Culinary Pen
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A Visit with Rolf Beeler

Written By Culinary Pen on Saturday, September 8, 2012 | 8:30:00 AM

Rolf with a wheel of "Mühlestein" (Millstone)
A few weeks ago Carla and I traveled overseas for Carla to attend a work conference.  On the way to France we tacked on a 3 day vacation to Switzerland, as I've been in love with Switzerland's cheeses for quite some time (especially Sbrinz).  Although the cheeses of Switzerland are often lumped together as just rubbery, deli "swiss," Switzerland produces a wide range of cheeses, from robust classics like Appenzeller and Tete de Moine, to exciting new cheeses like a buffalo milk's blue, or a smushy little washed rind cheese studded with hemp seeds that pop in your mouth like caraway seeds.

The man behind many of these exceptional cheeses is the incredibly kind and knowledgeable Rolf Beeler.  While not a cheesemaker, Rolf excels in the disappearing art of the affineur, allowing each cheese to ripen to perfection.  While today Emmental, the classic "swiss" cheese, is often sold young (3-6 months) by dairies who cannot afford to "sit" on inventory, Rolf takes the enormous 80-100+ lb wheels and lets them slowly ripen to a grand 18 months.  With cellars and caves across the Swiss alps, Rolf finds the most authentic cheeses, then pampers them to their ne plus ultra state of deliciousness.  I've enjoyed eating his cheeses for several years, but it was due to the diligence of my wonderful wife Carla that I was actually able to meet Rolf in his workshop in Nesselnbach.

Wrapping small tommes for market
We visited on a Thursday and Rolf was extremely generous with his time, despite the fact that Friday was market day in Lucerne and they were busy packing up for the next morning.  Despite the small size of the workshop, each of the walk-in aging rooms were packed with cheese.  The first one that most caught my eye was this natural-rinded wheel of Emmental.  What a golden color!  A clear indication that these cows were eating rich, Alpine grasses.  "I go to the highest cheese making chalets on the mountains to select my wheels for aging," Rolf explained, although I am paraphrasing a bit from memory of our discussion.  "The higher up you go, the better quality the grass and more wild herbs and flowers, which adds distinction to the milk." 

I was also impressed that this enormous wheel had a natural rind, complete with a small amount of mites, as every-other wheel of Emmental I've seen had a waxed rind.  But this is Rolf's focus; to find the cheeses that best express the flavors of the land and milk.  We also sampled Alp Dräckloch, a cheese made in a giant kettle over a wood fire, which gives the milk a gentle, natural smokey finish.  "This is cheese making like it was 2,000 years ago," explained Rolf.  He also let us try a "mile high" version, where the cheese maker walked a mile higher up the mountain than the cows would go, cut bundles of wild grasses, herbs, and flowers, then walked them down to feed the cows.  This was a tremendous labor, and made for a very limited batch of  cheese, but the taste exploded in your mouth.  It was an incredibly memorable gustatory experience.

We also enjoyed a number of fresh and soft-ripened goat cheeses made by Susanne Klemenz, who shares the workspace with Rolf.  From a sweet and tender chevre just days old, to aged ash-covered pyramids and Saint Maure-style logs, her raw milk goat cheeses were some of the most enjoyable and delicate I've ever tried.
Lastly, we also tried my favorite, Sbrinz, which is always a treat.  Aged four years, Sbrinz is a whole milk cheese, made solely from grass-fed milk, and has none of the bitter, acidic after-taste you find in long-aged Parmigiano Reggiano.  Rolf also pointed something out to me that I've never considered - his Sbrinz is always golden in color, while Parmigiano Reggiano is a off white, like bone or ivory.  That's because the cows are fed maize, not fresh grass.  They are not pastured.
 Although it was only an hour or so, I felt like Rolf shared a lifetime of experience with us.  I'm incredibly grateful to both Rolf and Susanne for fitting us in to their busy schedule and showing us the exiting and passionate energy they're bringing to the cheeses of Switzerland 

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TGD said...

Rolf Beeler is truly the "Maître Fromager." He is hospitable, gracious and exceedingly knowledgeable -- and is happy to share his knowledge. It was an honor to meet him and watch the conversation between Nick and Rolf. And the Buffalo blue cheese is amazing.