3 Mar 2015

Top five crazy Continentals

Cheddar and Camemebert are all well and good, but sometimes only a cheese matured in a sheep's stomach will do (in Bosnia anyway). Here are my top five weird and wonderful European cheeses.

Made only during the summer in small stone refuges (called calécc) by herdsmen high up in the Alpine mountains of Lombardy, Bitto can be aged for longer than any other cheese. Some wheels are left to mature for 10 years, developing intense, nutty flavours and a crumbly texture. It's made with cow's milk and around 10-20% goat's milk, which some say is the secret to Bitto's amazing ageing abilities. The cheese is in short supply with only a handful of producers still making it in the traditional way.
While Brie de Meaux is famous for being velvety and unctuous, there is another version of the cheese that has been seduced by the dark side. 'Black Brie' is aged for up to 12 months until it is hard, brittle and dark in colour. Legend has it that the cheese was invented when old, leftover Brie from the royal dinner table was given to peasants. Today, it is made with cheeses that don't quite meet the strict PDO rules for Brie de Meaux. “They are stacked on top of each and matured by affineurs until the cheese has a bitter, nutty flavour,” says David Deaves at La Cave à Fromage. “The French like to dip it in their morning coffee.”

Legend has it that the Vikings feasted on Gamalost to boost their sex drive. Literally meaning 'old cheese', the Viagra of the dairy world gets its characteristic brown colouring and bread-like texture from a particular mould, which producers would traditionally encourage by wrapping the cheese in gin-soaked straw and juniper berries. Today, the Tine dairy in Sogn is believed to be the last producer of Gamalost, which has “a brittle granular texture and sharp pungent tang, reminiscent of aged Camembert or Danish Blue”, according to the World Cheese Book.
Norwegians serve it on bread with fruit, honey or cream, presumably just before bedtime.
Vieux Lille
A cheese so smelly you are not allowed to take it on public transport, Vieux Lille is affectionately known as 'old stinker' thanks to its pungent aroma and powerful flavour. It is actually a version of the famous washed rind fromage Maroilles, but goes through an additional brining stage to give it a salty tang. Made in Northern France, it used to be the cheese of choice for miners and is regularly dubbed the smelliest cheese in the world. “Think of an Epoisses and then add some,” is how a cheesemonger at Teddington Cheese describes it. “It's really smelly, salty and fruity, and not for the faint hearted.”

Sir iz Mijeha - Sack Cheese
Bosnia and Herzegovina
This unusual cheese from Herzegovina is matured in a sack made from the skin of a single sheep for two to three months, which gives it a distinctive flavour. Made with milk from rare breed cows and/or sheep, the curds are tightly stuffed into the sack using a stick with the finished cheese weighing anywhere between 30-70kg. According to cheesemonger and blogger Calum Hodgson, who tasted it at the Bra Cheese festival, 'sack cheese' has “a butyric acid aroma and a strong lactic taste”. “As a lazy man, I appreciate the crude efficiency of this sack methodology,” he says. The cheese is protected as part of the Slow Food Presidia.

First published in Good Cheese magazine. To read more click here

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