Cheese pilgrimages: the nine destinations that should be on every cheese-lover's bucket list
From the Dutch Cheese Valley to the lush pastures of Normandy and the wild Californian north west, here are the places we think should be on every cheese lover’s bucket list.
1. Emilia-Romagna, Italy
Parmesan cheese, Parma ham, fresh egg pasta and balsamic vinegar — superstar Italian products that all hail from a corner of Emilia-Romagna. The small cities of Parma, Reggio Emilia, and Modena are linked along the so-called Italian Food Valley, home to some 44 PDO products, the epitome of which is parmigiano-reggiano: proper parmesan. Champion of Emilian cuisine, Massimo Bottura’s three-Michelin-star restaurant Osteria Francescana is arguably the high point of any tour of this region. Book three months ahead.
Where to start: Bed down in Bottura’s new hotel, Casa Maria Luigia.
A semi-hard, unripened, brined cheese, made from a mixture of fatty goat’s and sheep’s milk (sometimes even cow’s), halloumi has become a hipster salad staple — sliced, cubed, grilled, barbecued or fried, it always delivers a celebratory, salty squeak. You’ll find it on menus all over the island, while the halloumi sold loose in Cypriot stores is a palpable step up from what UK palates are use to.
Where to start: Anogyra Village, in the Troodos Mountains, where you can sample squeaky treats at a dairy farm, then to the tiny village of Letymbou to see halloumi made in the house of local cheese legend Mrs Sofia. Tours available from Gastronomy Cyprus.
3. Quebec, Canada
The province may be best known for the squeaky cheese curds that crown a plate of poutine, but Quebec produces over 500 other cheese varieties. From the tangy Bleu d’Élizabeth from central Quebec to the cheddars and creamy rind cheeses of Charlevoix, Quebec City is the place to seek out and taste the best pan-provincial varieties. Fromagerie des Grondines’ extravagant grilled cheese sandwich is worth a visit on its own, or go upscale at 1608 Bar in clifftop hotel Fairmont Le Château Frontenac.
Where to start: A culinary Quebec City walking tour that includes cheese-tea pairings.
4. Gouda, Netherlands
A Dutch staple since the Middle Ages, Gouda’s homeland is Cheese Valley: the Bodegraven-Reeuwijk, Woerden, Krimpenerwaard and Gouda regions. In the city of Gouda, the regular market (Thursdays, April-August) stocks Noord-Hollandse Gouda, made only with Dutch milk; tastings at the city’s 17th-century Wag (‘weighing house’) museum help narrow choices down in its cavernous shop, where nut-buttery, mature gouda (10-12-month-aged) is a standout. Meanwhile, take a spring visit to rural Krimpenerwaard for cow-carpeted pastures and tastings of boerenkaas, a farmhouse cheese.
Where to start: Explore Cheese Valley by bike with Green Cow Bike Tours.
5. Anderson Valley, California
Inland from the Pacific shores of the state’s wild north west, Anderson Valley’s patchwork of picket-fenced vineyards, farms and orchards offer an indie alternative to Napa and Sonoma. Here, at Pennyroyal Farm, every goat and sheep has a name and a ‘wall of fame’ headshot, while miniature sheep manicure the vineyard. Pennyroyal’s pinot noir rosé shines with such rosette-winning cheeses as the Spanish cabrales-like Boonter’s Blue, and the camembert-inspired Velvet Sister.
Where to start: General stores, vineyards and farm shops in Boonville.
6. Gruyères, Switzerland
Gruyère, Switzerland’s most popular cheese, is the key component of fondue, quiche and croque monsieur. Made in the Fribourg region, east of Geneva, since the 12th century, around 29,000 tons are currently produced every year. Visit La Maison du Gruyère, a dairy and museum in Pringy, outside the town of Gruyère, to see the cheese crafted from milk delivered daily by Fribourg farmers.
Where to start: Explore Gruyère’s hinterland by e-bike for a chance to taste moitié-moitié (traditional gruyère fondue) in the Swiss countryside.
7. Jura, France
The green and pleasant mountains of Jura are crowned with gold: comté, a high-protein, low-fat cheese that can only be made with milk from local Montbéliarde and Simmental cows. Produced in the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region for centuries, it’s aged in such landmarks as Fort Saint-Antoine, a former hilltop fort that houses the ‘cathedral of cheese’, aka Fromageries Marcel Petite.
Where to start: The Routes du Comté, a network of farmers, fruitières (cheese producers), maturing cellars, museums and craftsmen.
8. Puglia, Italy
The ‘queen of cheeses’, burrata, is one of Puglia’s roster of traditional cheeses, which includes mozzarella and caciocavallo, the ‘cheese on horseback’ that’s roped and hung over a board to cure. Decadent burrata features a pillowy mozzarella shell (made with cow’s or buffalo’s milk) that barely encases a curd and cream-augmented core.
Where to start: Puglia’s plush new generation of masserie (farm estates) and trulli (conical roof stone houses) are increasingly food-focused, most organising cookery classes and visits to local cheesemakers.
9. Normandy, France
France’s premier cow region is home to an impressively lengthy roll call of cheeses: pavé d’auge, boursin, brillat-savarain, brin de paille, camembert de normandie, stripy livarot, pungent pont-l’évêque and salty, heart-shaped neufchâte — the last four bearing AOC labels. Venues across the region offer demos on cheese-making, including pont-l’évêque’s Graindorge Cheese Dairy.
Where to start: Camembert, bien sûr! For its cheese-centric shops, restaurants, markets and museum (in Vimoutiers). Or follow the Route des Fromages across the region.
Published in Issue 10 (winter 2020) of National Geographic Traveller Food
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