Arctic Cheese Newbie's Blog

An Alaskan's Journey into the World of Cheese

Fol Epi & Ossau Iraty

Posted by arcticcheesenewbie on February 7, 2010

Tomorrow is Super Bowl Sunday and, although we are not football fans, we sometimes indulge in one afternoon a year of whooping and hollering. Many years we just record the event and then fast forward through the game, watching only the commercials. Other years we decide to watch the game, each of us picking a team and rooting for all we’re worth, as though we really cared. Tomorrow we plan to actually watch the game, although neither of us knows who is playing. We’ll choose sides later.
Since tomorrow is game day, and we will be eating standard game fare, we moved Cheese Day up to Saturday. Our fromage picks were Fol Epi and Ossau Iraty.

The rind of Fol Epi smells alittle like bread. This is not surprising, since it’s rind is dusted with toasted wheat flour as it ages. In fact, “fol epi” means wild wheat in French and there is a bit of yeastiness to the cheese. Made in the Swiss style it is milder than, say, Emmenthaler and less bitter. It’s a good “starter Swiss” for someone who doesn’t think they like Swiss cheese (because of their exposure to the plasticky mega-mart cheese). It has the texture of mozzarella and apparently melts well. My husband loved it. I liked it but found it much less interesting than our other pick of the night.

Ossau Iraty is an ancient cheese, possibly one of the first types of cheese ever made. I’m still alittle skeptical of sheep’s milk cheeses because I haven’t fully acquired a taste for them. This one in particular had me worried because the rind smelled like a barn. My husband took a whiff and actually said, “smells like the fairground.” Indeed, I remained unenthusiastic with my first few tastes. But, as I got used to the flavor, the “sheepiness” diminished. It was replaced by a nutty, smooth flavor. It tastes very fatty and rich and has an almost sweet finish. The more I ate, the more I enjoyed it. It was especially delicious with fig jam. My hubby never took a shine to it, though. He just kept lovin’ that Fol Epi.

It is my hope that we obtained an AOC qualified raw milk version of Ossau Iraty. Sadly, we’re not sure. I do plan to purchase it again between March and May when Murray’s Cheese Guide indicates the best wheels are at market. Raw milk Ossau Iraty produced in late summer, when the sheep are producing a floral milk, is supposed to be sublime. So says Rob Kaufelt and he should know.

Next week, I think we are going to try something completely different! I am reading a lot about the benefits of locally produced foods. So I’m going to get my hands on our local cheese. I know our local Matanuska Creamery milk is fresh, delicious, and rBST free, so it should make for some tasty cheese!


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Gaperon, Asiago d’Allevo & Retronasal Tasting

Posted by arcticcheesenewbie on February 1, 2010

A burning question was answered for me this week – how does one detect obscure flavors in cheese? In other words, why do my cheese references cite tastes like hay, citrus, or barn? I’ve never tasted limestone before, so how would I know if cheese tasted limestone-y? I’ve certainly tasted citrus but I can honestly say I would shy away from cheese that tastes like an orange, if I encountered one.

If you are a wine aficionado, you almost certainly know the answer. Liz Thorpe in her excellent book The Cheese Chronicles describes retronasal tasting:

“When you eat cheese (or drink wine), there are very specific physical sensations associated with taste: sweet, salty, sour/acidic, bitter. But your mouth is actually quite limited. Most of the romance of food comes after it’s been swallowed. You exhale. A breath of air rushes up the back of your nasal passages and out your nostrils, and suddenly there are a million sensory impressions, most of which have to do with smell… Tasting is experiential – cheeses recall certain places I’ve visited and experiences I’ve had, because the retronasal impression is about dozens of ancient and far-distant smells, instantly, magically recalled by a cheese.”

So, not only is cheese tasting experiential, it would appear to be somewhat subjective. What a freeing realization! The question is what does the cheese recall for me?

I brought an excitement to try retronasal tasting to tonight’s cheese festivities, which included Asiago d’Allego and Gaperon. With these we paired water crackers, rustic sourdough bread, fig jam, and pears. My husband and I agreed that the star of the night was Asiago with fig jam and either bread or cracker.

Gaperon was originally made from the leftovers of the butter-making process and hung in cloth from the kitchen beams to ripen. Apparently, the French of the Auvergne region also used it as a dowry. Of course, it is no longer made in this way, nor for this purpose I suspect. Today, this cheese is flavored with cracked peppercorns and garlic. Its paste is deliciously spreadable. My retronasal tasting didn’t reveal anything surprising. This cheese was tasty but, basically, milky and peppery. I didn’t even detect the garlic, although my husband said he did. It had a slightly sour finish in the back of the throat, indicating that it was probably a fairly young cheese. My husband really enjoyed the Gaperon but I felt it lacked interest (although I do love that creamy texture).

The Asiago d’Allevo was toothsome, a little crumbly and reminiscent of a milder Parmesan. It would be delicious in soups, salads, and on pasta. Something about figs really brings out the flavor. Turns out the word “d’Allevo” reflects a mature Asiago cheese, whereas Asiago Pressato is a young cheese. The maturity of this cheese is what recalls Parmesan. What surprised me about this Asiago was during my very deliberate retronasal tasting. After I had chewed and swallowed the cheese, I exhaled through my nose. In doing so, I detected a mildly fruitiness. I never would have called Asiago fruity, had I not tried this technique. In fact, it wasn’t until after I made this discovery that I read the following description in Wikipedia, “Aged Asiago features a very concentrated, complex variety of flavors ranging from the fruity, to the nutty, to the pungent. Some wheels can even taste a little like toasted bread.” It’s oddly thrilling to realize that I am starting to develop an educated palate!


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L’Explorateur & Tomme de Savoie

Posted by arcticcheesenewbie on January 24, 2010

I’m sorry to say, there are some cheeses that are wasted on me. I feel like I SHOULD like them…but I don’t. L’Explorateur is one such cheese. This cheese was developed by the French in 1958 to honor the American satellite Explorer 1. It is a triple crème cheese, meaning that it has a minimum of 75% butterfat content. Triple crème cheeses are, as you might imagine, creamy and decadent.

My favorite part of L’Explorateur is the rind, but not for eating. The rind is described as “bloomy” (defined as a white coating that develops after the cheese is sprayed with the Penicillium candidate spore).

What I loved was the feel of it. It is delicate and moves slightly beneath your finger. It feels downy and softer than I can describe. Eventually, though, I had to stop petting the cheese and cut into it. Sadly, the experience went downhill from there.

My research describes L’Explorateur as “indulgent,” “luxurious,” “delicate,” “sensuous,” and even “sweet.” Apart from the pleasingly spreadable texture, the flavor was very unpleasant to both my husband and me. The only word we could find to describe it was “moldy.” Don’t get me wrong, we know moldy cheese is a good thing. We really enjoy various Blue cheeses, for example. But the Blues we have eaten have an interesting depth of flavor. L’Explorateur just screamed one thing – MOLD! It was one note, no depth, no texture of flavor. Can anyone who has eaten this cheese help me “get it”? I’m sure there is something we are missing, since we seem to be the only people in the world of cheese who don’t like L’Explorateur.

On a brighter note, our second cheese tonight was Tomme de Savoie, which means “wheel of cheese made in Savoie” (sounds better in French). As much as we loved the rind on the L’Explorateur, we hated the rind on Tomme de Savoie. It smelled, for all the world, like a clod of dirt. I cannot imagine what a cellar full of wheels of Tomme de Savoie must smell like.

But, once the rind is removed, the cheese is a delight. It is semi-firm, toothsome with a savory nuttiness. It delivers a mild tang in the back of the mouth and is scrumptious with sourdough bread and apples. The good news is that it is made with skim milk, making it a yummy lower-fat option. I understand that, because the cheese is made year round, its flavor can change depending upon what the cows are fed during that time of year. Because of the dirt-clod smell of the rind, we think our portion was made in the summer from grass fed cows. It’s a good theory but I suspect one has nothing to do with the other. We will certainly try it again, at a different time of year, and see if we can detect a difference.

Finally, I am reading a wonderful and accessible book that I want to share. It’s called “The Cheese Chronicles – A journey through the making and selling of cheese in America, from field to farm to table.” Liz Thorpe has a fascinating perspective on cheese in America. If you are interested in cheese or in the subject of food production in the US, you will find this book well-written and thought-provoking – “…cheese is the product of a very tenuous, delicate, and incredibly important web of people, land, and animals. American cheese is about cheese in America. It’s about food in America, about the way we produce, the way we consume, the way we transport, and the economic, social, and nutritional value we place on the food we put in our lives and into our bodies… In cheese, because it’s what I know, I see limitless opportunity to produce good food on many scales. Tiny and local, yes, but also regional and even national. Delicious, beautiful, stinky, heartening, melting, comforting, nourishing cheese that can support the land, support families, feed people, and generally make life better.”   Cool.

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World’s Best Macaroni & Cheese with Beecher’s Flagship

Posted by arcticcheesenewbie on January 24, 2010

I have been so impressed with Beecher’s cheese that I was powerless to resist the owner’s self-proclaimed World’s Best Macaroni & Cheese for a recent dinner party. Whether it’s the “world’s best,” I cannot say, but it was voted the best macaroni & cheese in Seattle and apparently Martha Stewart finds it delicious.

The World’s Best Macaroni & Cheese recipe starts with Beecher’s signature Flagship cheddar cheese. This cheese is lovely and would compliment any recipe. The Flagship is first made into a cheese sauce, which includes Jack cheese and chipotle chile powder. Word of caution: if you have regular chile powder in your pantry, don’t wimp out and use it, in the interest of saving money. Although the names are similar, they are not made of the same ingredients and substituting will alter the flavor. My persistent husband really had to search for chipotle chile powder in our small town but it was worth it.

Serendipitously, we discovered that this macaroni & cheese recipe is actually two recipes for the price of one. When we tasted the rich cheese sauce, it occurred to us that this would make a scrumptious fondue! We enjoyed the leftover sauce the next day with crusty bread and fruit, and were much happier than we had been with the white wine and Swiss fondue from a few weeks before. Depending upon how much chipotle chile powder one adds, it may or may not be spicy hot. It lacks the depth of flavor that the Swiss cheese lends to a fondue, but we were okay with that. If we were to make it as a fondue again, we might just add some Emmenthaler for a little zing.

Back to the macaroni & cheese! Because I was so enamored of the cheese sauce, I made the mistake of adding more to the pasta than the recipe suggested. The end result was a bit too soupy for me (but, again, this was my fault, not the recipe’s). After the pasta and cheese sauce are placed in a baking dish, Gruyere is added with more chipotle chile powder sprinkled on top. We thought the taste was amazingly rich. I loved the tang of the Gruyere and the little bit of heat added by the chile powder. However, one of my guests found it almost too hot for her enjoyment.

Would I make it again? Absolutely, but beware – the cheese cost a small fortune. This is not your everyday mac-n-cheese recipe. On the other hand, if you were making the cheese sauce for any number of delicious purposes (including a fondue), it would be a mistake NOT to hold out two cups for melt-in-your-mouth pasta.

Being a frugal consumer, you might be tempted to forgo the “good stuff” for the shrink-wrapped rubbery substances in your grocery’s deli aisle. In fact, I read a review of this recipe in which a woman scoffed at the ridiculously expensive cheese and went on the cheap. She then complained that the recipe was a lot of work for a mediocre result. There is a moral to the story: great macaroni and cheese is about one thing – the CHEESE. If you lose the high quality cheese, you might as well just stick with the trusty box of Kraft in the back of your cupboard.

Not that there’s anything wrong with it. J

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American Grana & Beecher’s Marco Polo

Posted by arcticcheesenewbie on January 10, 2010

So, this week, I was faced with a conundrum. I’m trying to lose weight and this involves a program of “clean eating.” I am committed to no – or virtually no – “white stuff” (sugar, flour, etc), processed food, empty calories and I am limiting my caloric intake. While I firmly believe that cheese in moderation is good food, it is calorie laden and hard to eat in moderation. Also, our cheese tastings generally include white stuff.

What to do? Actually, it wasn’t a lengthy internal debate. Exotic Cheese Sundays live on for three reasons: it is something my husband and I really enjoy experiencing together, I am having a blast learning about cheese, and I have spent years searching for something to write about. I don’t think a cheese blog will be my life’s literary contribution but I prefer to think of it as a springboard. In case you are curious, even though my name is Julia, I don’t have any fantasies of a cheese blog-related book or hit movie.

Tonight’s tasting featured American Grana and Beecher’s Marco Polo. We also included a fig spread, which is sold at my grocer’s cheese counter. I’ve never consider figs beyond the occasional Newton, so I would not have thought of pairing it with cheese. But, I have heard more than once that they are a smashing combination and it’s true. The fig spread was quite tasty with both of these cheeses. It was an especially good foil for the pepperiness of the Marco Polo.

Beecher’s, which produces Marco Polo, has an interesting story. Entrepreneur Kurt Beecher Dammeier named his artisanal cheese company after his great grandfather, Beecher, whom he recalls purchasing Stilton by the wheel. Located in the famed Pike’s Market in Seattle Washington, Beecher’s is dedicated to making pure, all-natural, additive-free cheese. This commitment includes the milk they use, which comes from a hormone-free herd also in Washington State. Apparently, throughout the week Big White, the dairy’s tanker truck, pulls up to unload fresh milk. The milk is so fresh, in fact, the Beecher’s website indicates that “two days ago this cheese was grass.”

Marco Polo, named after the explorer who brought pepper to Europe, is one of Beecher’s award winning cheeses. Beecher’s “takes lightly milled green and black Madagascar peppercorns and blends them with (their) creamy cheese.” When you see the volume of cracked peppercorns in this cheese, you might be put off by the anticipated bite. But do not be dissuaded. This is a flavorful but unassaulting cheese, with a wonderful texture, and it was my husband’s favorite of the evening. Try it with fruit, crackers, or fresh bread.

The American Grana is also an artisanal American cheese but its roots are in Italian Grana Padano cheese. Apparently, Grana Padano is a Parmesan that is sometimes unfavorably and unfairly compared to its bold cousin, Parmesano Reggiano (PR). My references caution against comparing the two because Grana Padano is, by design, milder than PR.

American Grana was created in Wisconsin by BelGioioso Cheeses, owned by a family of Italian cheese makers. It was developed as an American version of Grana Padano and, so far as I can tell, is an excellent representation. In fact, it won the bronze award in the 2009 World Cheese Awards.

American Grana was my favorite for the evening. It is a crumbly cheese that I found alittle nutty, with a mild piquancy. It was delicious when melted on fresh baguette and was a lovely accompaniment to fruit. It would also be wonderful grated on salads or on a pizza.

My only complaint was that the flavor and texture became unpleasant closer to the rind. It is not unusual for cheese flavor to intensify near the rind but, for this cheese, this was unacceptable to me. I know it’s not fair to compare it to PR but I can’t help it. If I am going to choose a Parmesan cheese, I am more likely to reach for Parmesano Reggiano. But if you are looking for a Parmesan without the strong bite, I recommend American Grana.

Beecher’s Marco Polo: US, cow’s milk, semi-soft

American Grana: US, cow’s milk, semi-hard

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Classic Cheese Fondue

Posted by arcticcheesenewbie on January 2, 2010

As promised, this weekend we ventured into the world of cheese fondues. I spent all week researching recipes and today we purchased the ingredients and a fondue pot. This Classic Cheese Fondue uses two cheeses that I have read make an ideal fondue – Emmenthaler and Gruyere. It also includes dry white wine (the clerk directed us to a bottle of Woodbridge Sauvignon Blanc) and something called Kirschwasser. Turns out, “Kirsch” is a cherry brandy and a staple in Swiss cheese fondues.

We shopped at two stores to obtain everything we needed, which was miserable because the wind chill was sending the temperatures well below zero. It’s a very long walk to your car when an Alaskan wind is blowing! Upon arriving home with our treasures, we were excited about our Exotic Cheese Sunday fondue and we were craving something to warm us up. So, we celebrated Exotic Cheese Saturday instead!

I should mention, though, that I think we made a mistake with the fondue pot. We saw an electric one on close-out and I thought, “Hey, no need for a double boiler! Just cook and serve all in one!” When we began using it, we quickly recognized two problems. First, the temperature control attaches using a magnet, and not a strong one at that, so the control kept falling off. Second, we used the bottom two temperature settings but the “simmer” kept the fondue boiling and the “warm” allowed it to cool to a stringy consistency. There was no happy medium.

But here’s the thing that surprised us the most: we didn’t like it! The fondue tasted like I was coating everything in white wine, which isn’t a good thing. I really don’t like wine – that whole “dry” thing makes me pucker and literally sends a shiver down my spine! The bite of Swiss cheeses reminds me of the tang of white wine but I like these cheeses, so I fully expected to like the fondue. My husband, who moderately enjoys wine, had even poured himself a glass of the Sauvignon Blanc but didn’t take a sip during dinner. He said it would be a little like washing down your vanilla ice cream with a glass of milk.

Still, I am not willing to say it was a bad recipe. In fact, I posted a link to the recipe because I think many people would probably like it. I really think the problem is me… well, my palate, to be more accurate. Would every fondue made with wine be so….wine-y? The Cheesemonger  has suggested a fondue recipe with Vincent Aged Gouda, which I might try.

We laughed, when eating this expensive meal, at how much more we enjoyed the fondue we made in our early years of marriage. That fondue included milk, cream cheese, and canned grated (yes, canned) Parmesan cheese. It was yummy! Well, what can I say? I’m still a gourmet cheese newbie.

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Morbier & Vincent

Posted by arcticcheesenewbie on December 27, 2009

Among our Christmas presents this week, we received the movie Elf and a wedge of Vincent cheese from a dear friend. This woman knows how I roll. With the Vincent cheese, tonight we paired French Morbier, which I purchased from a gourmet deli in Anchorage.

My husband enjoyed the Morbier best this evening. I had been told that it worked well in a ham sandwich, which is right down his alley. This man is a ham sandwich connoisseur. So I brought out our freshest French bread, high quality ham, and alittle mustard. On our first mini-sandwich, we agreed the mustard was overwhelming. But I found the Morbier too subtle, even without the mustard. My husband disagreed; he felt that the cheese really complimented the flavor of the ham. He also loved the creaminess of the room temperature cheese, along with the soft texture of the bread.

Traditionally, Morbier was made in two layers from the morning and the evening milkings, separated by a thin layer of ash. The story goes that this was the cheese the cheesemaker saved for himself. Today’s Morbier still has a layer of vegetable ash through the center. The cheese is very creamy and mild, with a milky finish. The rind was leathery and neither of us were a big fan. We mostly cut it off and fed it to the dog.

As I said, I found the cheese too mild to be particularly notable. But I did stumble upon an odd pairing. After trying Morbier with the mini ham sandwiches, crackers, apple, etc., I then tried it with a whole wheat cracker. These crackers are sweet and dense – not my favorite with cheese. But, with Morbier, the cracker tasted exactly like a graham cracker! Granted the texture of the cracker and cheese was not at all graham cracker like. But it no longer tasted like a whole wheat cracker and cheese; it tasted just like a graham cracker. Go figure.

The Vincent was my favorite of the evening. The cheese is fairly new, apparently, and named for the Dutch master Vincent van Gogh. When I tasted it, I was reminded of another cheese but couldn’t quite put my finger on it. My husband nailed it, though. He said it reminded him of Gouda and, apparently, it is made in the Gouda style (also from Holland). Vincent is sweet with slightly tangy finish, which I really enjoyed. I think it would be wonderful grated on salads. I’d also be curious as to whether it would be good in a fondue. That reminds me, we still need to make a fondue. Maybe next week?

Morbier: France, cows milk, semi soft

Vincent: Holland, cows milk, semi hard

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Mimolette & Brie le Chatelain

Posted by arcticcheesenewbie on December 21, 2009

Last night’s cheese tasting was a serendipitous triumph!

You may recall last week’s foray into cheap cheese. Yuck. This week I was determined to right the wrong of a bad Brie by purchasing the higher end variety at our cheese counter – Brie le Chatelain. Brie is a cow’s milk cheese from France and this variety is incredibly smooth and buttery. With a warm, fresh from the oven baguette and sliced apple it was…. perfect. Even thinking of it now, I feel weak in the knees. Usually, only my husband and really good dark chocolate have that effect.

The serendipitous part of the evening involves the cheese I chose to go with the Brie. I had no idea that Mimolette would be so ideal a contrast. The Brie was pale yellow, creamy, and soothing. The Mimolette was neon-orange, hard, and had a little bite. The flavor was reminiscent of a mild Parmesan, which my research indicates means that it wasn’t aged long. It was my husband’s favorite and I love his description, “The flavor sort of sneaks up on you as it warms in your mouth.” Mimolette was not a sharp or piquant cheese by any means but it was distinctive and quite delicious.

There is one weird thing about Mimolette cheese. Apparently, its flavor is developed, in part, by an infestation of tiny cheese mites! While we didn’t see any little mite carcasses as we were eating, we did see where these microscopic creatures had tunneled through the rind, allowing the cheese to breathe. Let me just say that, if good taste is the result of bugs in your cheese, mites rock!

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Writing Because I Should

Posted by arcticcheesenewbie on December 14, 2009

My husband asked me why I hadn’t blogged about last night’s cheese tasting.  Frankly, there isn’t much to say.  But, because I said I would post about each week’s cheese, here I am!  Sorry – no photo.  I just wasn’t in the mood.

This week money was tight so I didn’t stop at the gourmet cheese counter.  Well, that’s not true.  I stopped by for a free sample and then proceeded to the regular cheese section.  You know the spot — there you’ll find huge orange blocks of generic cheddar and pre-sliced packages of rubbery “Swiss.”  I chose a cheap brie and something called Blarney Castle cheese.

We ate the brie my favorite way – on toasted sourdough baguette with a slice of tart apple and a drizzle of honey.  I’ve told friends that, when it comes to brie, there’s no need to buy gourmet.  Why would I say such a thing?  Perhaps, before I began eating really delightful cheese, I just didn’t know any better.  I repent!  Find good cheese.  Eat good cheese.  It’s worth the money.

Blarney Castle identifies itself as a “gouda style” cheese.  All I can say about it is that is was inoffensive.  No bite, no interesting texture, no interest. Alas.

Next time I’m penny pinching when I buy cheese I will walk past the “everyday cheeses.”  I will march straight to the gourmet cheese counter and buy one of whatever strikes my fancy…only a small chunk.  Of course, I’ll still sample the freebies.  🙂

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Emmenthal & Chaumes

Posted by arcticcheesenewbie on December 6, 2009

Before I begin my cheese comments, I must ask a question. The Swiss cheese we sampled is spelled Emmenthal, Emmental, and Emmentaler, depending on what reference one is consulting. Do the spellings reflect differences in cheese varieties? I have never heard the “er” pronounced as in the third spelling. Is it a regional thing?

Emmenthal (as the label on our cheese read) is a cow’s milk cheese from Switzerland. As I understand it, the best variety is made with raw milk and is cave aged as identified by a mottled dark brown rind. The label and rind indicate that our cheese was cave aged and so, I assume, was made with unpasteurized milk. Most cheese in the US is made with pasteurized milk but raw milk cheeses are said to have a better texture and be more flavorful. Murray’s Cheese Handbook indicates that cheese made with raw milk may be sold in the US if it is aged at least 60 days. So far as I know, this was our first raw milk cheese.

I am not a Swiss cheese fan and Emmenthal definitely did have quite a Swiss cheese “bite.” But I liked the flavor much more than deli Swiss cheese I have had on sandwiches. It had a similar “dry” quality that I associate with white wine. With sourdough bread, it was simply too strong for me, although my husband liked it. The tang was nicely mellowed with the sweetness of fresh and dried fruit, leaving the flavor without the bite.

Chaumes is a French cow’s milk cheese. It has a wonderfully smooth mouth-feel and is spreadable. I have read the cheese referred to as a “paste”. Because I understand this cheese to be popular with children in France, I presupposed it to be something benign like American cheese. Clearly, French children have a more sophisticated cheese palate. Chaumes was a bit brie-like to me. It has a moderately pungent aroma and a lingering sourness. At first, I really didn’t like it. Perhaps because I was expecting something very mild. I kept eating it because I loved the texture so much and, soon, I was really enjoying the flavor. It was delicious with apples, water crackers, and sourdough bread. As with many cheeses, the taste is magnified in the rind, which I found pleasing.

Next week we are contemplating a fondue. My last homemade fondue, made about 15 years ago, consisted of cream cheese and canned Parmesan cheese. I understand that an ideal cheese fondue is comprised of Emmenthal, Gruyere, and Appenzeller. Now, where to find Appenzeller? Hmmm…

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