June 28, 2014
I’ve had a soft spot for cheese ever since I can remember, but my field of view has never been the widest. Sticking to soft, fresh whites, traditional Mexicans, and whatever other harmless assortments showed up at the markets near home, I was completely unaware of the sheer amount of varieties of queso there were.
Sara and I are sitting at the Hanssen’s kitchen table, strong smells assaulting our noses, eyes darting from one cheese to the next. There are at least 15 different cheeses spread out on the wood and slate trays in front of us. Each is adorned with a little marker, in handwriting that I’d recognize anywhere.
Accompanying the cheeses, there’s a simple green salad, the sole attempt at any semblance of healthiness.
There’s also a basket of freshly baked bread, made in the same kitchen we are sitting in. Not content with making us a single loaf, they’ve prepared light rye, whole wheat studded with chopped pecans, and white sprinkled with dried apricots.
Lastly, there’s also a tub of sweet brown goop, Sirop de Poires et Pommes, lovingly made by hand in Thimister by the Siroperie Thomsin. And what is this syrup, you may ask? It’s a reduction of the juice obtained from pressing stewed apples and pears. Reducing it turns the juice into a sort of caramel that is then spread on bread or cheese, or in our case, both.
On to the cheeses, then.
These first two samples need no introduction, but some clarification might be in order. While both are bloomy rinds, Brie is Camembert’s milder, softer, older sister. She is buttery and creamy and liked by everyone. Camembert is Brie’s denser, stronger, younger brother. He is earthy and musky and slightly mushroomy.
I’m reminded of the first time I tried Brie; I had no clue what I was eating, and scraped off the rind, only to be told that you’re supposed to eat the whole thing. Nowadays it’s my favorite part.
A soft, fresh white cheese made from cow’s milk, covered in pineapple and almond pieces, Tolko could be a dessert all on its own. It is sweet, tangy, and milky. Finding more information on this cheese proved to be quite difficult, but by all accounts, it seems to be a creation of Danish brand Castello.
Petite Fleur is another bloomy rind cheese, made from raw cow’s milk. It’s quite soft and just a little salty. There is a plain version, but we went with the Aux Fines Herbes, which has chives, garlic, and parsley, a stark contrast to the previous flavors. Yum.
Mirabo is a German cheese with a very unique flower shape. Every piece is a petal of the flower, and since it has a hole in the middle, you get delicious white bloomy rind on both the inside and outside of the slice. Mirabo is speckled with chopped walnuts, which also impart a little bit of flavor into the cheese.
Timanoix is the cheese that piqued my interest the most, with a dark exterior that reminds me of slightly charred wood. Immersing cheese in a variety of liquids and aging them is nothing new, but this is perhaps the first I ever heard of aging in walnut liquor. Timanoix is made by Trappist monks at Abbaye Notre Dame de Timadeuc, which I can only assume is where the cheese got its name (“Tima”, from the abbey + “Noix”, which means nut in french). The resulting cheese is a semi-soft, earthy, meaty wonder.
Side note, I now have a weird hankering for walnut liquor.
The next two slivers are unmarked. The first is extremely soft both in texture and flavor, and creamy, with the slightest hint of a bloomy rind. A triple creme Brie, perhaps? It’s softer and richer than the first Brie we tried.
This blue, which I believe to be a slice of Fourme d’Ambert, is nowhere near as aggressive as I imagined a European blue might be. It is mild and slightly sweet, with only a jab of sharpness and a savory aftertaste.
The second of only three hard cheeses, Etorki is a French Basque cheese that reminds me of an earthy, mildly sweet cajeta. A cheese, I’d wager, that almost anyone would enjoy on its own. I’d probably bastardize it on sweet grilled cheese too.
This little round is Camembert after being shot with a shrink ray. All the earthy, mushroomy flavors are concentrated into a much smaller bite. If you ever wished for a stronger Cam, this is for you. Me, not so much.
The gooey little mess carefully wrapped in chestnut leaves that we try next is Banon, another French cheese made from whole, unpasteurized goat’s milk. Thankfully, this round was wrapped in pure leaves, as sometimes they are dipped in vinegar or eau-de-vie, which sounds… interesting.
The bright white exterior of the goat’s milk Coeur Gourmand hides a dark, sticky interior that upon closer inspection is revealed to be fig. In recent years they’ve also incorporated strawberries, apricots, pineapples, and plums. IMO, best enjoyed alone, but also great smeared on a crusty baguette just warm enough to melt and soften the cheese a smidge further. Perhaps stirred into a salad instead of a regular Chevre.
Also made with raw goat’s milk, this little log is carefully shaped by hand and adorned with a sprig of savory, which gives this cheese a little extra strength. I was surprised at how strong it was for soft, fresh cheese. Every instance I’d ever had of chevre was barny but in a barely-there sort of way. This one asserted its dominance and told you exactly what the goats that produced the milk ate. My first encounter with terroir.
Comte is Gruyere’s not so lost twin. Prepared with the same recipe, the key difference comes from, of course, the region of production as well as the aging time, with Comte being aged at least six months vs. Gruyere’s three months. For the life of me, I can’t remember what Gruyere tastes like, or if I’ve ever even had it for that matter, but if Comte is vaguely similar, I’m sure I’ll love it too.
It is dense but not heavy, sweet, and salty at the same time. Fudgy. Like salted butter that has been properly browned. A not too sweet caramel that has a few flecks of sea salt on top. I’ll likely be seeking this cheese out for years in the scarcely-populated ~gourmet~ section of my local market.
We’re nearing the end of our extensive cheese meal, and I’m glad this stinker is one of the last we’ll be trying. I have a feeling its’ smell would have been near impossible to remove from my nostrils. Although the outside is solid enough, the inside is a runny, sticky, slightly chewy paste that needs to be scooped out with a spoon. It is slightly metallic, a common denominator I’ve found within washed rinds. It is also meaty, salty, and a bit sweet. “Complex” falls short.
Last but most definitely not least, the stinkiest of them all and our raison d’être: Herve cheese. It’s a washed rind cheese, and if I thought Epoisses smelt strong, I hadn’t been paying enough attention to this little cube that looks like it packs a punch. I don’t think I’ll be fond of it.
I try the tiniest possible slice, small enough that it won’t be too much for me but not too small that it offends my gracious hosts, whose family makes this cheese.
That thing when you’re cutting your toenails? That is exactly what this cheese smells like, and unfortunately, unlike other washed-rind cheeses, what it tastes like too. To make matters worse, I’m asked my opinion of it. “It’s very salty”, I say, while mustering the strength to swallow the rest of the offensive goop.
Coraline mentions how it’s traditional to eat some Herve with sirop smeared on top. I think I’ll just take her word for it.
Even now, I’ve barely scratched the surface of the wonderful world of Casein, but it was fun to dip my toes in the cheese vat for a while.
Le Herve du Vieux Moulin is located on Rue de Herve 169, Battice, Liege, Belgium.