With one week left in Europe, it’s time for a cheese-fueled road trip.
Haute-Provence and its rocky, shrubby landscapes. Lavendar farms, gorges and windy back roads. Goat cheese.
Tuesday morning in Banon, the weekly market. Chèvre aged in chestnut leaves. The cheesemaker from Le Petit Tourtouil, a farm that is indeed petit (20 goats), displaying one type of cheese aged in different increments, so we can see its various states of maturation. Some were made yesterday, some six months ago. In general, you rarely find a chèvre that’s aged for more than 3 or 4 months. I’m in awe of her display. She sees my wide-eyed wonderment and offers me a reality check: the cheesemaking lifestyle is much more difficult that many expect, she says; it took her seven years before she made any profit. I buy an eight-day-old round and when I’m eating it I’m thankful that there’s people like her who sacrifice so much in the interest of making something so perfectly delicious.
La Ferme des Courmettes, on a mountain near Tourrettes-sur-Loup. A goat farm and adjacent hiking trails that take you to the top of a mountain completely barren and rocky save abundant wild time and lavendar bushes. We buy two rounds of chèvre from the farmer- a day-old and a three-month-old.
The three month-old goat cheese does things to my nasal passages I never thought possible. It’s like the mold spores are seeping in and lighting everything on fire. I’m grateful for the new taste sensation. But never again.
And then onto Finale Ligure in Liguria, Italy. We go to one restaurant, eat appetizers and entrees. Full and satisfied, on the way home we pass another restaurant that seems convivial and just have to go in. We have dinner all over again. And this is is how it goes in Italy for three days. I’m perpetually stuffed while still impatiently waiting for the next mealtime.
In Alba, in Piemont, the home of Nutella and Truffle hunting, we drool over window displays of rounds of cheese covered in layers of truffles.
Late night driving up to the Lakes Region, we stop in Borgomanero and find the first open restaurant in a mostly-closed downtown: Ustarija del Canej. We’re alone there and the staff outnumber us about 6 to 1. It’s a big family that’s either so nice or so bored, they make it their mission to feed us more food than I’ve ever consumed in a dinner, ever. Multiple plates of antipasti including roasted vegetable pies, salads, pickled everythings, enough goat cheese to last a normal person 2 weeks, sardines, heaping mountains of multiple types of salami, a gaint plate of polenta, a rabbit stew and a crazy huge dish filled with beef ragu, fried sage leaves to help us ‘digest’, apricot pies for dessert, shots of grappa and then a heeping plate of cookies. Then the chef comes out and shakes my hand with the force of a thousand sumo wrestlers and asks why I’m 26 and still not married, and they show us photos of the babies in their family crying and screaming at their various baptisms. It’s one of those nights where I wonder if the universe has guided me to the most perfect place, or if these perfect places are always everywhere, waiting for me find them.
Further north in Ticino, the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland. We wander in gorges and marvel at stone villages in the Valle Verzasca. In the Valle Maggia, dinner at Grotto ca’ Rossa, where like other regions of Switzerland, autumn means hunting season and a menu of game. A giant plate of wild boar is served, along with the traditional range of accompaniments- brussels sprouts, roasted chestnuts, red berries, poached pears and spätzle. It’s the best. There’s even a kitty who follows the waitress around, meowing, who occasionally gets stepped on, runs to hide, and then comes out to follow her around again.
And finally, the main event, the Swiss party to end all Swiss parties: the Swiss Cheese Awards in Bellinzona!
It happens every two years, and this year there’s hundreds of cheesemakers giving free samples in the pouring rain. I taste crazy cheeses I’d never tasted before: a ricotta smoked to a dark-brown color, a hard cheese aged and rubbed with red wine and spices, Tête de Moine (monk’s head) cheese, served in the traditional method of scraping off just the surface with a special apparatus by a monk in full getup. And of course I find my boss and one of his fellow Brusonians, my handlebar moustached co-racleur from the raclette festival/ new BFF, slinging raclettes and being jovial. Being warmly embraced in their tent, out of the rain and warmed by the raclette toasters, I feel satisfied with my life in Europe as it’s ending.
It’s about cheese, but it’s more than that. It’s about finding my way into corners of the universe that are warm and lively. It’s about about finding the people who proudly revel in their traditions- and the few who accept me and allow me to share. It’s those people who have made the struggle of being an outsider- of stumbling over foreign words- of missing things from home- completely worth it.