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.

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.

Sept 7 ... In the Valley of Etivaz

Today we will visit the caves where Etivaz is aged. Aging is of great importance in developing the final quality of the cheese. The cheese is brought in by the farmers at regular intervals of up to a week as mandated by the AOC rules for this cheese. They are then salted and brined, dried off and moved to aging area set aside for each family. At 6 months a small portion of the cheese will be selected for a longer aging which may be extended for many years. This cheese will have the rind removed by scrubbing and a light coat of olive oil applied. It will then be moved to a drier aging area where it is stored on edge and turned a quarter turn at regular intervals depending on moisture level. This cheese is called Etivaz Rebibe and may be aged for many years. It is traditionally shaved into very thin strips when served.

In the afternoon we are off to visit another cheese maker who is very unique, being one of the few sheep milk cheese producers in Switzerland. We arrive in the evening to accompany him and his wife into the high peaks to gather the sheep and retrieve the milk. This is one rough journey even with four wheel drive and takes about 20-30 minutes each way. The milking system is quite amazing, bringing in 30 ewes running in 2 lines with the cheese maker and his wife doing the milking from from a recess below the ewes. When one batch finishes the milked ewes are released and another 32 come running in, I just had to wonder what was in the pellets they received during milking. 320 ewes were milked in 10+ batches in about an hour. This time of year only about 1/2 Liter per ewe is produced at each milking. During the summer almost twice as much is provided.
Before heading back down to the valley we went to see the ancient chalet that the family has been working at restoring now for several years. Currently all of the cheese is produced in the valley dairy where they live.

Following the Alpage visit we returned to the farm for a tasting of the cheese they produce. There is quite a variety. Yogurt (which we had for lunch earlier in the day) several fresh cheeses, a soft ripened cheese, and a nice Tomme style cheese. They also produce a wonderful pine bark wrapped cheese that develops a wonderful white coat as the cheese ripens inside. This appears to be similar to a Vacherin Mt D'Or but ripens very differently because it is not a washed rind.

Of course with the cheese we shared a bottle of wine and the discussion ranged from what is happening with cheesemaking in the US on small farms to current farm problems in their region. The biggest problem being animal loss due to lynx and the newly introduced wolf population. It seems that most of the cheesemakers we talk to in the mountains are losing many of their stock.

September 8, 2009

Sept 5 ... Savoie to Switzerland

A beautiful sunny cool morning for a drive to Thone and the saturday market. The star of the show was a Beaufort cheese made in summer 2008 that we could simply not resist. Mid morning we began the trek to Switzerland passing by the Mont Blanc Glacier and through the town of Chamonix. Our destination for the day was the region of Etivaz cheese at the east end of Lac Laman.

As we arrive in Etivaz we are greeted by the younger family members of the alpage with their sturdy LandRover and follow them up onto the mountain. It is a long drive up into the mountains where we transfer our gear into the LR and continue to the Alpage with them. We arrive at milking time and when finished the cows are turned back out for the night. We then join the rest of the family for dinner followed by a long discussion of cheese making in the Alps and in America. They are very interested in what is happening in the US.

Night is now upon us and we are all very tired and move to the loft over the barn for some sleep. I say some because activity begins at 5 AM, well before first light as the cows are called in for milking. The evenings milk has been sitting at cool mountain temperature all night so that the natural bacteria can begin to work. While the herd comes in and is milked, the cream that rose during the night is skimmed for butter and creme fraische (Yes lots of that on the mountain).

While the fresh morning and skimmed evening milk come into the vat a wood fire is lit under it to heat the milk. The milk is then warmed, rennet added and allowed to sit still while the milk coagulates and becomes curd.

While the bacteria and rennet are working, the entire family takes advantage of the time for a quick breakfast of coffee and a fresh baked bread that is special to the chalet. Following breakfast it is time to check the curd firmness and it proves to be ready for cutting. The cutting of curd to proper size, cooking the curds, and proper stirring are essential steps to develop the proper cheese moisture for a good ripening. The drier the cheese the longer it can be aged and the more flavor and character it develop.

Once the curd has been cooked well enough for the cheesemakers satisfaction it is time to allow the curds to settle for a period and compact together in the bottom of the vat. Once this is done the curds are retrieved in cloths and carried to the forms that are have been prepared and waiting. A small amount of pressure is then applied and in 30 minutes the cheese is turned over and the weight increased. No salt is added until the 2nd day, then a small amount of dry salt is spread on the surface. The cheese will be kept in the chalet for a maximum of seven days before being taken to the special Etivaz caves in the valley but usually they make the trip every 2-3 days due to limited space in the valleys.

Once the mornings cheese is turned in the final press and since it is Sunday it is time for the family to spend some time together for a special leisurely lunch to which we were invited. This rest will continue until 5PM when it is time to call the cows again for milking. Normally during the other 6 days of the week the family is busy tending to other chores such as animal health, bringing in hay for winter, and improving the Alpine pastures.

Following lunch we bid farewell to the family and return to our hotel in the valley and prepare for another day.

September 6, 2009

Sept 4 Up Into the mountains of Savoie

"Quel Beau Paysage"
.. what a beautiful landscape.

Our second day out. We started out with no plans except to drive upinto one of the high mountain alpage to buy some cheese. This particular one is where I have bought some of the best reblochon in the past. In this mountain pass there are several producers of reblochon and tomme d' savoie where you simply go to the door and ask to buy it.
The cheese comes to you direct from the cave with a beautiful damp mustiness that is so important to the flavor of these cheeses of Savoie

This is also time to stock up on other trip essentials such as Euros and other items we did not need to bring along. Our second day out. No plans except to drive up into one of the high mountain alpage early enough to catch the cheese making if at all possible. This particular one is where I have bought some of the best reblochon the past.

While in town we called another of our favorite reblochon makers and she invited us up to her alpage again for a visit. as you can see by the picture, this chalet was built when cheese makers were much smaller folks. The last visit I made here we visited first in the winter village making cheese and then in the afternoon he cows were moved to the alpage high on the mountain where we visited her the following morning

Along the way today I made this little video of the cows mowing the pastures. The sound of these bells is one you will never forget once you hear it, and yes they are as loud as they sound. Day and Night!