suited for grating. It is easy to believe that the so-called "Spanish cheese" used as a barricade by Americans in Nicaragua almost a century ago was none other than the almost indestructible Grana, as Parmesan is called in Italy.
The association between cheese and battling began in B.C. days with the Jews and Romans, who fed cheese to their soldiers not only for its energy value but as a convenient form of rations, since every army travels on its stomach and can't go faster than its impedimenta. The last notable mention of cheese in war was the name of the Monitor: "A cheese box on a raft."
Romano is not as expensive as Parmesan, although it is as friable, sharp and tangy for flavoring, especially for soups such as onion and minestrone. It is brittle and just off-white when well aged.
Although made of sheep's milk, Pecorino is classed with both Parmesan and Romano. All three are excellently imitated in Argentina. Romano and Pecorino Romano are interchangeable names for the strong, medium-sharp and piquant Parmesan types that sell for considerably less. Most of it is now shipped from Sardinia. There are several different kinds: Pecorino Dolce (sweet), Sardo Tuscano, and Pecorino Romano Cacio, which relates it to Caciocavallo.
Kibitzers complain that some of the cheaper types of Pecorino are soapy, but fans give it high praise. Gillian F., in her "Letter from Italy" in Osbert Burdett's delectable Little Book of Cheese, writes:
Out in the orchard, my companion, I don't remember how, had provided the miracle: a flask of wine, a loaf of bread and a slab of fresh Pecorino cheese (there wasn't any "thou" for either) ... But that cheese was Paradise; and the flask was emptied, and a wood dove cooing made you think that the flask's contents were in a crystal goblet instead of an enamel cup ... one only ... and the cheese broken with the fingers ... a cheese of cheeses.
This semisoft, medium-strong, golden-tinted French classic made since the thirteenth century, is definitely a dessert cheese whose excellence is brought out best by a sound claret or tawny port.
Port-Salut (See Trappist)
Within recent years Provolone has taken America by storm, as Camembert, Roquefort, Swiss, Limburger, Neufchâtel and such great ones did long before. But it has not been successfully imitated here because the original is made of rich water-buffalo milk unattainable in the Americas.
With Caciocavallo, this mellow, smoky flavorsome delight is put up in all sorts of artistic forms, red-cellophaned apples, pears, bells, a regular zoo of animals, and in all sorts of sizes, up to a monumental hundred-pound bas-relief imported for exhibition purposes by Phil Alpert.
Homage to this fromage! Long hailed as le roi Roquefort, it has filled books and booklets beyond count. By the miracle of Penicillium Roqueforti a new cheese was made. It is placed historically back around the eighth century when Charlemagne was found picking out the green spots of Persillé with the point of his knife, thinking them decay. But the monks of Saint-Gall, who were his hosts, recorded in their annals that when they regaled him with Roquefort (because it was Friday and they had no fish) they also made bold to tell him he was wasting the best part of the cheese. So he tasted again, found the advice excellent and liked it so well he ordered two caisses of it sent every year to his palace at Aix-la-Chapelle. He also suggested that it be cut in half first, to make sure it was well veined with blue, and then bound up with a wooden fastening.
Perhaps he hoped the wood would protect the cheeses from mice and rats, for the good monks of Saint-Gall couldn't be expected to send an escort of cats from their chalky caves to guard them—even for Charlemagne. There is no telling how many cats were mustered out in the caves, in those early days, but a recent census put the number at five hundred. We can readily imagine the head handler in the caves leading a night inspection with a candle, followed by his chief taster and a regiment of cats. While the Dutch and other makers of cheese also employ cats to patrol their storage caves, Roquefort holds the record for number. An interesting point in this connection is that as rats and mice pick only the prime cheeses, a gnawed one is not thrown away but greatly prized.
Sapsago, Schabziger or Swiss Green Cheese
The name Sapsago is a corruption of Schabziger, German for whey cheese. It's a hay cheese, flavored heavily with melilot, a kind of clover that's also grown for hay. It comes from Switzerland in a hard, truncated cone wrapped in a piece of paper that says:
To be used grated only
Genuine Swiss Green Cheese
Made of skimmed milk and herbs
To the housewives! Do you want a change in your meals? Try the contents of this wrapper! Delicious as spreading mixed with butter, excellent for flavoring eggs, macaroni, spaghetti, potatoes, soup, etc. Can be used in place of any other cheese. Do not take too much, you might spoil the flavor.
We put this wrapper among our papers, sealed it tight in an envelope, and to this day, six months later, the scent of Sapsago clings 'round it still.
Honor for Cheeses
Literary and munching circles in London are putting quite a lot of thought into a proposed memorial to Stilton cheese. There is a Stilton Memorial Committee, with Sir John Squire at the head, and already the boys are fighting.
One side, led by Sir John, is all for a monument.
This, presumably, would not be a replica of Stilton itself, although Mr. Epstein could probably hack out a pretty effective cheese-shaped figure and call it "Dolorosa."
The monument-boosters plan a figure of Mrs. Paulet, who first introduced Stilton to England. (Possibly a group showing Mrs. Paulet holding a young Stilton by the hand and introducing it, while the Stilton curtsies.)
T.S. Eliot does not think that anyone would look at a monument, but wants to establish a Foundation for the Preservation of Ancient Cheeses. The practicability of this plan would depend largely on the site selected for the treasure house and the cost of obtaining a curator who could, or would, give his whole time to the work.
Mr. J.A. Symonds, who is secretary of the committee, agrees with Mr. Eliot that a simple statue is not the best form.
"I should like," he says, "something irrelevant—gargoyles, perhaps."
I think that Mr. Symonds has hit on something there.
I would suggest, if we Americans can pitch into this great movement, some gargoyles designed by Mr. Rube Goldberg.
If the memorial could be devised so as to take on an international scope, an exchange fellowship might be established between England and America, although the exchange, in the case of Stilton, would have to be all on England's side.
We might be allowed to furnish the money, however, while England furnishes the cheese.
There is a very good precedent for such a bargain between the two countries.
Robert Benchley, in
When all seems lost in England there is still Stilton, an endless after-dinner conversation piece to which England points with pride. For a sound appreciation of this cheese see Clifton Fadiman's introduction to this book.
Taleggio and Bel Paese
When the great Italian cheese-maker, Galbini, first exported Bel Paese some years ago, it was an eloquent ambassador to America. But as the years went on and imitations were made in many lands, Galbini deemed it wise to set up his own factory in our beautiful country. However, the domestic Bel Paese and a minute one-pounder called Bel Paesino just didn't have that old Alpine zest. They were no better than the German copy called Schönland, after the original, or the French Fleur des Alpes.
Mel Fino was a blend of Bel Paese and Gorgonzola. It perked up the market for a full, fruity cheese with snap. Then Galbini hit the jackpot with his Taleggio that fills the need for the sharpest, most sophisticated pungence of them all.
Trappist, Port-Salut, or Port du Salut, and Oka
In spite of its name Trappist is no rat-trap commoner. Always of the elect, and better known as Port-Salut or Port du Salut from the original home of the Trappist monks in their chief French abbey, it is also set apart from the ordinary Canadians under the name of Oka, from the Trappist monastery there. It is made by Trappist monks all over the world, according to the original secret formula, and by Trappist Cistercian monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani Trappist in Kentucky.
This is a soft cheese, creamy and of superb flavor. You can't go wrong if you look for the monastery name stamped on, such as Harzé in Belgium, Mont-des-Cats in Flanders, Sainte Anne d'Auray in Brittany, and so forth.
Last but not least, a commercial Port-Salut entirely without benefit of clergy or monastery is made in Milwaukee under the Lion Brand. It is one of the finest American cheeses in which we have ever sunk a fang.