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A market qualified to be called a big cheese

(Getty Images)
By Scott Haas
Globe Correspondent / November 29, 2009

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LUCERNE, Switzerland -- When you walk along the banks of the river Reuss on market days, the aroma of cows’ milk cheese perfumes the air: a pungent, sweet scent of almonds, barnyards, and butter. Farmers, merchants, and townspeople meet here to share their love of raw milk cheeses, among Europe’s best. The makeshift booths are jammed with people tasting regional cheeses, breads, meats, fruits, and vegetables.

The Swiss have a reputation for being precise and reserved, but the Lucerne market is an exception. Here vendors gesture excitedly. Products are not arranged like still lifes. There is no negotiating prices, which run about $2.50 to $3 for 3 1/2 ounces, and competition is fierce.

Fewer than a dozen vendors sell the raw-milk cheeses. Usually, lines of customers wait to be served. Most transactions are conducted in a dialect of German. If you speak only English, don’t be shy. Point, smile, and say, “100 grams,’’ or “200 grams,’’ and you are sure to be understood.

What makes this market unique is that so many of the sellers are also the farmers who produce the cheese and those who age the products. There are few middlemen. Unlike the bland product sold in the United States, this cheese has a terrific sweet and nutty taste because the holes are not scraped free of bacteria, which provides enormous flavor.

The best cheeses are Emmen tal, Sbrinz, Stanser Flada, and a few Alpine varieties from tiny farms. Emmental can be bought young or aged. The latter, often 15 months old, has a rind the color of chestnuts. The overall impression it leaves on the palate is of pure, fresh milk. The Sbrinz also has lots of texture, almost a chewy quality; it tastes faintly of hazelnuts, but the taste is flatter, less dramatic than that of the Emmental.

The Swiss like to say that Sbrinz is the cheese on which Parmesan is based. It could be true: Lucerne, the most Italianate of all Swiss cities in its architecture, was one of Italy’s chief trading partners for centuries.

The taste of the cheeses is influenced, too, by the flowers and herbs among the grasses the cows graze on in summer.

Stanser Flada, from the village of Stans, 26 minutes away by postal bus, is the market’s most interesting and tastiest cheese, best eaten with a spoon from its small, round, wooden container. The rind - dark, wrinkled, orange-brown - smells like a barnyard, but when you break it, the cheese that oozes out smells sweet and buttery. The flavors emerge in layers: fresh milk, cream, a hint of almonds.

Beside the Kapelbrucke, the Chapel Bridge, Rolf Beeler sells only on Saturdays. Known locally as “the pope of cheese,’’ Beeler ages his cheeses at two huge corporate cellars. His Emmental and Gruyere set the nation’s standard. Beeler calls himself a master seller and ager of cheeses (the market is just a hobby). He oversees tens of thousands of pounds of cheese annually with his huge company.

The market stretches from the point where Lake Lucerne (Vierwaldstattersee, in German) meets the Reuss and extends as far back as the first-rate Opus wine shop and restaurant on one side and a small piazza. It’s easy to imagine being in Italy with all the hubbub. The staid nature of Swiss cities is gone these two mornings each week. Coming here is a throwback to the days when markets meant more than just buying food. It is a way to observe and meet people. With row after row of old, magnificent merchant homes beside the stalls, one can imagine having gone back in time.

In addition to the market, Lucerners have a terrific, family-owned cheese shop. Located at the end of the city’s principal walking street, just five minutes from the market, Barmettler continues to make use of simple traditions. Started 30 years ago by Joseph Barmettler, it is now run by his son Thomas, 39. When you enter, the aroma of classic “chas-chuechli,’’ little cheese tarts, fills the air. Thomas Barmettler also makes his own fondue mix, which for about $16 feeds four hungry people. He uses four cheeses: Gruyere (one old, one young), an Emmental, and a Tilsit.

“We buy cheeses from over 50 chaserei,’’ Barmettler told me. “Most are raw milk because that’s what people want. The thing is, you can’t hide with raw milk. The cheese ripens better and has more flavor. For raw-milk cheeses, only tip-top milk can be used. With pasteurized cheese, any milk will do.’’

Barmettler is convinced that the excellent quality of cheeses he sells is the result of Switzerland’s tradition and geography. “Only a small country can milk cows at dawn and have it become cheese by 10 the next morning,’’ he said.

Scott Haas can be reached at scotthaas@comcast.net.

If You Go

Information

Buying cheese to bring home: According to the US Customs and Border Protection website, “Dairy items such as milk, yogurt, butter are generally admissible, although this is subject to change, depending on disease outbreaks. Hard cured cheese such as Parmesan or cheddar are generally admissible; soft cheeses such as brie and soft curd cheese and cheese in water (ricotta, feta, etc.) are not.’’

Where to stay

Romantik Hotel Wilden Mann

Bahnhofstrasse 30, Lucerne

011-41-41-210-16-66

mail@wilden-mann.ch

It does not have the stunning views of pricier hotels on or above the lake, but no hotel in town is more Swiss in terms of food and service. Rooms from $267. Includes breakfast and all taxes.

Where to eat

Die Taube Burgerstrasse 3, Lucerne

011-41-41-210-07-47

Alongside the river with lovely outdoor tables and a pub atmosphere inside. Serves great regional specialties. Starters about $9-$14, entrees about $20-$30. Some fall dishes like venison are more expensive.