Carli Ratcliff visits farms where raw-milk cheeses are handmade and all the cows have names.
My shopping basket is so heavy I’m walking lop-sided. Beside me, in a supermarket in the town of Kempten in south-western Bavaria, Will Studd is piling the basket with processed cheese. Most is wrapped in thick plastic, yet that does nothing to arrest the smell.
For the uninitiated, Studd is arguably Australia’s best-known cheese expert. After founding a delicatessen chain in London in the 1970s, he moved to Australia in 1981. Based in Melbourne, he has championed a greater understanding of specialist cheeses and more traditional cheese made from raw milk. His two books, Chalk and Cheese (1999) and Cheese Slices (2007), prompted a television series.
And now he is here in Germany for his fifth Cheese Slices series, to investigate the country that boasts the most prodigious output of processed cheese on the planet. I’m along to watch and learn.
With the help of a German cheese and wine writer, Ursula Heinzelmann, Studd has sniffed out a handful of farms to visit in Bavaria that are open to the public. He promises we will find real, traditional cheese, made by artisan producers using raw milk. We have filled the shopping basket with samples of processed cheese to taste and compare.
The town of Bad Mergentheim, two hours by train from Frankfurt, is renowned for its thermal springs and for being a base for hikers, cyclists, campers and foodies seeking fine produce and wine. I tackle a five-kilometre stretch of the Kocher-Jagst-Radweg, a 340-kilometre cycling and hiking trail that winds through the Baden-Wurttemberg region, taking in the prettiest forests and historical sites. Along the way, I watch a hare bound across a paddock, sniff elderflowers and taste tiny wild strawberries growing on the edge of the path.
Hungry, I head back to Hotel Altes Amtshaus in Ailringer, a riverside town 20 minutes’ drive south of Bad Mergentheim. The hotel’s cellar restaurant, Amtskeller, is on Studd’s radar. Chefs Olaf Pruckner and Sebastian Wiese are proponents of the slow food movement, serving contemporary food with a nod to Bavarian tradition. We are served a terrine of goose liver and wild guinea fowl with white peaches poached in muscat. The consomme of wild rabbit arrives with a side of rillette, and the wine list showcases the region’s award-winning rieslings. We try the local Muller-Thurgau, a varietal derived from riesling crossed with madeleine royale grapes.
Waking to sheeting rain, we head south-east to the town of Langenburg, with its 12th-century castle and garden. Just beyond town lies a more modern attraction: Norbert and Berit Fischer’s 30-hectare biodynamic sheep farm and cheesery, Langenburger Schafkaserei.
A new yurt is being built on the lawn. “The wind blew the last one away,” Norbert says. “A shepherd should sleep with his sheep.”
The couple has 200 East Friesland sheep in their flock, and each has a name. After we are suited up in lab coats and shower caps, Norbert takes us to the dairy, where he is salting squares of robiola, a fresh snow-white cheese made yesterday. Picking up a square, he rubs Cretan sea salt over each surface. As he does so, his voice rises to a Gregorian chant; his song bounces off the walls and ceilings of the cheese-ageing rooms.
The Fischers produce 10 styles of cheese, including a pungent roque-blue, a sheep’s milk camembert and a hard, cooked curd cheese called hartkase, which is dipped in brine and aged in the dairy’s underground cellars.
Norbert takes us through a tasting in the family kitchen. The robiola is ready for eating, no maturation required. The fresh raw milk has carried the flavour of the wild oregano on which the sheep have grazed.
Before we head back to town, we are offered a mug of his favourite “sheepacino”: coffee made with hot, foamed raw sheep’s milk.
Langenburg is also home to a biscuit called wibele. These tiny, sweet, meringue-like treats are shaped in figures of eight. Beside the bakery is a butcher’s shop selling every kind of wurst imaginable and the full range of Fischer cheeses.
With the box of wibele passed between seats, we wind our way 20 minutes east to Kirchberg an der Jagst – a town established as a fortress in the Middle Ages and now popular with book lovers for its annual rare book fair.
Cobbled streets are lined with pretty gabled townhouses, and tearooms serve strudels and crumble cakes. The Froben family runs two restaurants here. Froben’s Bistro and Restaurant serves creative Bavarian food and regularly hosts visiting chefs from Berlin. The more casual Cafe on the Market overlooks the main square, where the weekly produce market is under way.
Our next cheese stop is Kempten at the base of the alps, a two-hour drive south along the A7 autobahn. Most of the factories along the autobahn produce processed cheese, including Cambozola, a popular triple-cream blue cow’s milk cheese distributed worldwide.
Kempten, the largest town in the Allgau region, is considered the home of German cheese, both processed and handmade. Mountain cheeses including emmentaler are made nearby and the town is the seat of the South German Butter and Cheese Exchange.
Here, too, is one of Germany’s most respected cheese retailers, Jamei, run for the past 12 years by Marian Holm and Thomas Breckle. The couple sells just seven cheeses, all labelled “rohmilch” (raw milk) and made by artisan producers in the surrounding mountains.
“The cheeses are made with milk from cows that still have their horns,” Holm says. “For some reason cows with horns produce milk with a higher microbial content and you can taste it in the cheese.”
Across the road, Margret Mehner runs the M&M wine shop, a sophisticated bottle shop by day and chic wine bar by night. Mehner offers regional wines by the glass, including a dry, lightly sparkling white muskateller.
The rain is still bucketing as we drive half an hour south to the alpine village of Bolsterlang. We catch a gondola up the mountain to visit cheese makers Mathias and Marion Martin – and their cows – at Alpe Ornach.
Mathias and herdsman Erwin Hochenberger are leading the doe-eyed Swiss Brown cows out of the milking stalls when we arrive. Their jungen herder – a 13-year-old apprentice – lends a hand every afternoon after school and during the holidays. “It is the local tradition,” Hochenberger says. “It’s how we both learned to look after the cows.”
We join Marion in the kitchen. The couple lives here only in summer, when it is time to make cheese and when tourists stop in for lunch on walking and biking tours. Brotzeit, a hiker’s favourite, is a platter laden with the couple’s cheeses and smallgoods made from local pigs.
Today, however, Marion is making spaetzle, a noodle dish popular across the alps. She makes a batter of flour, milk and “an egg for each person”, then presses the mixture through a sieve-like contraption over a pot of boiling water. The batter falls into the pot as small dumplings.
When they rise to the surface, she scoops them out and tosses them through two types of grated bergkase, a hard, cooked curd cheese – one has been aged for 12 months and the other is just a few weeks old. Caramelised onions are spooned over the top; the result is alpen macaroni and cheese.
Mathias and the herdsmen join us. We look over the valleys below and cowbells chime in the distance. Our hosts pour a tall cold glass of the morning’s milk for everyone and we clink glasses: “Prost!”
Carli Ratcliff travelled courtesy of Cheese Slices.
Emirates has a fare to Frankfurt for about $1970 low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax. You fly non-stop to Dubai (about 14hr), then to Frankfurt (7hr). This fare allows you to stop in an Asian city in the carrier’s network and fly out of another European city.
Trains from Frankfurt airport to Bad Mergentheim take about two hours and cost from €42 ($56); see bahn.de.
In Ailringen, Altes Amtshaus has doubles from €124, and a fine-dining restaurant named Amtskeller; see altes-amtshaus.de/english.
In Kempten, Der Furstenhof has doubles from €80; see fuerstenhof-kempten.de.
Norbert and Berit Fischer’s Langenburger Schafkaserei biodynamic sheep cheese farm and cellar door is at Am Breber 2, 74595 Langenburg, see schafkaese.com.
The town of Kirchberg an der Jagst has a small produce market in the main square on Thursdays, see kirchberg-jagst.de.
Cafe on the Market serves snacks and casual meals, 6 Post Street, 74592 Kirchberg au der Jagst, phone +49 (0)795 492 1856, and Froben’s Bistro & Restaurant is the local fine dining option at 12 Post Street, 74592 Kirchberg au der Jagst, see froebers.de.tl.
Jamei Cheese Purveyors sell only raw milk mountain cheese. Salzstrasse 33, D-87435 Kempten, phone +49 (0)831 512 7782. Across the street is M&M Bottleshop and Wine Bar, Poststrasse 11, 87439 Kempten, phone +49 (0)831 540 9071.
Cheesemaker Mathias Martin’s Alpe Ornach is open from mid-June to the beginning of October, at the midway station of the Bolsterlang ski resort’s Hornerbahn (cable car), a 20-minute ride up the mountain; see http://www.bolsterlang.de.