Austria delivers: delicious cheeses direct from alpine cows
It figures that Austria would be the country to satisfy our hungry search for some of Europe’s best and most interesting cheese.
When we set out on The Meanderthals European Cheese Tour, our goal was to discover bespoke, local cheeses, hand crafted by artisans in quaint, remote settings. So it only stands to reason that Austria – this stunningly gorgeous country populated by friendly people who all seem earnestly committed to making sure everything works here and is of good quality (see roads, accommodation, food, services, etc. etc.) – would also create the sort of cheese we’ve been yearning for but has thus far eluded us on the first half of our month-long road trip.
Success arrived when we rode our bikes to the Alpine Cheese Bregenzerwald shop, a sprawling complex tucked away on a side road in the tiny enclave of Bezau on a beautiful Monday morning. Here, cheesemakers accept fresh, organic milk from grass-fed cows who report to over 445 farmers and form the cooperative that turns out some of the area’s most popular cheese. Cheesemakers make blends from soft to hard, aged to fresh, some with rinds tinged with herbs and vegetables. They also make an array of butters, creams and sell artisan jams, chutneys, booze and cured meats.
A foodie’s paradise, it’s also an immense facility that brings together hundreds of small farmers to form a whole worthy of the parts. Hundreds of wheels of maturing cheese line 20 or so shelves stretching from floor to ceiling, viewable through a glass wall designed to feature developing cheeses and offer them up for viewing.
The clerk behind the counter’s English was as good as our German, and if it hadn’t been for the young mother with her son turning up to replenish her family’s supply of cheese, we might have left mostly unfulfilled. Her perfect English revealed that she had recently returned from a trip to Martha’s Vineyard, and she beamed when I told her I was from Massachusetts. Turns out her family is one of the contributing farmers, and she gave us the rundown on what cheeses were best.
“We are well known for our quality cheeses,” she said proudly, and endorsed a trio of samples I’d selected from a cooler. “Mild to strong, and a good aged one. You have chosen the best!”
Bregezerwald’s signature offering is a mountain cheese, a hard cow’s milk aged from 4 to 12 months. They also offer an array of soft cheeses, and although we didn’t try any, the company likens them to tastier versions of cream cheese.
Cheesemakers process more than 50,000 liters of milk a day and form them into more than 50,000 wheels of cheese that are stacked in the maturing room. There, in a steady temperature of roughly 45 degrees Fahrenheit (12 to 14 degrees, Celsius), the wheels rest until they’re ready for sale and consumption.
Gabi and I bought a 400-gram three-pack and set up a tasting table in the short stay apartment we’d rented in nearby Mellau. First thing we noticed when we opened the pack was the intense grassy aroma that belied the collective’s commitment to using only organic milk from grass-fed alpine cows. (On our bike ride through Mellau and Bezau we rode past hundreds of the affable beasts, their signature cowbells keeping metronomic beat to our cadence as we pedaled past. Set before the stunning alps that rise behind them in rich green fields and forests that reach to painfully blue skies, it’s a sight to behold and an experience to be had.)
The mildest (Walderkase) was beige in color, a semi-soft similar to an immature edam with a gentle, soft taste. Mid-range (Rahmkase) was firmer and more yellow with a distinctive finish that best suited my palate. The mature mountain cheese (Bergkase Wurzig), was Gabi’s favorite, and a close second for me, too. Firm, rich yellow and with a low, sharp bite to it, this is the perfect cheese for cheddar aficionados.
None of these cheeses would probably pass muster in a tasting of the world’s best, but they’re just what the makers promise: a quality local product made with care using organic, local ingredients that reflect residents’ values and create a vibrant subeconomy. What these cheeses may lack in subtlety and finesse, they make up for with an earnest, reliable product that goes well with wine and beer (we know from experience) and as additions to local dishes (we are left to imagine).
Since we were on bikes and at the start of a long ride, we didn’t load up on the dozens of other cheeses on offer.
Besides, today we’re off to Switzerland and in the hunt for the Emmental Bike Tour around Obendorf.