Graukäse: In Search Of The First Cheese

Remember that season five episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where she decides she needs to find out more about her roots, and what it means to be a Slayer? Lil Buff heads off into the desert on a spiritual quest with Giles and ends up having a strangely trippy conversation with the First Slayer (who is delightful company, telling her lots of pleasant, uplifting things like how “death is her gift.”)

Well this is a similar story, but instead of the California desert it’s set in a valley in Northern Italy, and instead of a tiny-but-feisty vampire slayer it involves a group of hungry food students. Oh, and rather than looking to learn about the First Slayer we were there to study – what else? – cheese, making it really more of a spiritual queso than a spiritual quest. (There must be people out there who want me dead because of these puns.)

We know that cheese was first made around 5,000 years ago, but the exact details of its origin have been lost over time. Who was that first inadvertent cheesemaker, who maybe just meant to store his milk in the stomach of an animal (as you do) and was amazed to find it had formed a new substance entirely? And what did that first cheese taste like? Our trip took us to the heart of Alpine Europe to study graukäse, a rustic and traditional product which is probably as close as we have today to the oldest cheese ever made.

I stepped off the bus and turned my face to the slanting Alpine sun. I hadn’t anticipated the beauty of the Aurina Valley, sprawling languidly in the Italian Süd-Tirol. This is the country’s northernmost region, bordering Austria and heavily influenced by Germanic cuisine and culture. Unhindered by a single cloud, the cold sun lit up the landscape. I felt like I was standing in a postcard: the steep hills were carpeted in thick green grass, sheep mbaa-ed curiously in our direction, cow-bells tinkled down from higher slopes, and an old lady tramped comically across a field. Julie Andrews twirled majestically on a mountain-top.

We were there to visit Martha Hofer, a lifelong resident of the Valley who was eager to teach us about the making of graukäse. The name literally means “grey cheese,” as the finished product is often a gloomy grey on the outside. We were told that the name originated (in some older language, of darker times) from the idea that this is a simple cheese, made without rennet. My eyebrows shot up into my hairline. I had already thought that cheesemaking was akin to magic, but this was even more impressive. Rennet (or a vegetarian equivalent) is usually the wonder ingredient of cheesemaking, instantly transforming milk into something entirely different. Graukäse marches boldly on without it.

Here’s what you do. You get your raw milk, warm from the cow and creamy, and you skim off the cream to churn into butter. The by-product of this is buttermilk; take that and heat it up. (Oldschool cheesemakers back in the graukäse heyday would warm the pot beside the fire, and rarely used thermometers, but these days heating it to 45°C is considered fairly standard.) As it’s warmed, the buttermilk acidifies, becoming its own starter culture, and beginning to separate into curds and whey. Rennet be damned; this milk can work its own magic.

Martha Hofer has been making the cheese since she learned the skills at her mother’s cheese mould, and doesn’t know how many generations of her family were making it before that. That’s the thing about graukäse, it’s got history. Martha gets all her milk from her own two cows, and sells her cheese only to neighbours, friends, and her insanely large family. The neighbours’ pigs slurp gaily on the leftover whey.

We followed Martha through her house and down the stairs to her basement cheese room, where she had an enormous pot of ready-coagulated milk waiting. She showed us how to separate the curds from the whey, salting the soft curds and packing them into a mould. She doesn’t press the cheese; this gives it a looser, softer texture, and it matures faster since there are still air pockets left inside, populated with happy, helpful bacteria. After that, whey presto! you’ve got yourself some graukäse.

Martha leaves hers to age for just two weeks, under netting and beside an open window. She rarely ages the graukäselonger than this, explaining that the older it gets, the stronger it tastes. “It’s really only the older generation who like it strong. And men. Men like the stronger flavour.” (I am neither old nor a dude, but I could sure show ol’ Martha a thing or two about cheese-eatin’.)

The beauty of real, raw-milk cheese is a tangible connection to its landscape. You can taste the grass, the climate, the roots of the cheese: what the foodie-folk call terroir. I was aching to taste the graukäse, to understand the flavours of the voluptuous valley spread around us. I didn’t have to wait long. Once we were finished oohing and aahing over the cheese room, Martha brought us outside, where a table was stacked with glass bottles of cloudy apple juice, alongside bread topped with butter and graukäse. She’d made everything from scratch.

The graukäse was dry and crumbly, a startling white inside its grey shroud. The flavour was sharp and acidic, with a lactic tang reminiscent of natural yoghurt, and unquestionably cow-ish. And just like I had expected, it tasted of the valley, of lush green hillsides and crisp mountain air. It was rustic, raw; it tasted like an ancient food, something primitive and pure. That first unwitting cheesemaker felt just a little bit closer, the First Cheese a little more tangible. And nobody gave us any death-related prophecies, which was nice.

Any thoughts on tradition, cheesemaking or Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Leave a comment below!

[Featured image via ShutterStock; images 2 and 3 property of Jocelyn Doyle.]

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