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Germany's Cheese Culture
A country with a "Cheese Route" is obviously somewhere where "cheese" is an important part of its culture, as well as one with an ages old tradition of cheese making. And that "somewhere" is Germany, where over 600 varieties are produced. All influenced by the country's different regional terrains, available fodder for cows, sheep and goats, together with production traditions and diverse customs and tastes.
Coming in all sorts of different shapes and flavors, some German cheeses easily qualify for the title "Great Cheese".
In fact cheese has always played a leading role in the country's culture.
It was November 1948, the Russian government had blockaded Berlin...what was considered one of life's absolute necessities? Why "Cheese" of course. So 20,000 pounds were loaded onto the first of the Allied aircraft airlifting supplies.
There are no official figures as to how large a part Germany's cheese still plays in the country's diet, but the shelves of even the smallest supermarket are filled with every variety imaginable. It is the biggest producer, exporter and importer of cheese in the European Union, and in many homes is still a major feature of both a traditional German breakfast and evening meal.
Not processed or "squeezed from a highly colored plastic tube" cheese, but the "real" variety. Hard Cheese - Hartkäse, Semi-Hard Cheese - Schnittkäse, Semi-Soft Cheese - Halbfester Schnittkäse, Soft Cheese - Weichkäse, and Fresh Cheese - Frischkäse; which also covers cottage cheese and cream cheese.
There is a 500 km/400 mile circular Schleswig-Holstein Cheese Route in the far north of Germany, between the North Sea and the Baltic, which links the region's artisanal and industrial cheese producers.
Beginning in Lauenburg it passes through Lübeck, Kiel and Flensburg; from Föhr island it travels along the North Sea coast and the Elbe river to Hamburg and then returns to Lauenburg. A culinary experience for any lover of cheese, with beautiful scenery as an added bonus.
But the heart of Germany's cheese making industry is Allgaeu.
The mountainous region of Southern Germany alongside the German Austrian border, which lies mainly in Bavaria but also stretches through neighboring Baden-Württemberg.
Of the 400 varieties of cheese in Germany 75 percent are produced in Allgaeu; made with milk from the pale brown Allgaeu cattle that graze freely in the region's alpine flower filled meadows.
One of the most famous is Allgaeuer Emmentaler: a classic hard cheese, with a mild nutty taste and small round holes.
It originated in Switzerland, but in 1821 the Bavarian Elector Maximilian hired two Swiss master dairymen to copy it and they developed the recipe still followed today. It is delicious although quite different from the cheese produced in its country of origin.
Tilsiter is a mild semi-hard cheese with a characteristic tang and variations: added pepper grains, caraway seeds, herbs, produced from either pasteurized or unpasteurized milk. Its name was not protected so Tilsiter is now manufactured throughout Germany and Switzerland, but it originated at the beginning of the 18th century in Tilsit; now in Russia but a former province of East Prussia.
Created by emigrants from Holland, Austria and Switzerland, the majority of whom were escaping the plague sweeping through Europe or were religious refugees, and who were trying to make something like Dutch Edam or Gouda. The available ingredients, different climate, yeast and molds made a creamy, stronger flavored cheese though, and these days it is one of those that appears most often on tables.
Then there is "Bierkäse", Beer Cheese, a semi soft cheese ripened for seven months; with a highly pungent smell but surprisingly mild taste. Made from cow's milk, it gets its name from the cloths soaked in beer wrapped around it as it matures. It is often served with paprika, chopped onions and beer; cut into sticks that are then dipped into beer, or used as an ingredient when making breads, soups or dips.
A recent addition is "King Ludwig Beer Cheese". Ripened in the dark beer brewed by a member of the former, and long obsolete, Bavarian Royal family. It is not a cheese that tradition loving Germans have taken to their hearts, and is mostly made for export to those who have heard of King Ludwig and his fairy tale, Walt Disney inspiring, castles.
For those not into beer there is a similar textured, but milder, Weinkäse. Wine cheese, a creation of German cheese makers in the early 20th century as a perfect accompaniment to the fruity wines of the Moselle and Rhine regions.
Limburger probably wins the prize as the best known of what is popularly called Stinkekäse, "Smelly Cheese", as although it is very tasty with a creamy texture and nutty flavor, it does smell like "sweaty feet". This is explained by the Brevibacterium linens that are wrapped around it as it ferments; it is the bacterium responsible in part for the smell of a human body.
Originally most cheeses were made by monks and farmers, with farmers often using it as a form of currency. Limburger was developed by monks from the city monastery when Limburg was part of the Holy Roman Empire, and centered on the Kingdom of Germany. Now it is a province in Belgium. Today the cheese is manufactured throughout Germany, but especially in the Allgaeu.
Despite the Allgaeu having the monopoly as far as cheese making is concerned, there are areas in what was East Germany producing famous German cheeses such as Altenburger Ziegenkaese, a soft fine flavored mid 19th century goats cheese.
Produced by only two dairies in Saxony and Thuringia, with milk from the immediate area, it has been awarded "Protected Designation of Origin" status by the European Union, and although very little was produced during the days of the German Democratic Republic now it is in demand as a "gourmet" cheese, throughout Germany.
Coated with a Camembert mold it has a smooth texture with a light yellow tint spotted with caraway seeds, but calling it Goats Cheese is something of a misnomer as it contains only 15 percent goat’s milk. In the past their milk was a favorite drink rather than something to put into a cheese.
There are many "Blue Cheeses", Blauschimmelkäse, from Edelpilzkaese, literally "Noble Mold Cheese", matured using Penicilium Roqueforti mold; a Blue Brie, Weiss Blau Brie, and Cambozola that was developed at the beginning of the 20th century. A mild flavored, rich and creamy blue cheese with a white coating, which is neither pungent nor crumbly, its name seems to be the same mixture of Camembert and Gorgonzola as its flavor. Another Allgaeu cheese, and the company producing it is based in Kempten, which in the days of the Roman Empire was called "Cambodunum".
Finally we come to the ubiquitous Quark, a white "fresh cheese" literally translated as "curd", without which most German Cheesecakes would not exist but is difficult to find outside German speaking countries.
There are many varieties from low fat type to creamy, but all are made from skimmed milk with a lactic start culture, and in Germany without any rennet or salt. They have many uses, not only as an ingredient when cooking: as a spread, dressing, sauce, topping; eaten like yoghurt, plain, with fruit, chocolate, honey, herbs, garlic, chilies or nuts.
Quark is also an age old medical remedy: used as a poultice as well as an oral medicine, for ailments as diverse as arthritis, sprains, bruising, sunburn, problems with breast feeding, insect bites and reducing a fever.
With over 600 main varieties of bread; 1,200 different types of pastries and rolls; over 1,200 sausages; and more than 600 cheese variations, including specialties such "Feigenbergkäse", topped by figs, and "Dijionse Käse", mustard flavored, even "Halloweenkäse" flavored with ginger and pumpkin, it would be hard to run out of inspiration for rustling up that German Frühstück, breakfast, or "evening bread", Abendbrot.
Cheese Platter photographer Donina Andress, Emmentaler Cheese Dominik Hundhammer, Bierkaese, Ammergauer Alpen, Limburger Cheese photographer John Sullivan, Altenburger Ziegenkaese Zerohund Quarkkuchen, Gutekuche.de
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