Cheese Travels with Jim Wallace

A journal of travels to explore the old ways, history, and process. Visits with the cheese makers and photographs of the surrounding beauty. Jim teaches traditional cheesemaking in the US and can be contacted via ...

About Me

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Western Massachusetts USA, United States
I have been visiting cheese makers throughout Europe for many years now, researching the old ways of traditional cheese making . I currently teach several workshops on traditional cheese making in the US and can be contacted at ... ____ In my recent past I have traveled the wild places of this planet making photographs and fine prints. The blend of my cheese travels and making photographs combines the best of both worlds.

January 3, 2010

Sept 25 Home Sweet Home

It always seems after 3 weeks away I am totally ready to get back home. This trip was more intense than previous trips and it was great to take a breath, make the morning Cappuccino and then unpack.
A lot of notes, photos, and new contacts for future trips, plus all of the new inspiration and ideas banging around in my head. It's time to organize all of this and get back to work. Another newsletter to get out for Ricki and 4 workshops coming up, its going to be a busy couple of months.

Sept 24 the Flight back home

The flight from Geneva was better than usual considering modern flight procedures. I routinely ask for a bulk head seat for my long legs but was told there were none left. Instead they put me in a row that was totally empty and I had 3 seats to stretch out on and actually was able to sleep. Robin also had a row with a free seat to herself.
Everything went fine until we reached Montreal. Here we had to lug all of our belongs clear across the airport up and and down stairs etc and check in again going through all of the customs and immigration details (takes a lot longer with my new knee). This all took about 2.5 hrs so it was good we had the four hour layover. Finally the quick flight to Hartford and Home.

Sept 23 Back to Geneva area

Today's weather is again bright and beautiful. Another spectacular drive takes us over the mountain passes again from the cheese town of Beaufort to the city of Annecy located at the base of the mountains of Savoie. We manage to time it well to visit our friend Pierre at his cheese shop/cave then off for a fabulous lunch with him.

Pierre's shop in Annecy is situated perfectly for his trips into the mountains for Reblochon, Beaufort, Tomme d'Savoie, etc as well as a number of wonderful cheeses in surrounding areas and Switzerland. His shop is one of the most unique I have seen yet. The front room   showcases his many cheeses but as you enter the next room you are standing on a glass floor and below you for all to see are his cheeses laid out in his urban cave. Pierre has become a very good friend and often accompanies to the mountains to visit his cheese makers. His family has been selling cheese here for many generations and he knew the grandparents that sold cheese to his family shop.
With Pierre the talk often goes to the background of what it takes to make cheese in this traditional ways and the problems with sustaining this in the modern world.

We finish up today with a drive up into the Juras mountains and pack our trophy's for the flight home tomorrow. This was quite a drive out of Geneva but it was very quiet and relaxing for the pack-up.

Sept 22 through the Tarantaise Mountains of France

Finally, sunny and bright! After yesterdays long drive left us shy of our goal to spend the night in the cheese town of Beaufort and since today was such a beautiful day, we felt we would make it a leisurely drive through the mountains and just enjoy the day.  This was a great choice and made up for the past week or so of rain.

Our travels took us down through the valley from Val d'Iser to the town of Bourge St Maurice which is the heart of Beaufort cheese country. The caves for Beaufort Cheese here are a superb place to find the best examples of one of the worlds finest cheese. No disappointment here for us except that Robins glasses were probably still sitting on the counter when we left.

From there it was back up into the "High Country" As we traversed the mountains again to the small cheese town of Beaufort. one of my favorite diversions is the drive to Ville des Glaciers on the way to Cormet de Roselend. The end of this valley leaves us at the base of Mt Blanc with all of its glaciers hanging off the mountain (at least for the near future). Quite a spectacular place.

The late morning and early afternoon drive took us through some of the finest Alpine pastures with the wonderful Tarantaise preparing their wonderful milk for the evenings cheesemaking. Nothing like the sound of these animals munching away on the fleurs n grasses while their bells echo across the valley.

One of our favorite lunch stops is at the head of Lac Roselend and since it was close to the the end of our journey our next priority was an extended lunch and wine as we lay in the warm sun. Time to clean up the cheese bits we have accumulated and wash it down with the remaining wine. Life is good on days like this so it was late afternoon before we packed ourselves up for the drive down to our hotel in the town of Beaufort. A good dinner and a nights sleep and we will be good to go again.

Sept 21 Over the mountains to France again

After our very late night at the dinner in Alba it was time for the long drive to Torino and over the Alps this morning. The skies were quite moody this morning with many layers of mist and fog as we headed up into the mountains. Our route is one of my favorite drives .. up over the pass at Mt Cenis into France and then climb back up into the  Mountains and over Col de l'Iseran.

An uneventful drive up to the pass of Mt Cenis in very thick fog so Robin missed the spectacle of this turquoise mountain lake. I have done this several times in the past and it is one of my favorite spots. At the end of the lake on the french side we did stop at a small farm with one of my favorite cheese makers. I am always amazed at the cheese she has in her small cooler, some of which comes from her neighbors since there are all types of cheese makers on this mountain. The cheeses were spectacular as usual and we quickly decided they would probably not make it back home since they were so hard to keep away from.
The incentive for her I think is the absolute beauty of the view there.

Our goal was to make Bourg St Maurice on the french side of the Alps but by the time we reached the last high mountain pass at Val d' Isar we were beat and spent the night in this empty ski town.

Sept 20 Barolo and Alba

Well it has been quite some time  since I have had a chance to post here (Sure like 3 months). Anyhow life gets in the way and after 3 weeks in Europe I was well behind in answering cheese making questions plus running four cheese workshops during Oct and Nov ... and then the holidays !!! Oh well, back to it...

After two pretty intense days of workshops and talking with cheese makers in Bra it was time to move on. Most of the really great cheese was gone by Saturday night anyhow and "the truth be known" we were just plain cheese OD'd. So this morning it is time to catch up on some work, have a great breakfast and move on to the Langhe hills  and the Barolo wine region which is really only a few Kilometers from Bra, actually just across the river.

But first we detour along the way to the "Slow Foods University" in Polenza truly one of the most beautiful food learning centers in the world. Following this we continued up into the hills and to our rest point for the day, a beautiful hilltop "Podere" looking out over a sea of vineyards and across to the town of La Morra. Once we settled in and had a bit more cheese and wine (well yes, the cheese appetite returns!) we are off to the village of Barolo and its wines

October 27, 2009

Sept 17-19 The Slow Foods
Cheese Festival in Bra Italy

Today we leave the beautiful sea. From Vernazza and the Cinque Terra we drive towards Genoa and on to  the wonderful city of Bra Italy 40 min south of Torino.

Before we left though Al and Lucy wanted their photo taken as they bask in the sun by the sea.

Bra is the home of Slow Foods, where we are spending the next 2 days at The Festival of Cheese. This is perhaps the largest cheese event in the world, showcasing not only Italian Cheese but cheese from all parts of the world.

We find our hotel easily (most rooms have been booked for months by now) and settle in. It is only a short distance into the town center but most restaurants and shops are closed in preparation for the weekends anticipated crowds. This is fine for us since we can head back to the hotel and catch up on emails and other business since we finally have a good online connection here.
Friday 18th:
The first day of Cheese '09. This is THE cheese festival for cheese lovers. This is organized by and in the hometown of "Slow Foods" and is perhaps one of the most extensive presentations of cheese in the world. This is not the primary venue for the larger cheese makers (that is held in Parma every 2 years)  but it represents the smaller scale cheese makers and the specific cheeses that slow foods is working to protect.

We are up and out early after a great breakfast at the hotel. It gives us a chance to see the cheese makers putting the finishing touches on their displays. Also it gets us to the Slow Foods office to pick up our reservation for workshops and our dinner on Sunday night.
Today is quite busy since we have booked 3 workshops in addition to connecting with some of our favorite cheese makers and finding new cheese contacts for our future visits.

Fridays first workshop was with Herve Mons from France who is one of the worlds finest affineurs (sources, ages, and sells cheese).
The topic was the cheese of the Auvergne and the role of raw milk. I had the highest hopes for this session since he was presenting a goat's milk cheese from Provence, a Traditional Salers from Auvergne and an Alpine Beaufort from Savoy. Unfortunately the fire alarm sounded and could not be shut off for the session and the class did not happen. I did manage to connect with Herve later since he knew of me through my friend Pierre Gay in Annecy, he was more than happy to help me with future plans in the Auvergne and any other contacts I need.

The next workshop was five italian affineurs: Giovanni Guffanti, Franco Parola, Gian Domenico Negro, Vittorio Beltrami, and Fiorenzo Giolito. The best of the best presenting the cheese they love best. Of course this was accompanied with their favorite wine. This turned into a passionate discussion on why it is so important to preserve these cheeses. Especially with Vittorio's exuberant and graphic point of view.

The final session was equally enlightening  with a tasting and comparison of 5 Alpine cheeses from northern Italy: Bagolino Bagòss, Bitto, aged Asiago, Monte Veronese, and Grappa Mountain Morlacco. It was amazing to see the taste comparison of these cheeses from similar pastures, similar process, but different regions and how they have evolved into such different cheeses over time.  Having visited many cheese makers in these regions it added a whole new level of understanding.

By 10 PM we  were both so exhausted we have no recollection of dinner or even if there was one. Anyhow we had enough cheese and wine to tide us over for the day.

 Sat 19th
Up early again, a good breakfast, and off to the festival. The second day of Cheese is rain but does not seem to dampen the crowds numbers or spirits. The festival is much more crowded this year. We begin working our way through the International cheese booths where several of the American Artisan cheeses are being presented as well as cheese from France, Italy, UK, Ireland, Switzerland etc. This is not a project to  be taken lightly.

October 9, 2009

Sept 15-17 the Cinque Terra

Rain today but good for the long drive from Trento to Vernazza via Modena and Parma. Most of it is Autostrada and the drive definitely requires 110% of our attention. As we cross the Appenines the sun breaks out for the drive to the sea.
Once we leave the highway it is just one steep turn on top of the next heading down to the sea.

Our target is the big parking lot in Monterosa and catch the train, but a wrong turn puts us in the wrong place. A call to our friends Michelle and Giuliano in Vernazza and we find that there is parking just outside of town so its back up the mountain to Vernazza.

We finally arrive and Giuliano leads us to the room he has found for us which happily is a full apartment right off the main street. The village is much busier than we remember so we hibernate a bit until the trains slowly bring the numbers down. These days many folks just come for the day. The evening quiets down somewhat but also brings the rain again. Although we were really hoping for nicer weather for our 2 days of R&R here, the wet really brings out the colors and reflections in this village on the sea. These 2 days are our "vacation" from cheese, so do not expect anything on the topic.

Robin is off again in search of the famous Vernazza "gatos" again and for sure finds them waiting in the Piazza and narrow streets.

We all know that "fresh" is the reason Italian food has such a great reputation and this early morning photo of the veggies arriving before  the crowds appear tells the story quite well. In Italy if the ingredient can not be found locally it's not going to be on the table for dinner.

We also are here during the grape harvesting time and as we wander through the narrow streets of the village we do notice a few "cantina" or cellar doors open where grapes are being turned into wine. As you can see by the photo to the right, the grapes are grown on very steep slopes in very small plots by the families in the village. These are then brought down by hand and carried to the cellars. The best of these are then hung from the ceilings to reduce the moisture in the grape before making wine. This wine is called Sciacchetra and is quite expensive.
Having the apartment for this village was a bonus because we finally had a chance to prepare our own simple meal. Local Pasta, Pesto from the deli downstairs, a fresh salad, and a bottle of Persecco. Thursday morning the sun finally breaks through again but it is time to leave. On the way out we get a chance to spend a little time with our friends Michelle, Giuliano, and little Sophia.

The rain is not all bad as this photo  shows in the piazza as the sun is trying to break through. Its just a different mood.

September 26, 2009

Sept 14 The cheese of Asiago

Rain today but perfect for a visit to an Asiago producer at the far end of the valley. This is the large family run cooperative where they make not only the Asiago but Grana Padano (the caves held 30,000 of these huge Granas) as well as Provolone.
They make 2 types of Asiago. One is a young table cheese (Assiago Pressato) with full fat. The other is Assiago D' Allevo with partially skimmed milk and a much longer aging becoming drier with stronger flavors.
The most interesting part of this visit is the large scale but yet the focus on quality. It is most impressive.
The guide is a young woman in charge of quality analysis for both raw milk coming in and the finished cheese as it ages. She explains that since the cheese is all AOC, they are under the same rules as the smaller scale cheese makers but they are more carefully watched because of their larger scale.
In the Cheese Cave
This is only one row in a roomful of 30 thousand cheese.
That's a lot of Grana$$$ Padano!

A Rainy Night

On our return, and after a much needed afternoon rest we head off to the small town nearby, Levico Terme with its traditional shops and restaurants. A quiet early evening admiring the towns architecture in the rain and wandering through the shops (more bins of mushrooms and shelves of grappa). Yes, I should have bought the funghi there! Instead we returned empty handed in this food group.

Our dinner choice was well made with the chefs focus on the style of Mantova. Pumpkin ravioli and a lamb roast with the nice local white. Finished with cafe and a grappa. Perfect for a rainy night.
Finished with Gelato on the walk out. OF coarse I asked for pesci instead of pesca and raised a laugh. Not sure that fish flavored gelato is as good as peach.Anyhow they have to love us for trying!

Sept 13 ... On to Valsugana!

Today it is up early with a good breakfast in sunshine overlooking the Dolomites. A short drive south from Bolzano and through Trento takes us to our hotel on a little lake at the western end of Valsugana.
This valley is about an hour South of Bolzano and east of Trento. It is the area just north of the Asiago plateau and the last serious mountains above the Po River valley. This has become a very important region due to the recent promotion of its traditional agricultural products: cheese, preserved meats, mushrooms, polenta, grappa, fruit, etc.

Our room has its own terrace overlooking the lake and a great view up into the mountains that form the valley. A perfect excuse to sit out with some wine cheese and sausage collected along the way (well, it doesn't really take much for us to open the wine you know!).

The afternoon agenda is a long steep trip up to the high pass of Brocon where many small alpine farms make cheese throughout the summer. The area flattens out to a grand plateau which houses several small farms and their expansive grazing lands. This a huge area that has been used as pasture since ancient times. It is late enough in the season that the cheese making is coming to an end and they are preparing the cows for the journey back down to the valley for the winter.

The Video below is of a young couple and their dog trying to convince the herd that "Summer is Over" and time to make the trek down to the valley before snow falls.

September 17, 2009

Sept 10-12 Bolzano and the Dolomites

Sept 10
Another long drive from Valtellina to Bolzano with a brief stop in Sondrio for cheese. From Sondrio to Bolzano was just a lot of up and down twisty turny roads. The "eye opener" was dropping down into the valley of fruit and especially the wine grapes that run from Bolzano to Trento. Pay attention folks because if we are lucky we will see some of these wines in the US in the future.

Our hotel was tucked somewhere up in the hills north of Bolzano and our map showed quite a convoluted path to find it, but a simple phone call to our host made it sound quite simple so we left the Autostrada with a few notes in hand and eventually after a rather long ascent found one of the most friendly hotels and one of the most magnificent views of the dolomites. Another long day and a much needed rest to follow it.

Sept 11 Fri
Our goal today is to find a small church settled into a large alpine pasture with the Dolomites rising above. This is a church I have seen in pictures over the years and has drawn me to this area. We headed north again and down into the valley, only to cross the river and rise up into the mountains again. Our rough reckoning leaving some doubt in finding the church, but persistence paid off and we find it where it has always been for centuries. This is one of the most beautiful settings and churches I have ever visited.

Sept 12 Sat

Today we travel through Val Gardena to Passo Gardena. This is a beautiful Alpine pasture where much cheese was made in the past but it is much easier for the young people today to make their living from the skiing and climbing tourists than from cheesemaking. The older alpine farm (Malghe) buildings are still present but only reminders of the past.

During lunch in the mountains Robin has decided to let our trusted companions Al and Lucy out of the car for a bit to romp in the mountains a bit. They have been with us for many years now but this is their first visit to the Alps

This is surely a worthwhile visit but the extensive build-up of vacation homes, hotels and traffic in the valley make us more than ready to return to our quiet hotel above Bolzano.

Tonight at the hotel we are the only guests and Nino the chef has prepared a special meal and when we comment on the fabulous funghi, he brings an entire jar out for us packed in oil. Porcini that he has collected from the local woods. Tomorrow we pack and head south to Valsugana.

September 15, 2009

Sept 8-9 On to Italy and the Bitto Cheese

Sept 8 was a long day of driving through the mountains of Switzerland and over the mountains to Italy. It was a long but beautiful drive with perfect weather. The most beautiful part was the drive from Lugano to Lake Como along Lake Lugano and its small villages perched high above the lake. We finally arrived in the Valtellina east of Lake Como, where we were met by our friend who promotes cheese for the Bitto region.

Sept 9 is another very long day beginning with a visit HIGH in the mountains. Our Italian friend is taking us to visit one of the great Bitto producers of the region and the drive is about 27 km as we gain about 1900 meters in height. We drive for about an hour to Passo San Marco followed by another long walk to the farm over very rough terrain. As we approach the farm in the predawn hour we see a single generator light at the milking station far below us on the pasture and another 15 minutes walking/sliding down the wet grassy slope brings us to the herd being milked. The cheese Bitto is unique to a very small part of this valley and is known for its very dry curd and ability to be aged for many years.

Once the milking is finished, the milk is carried down to the farm and transferred to the copper kettle suspended on an arm that can be swung off and onto the fire, a wood fire is lit, the milk kettle swung over it and heated. When the proper temperature is reached the kettle is swung off the fire and rennet is added. The milk is allowed to set still for a long coagulation. This is time for the cheese makers first real break of the day and we head inside for coffee and hot milk with bread. The bottle of grappa is offered for the coffee and I accept (hey, its cold out there).

Following the break, the curd has coagulated and is cut very fine with an aggressive use of the cutting tool (Spino) followed by a long stir at a higher temp. This is what makes the Bitto such a long aged cheese.

The cheese maker applies his skills and experience to know when the curd is at the point to move from the vat to the forms for pressing. When his decision is made he readies the cloth, removes his shirt and dives into the vat for the curd.

Once he has the right amount of curd in the cloth and drained, he transfers the cheese to the awaiting molds where he presses by hand into the shape. The cheese is now allowed to rest for a few minutes to consolidate before a board and the weight of a stone press the remaining whey from the curd. The new cheese must be kept warm to allow the bacteria to continue their work for at least another day before salt is added.

Once the Bitto is made the remaining whey is once again placed over the fire, more wood added and the ricotta process is begun. This is now a fierce fire and the whey heats quickly, a dose of acid is added and then finally some more milk is added to enrich the ricotta. The resulting flocculated curds are left to rest while they rise to the surface where they will be ladled to the waiting forms. It is now time for us to trek back up the mountain to our car and the long drive down the mountain.

The mornings work is now over and the cheese maker will have lunch and a short break before he gathers the cows again mid afternoon and starts the process over again. The day begins about 4AM and goes until 11PM from late May to mid September in the mountains. The cows are then moved down the mountain to the village where they and the cheese maker will spend the winter.

The afternoon is another wonderful expedition into one of the hidden treasures of Italy. We are introduced to one of the patriarchs of perhaps the finest food shop in the Valtellina. As we enter the shop we are amazed at the resources collected here: Funghi, Vino, Aceto, Formaggio, Pastas, Grappa (oh yes, Grappa) etc,etc. The shop has been in this family for 3 generations and the next generation is definitely in training to continue this tradition. We were quite amazed by what we saw in the main shop but then our guide smiled and said follow me ... follow him on a tour of one amazing room after another. Rooms of special cheeses, rooms of pastas, one of grappas of various ages (and prices). This was great but then he said come down to the cellars. At least 3 levels down each one with different temperatures and several degrees cooler than the previous. Each one for storing different wines until we reached the lowest level where I saw wooden cases stacked with names that I recognized but know I can not afford. Along the way in niches and corners were old wine presses and other items that transformed the cellars into a museum. Casks set into the wall (perfect keeping temps) that at one time dispensed the wines into large bottles for the customers to store in their own cellars. Wheels of carts that brought the wine before trucks. Old wine presses, bottling apparatus, ancient bottles, etc. When we climbed out of this wonderful cellar, we began another descent but this time into the world of Formaggio. The final level took us to a room full of Bitto cheese ranging in age from 1-10 year old cheeses.