The story of the inglorious end of the Brussels cheese …
Translated in English from an article I wrote in my native language (Dutch) at the end of 2010.
Translated for my curdnerd friends at #CheeseChat and #CheeseSolidarity. You will notice my English is far from perfect ;-(
Although my crib stood just too far to be called a real Brussels ketje (aka kid), I grew up with the juicy and plastic Brussels jargon. The boestring(*) and the hettekees were never far away. Once in awhile my father brought those things home. Although father’s will was law, when he wanted to indulge his Brussels pleasures, he had to do it outside. There are limits …
Brussels cheese towards European recognition
For generations the hettekees belonged to the daily food of the ordinary (working) man, even far beyond the borders of Brussels, and till today the cheese counts convinced and drooling fans in Belgium and abroad. The history of this Brussels cheese shows that it was a brave and silent witness of a rich (craft) culture, as it can also be found in other regions. The kinship with the old Langres (French cheese with PDO label) is more than remarkable. Processed on the farm, the production style, the drying process in open air, the long ripening period and a rather similar history are more than coincidental points.
In 2004, the Brussels cheese got the more than justified label of ‘regional product’ from the VLAM (*), a necessary step for recognition as a European regional product. With this EU recognition the Brussels cheese would become part of an elite group of one hundred and fifty cheeses which may bear the European PDO label, and of which until today only one Belgian cheese, namely “Le Fromage de Herve” is included.
Origin Brussels cheese dates back to medieval times
Brussels cheese originated in the region around Brussels, particularly in the Senne region, southwest of Brussels. The production did not happen in the city. There are also no pigs rooting in the streets of Parma and on the market of Gouda they don’t milk cows either.
The history of the Brussels cheese or hettekeis goes back at least to the fifteenth century. At the farms in the country of Brabant the soft cheese was the most common type of cheese and according to an edict of 1683 this cheese was called “cloetcaes”. The Brussels cheese is a pure blood descendant of that cloetcaes, the oldest type of cheese in Flanders.
That the Brussels cheese was traditionally made on the farm from skimmed milk, has everything to do with our dairy culture. Flanders has never profiled itself as a cheese country, but rather as milk, cream and butter country.
However in the Brussels region, the farmers had the common sense to not feed their skimmed milk to calves or pigs, but to do something useful with it. In the summer they made cheese to eat it in the winter. Not so stupid.
Brussels cheese … not for wimps
“Brussels’ cheese or Hettekees (ettekees, hettekeis) refers to the hardness, pungent smell and sharp taste of the cheese. Hettekees, known by the experienced gastronome, is eaten at breakfast. Seated. And with strong coffee. At breakfast because, once you do open the box, the smell instantly make you awake. Seated because it is difficult to stay on your feet next to such a perfume, and finally with coffee, because every other drink there pales, and you do need something to flush the salt. Wine tastes like tobacco juice and beer beside it looks like milk. Only strong coffee and old Gueuze beer can bear the company of Brussels cheese. The Brussels cheese is full of character and you should, like him, be ripened to be able to enjoy.”
After the cream came above in a shallow bowl, the cream was scooped off and used to make butter. The skimmed milk acidified because there were no refrigerators. The soured milk curdled and once that curd was leaked out, it was finely kneaded and rolled into balls by hand. Then they added salt to preserve the cheese balls and let them dry in the ‘kaaskas’,a crate of wooden slats hung against the wall of the house so that the wind could play through it freely. If the cheese was dry, it could be kept very long. If they needed cheese, they moistened the dried cheese again. Doing so they re-enabled the ripening. The dried cheese, hard as stone and completely cleaved, was allowed to mature between wheat straw. The cheese was regularly washed with warm salted water. When the cheese became soft and greasy after three to four months, he could finally be consumed.
Well, the manufacturing method of the Brussels cheese has not changed all that time, it remains a real fat free natural product.
Cheese craft at Vandergucht’s dairy
In that tradition Camille Vandergucht founded in 1925 a dairy in Zuun (Sint-Pieters-Leeuw). Until 1945 young cheeses and curd were bought from farmers and further processed and matured. After the Second World War they bought skimmed milk at dairies and produced their own cheese.
When I was at Camille and Omer of Kaasmakerij Vander Gucht in the early spring of 2007, they were the only remaining producer of the real Brussels cheese. Following the process during one week and capturing it on video, I came in a world in which every fiber testified authenticity. In the thirty years that I’m busy with cheese and visited dairies at home and abroad, looked at quite a lot of (traditional) cheese processes as a cheesemaker, I’ve never been overwhelmed that much by a sense of awe and admiration. Respect for the ingenuity and the simplicity of the process and respect for the four or five people who kept this alive till 2007.
A short video of the production of Brussels cheese at Vandergucht can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=THzFuZptkM4
In the manufacture of Brussels cheese the typical drying and maturation process is essential.
After forming the cheese, what is called “polling”, the cheeses are put on a woodencheese board to the open attic for a special drying process. The shelves are stacked on kiekelieren (*). Horizontal slats on the outside of the attic may be more or less open, allowing to optimally control the air and the light, depending on the weather conditions.
The air could contaminate the cheese with special yeasts and bacteria specific to the Senne region, which are also used in the preparation of the typical Geuze beer.
After three weeks of drying, the cheeses are brought for maturing to the damp cellar, where they will stay three months. The micro-organisms which are nested on the cheese during the drying proces, can now work with the linens bacteria, which are implanted themselves in the basement area for over eighty years.
Camille and Oscar, victims of EU legislation
Now that I’ve made you warm for this eccentric and authentic natural product, you will undoubtedly be looking for it. Bonne chance, mes amis, but I fear that your search will yield nothing. You’re too late.
Vandergucht, the last of the Mohicans, laid down the curd knife at the 1st of January 2008 and shut his doors with the willing cooperation of the FAVV (*), the most diligent student of the European class. In the eyes of officialdom the traditional drying and aging infrastructure didn’t meet any longer the EU hygiene standards.
Zuun, a measly scrap of space, in the grip of an empire which, as in the days of Charles V, never sees the sun go under. Not occupied by Spanish nobles, but under the sway of European officials in nice suits that parches the last bit of diversity, individuality, juiciness and common sense in a modern inquisition of standards and regulations.
As a result of this EU policy, implemented in the name of food safety and health, we see everywhere in the EU (whether or not) traditional, artisanal (cheese) production disappear.
But for the European officials they are no more than faits divers, casualties of war, victims of modernity.
Meanwhile, our health costs are flipping through the roof and the question “should” be asked to what extent this is due to the increasing use of industrial food systems. Food systems that provide cheap, almost sterile food that do meet hygiene standards, but also saddle us with inanimate food, stuffed with (not proven harmful) additives.
Through its exaggerated commitment to food safety the EU policy, consciously or not, became the great promoter of the food industry. An industry that leads to weakened, diseased consumers … the opposite of what the EU policy is trying to achieve. The health-promoting EU regulation is a contradiction in terminis.
Are there still Beggars?
How can we make Brueghel proud again of his descendants? Are we going to shout the Beggar song, hit the honorary Geuzen medal? Are we going to pull into battle, like our proud ancestors in 1789 during the Brabant Revolution against the Enlightened Despotism of Joseph II and his illegal dealings?
Time will tell … but as long as we stick to the idea that our revolution will not be pasteurized, we make a good chance to keep our good taste 😉
Boestring: a herring which will be baked
PDO label: Protected Designation of Origin, the label for European regional products
VLAM: Flemish Centre for Agricultural and Fishery Marketing
Kiekelier: a wooden rafter which can be anchored at the top through a hole in the truss of the dry attic. Every 25 to 30 cm there are wooden slats which will carry the cheese boards where the whipped cheese come to rest.
FAVV: Federal Agency for Food Chain Safety
Geuzen or Beggars: see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geuzen