While hibernating over Christmas and New Year Heinzelcheese obviously could not abstain completely from all turophilia and watched Dominik Flammer’s beautiful film about the Alps‘ culinary heritage. The episode in question is called Urkäse, ancient cheese. And with that yet another tiny part of the huge jigsaw puzzle that is the infinite universe of cheese fell on to its place…
What Dominik Flammer (shown here during a great tasting at the 2016 cheese festival in Taufers/Alto Adige) calls not without reason ancient cheese is made from skimmed (the cream is churned into butter), sour milk. Besides milk only you need salt and heat – no rennet, not even some ersatz such as cardoons! Heating the skimmed sour milk very gently, crumbly curds rise to the surface. These are pressed into moulds to drain and salted, then left to ripen for days, weeks or even up to a year.
When fresh, this kind of cheese is all white and combines sweetness (such as in ricotta) and acidity (like in quark), while the aftertaste, in combination with the rather dry, brittle texture is close to some kinds of Handkäse, Germany’s traditional sour skimmed milk cheeses. When more mature, ancient cheese gradually turns to a glooey transparent yellow, starting from the outside, and becomes more aromatic.
These tradition of these sour cheeses can be found all over the Alps, and long before cheese production with rennet spread (which allows to preserve „fat“ milk in concentrated form): there is Bloderchäs in Switzerland, Sura Kees in Austria and Graukäse on the Italian side such as the Ahrntal.
Watching that film Heinzelcheese was already travel planning to experience all this in situ (having been brought up on Harzer cheese I felt a natural affinity for these ancient guys) – then came the Grüne Woche, Berlin’s agricultural fair. As a kid this was huge fun and an occasion to discover tasty stuff from far away places such as French baguette and American ice cream. Today it’s much harder to find some real gems amongst a lot of ordinariness. But… half an hour in, there it was: Sura Kees from the Montafon! It was a small, fresh version, from the Ganahl family’s mountain farm in Bartholomäberg. Fantastic – experiencing this made it all click. This is the logical link between quark (fresh, with limited shelf life) and cheese as such (able to mature and be kept around), and it reveals the strict category of whey cheeses as a theoretical simplification of reality’s far more complex picture. From the Heinzelcheese point of view this makes it rather well suited as cheese of the month right now… Traveling to the Alps is still on the agenda for the summer though – now more than ever!
Two postscripts: 1. the orange sprinkling on the white cheese is paprika powder. 2. Dominik Flammer’s can be accessed here, the Sura Kees shown there is from Alpe Vergalda.