Friday, October 22, 2010

Unterwasser: Cheese of My Youth

When I was a kid growing up in the Midwest, my folks spent money on two things: theater tickets and really good cheese. Every Saturday, my mother drove downtown to Cheese & Puppets, the one shop that sold imported cheeses, and brought home baguettes and stinkers. Emmenthaler, Raclette, Gruyere. Then we feasted, oh we feasted.

My mother liked Alpine cheeses because they reminded her of her youth in Switzerland. Iowa, where we lived, was a Kraft ghetto, so those Alpines, with their strong barnyardy smells and nutty flavor profiles, took her right back to Geneva, to Zurich.

Now, twenty years later, I find myself waxing nostalgic for those firm, zippy Alpines – probably because they remind me of my mother, who was and is every bit as firm and zippy as those cheeses (with her cleaning regimen and her love of fast cars and red capes). That’s why I fell hard for Unterwasser last weekend. It was and is everything I love about the cheeses of my youth – it’s strong in a sweet, nutty way with a firm body that turns creamy the minute it warms on your tongue. And the scent of barnyard, there’s only a touch of it.

If I had to name a perfect Alpine cheese, it would be Unterwasser. Last weekend, I shared it with friends over a cheese-laden brunch, and we all agreed (even a pair of Texans) that it was a knock-out, a dream – especially when we drizzled a little caramel over it.

Yes, I did say caramel. Vermont’s Fat Toad Caramel, a not-too-sugary cajeta from goat’s milk, made for a spectacular pairing. The sweet, milky taste of the sauce pulled out the warm, nutty notes in the cheese. Sweet mother of us all, what a glorious discovery.

If you want to get your sweaty palms on some Unterwasser, your best bet is Fromaggio Kitchen. This Cambridge cheese shop offers great info on Swiss cheeses via the store’s blog, and the tiny Fromaggio Kitchen outpost in New York City’s Essex Street Market (where I bought my Unterwasser) is staffed by knowledgeable cheesemongers.

Unterwasser, which means “Under Water,” is a washed-rind cheese made from raw cow’s milk. Try it in the morning with warm baguette, a latte, and a side of really good caramel sauce. You won’t believe you’re eating an Alpine. 

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