Austrian Cheese in Europe: A Longstanding History With Outstanding Results

Austrian Cheese in Europe: A Longstanding History With Outstanding Results

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Austria is made up of many small regions, each with its own unmistakable cultural identity. From the high mountains that define the country’s stunning landscape, come some of Europe’s finest cheeses.

An Authentic Know-How

Most Austrian cheese companies are located in the Austrian Alps. Here, agriculture is traditionally small because of the mountainous geography. Alpine pasture farmers look after an average of 20 heads of cattle, and most farmers still call their cows by name. They milk in the mornings and evenings and practice the art and craft of cheese production.

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Kefir and Lassi POPULARITY CONTINUES

With a bevy of health benefits, both kefir and lassi have become more prevalent in the U.S.

The yogurt aisle at the grocery stores has boomed in recent years, as people have discovered the many health benefits of this probiotic-rich food. But there’s other dairy products that are also making big resurgences.

Kefir and lassi were once obscure products most likely to be found in natural food shops. Today, even the most mainstream grocery stores are likely to carry these drinkable yogurts, which offer great taste, a host of health benefits and versatile options for cooking.

“Sales of kefir and other drinkable yogurts are big business in the U.S.,” says Seair Lorentz, brand manager at Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery, located in Sebastopol, CA. Data from Chicago-based market research firm IRI shows that sales of drinkable yogurt products were around $900 million in the past year. “There are a lot of new plant-based alternatives entering the drinkable yogurt market right now and getting a lot of attention.”

“We know that today’s consumers are on a constant pursuit of delicious options to add to their diet,” says Kiersti Bird, brand manager for Broomfield, CO-based Wallaby Organic, which makes whole milk and low-fat kefir. “Kefir is great to try with breakfast or as a mid-day snack.” It can also be used in salad dressings, soups, curries and a variety of other dishes, although people hoping to replenish their bodies with probiotics should avoid cooking it.

Kefir: An Introduction

“Kefir is a cultured milk beverage that contains a variety of live and active cultures,” says Bird. “It tastes similar to yogurt, but is drinkable and doesn’t require a spoon, making it a delicious and convenient option for an on-the-go snack.” It’s also high in calcium, protein, B vitamins and potassium.

“There are essentially two types of kefir: milk kefir and water kefir,” says Lorentz. Both are made by adding crystals called kefir grains to a liquid. “For our kefirs, fresh milk is first pasteurized and then mixed with a blend of live and active cultures, prompting fermentation. This makes the milk slightly thick and causes it to develop a beautifully tangy flavor.” While many people like to drink it plain, kefir is often blended with berries, mango or other fruit, which provides a nice counterbalance to the drink’s naturally sour flavor.

While cow’s milk is the most common ingredient in the United States, Redwood Hill makes some of its kefirs with goat’s milk. It also offers a lactose-free cow’s milk version for people who struggle with dairy. Consumers who cannot have milk at all can buy or make kefir made with coconut, almond or other nut milks.

The other option is to add the kefir grains to a mixture of water and fruit, which provides sugar with the beneficial bacteria needed to survive. Water kefir is a slightly fizzy drink similar to flavored carbonated water or kombucha, which is a type of fermented tea.

Kefir is one of the many fermented foods rapidly growing in popularity in the U.S. Products like non-pasteurized sauerkraut, miso, yogurt and kefir are rich in probiotic bacteria. These microscopic organisms provide a huge range of physical and mental health benefits.

Jennifer Iserloh, a Hoboken, NJ-based holistic health coach, chef and author of “The Superfood Alchemy Cookbook,” likens the human gut to a jungle full of flora and fauna. “The more cultures you can introduce into your jungle—the more biodiversity you have—and the healthier your jungle will be,” she says.

“There’s this whole movement right now toward functional medicine and understanding the root causes of chronic illness,” she adds. “When you want to heal yourself at the root, you go to the gut. What people are realizing is that without balancing the gut, you’re not going to heal those chronic conditions—ever.” Fermented foods then become a necessity, not a luxury.

It’s important to note, too, that different probiotic bacteria serve different roles. One may help people digest certain foods; another may encourage weight loss, while still another will help in regulating hormones and mental states. The term “gut-brain axis” references this idea that what happens in the stomach has a surprisingly high impact on what happens in the brain. While these bacteria do occur naturally in the body, they’re constantly being killed off by things like antibiotics and over-the-counter medication, processed foods, lack of sleep, drinking too much coffee or alcohol, or even trauma, such as a car accident. That means the bacteria have to be replenished on a regular basis.

Probiotic cultures in pill form are available nearly everywhere these days, “but the one off the shelf can die quite easily,” says Iserloh. “In kefir and other fermented foods, they’re more likely to be living.” A pill may also contain only one or two types of probiotic bacteria, where fermented foods may have many more species. That’s why many people are now seeking out probiotic foods to add to their diet.

Learning about Lassi

Lassi is a drinkable yogurt that is made in much the same way as traditional yogurt. Milk is heated, cooled and cultured in a warm place until it has thickened. Water is then added to give the drink a lighter texture and more refreshing feel.

Lassi has a rich history in Ayurveda, a form of holistic medicine developed thousands of years ago in India. Even thousands of years ago, practitioners recognized that good health starts and finishes with the gut, says Karan Gera, founder of Monsieur Singh Lassi, New York City. “The science of Ayurveda is about making sure your stomach is healthy.”

Jaya Shrivastava, CEO of Austin, TX-based Sassy Lassi Yogurt Co., describes lassi as “smooth, slightly tart, naturally sweet and easy to digest.” Gera also emphasizes the drink’s tartness. The sour flavor created by the cultures helps highlight the sweetness of anything that is added to lassi, making it less important to add sugar to pull out that flavor.

When Americans hear the word ‘lassi,’ they typically think of a mango lassi. Because mango is not that common of a thing in some western cultures, there’s that exoticness to the fruit,” says Gera. The sweetness of a fresh mango is also exquisite with the drink’s sourness.

But in India, mango lassis are not as common. Salty lassis, which do have salt added but are what Americans might refer to as savory, are more traditional. “The way my mom used to make lassi is you gently roast cumin seeds, then you mix them with salt and maybe some fresh coriander leaves,” Gera says.

According to Ayurveda, lassi, like most other foods, should be consumed at room temperature. “Cold drinks are not considered to be good for the body,” Gera says. “When yogurt is colder, it’s thicker, and it shocks the system and, therefore, takes longer to digest. If it’s warmer, it’s easier for the body to absorb, and you get the nutrients faster. Also, if you let it sit outside, once it gets a little warmer, you get more of the flavor of the fruit or spices.”

Despite that recommendation, many people prefer to enjoy lassi cold. “On hot summer days, salted lassi is the welcome drink of choice that is offered to guests,” says Shrivastava. “It is light, icy cold and smooth, garnished with fried curry leaves, roasted and ground cumin seeds, and popped mustard seeds.” Lassis can also be topped with cheese and roasted nuts, sweetened with sugar and rose syrup, or made even richer with the addition of heavy cream.

Warm or iced, lassis have a special place in the hearts of many Indians.

“There’s a common saying whenever someone loses their temper in India. They say, in their own language, ‘Chill, have a lassi,’” says Gera. “It’s got that very refreshing aspect to it because it has that special tartness and is mixed with real fruit and spices. When it hits your brain, it refreshes it. There’s so much stress with modern life. Sometimes you want to take a moment and just have a real thing and not something processed.”

“Cooking” with Kefir

“Kefir is an incredibly versatile ingredient,” says Lorentz. “It can replace buttermilk in any baking recipe, including cakes, muffins and pancakes.” Besides providing great texture, using fruit-flavored kefir will add appealing flavor to baked goods. “Plain kefir is a great addition to dips and dressings, like green goddess or ranch.”

“Marinade bases are great with the salted lassi,” Shrivastava says. “Simply pour a cup of plain or salted lassi, add any spices or rubs you like, and pour it over raw chicken or meat. Let it sit in the refrigerator overnight, and throw it on the grill.”

To get the health benefits of kefir or lassi, though, it’s important not to heat it, Iserloh says. “It will kill the probiotic bacteria.”

She recommends substituting kefir for yogurt in smoothies or using it as the base for a cold soup with avocados, green grapes and almonds.

Gera used to make lassi ice cream, with flavors such as passion fruit chia and honey lemon with mint. While those products are no longer available, anyone with an ice cream maker can whip up a similar mixture at home.

Shrivastava has made cocktails with lassi. She recommends using rum with pineapple, mango or other tropical fruit-flavored drinks. Or try combining rose lassi with red wine.

It turns out that lassi is great for the outside of the body as well as the inside.

“Plain lassi is a great skin and hair conditioner,” says Shrivastava. “We regularly use it in India.”        

RECIPE: Mor Kuzhambu

Recipe provided by Jaya Shrivastava, CEO of Sassy Lassi Yogurt

1            cup plain or salted lassi

1            cup water

½           tsp turmeric

¼           cup freshly grated coconut

1            green chili or jalapeño pepper

1            tsp cumin seeds

1            tsp black mustard seeds

1            sprig curry leaves

5            okra – cut into 3 pieces each

2            Tbsp canola oil or ghee

To make:

1. Dilute the lassi with water and use a whisk to make smooth.

2. Add the turmeric and salt if required, and set on a stove to simmer on a low flame.

3. Meanwhile, grind the grated fresh coconut and green chili into a paste. Add the paste in the lassi and continue to simmer—a low flame is important.

4. Heat oil/ghee separately.

5. When hot, add the mustard seeds first.

6. Wait until they pop and then add cumin seeds and the curry leaves and fry for about 30 seconds.

7. Add the okra and fry until crisp.

8. Add the fried okra and seeds into the simmer lassi sauce and turn off the stove.

A “Little” Love for Cheese

Georgia’s Sweet Grass Dairy

At Thomasville, GA’s Sweet Grass Dairy, it’s the bovines that set its cheese apart.

The operation is owned by the husband and wife duo of Jeremy and Jessica Little, who together run the cheese production facility as well as a cheese shop and restaurant. Jeremy serves as head cheesemaker and focuses more on operations, while Jessica manages sales, marketing and the cheese shop. However, their jobs often overlap, and they wear many hats.

To fully understand the history of Sweet Grass Dairy, you first need to harken back to the story of Jessica’s parents—Al and Desiree Wehner. These dairy farmers switched their farming method to an intensive grazing management farming style in 1993, allowing “cows to be cows”. This meant the animals were moved to a fresh pasture every 12 hours and kept cool under a large pivot system.

It was this farming style, combined with the natural resources and mild winters in South Georgia, that helped the cows live longer, healthier lives on fresh green grass 365 days per year.

“My dad is from a long line of dairy farmers, and I grew up in 4H showing cows, but I told my parents I would never come back to South Georgia once I went to college,” Jessica says. “But never say never. While I was in school, I met Jeremy, and we both loved food so much, we thought it was our career path.”

While the couple lived in Atlanta, Jessica’s mom had the idea to start making cheese in her kitchen back on the farm.

“I would come home from school and taste what was in the beginning not great, but she kept at it, and people were so excited about it,” she explains. “We saw quickly this would be a fun opportunity and encouraged her to keep going.”

The Wehners built the creamery and, within a year, they needed help and interviewed some French cheesemakers to possibly come aboard. But Jeremy thought it would be a good idea for him and Jessica to move to Sweet Grass and help out.

“He fell in love with the idea of learning about the origins of food,” Jessica says. “For so long, he thought really great food was all about the skill of the chef and the technique. But he learned from coming to the farm that putting the care into the grass and the soil and how doing such a good job with the cows all play a role. There’s so much more than technique; it’s about sourcing great ingredients and high-quality food stock.”

The Littles moved back and quickly fell in love with the cheese industry, buying the creamery from Jessica’s parents back in 2005.

In Charge

With the Littles now running things, they soon learned that cheesemaking required a lot of time and dedication. Fortunately, the couple was willing to do what they could to make the operation a success.

“Being entrepreneurs at a young age was tough,” Jessica says. “When we bought the creamery, it was 140 acres and making both cow and goat milk. We found that it was really hard to be great farmers, maintain the pasture and be great at animal husbandry, along with making the cheese and marketing and selling it.”

At the time, the couple was driving three to four hours to farmers markets and taking the cheese around to chefs. They found it difficult to manage everything.

“We ended up selling the goats after about five years, which was a really hard decision,” Jessica says. “I think it made us better because we were able to focus on one segment—cow milk cheeses.”

That extra time also afforded them the opportunity to open up a cheese shop and restaurant in their home town.

“We were getting so disconnected because we were selling all our cheese far away, but we didn’t have a good pulse of what customers were interested in once we stopped doing farmers markets,” she says. “We wanted that connection with the consumer, and this has allowed us to get involved with the community and see what they like and want.”

For instance, recently Sweet Grass Dairy launched a new Gouda, and they offered it at the cheese shop first to see the response on a larger scale.

“We traded one headache of running a goat farm with another of running a restaurant, but it was a good move for us,” Jessica says. “We’re now a jack of all trades as opposed to being a master of one, and I think with COVID-19, we’re very thankful we are. We have many different areas of of business.”

Evolution of Success

When the Littles first moved back to the farm, they attended their first American Cheese Society conference in 2002, and Sweet Grass Dairy won five different awards for cheeses.

“We were sitting right in front of a really great cheesemaker named Liz Parnell who had a creamery in Huntsville, AL, and she turned around, then looked at us and said, ‘Now I know I need to retire; when someone who has only been making cheese for two years is now winning awards.’ We have been very fortunate to win awards along the way.”

The company’s most popular cheese is its award-winning Green Hill, a double cream, soft-ripened cow’s milk cheese made in the style of a Camembert, named after its flagship dairy. It has an unctuous, buttery flavor, a thin white bloomy rind and smooth, creamy texture, perfect atop a warm baguette.

“This has helped put us on the map on a larger scale,” Jessica says. “We’ve had some success with our natural rind Asher Blue, which has won awards, as well.”

The Littles’ quest for education in the industry has been a key to success, she adds. Jeremy has spent a great deal of time at different institutions learning more about cheese and the process and has become friends with many in the cheese world.

“Our industry is not uber competitive, and we can pick up the phone and ask someone for help and learn,” Jessica says. “For me, that kind of collaboration is notable.”

Farming Matters

The thing that distinguishes Sweet Grass Dairy from other cheese companies is the way that they farm.

“We live in an area that has very mild winters, and we can keep our cows on grass year-round,” Jessica says. “Throughout cheese history, it’s known that when cows are out on grass, the flavor of the milk has been great. So we can provide a flavor profile that most other areas of the country don’t have.”

The average temperature annually is 67 degrees. In addition, the farm has unlimited water as it sits on top of the second largest aqua in the nation, so they can grow grass every single day.

“What we are doing with the land matters, and to be able to tell the story and to taste the difference is important,” Jessica says. “We are providing sustainable business for the long-term.”

It’s All About the Cheese

In addition to Green Hill, the other cheese in Sweet Grass Dairy’s portfolio that the company is known for is its Thomasville Tomme, a French table cheese made in the style of a Pyrenees mountain farmhouse tomme. This natural rinded, semi-soft cheese is aged for 60 to 90 days, which imparts a subtle yet complex earthy flavor and creamy texture.

She calls this a good gateway cheese for a lot of people in the region, and it attracts people to artisan cheese and trying more of its flavors.

“Most of the cheeses we make are French-inspired because Jeremy learned how to make cheese from a French cheesemaker at the very beginning, and there’s so much information and recipes that we can pull ideas from,” Jessica says. “He’ll say these are old-world-inspired flavors but with new-world type flavors.”

Every cheesemaker has a cheese that changed their lives, and for Jeremy, it was blue cheese, which is why Asher Blue is one of his favorites. This is described as having a unique natural rind and creamy-crumbly texture. It is slightly pungent, with a mushroomy aroma and earthy, grassy flavors with an unexpectedly mild, salty finish.

“It’s one of the hardest cheeses to make, but he loves making it, and it keeps him excited about this business,” Jessica says. “I love how cheese brings joy to people’s lives. It’s been so fun to be part of an industry that hasn’t had a lot of history in our country, and we both enjoy being a part of that.”

Looking Ahead

Sweet Grass has roughly 50 employees, with about half working at the restaurant. There’s also a marketing manager who lives in Atlanta and a national sales director in San Francisco. Everyone else is in the creamery or cheese shop.

“Last year, we made about 380,000 pounds of cheese, but we’re still small, and in that difficult phase of being too big to be small, but not yet competing on a national scale,” Jessica says. “We need to scale up and hire people who are experts in the years ahead.”

The plan is to move into a new facility sometime in 2020. The goal is to produce roughly five times its current capacity in the next few years and add new cheeses to its portfolio.

With the coronavirus impacting so many things this year, 2020 has been an odd year for Sweet Grass Dairy, as the company has experienced the same challenges all retailers and restaurants have. “We have some equipment coming from Canada and France, and we’re not sure when the borders will be open, but we are primed and ready to be in the new production facility in August. This will allow us to bump up to the next level and hire a really great controller and a really great production manager,” Jessica says. “We will be focusing on getting to that next level.”

DEBUT OF A DAIRY DISPENSARY

Just by its name alone, one would assume the world’s first CBD Dispensary, created by the Tracy, CA-based California Milk Advisory Board, was a place to purchase a popular supplement extracted from the cannabis plant.

But this CBD stands for California Based Dairy, and this pop-up dispensary featured cheese, ice cream, yogurt and butter—also mood enhancers, but of a different type.

The pop-up with a play on words brought in 515 attendees to Venice, CA on February 22 from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m., and there was absolutely no CBD or THC involved.

“Instead, it offered a dairy boost, which is a natural and wholesome mood enhancer,” says Jennifer Giambroni, director of communications for the California Milk Advisory Board. “Dairy foods are something that delight and should be celebrated as part of our heritage.”

She adds that many take dairy for granted, and the pop-up makes it more current and relevant, while providing a new way to look at these foods.

The pop-up was based off of a marijuana dispensary model. Customers received a personalized dispensary card upon arrival at the sleekly-designed venue.

They then visited four stations offering various strains of dairy and mood enhancements:

•       Different strains of cheese to fit any mood, served in apothecary jars

•       Rolled ice cream on demand in various flavors, prepared by a Dairytender

•       Savory yogurt served in jars with custom infusions and mix-ins

•       Melted butter micro-dosed on popcorn pieces

After visiting each station, customers received a Real California Milk seal stamp. When they completed the card, they received a sealed product sample bag to take home.

The California Milk Advisory Board provided attendees with dairy documents containing origin information and mood outcome insight to guide selections.

“The goal was to showcase natural dairy products in an interesting way, while telling a story and tying in what happens on the farm to what happens in the home through these products,” says Giambroni.