Meanderthals hit the road on European Tour des Fromage
The Meanderthals are hitting the road again, this time with cheesy intent.
Even the most astute food historian isn’t clear on when cheese was invented, but there’s a school of thought that the first concoctions of consolidated cholesterol were made by accident.
Here’s the theory: in the fledgling stages of food preservation 7,000 years or so ago, early Europeans (possibly Poland, Croatia, Switzerland?) decided to store milk in the stomachs of cows, sheep or some other ruminant. Exposed to the natural rennet that occurs in certain animals’ stomachs, the milk curdled and solidified, turning into the first iteration of what’s become both a global staple food and foundation for a bespoke product industry. Some evidence points to early cheesemaking materials on Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland, minus the distinctive red wax packaging, of course.
Whatever the origin, the early samplers apparently ate the stuff and survived, giving birth to a global industry estimated to be worth $83 billion (2022).
A few years ago, in a moment of profoundly poor judgment and lapsed consciousness, I accepted a marketing consulting job with a Sussex cheesemaker. My job was to help him streamline his business practices, upgrade his marketing efforts, and help him plan a future of growth, but I had to start by learning how to make cheese. The gig ended unhappily and abruptly, but not before I got a taste of what goes into making the stuff. At scale, the work is hard and extremely physical; more cleaning, stirring and sterilizing than curdling and wheying. The process is really about encouraging good bacteria to grow while making sure the bad bacteria doesn’t find a home, and it’s a battled waged by stiff scrub brushes and loads of cleaning agents.
Done correctly and carefully, though, the product is worth the while, as were the brands the guy I worked for churned out.
I was intrigued, and still am, both by the process that yields cheeses using all kinds of milk in an endless mix of recipes, processes and unique blends. Hard and soft, cow’s, goat’s and sheep; raw milk and pasteurized; natural rind and waxed. Walk into any cheese shop and prepare to be as overwhelmed as a kid in a candy store.
So, when Gabi and I began to seek a theme for our planned month-long meander around a wedge of Europe, she came up with a great idea: how about the Meanderthals’ Great European Cheese Tour?
We’ll seek out weird cheeses in their original origins, (who knew that Limburger doesn’t actually come from Limburg in Germany, but the Liege region of Belgium?), discover cheese-oriented tourism routes like the Cheese Route Schleswig-Holstein in Germany, and talk to locals about their favorite forms of curd.
We’ll discover vast enclaves of cheese history, like the Museum of Olomoucke Tvaruzky (famous Czech cheese) in Lostice, Czech Republic, the ‘cheese dairies’ sprinkled throughout the Austrian Alps of Kitzbuhel, and sample the cheesy Kasknopfle of Liechenstein (which is described as cheese dumplings, but looks like plain old mac and cheese to me.)
Our trip promises to be a zig-zagging poke through France and Belgium and into Germany and the Czech Republic, then back through Hungary-Slovakia, Switzerland and into Liechenstein and southern France on our homeward leg.
We figure it’ll be about 3,500 kilometers over 30 days or so, punctuated by a lot of cheese tastings, and I suspect a nip of wine or so to go along with it.
We’ll post our findings along the whey, maybe with a video or two, rate the cheeses we stumble upon, and maybe tell the stories of people who make and sell the stuff.
If the making of cheese was an accident of history, who knows where our Tour will lead us, and what we’ll discover.
Stay tuned to this website for all updates!