Say cheese

Died and gone to cheese heaven.
Died and gone to cheese heaven.
There’s been a lot of talk about wine these past few weeks. Tastings, wineries, multiple trips to Mendoza – you might think I’ve developed an unhealthy obsession with the stuff and started to study it.

Well, in fact I have started to cook the books but in a different subject, one dear to my heart and one that can give me an instant high or a suffering low in one deceptive bite.

I’m studying cheese. The foodstuff I miss most from my island homeland. One of the foodstuffs, more specifically Cheddar, that continuously fails to reach my expectations while living in Argentina. Every now and then I have a little whine, that it’s not mature enough, tangy enough, hard enough, smelly enough. But this isn’t just about Cheddar. It’s about veiny blue Stilton, a ripe French Camembert left out at room temperature until it’s gooey, real Parmigiano Reggiano ready to grate over pasta, even a rubbery Edam – I miss them all. Okay, maybe not Edam…

The truth is: Argentines like, and I quote, “mild, semi-hard, orange-colour cheese.” Hardly breaking news to anyone on the same mission as me, but once my cheese teacher said the words out loud, I could have wept.

On a two-week course at Tribunales-based Argentine Cheese Centre (CAQ), I signed up to find out why, in a country with so very many dairy cows, that Cheddar can’t be authentically replicated. And behind those aforementioned words of Dr. Beatriz Coste from UBA’s Agronomy Faculty and cheese teacher at CAQ, it’s down to the Argentine palette. It’s more of a won’t than a can’t situation.

Cheese is a complex matter. Logical, given the moulds used in production. Food certification body Senasa has a remarkable stronghold over quality control (apart from street cheese found at all good motorway lay-bys) and given that Estancia La Suerte – one of the few makers of English-style Cheddar in the country – uses unpasteurised milk, it was granted special permission to use that ingredient as almost all other Argentine cheese uses the pasteurised variety.

(Note to reader: I have to specify “English-style” because Dr. Coste pointed out that Cheddar is most commonly known in Argentina for being squared orange slices slapped atop burgers. Jesus wept.)
Of course, I’ve had a go on La Suerte’s produce and while I might sound disparaging, it ain’t all bad. Quite hard, a bit flakey, definitely tastier than your average queso de maquina, it’s a decent replica although its tang isn’t manly enough for me.

In fact, there’s a goat’s cheese Cheddar made by Las Cabrillas that comes gives La Suerte a run for its money. I unearthed it at the Underground Market in Almagro six months ago and as it comes in 125-gram packages, it’s more accessible in both price and size than La Suerte’s 800-grammer. I’ve had one of those Cheddary monsters and much to my chagrin, it defeated me by turning green.

Had I gone to cheese school three years ago, I’d have known that unidentified mould can simply be scraped off. I’d also have known that cured meats do not a good cheese dining partner make, which, once the fat levels of both hams and cheeses is explained, makes sense.

On to tasting. Although the 15-strong class had to wait 90 minutes to get our hands on some mature milk, it was worth it. Much like wine, protocol exists, and you should first give it a good smell before breaking the piece in half for a second whiff. Instead of fruity, floral descriptions as with wine, water-based, mineral and animal thoughts should flood your senses (these latter ideas, of course, can also apply to wine, but a cheese for the most part is unlikely to have a jasmine bouquet similar to a Torrontés, for example.)

Taste from lightest to strongest, again, logical. Kicking off with three cow’s milk products, the first was a holey and buttery Criollo that was a bit non-descript, the second Vacheroleau from Piedras Blancas was rather more rubbery with a mushroom odour, while La Suerte’s Camembert, which had been airing for a while, was popping out of its mould-induced skin.

Moving on to a goat’s cheese that was strong on citrus with plenty of acid, up next was a sharp and flakey Provolone. Sound familiar? Had I unearthed the cheesey Holy Grail in Tribunales? It was pretty good, despite its Italian origins. However, my winner of the night was a hard cheese made from sheep’s milk – I was so unprepared for its bite and tang that I could only eat it by the crumb.

Class two is tomorrow and tasting will be based around wine pairing. I can’t wait. As author Avery Aames said: “Life is great. Cheese makes it better.”

The week to end all food weeks is ahead of us and it’s a gourmand’s choice as the coming seven days witness a never-before-seen flurry of food activity – a positive sign that Buenos Aires is finally turning into a foodie haven.

Catch Buenos Aires Market today, which hosts 70 organic and natural producers, and makes its Belgrano debut at the Barrancas. Today is also Gourmet Day, so there’ll be discounts at various stores and restaurants around the city. There are also talks and cookery demonstrations.

Meanwhile, there’s temptation every day thanks to the first Buenos Aires Food Week as well as Spanish Gastronomy Week. The latter teams up Spanish chefs with prominent BA restaurants, with lunch and dinner menus priced at 99 pesos and 199 pesos respectively. Food Week, meanwhile, has enlisted 24 high-end restaurants and works on a similar basis, except dinner costs 169 pesos. The perfect chance to sample Spanish cuisine, or that new restaurant you’ve had your eye on.

Centro Argentino de Queso
Two-class course in Spanish: 280 pesos

Photo courtesy of María Valeria Murta.

Published in the Buenos Aires Herald on April 14, 2013.

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