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When I visited Petra Elsen on a research trip in May 2008 and wrote about her in my first cheese book, the title of that passage was „The Hommerdingen hero“:
On the map Hommerdingen is just a tiny dot southwest of Bitburg, not far from the Luxemburg border, but in the new realm of German cheeses it deserves three stars: „one of the best cheesemakers, worth a special journey“.
Seen from a conventional farmer’s perspective, Petra Elsen is a drop-out, who in 1986 immediately after finishing high school, took over the small part-time estate of her elderly parents. After agricultural training she switched to biodynamic farming, worked on two goat dairy farms in Poitou in the west of France, and on her return replaced her parents‘ ten dairy cows with goats. The special character of her cheeses is rooted as much in the wide landscape of the southern Eifel as in herself, and I could see it in the direct way her grey brown eyes looked at me, as thoughtful as the goats‘ slanted ones. „Running that farm all by myself, with old ones to look after, seemed doomed from the start on“, she told me on that grey morning, „and goats around here are considered ‚dirty ones’… but I always get started first, and then sort it out somehow.“
Which today is even more obvious. Five years ago a fire destroyed the dairy. The animals were safe and taken in by neighbours – „the whole village helped“ she says battling with tears, in this short SWR TV feature. Even so, it was the start of a hard, difficult bureaucratic battle to rebuild, long years without cheese that only ended last summer. And now – hooray! – once again, goat cheese is being made in Hommerdingen.
Here are some pictures from that feature:
Petra Elsen makes three kinds of cheeses of different size and shape that taste quite differently. For all three she adds starter cultures to the evening milk, mixing in the morning milk and rennet the next day. The resulting curd is very soft and delicate, it floats over the tongue. She ladles it very carefully by hand, turning the young cheeses repeatedly and dry-salting them, so that yeasts can settle in and form a very thin, soft rind.
The log-shaped Buchette has the size of a Sainte Maure, is somewhat drier in texture and bolder in taste, whereas the Chevrette, a small flat disc, tends to be quite sweet and round. Both are very dense, almost like toffee. Chevrondelle is a new creation, larger than is traditional for this kind of cheesemaking, and it tends to become more creamy with time. Actually, all three are my cheeses of this month – and with each bite I savour I am sending out my deep gratitude for all the hard work, dedication and skills they represent.
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