Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Mmmm... Old Cheese Sandwich...

The Netherlands is well-known as a cheese-loving -- in fact, generally dairy-loving -- nation. People here drink milk at lunch just like Americans drink diet soda. Personally, I'm not excited about milk, but I do love cheese. Gouda and Edam are the Dutch cheeses that most Americans have heard of, and I came here with high hopes to discover the local nuances of these and others.

Admittedly, doing so at the local grocery store may not be the best way to get started. However, Albert Heijn, the local food genius, comparable in spirit at least, if not in execution, to Danny Wegman, does quite well, so that's where I began. I think that a full comparison of Wegman's and AH would be quite interesting, but I'll save that for a different day.

The refrigerated cheese shelf at AH looks something like this:
Lots of choices, lots of differently colored packages, therefore lots of new cheeses for me to explore -- right? Well, I pored over my choices here for quite some time, and as far as I can tell, it's all pretty much the same kind of cheese. And, the interesting bit is, they never say exactly what kind of cheese it is! I suppose it's something like when my aunt-in-law, who is Chinese, said, "when I cook, I don't make Chinese food, I just make food!" Here, it's all Dutch cheese, which I presume means Gouda, so there's no need to specify!

Great, so what do all the choices represent? I analyzed the packages and found three independent dimensions of variation. First, and most obvious, is the form factor of the cheese: whether it be sliced, block, diced, etc., and how many grams of cheese are involved. Second, a numbering system that includes values like "21+" and "48+." I asked my colleagues at work, and apparently these numbers correlate with fat content, but aren't simply percent fat -- I'll leave that semi-unanswered for now. Third, the only verbal description of the cheese, with monikers like "jong," "belegen," and "oude."

Which reminds me of a tangential story from my third day of work. I left work for an appointment over my lunch break, meaning I missed lunch in the cafeteria (known as the canteen, by the way). When I got back, starving, I dropped into the mini-Albert Heijn in the complex where I work to grab a snack. Conveniently, Albert had made me a selection of packaged sandwiches, and I found one labeled "Oude Kaas." I know just enough Dutch to recognize the literal translation of this as "Old Cheese." Instinctively, my mind's Homer-voice thought, "Mmmm... old cheese sandwich...," and I couldn't not buy it! It was quite tasty, on a multigrain bun, and turned out to be just the thing for my mid-afternoon hunger.

Faced with the cheese selection at the real AH, I recalled my oude kaas sandwich, and figured that the oude cheese was old, or aged, and in fact the edges of the oude kaas slices are often a little darker, looking a bit like cheese that's been sitting out for a while. This is a good thing, I assure you, as the flavor gets quite nice with a little time! Later, I did some Google research, and indeed jong, or young, cheese is the least ripe, mildest variety, belegen (and extra belegen) is medium, and oude is well-aged (over 10 months!) and sharpest. Correlated with this dimension is the hardness of the cheese, and I read that the most oude cheese is rock-hard and is shaved instead of sliced. Mmmmm...

Eet smakelijk!


4 comments:

Steve said...

Just think, you'll be qualified to live in Wisconsin if you ever return to the US. The high-hootin fancy parts of Wisconsin, even! (Those are where you find the smoked cheddar)

ljc said...

Sounds like cheese heaven. Nothing like a bit of cheese Gromit!

Ronald K. said...

I looked up the meaning of 48+ for you, and apparently it is the percentage of fat in the dry content, abbreviated as FDM (fat in dry matter). So first the water is removed, and the fat percentage of the remaining content is determined. This means you have to know how may water the cheese contains before you can calculate the real fat content.. I wonder why they express it this way...

MJM said...

Mmmm... dry cheese...

Thanks for the details, Ronald! Now I wonder how you squeeze the water out of cheese...