A cheesy tour of Europe
Gastro-tourism is big business now. It seems many of us are no longer just satisfied with visiting well-worn cities and sites, and we’re taking the requisite Instagram photos to prove it. Now we want something else from our journeys, an authentic experience that isn’t just about seeing, but smelling and touching and tasting too.
The cornerstone of this epicurean exploration movement is the lure of discovering delicacies at their source. Perhaps no other food lends itself to such consideration—and adoration—as cheese. From gargantuan wheels of Parmesan to chunks of rustic Wensleydale to creamy, oozy Camembert, tracking cheese’s journey from paddock to plate transports the traveler to bucolic country idylls and through centuries of tradition and practice. It also provides ample opportunity to sample the wares!
ENGLAND – The Yorkshire Dales
The Yorkshire Dales is a region of timeless beauty symbolized by limestone walls that climb its brooding hills, endlessly varying patterns of grey against green marching up impossibly steep slopes until they disappear into the heather-cloaked moorland on the summits.
For centuries people have been churning cheeses here; it’s thought that the origins of local cheese making lie with Cistercian monks who arrived from Normandy and settled in the local abbeys in the 11th century. They passed on their techniques to the farmers of Swaledale and Wensleydale and a local industry was born. Despite the steady decline in bespoke cheese making during the 20th century, there’s been a resurgence of interest in local handcrafted cheese around here in recent years.
A fine example is The Swaledale Cheese Company perched high above the attractive market town of Richmond. The signature Swaledale cheese was originally made with the milk of Swaledale sheep or goats and it wasn’t until the 17th century that dairy cows were introduced. Now the recipe and methods for both its Traditional Swaledale and Swaledale Ewe’s Cheese are protected and accredited with PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status. Its Swaledale Blue was a Super Gold winner at the prestigious World Cheese Awards.
From Richmond, head west through the quintessential Swaledale villages of Gunnerside, Muker and Thwaite, over the wild, irresistibly named Buttertubs Pass into Wensleydale and Hawes, home to the Wensleydale Creamery, where this mild and creamy cheese with a honeyed aftertaste and a crumbly, flaky texture is still made to a time-honored recipe. Watch the cheese being made, then visit the shop to pick up a sustaining slab of Yorkshire’s finest—perhaps an Oak Smoked Wensleydale or one combined with apricots or cranberries. For something different try Wensleydale, the Yorkshire way, with a slice of apple pie or fruitcake.
Not to be missed is the award-winning Courtyard Dairy in Settle, run by Andy Swinscoe, a specialist cheese monger with an apprenticeship in affinage (cheese aging) in France. This specialist cheese shop champions small independent farmers and stocks a range of unusual and exquisite artisan farmhouse cheeses.
ITALY – Parma, Emilia-Romagna
Parma, a quintessential Italian city in the northern Emilia-Romagna region, has a rich culinary tradition: the cheeses, hams, salamis, handmade pasta, balsamic vinegar and wines made in the area are among the world’s most sought-after, making this a perfect getaway for the gourmet traveler. But undoubtedly, the most famous product of the province is Parmigiano Reggiano, better known to spaghetti Bolognese lovers everywhere as parmesan cheese. This “king of Italian cheeses” has been in existence for around 700 years and is so valuable that it was once accepted as currency.
Dotting the hills and valleys around Parma are the dairies and cheese houses where the prized wheels are made by a method little changed over the centuries. A visit to a cheese house is a fascinating day out, observing the cheesemakers gathering the curd into cheesecloth and being dwarfed by the thousands of golden wheels in the warehouse. The Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese Consortium conducts guided tours to cheese making dairies in the area free of charge.
What makes Parmigiano Reggiano so outstanding is its long and careful aging process, with each wheel of cheese aged for an average of 24 months, during which time important changes take place that gives the cheese its distinctive flavor, texture, aroma and nutritional value. At some point towards the end of each Parmigiano’s maturation, professional tasters take to each cheese with a small hammer. An expert ear can pick up faint yet distinctive hollow sounds, a sign of faults or cracks in the cheese. If a wheel doesn’t meet a particular standard, it’s rejected.
While here you absolutely must sample the genuine article (look for the distinctive Parmigiano Reggiano markings burnt into the rind) because, although copied the world over, nothing even comes close to the real thing. Eaten with a drizzle of olive oil or a few drops of balsamic vinegar, it’s a simple pleasure of almost regal proportions.
FRANCE – Pays d’Auge, Normandy
Normandy’s Pays d’Auge region is a picturesque landscape of small villages, rolling meadows dotted with grazing cattle, russet-colored apple orchards and half-timbered farmsteads; a land where creamy cheeses rule and a quartet of France’s finest are made: Camembert, Pont l'Évêque, Livarot and Pavé d'Auge.
With its oozy golden-yellow center, creamy-white rind and buttery flavor reminiscent of wild mushrooms, the circular Camembert is the signature Normandy cheese. Its origins are relatively young in cheese-making terms: Marie Harel, a local farmer’s wife is said to have invented it during the time of the French Revolution, selling it in the market of Vimoutiers (where excellent farmhouse Camembert is still available today). Folklore has it that one of Marie’s descendants took advantage of meeting Napoleon III, presenting him with a Camembert and thereby assuring the future of this most French of cheeses.
While Camembert is a relative newcomer, soft cheese has in fact been made in Normandy since the 11th century. Two lesser-known and much older cheeses are Pont l'Évêque, an uncooked, unpressed cow’s milk cheese that is square in shape, and Livarot, an ancient and noble cheese that dates back more than 700 years, originating with the monks. During the 19th century, Livarot became the go-to cheese in Normandy and was dubbed “the workman’s meat.” One of the most complicated cheeses to make, it sits in a cellar for up to six weeks and the rind is periodically washed with lightly-salted water.
For a closer insight into cheese-making, visit Fromagerie Graindorge, a cheese producer in Livarot that offers free tours and tastings. On display are old cheese-making implements, milk churns, cheese molds and a replica of the world’s largest Livarot cheese, measuring around one meter in diameter; it was made from 1165 liters of milk and shared between the very satisfied residents of the town on a special fiesta day in 2008. Keep an eye out for Le Grain d'Orge with Calvados (local apple brandy). During maturation, the rind is carefully washed in brine and then brushed with Calvados so it gradually becomes infused with the full flavor of apples—a delicious fromage with a soft, golden texture.