the benefits of cheese nationalism

A friend from Switzerland, about to introduce our party to Eating In Paris, was astonished when I told him that even Holland was famous for its cheese. It belongs to this story that I have to tell the French and Dutch readers at this point that Switzerland is famous for its cheese. Cheese nationalism is universal.

(As an aside, Sweden is not at all the same as Switzerland. Look at the map. The Swedish and The Swiss have different approaches to language as well. I keep repeating these things when abroad. The problem reminds somewhat of the old Boston joke “where do you come from?” “Iowa.” “In these parts it’s actually pronounced Ohio.” [sorry, folks from Idaho, there’s only one way to tell this joke at a time])

Sweden, I wanted to tell, has no specific international cheese reputation. That doesn’t mean that some Swedish cheese isn’t good. Well, okay, some isn’t. Whatever the case, even in Sweden, one tends to become a bit vague when it comes to understanding other nation’s cheeses.

Take Dutch Gouda, for instance. We can buy very young and squishy cheese that is spelled “Gouda” like everywhere else, and pronounced goo’daa. But nobody here knows of the hundreds of gradations of fabulous cheese-ripeness available on the Dutch markets, and of how one would try, reject, taste something else, and – in good Dutch tradition – finally settle on buying 150 grams of one’s choice, protesting if one gets five grams too many. Goo’daa is synonymous with squishy cheese and, as such, somewhat saltier than the local squishy cheese – that’s all.

So when one day the now-gone Konsum supermarket in Bollebygd offered a pile of dark yellow bits of hard cheese, called – in translation – “Dutch boys” (yup. Holländska pojkar), I got curious. Its price, higher than usual, told me that this was some kind of specialty cheese, and I guessed by the looks that I actually had found genuine old Dutch Gouda here. I bought one piece. I was right.

Then I went into lurking mode. For two weeks, the pile at the Konsum didn’t move. Who in the world, and specifically in Bollebygd, is interested in Dutch boys… Nobody – I knew it. Then the price dropped. Ten per cent off; two Dutch boys for the price of one; and then half kilograms of Dutch boys for 20 crowns (approximately two dollars at the time). This is about half the price of the squishiest of regular cheeses. At that point my gambling nerves snapped and I bought the whole bunch down to the last boy. Old cheese has kept for years, my reasoning was, it can keep it for a few more months in my basement, whatever its best-before date suggests.

I hoped for a similar outcome with half-old Gouda at the other big supermarket in Bollebygd, the Bolle. I am not making these names up, by the way. Even here, I waited, trusting that the public’s disinterest in foreign cheeses would pay off for me. But since the Bolle’s cheese department is a very neat and tidy one, one day the remaining chunks were irretrievably gone, to my utter disgruntlement. Perfectly good cheese; dumped only because the person making the labels with the dates knows nothing about it. (Note how different the situation is here, compared to minced beef).

Some time ago I wanted to shop for cheese fondue. For this, I need even amounts of Gruyère and real Swiss Emmentaler. Bolle did in fact have pre-packed bits of both, but for an absolutely outrageous price. So I gave up for the time being and forgot about the matter. Weeks later, I simply wanted Fondue now, so I went back to those expensive bits. They were still there – lost and abandoned in their little corner, and one month past the stamped date. I asked at the cheese desk: “I want this cheese, but it’s past its date, can you give me a better price?” The cheese lady went cheese-white and almost ripped the package out of my hand: “We can’t sell you this!” — “I would like to have it anyway, is that possible?” — Long conference behind the screens. Then she came back and gave me the cheese for nothing. All of it: 800 grams of fabulously ripe Gruyère and a kilo of totally fine Emmentaler for nothing.

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2 Responses to “the benefits of cheese nationalism”

  1. Susan Says:

    Ah, Tilman. What wonderful stories. And jokes, too! I can picture you eyeing those cheeses and counting your money. And the finale is grand!

    Thanks for this entry. I am still smiling.

  2. Lynn D. Says:

    This reminds me of my husband, Owen, at our local “Safeway” in Oregon. Every once in a while they offer these delicious boneless lamb roasts from New Zealand. They are pretty expensive for our neighborhood but have a long shelf life and a pull date of about 2 weeks away. Owen comes home and marks on the calendar when the pull date is; then he goes to the store on that date and gets the roast(s) for half price!

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