By Annie Coburn
Two weeks ago I thought I knew cheese: American, Cheddar and Swiss. Right? What I learned on a 12-day Viking Cruise on the Danube, Main and Rhine rivers was that I had a long way to go before I have a real grasp on cheese, what defines cheese and the culture that produces a country's special cheese taste. What a delicious journey.
Dinner the first evening was melt-in-your mouth chateaubriand. From that moment on, I knew Slavi Nedev, the executive chef, was exceptional. A few days and many great dining experiences later I asked Jadranka Brajkovic, the hotel manager, if it would be possible to learn more about the cheese in the countries we would be visiting. She checked with Nedev, and he agreed to educate us in a very delicious way about European cheese.
Vienna, Austria, was our first port of call, and Austrian cheeses were some of Nedev's favorites.
Rollino, from upper Austria near the Alpine foothills: If you like Philadelphia cream cheese, you will love Rollino, which is a delicate cheese that's easy on the palate. It goes well on any cheese plate or a nice cracker or bread. Packaged in a cylinder form, the cheese is coated with chives, dill and parsley and is well-suited to almost any wine. Nedev's choice of condiment had a honey base that gave the creamy consistency sweetness on the tongue. Of all the samples he presented, this was my favorite.
Weinkase (translation - wine cheese): The Germanic name would seem to be a dead giveaway for the origin of this cheese. However, it actually came from Italy. It is popular in Austria due to the proximity to the Austrian border. Made from pasteurized cow's milk, the texture is much like a Brie. The black outer skin comes from washing it with Austrian red wine (Lagrein). Herbs, garlic and pepper are added to the wine during the soaking process (five days), which gives the cheese the flavor of salami. The texture is soft, and the taste is mild. Nedev paired it with a fruity compote to enhance the cheese flavor.
Osterkron (Styria area of Austria): Before leaving Austria, Nedev finished with a much different cheese, Osterkron. This cheese is produced in Styria in mountainous southeast Austria. A region such as Styria with its mountains, old castles and wineries would naturally produce a hearty cheese with a high fat content of 22 percent and strong taste. Osterkron can be recognized by its green mold color. Nedev paired it with a plum compote, less fruity than the Weinkase. Normally I'm not a fan of blue cheeses, but this one had a nice balance and was not so strong as to be offensive.
We cruised the Danube and glided through the beautiful Wachau Valley, dotted with castles and medieval towns. Our Austrian cheeses reflected the combination of imposing castles and powerful families juxtaposed with the serenity of the vineyards that terraced the hillsides.
Passau, City of Three Rivers, was our first German town. It lies at the confluence of the Inn, the Danube and the Llz rivers. It is known for its Roman fort, its strong ties to the Holy Roman Empire and as the center of the salt trade. Commerce was key. The strength of the German cheeses is like a fist.
Harzer (named after the Harz Mountains south of Braunschweig): Harzer cheese is easy to recognize because it is usually in a cylinder shape and wrapped in a clear package. With only 1 percent fat content and high protein (30 percent) and made from sour milk, this cheese is popular with athletes and people on special diets. The smell is undeniable, as is the strong flavor. This cheese was too strong for me.
The Harzer cheese is scored because the cheese was originally formed by hand. Nedev complemented this cheese with a combined fruit compote, which we appreciated because of the strong bite of the Harzer.
One of the highlights of the cruise was to visit a cheese producer close to Amsterdam, Kaas en Zuivelboerderij Kuiper (Kuiper Cheese Farm). We were able to follow the cheese-making process from cow to product. The Kuipers produce a wide variety of Gouda (pronounce how-da) cheese, for which the Netherlands is renowned . Walking around Amsterdam, I spotted several cheese museums that sold variations on Gouda cheese.
The Kuiper operation has 250 cows, and they milk 230 cows twice daily. About 1,600 gallons of milk is heated and processed into a thick yogurtlike substance that separates into curds and whey. The whey is pumped out and sent to a pig farm. The curds are pressed with metal plates and put into round containers for two to three hours to form a firm, round cheese. These are then taken to wooden shelves to dry. They are turned every two days until they are two to three weeks old, at which time they are ready to go to market. Kuiper has an onsite store to sell cheese by the slice or in small quantities to visitors and locals.
WHEN YOU GO
For more information about Viking Cruises: www.vikingcruises.com
Annie Coburn is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.