Cheeses Of The Week: Unika By Castello

This is the story of John Gynther, his quest to change cheese culture in Nordic countries, and the effects that his vision will have on cheese production worldwide. Gynther is the premium foods manager for the artisan cheese producer Unika by Castello, where, a decade ago, he was directed to develop a slate of new cheeses that reflected traditional Nordic food culture, used modern production methods, and above all else, were of a world-class caliber. This was a huge undertaking and challenge. To create even one cheese that could fit these parameters would be astounding, but to develop twelve is truly a remarkable feat. And that's exactly what he did.

Gynther gathered the best cheesemakers from Northern Europe. He worked with cheese affineurs, specialists in aging cheese. He sought input from top chefs who could potentially use the cheeses in their restaurants.  He developed new cheesemaking equipment with manufacturers. Gynther himself is not a cheesemaker by trade, but an engineer and a visionary, the man who brought together all the right people and made all the connections. His most important qualities are his boldness, his persistence in daring to ask the question, "What if?" and his dedication to then finding ways of making the answer to that question a reality. He is a dreamer, a thinker and a problem solver, and he is relentless in his pursuit of epicurean perfection.

I have often said that my personal goal as a cheese professional is to improve or elevate cheese culture in America. Little did I know that a part of my goal would be reached on the day I met John. John has infectious enthusiasm for his cheeses; he knows that the uniqueness of the philosophy behind them will influence cheesemakers worldwide. When I tasted John's spectacular cheeses, I realized that my shot at changing food culture in America may very well be to spread the word about these cheeses in this country. I greatly admire his work, and I know his creativity will inspire other cheese enthusiasts across America and potentially worldwide.

Here is the story of three of his twelve exceptional cheeses.

Gnalling has been praised by many for its unique character; in fact, like many of the best discoveries, it came into this world by accident. During the development of a combined white mold and washed-rind cheese, some of the cheeses were wrapped into a paper which accidentally caused the cheese to dry out. Afterwards it appeared that this drying added a completely new identity and character to the cheese; the cheese shrunk in volume, and thus each could rightly be called a "gnalling" ("tiny piece").

The Gnalling cheese is handmade at Troldhede Dairy in small vats containing only 150 liters of milk. The cheesemaker adds white mold to the cheese milk, pours it into cheese molds and "wipes" each individual cheese over with red smear. Afterwards the cheese is matured in a specially made storeroom, air-dried and finally wrapped into parchment. After some weeks, the cheese shrinks into a small, shriveled morsel.

I imagine this cheese as being the perfect thing to carry with you while cross-country skiing. Cheese is stored protein, and Gnalling – being a triple cream – has more stored energy than most. The vast majority of triple creams are soft and creamy, but not this one. It is dry and firm; it could easily be put in a Ziplock bag and tossed in your backpack. You could carve off a small piece of this delicacy and eat it on its own; when it hits the moisture and heat of your mouth it will regain its lushness. It would be the perfect high-energy snack that tastes amazingly delectable.

Krondild (Crown Dill) has a pure cheese taste and an aroma of new-mown hay and freshly picked dill. Dill crowns are a classic ingredient in Scandinavian cuisine (they are stronger tasting than the young dill fronds) and are widely used to flavor salads, seafood dishes and aquavit, the traditional distilled spirit of Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Dill is also used in pickling and preserving food, a staple in Nordic countries.

Krondild is a white mold cheese, handmade in a small vat allowing the cheese milk to sour for a long time before setting. The cheese maker only produces approximately 100 cheeses at a time, each with its own serial number. This cheese gets its characteristic taste from the dill extract, which is made by grinding the dill crowns with salt to use in the curing process, the mold culture, and the whole dill seeds which the cheese is rolled in.

The cheese milk comes from cows in the local area around Troldhede. Here you will find many Jersey cows, whose milk is particularly suited for soft-mold cheese because of its high fat and protein content. The young Krondild has a firm core, but as the cheese matures, it slowly develops a creamy consistency with a balanced taste. This cheese would pair brilliantly with crispy rye crackers, a popular Scandinavian accompaniment.

Hogelundgaard ("Hogelund Farm") is a gem among Danish blue cheeses, characterized by its delicate, crispy protein crystals and particularly well-balanced flavor combination of blue mold and fruity sweetness. The development of this cheese was partially inspired and contributed to by Chef Rene Redzepi of Copenhagen's highly acclaimed Noma Restaurant. His suggestion of adding yeast to the cheese helped create a reduced-oxygen atmosphere that allows the cheese to be aged longer than any other blue, thus creating an incredible depth of flavor without the blue mold breaking the cheese structure down. It has the moisture content of a cheese aged no more than thirty days. This is the most original, sensational cheese I may have ever eaten.

Hogelundgaard Blue is made from un-homogenized milk at Hogelund Dairy in the south Jutland region of Denmark. The unique flavor and consistency of the cheese comes from the cheesemaker's use of mold, yogurt culture and yeast, which cumulatively add acidity and aroma to the cheese. Hogelundgaard is aged for five weeks in mold-ripening rooms with high humidity and a cellar temperature. The cheese is subsequently packaged for protection and allowed to continue aging for at least nine weeks in cold storage before its quality is assessed again. During the aging, the cheese develops a natural, rustic rind of blue mold, while crispy protein crystals form inside the body. The cheese is then aged for another 26 weeks to make a total of 40 weeks – as I've said, the longest aging process of any blue cheese worldwide.

The length of the aging process creates a harmonious balance between salt, aged milk, and piquantness of the blue. I love that this cheese is extremely complex, yet perfectly balanced; in spite of its long aging, it maintains its creamy element. It can be enjoyed with ripe pears or crisp Braeburn apples, or on top of a decadent burger.

It is not easy to make changes to tradition, but when the change is carried out with a healthy respect for history and a passion for quality and craft, it can result in an impactful achievement. I doubt when John Gynther set out to develop his new cheeses he knew just how much of an influence he'd have on bringing about the perfect culmination of culinary art and science, of historical precedent and modern technological advances. The new cheesemaking methods he has helped develop will continue to play an important role in current epicurean discussions of production methods in the Nordic countries, the United States, and worldwide. Not only have his creative techniques paved the way for advances in cheesemaking, but he has crafted some of the most beautiful, world-class cheeses of our time, which – in taste and quality alone – will inspire anyone who is fortunate enough to have the opportunity to taste them.

Additional reporting by Madeleine James.