With so many well-stocked and diverse food stores at our disposal, it’s difficult to imagine that we could possibly be missing out on anything – including cheese. In fact, some cheese counters are so daunting, it would take months to eat your way through every option. But the hunks we find at even the most well-endowed cheese shops are just a tiny sliver of everything the world has to offer.
There are several interconnected reasons for the relatively limited selection of foreign cheeses in the United States. Bureaucratic institutions make international compliance with food quality regulations difficult, if not impossible. Small-scale operations abroad rarely have the means or the desire to change their ways to comply with foreign standards, and feel little incentive to give up their traditional methods when there is enough enthusiasm for their product as-is at home.
“They’re not going to make more unless they’re entrepreneurial and value making money,” says Emilio Mignucci, Vice President of Product Pioneering at DiBruno Brothers in Philadelphia (and a third-generation member of the store’s eponymous family). Mignucci was, of course, pointing to many cheesemakers’ reluctance to change their traditional ways for capital gain. “They’ve been doing it for hundreds of years.”
Mignucci is actively involved with the American Cheese Society, which works in part to educate the FDA on how to communicate with small dairies abroad. Cheesemakers are not business people, they’re farmers, and Mignucci says it’s therefore important that the FDA start taking the position that “we want your product, and we want to stay true to your history and traditions.”
For true cheese lovers, it is saddening to think about all the cheeses you may never get to taste. Though we may not get to try everything here in the States, we can keep an eye out for those rare gems that do come along, if only once in a while. Here are a few scarce cheeses you should snatch up if you’re lucky enough to come across them.
Croatia, sheep’s milk, hard, pasteurized, aged 1 year
Paški Sir (or Pag cheese) is the only Croatian cheese currently available in the United States, and only two Pag cheesemakers export Paški Sir to the United States – Paška Sirana and Sirana Gligora. It hails from the Island of Pag, home to a unique breed of small indigenous sheep called the Paška Ovca. Each sheep can produce no more than one quart per day, so at least 16 sheep are needed to produce a 4.5 pound wheel of cheese.
The lack of Croatian cheese available in America can be chalked up to traditional cheesemakers’ hesitation to change their traditional methods, which have been passed down through generations, for money. Paški Sir is so important to local culture that, in 2005, major producers banded together to petition the EU for PDO (Protected Design of Origin) status. Most Paški Sir cheesemakers are small, family-owned operations, many of which sell only in their own shops and restaurants and produce anywhere from 3 to 22 tons of homemade cheese per year.
At Paška Sirana, the rennet and milk are salt-brined for two days, aged on wooden planks (this is the traditional method, but cheesemakers fear the wooden planks will soon be outlawed as a result of EU regulations), and rubbed periodically with olive oil. Paški Sir is sold at different ages, ranging from four months to one and a half years.
Unlike the traditional recipe, which calls for coating the cheese in ashes, this rare wedge from Paška Sirana has a thin, natural rind. The paste ranges from light to dark yellow depending on the cheese’s age – at one year, it has a light caramel paste and a golden rind. The color, crumbliness, and crystalline texture are reminiscent of an aged parmesan, but Paški Sir is more moist, nutty, and gamey and has a floral, herbal aroma. The influence of wind from the nearby Adriatic Sea leaves salt dust that settles on the Paška Ovca’s grazing grounds, lending an herbal saltiness to their milk that is expressed in the resulting cheese. At one year old, this Paški Sir has an intense savory, tangy flavor, and pairs well with bold red wines that can match its complexity. For food pairings, try wildflower honey or fresh watery fruits like grapes. Paški Sir is also great for grating, or with pistachios.
Wilde Weide Gouda
Holland, cow’s milk, hard (uncooked and pressed), raw, organic, aged 15 months
Gouda really gets a bad rep. For most, it brings to mind generic, mass-produced “smoked” blocks with rubbery reddish rinds (or, for some, Laughing Cow Babybel rounds that plagued our lunchboxes in childhood) that all taste about the same. But gouda done right is a special cheese indeed, and no two are alike.
Wilde Weide is a traditional, small-production Dutch Boerenkaas (farmhouse) gouda, and is one of those rare finds that clears the oft-tarnished reputation of its class. It is produced on a small farm in South Holland on the remote lake island of Zwanburgerpolder, which can only be reached by boat. The cheeses are made of organic milk from a herd of 50 Montbelliard cows that graze year-round in the island’s pastures.
If you’re interested in scoring a taste of this hard-to-come-by hunk, make sure to ask your local monger when (or, if) it’s going to be in stock. Wilde Wiede is made year round, but low yields of 28 rounds per week make it nearly impossible to find in the United States. Only about eight wheels of the cheese are sold in the United States each month.
Wilde Weide’s straw yellow paste is clean, bright, and slightly acidic. It has the subtle, light sweetness of cream and fruit rather than the intense butterscotch of more robust aged goudas. Wilde Weide has a perfectly balanced texture – it melts in your mouth, but still has the crystalline crunch you want from an aged Dutch gouda. The light sweetness of Wilde Weide can be complimented with a wheat beer or pilsner, and its fruitiness makes it a good match for a fruit-forward syrah or a tropical gewürztraminer or riesling. For a pleasant amuse-bouche, Wilde Weide can be plated with crusty bread, roasted nuts, or cured meat.
Queijo São Jorge DOP
Portugal, cow’s milk, hard (boiled and pressed), raw, aged 3-7 months
This rare Portuguese find is produced on the island of São Jorge, 900 miles from the west coast of Portugal. After the island’s discovery by Flemish settlers in the 15th century, São Jorge was visited by passing merchant ships, creating a high demand for foods, like hard cheeses, that could withstand long voyages. Years later, Dutch settlers came to the region, bringing both livestock and cheesemaking knowledge to the area. Of the three dairies on the island that produce Quiejo São Jorge, only one has DOP (synonymous to PDO – “Protected Design of Origin”) status, which is reserved for products that have genuine origins in a specific region.
Most Sao Jorge cheese is made by hand and consumed locally. Although some cheesemakers have altered the traditional methods in order to sell in more markets, most Portuguese cheeses rarely leave the country because local traditions have remained resistant to modernization.
Unlike the makers of Wilde Weide and Paški Sir, São Jorge producers are not in want of milk – the 20,000 cows on the island can usually produce enough to keep everyone happy. Amanda Bernhardt, Cheese Cave Team Leader at DiBruno Brothers, cites the small scale of most traditional cheesemaking operations, which makes it difficult or even impossible to export large quantities, as contributing to the scarcity of diverse Portuguese cheeses in the US.
“It’s not that it’s difficult to get Portuguese cheeses,” says Bernhardt. “It’s difficult to get large quantities and variety.”
The cows are milked twice each day, and cheesemaking commences immediately after each delivery. A round is produced during the day with the morning milk, and the process restarts at 9 PM after the evening milk delivery and lasts until the wee hours of the morning. The cheese is cured in accordance with traditional artisan methods, and then aged for 90 days in order to receive DOP status. It is then released for sale at three, four, or seven months of age.
If you do happen to get your hands on some traditional São Jorge DOP, count yourself lucky. This firm, waxy, straw-colored hunk has a mild, full, and buttery flavor, with a peppery tang that becomes more pronounced as it ages. Do this rich, aromatic wedge justice by pairing it with a full-bodied red wine, like a Portuguese red.
Lead illustration by Mackenzie Anderson. São Jorge photo by Rachel Wisniewski.