So many cheeses, too little time
Being vegetarian in Eastern Europe means cheese - and lots of it. In a place where the response to “I don’t eat meat” is “oh, so you eat chicken?”, there aren’t many options. Every day at breakfast, the table was full of a wide array of meats, cheese, and fresh bread. I knew from the beginning that my time there would be filled with plenty of cheese sandwiches. Not that I’m complaining. Cheese is my favorite food, and I will try almost any type. It’s absolutely divine. Alex James, an English cheese farmer wrote, “Cheese is simple, natural and flavoursome. When you buy it, it's ready. You don't have to cook it, peel it or wash it, and it's the tastiest substance in the universe. Nothing compares with cheese for intensity of flavour, variety of flavour, depth of flavour.” There are so many extraordinary varieties to try: hundreds, maybe even thousands. So many cheeses, too little time.
My dad and I went to Europe in early July of this year. We started out in his hometown in Poland and stayed at my uncle’s house by a lovely lake. When we stopped at a market, I saw so many types of “ser”, the Polish word for cheese on the shelf, but I had no idea what they were. I couldn’t read a single word on the labels, but blindly picked out a few. Back at the lake, my aunt asked if I wanted some yogurt. “Sure!”, I said, and picked out one from the fridge. She shook her head and told me it was vanilla cheese. I thought she must be mistaken. Vanilla cheese? Impossible, no such thing! I tried it, and it had a wonderful whipped, creamy consistency. Cheese, yogurt, whatever - it was absolutely delicious. This was only the first of the many new foreign cheeses I would try.
The next few days were filled with relaxing swims in the lake, plenty of “vanilla cheese”, and “nalesniki”. “Nalesniki” is a Polish crepe, often filled with a cheese almost like ricotta but a bit spongier and sweetened with blueberries. Every time my grandmother offered it to me, I grinned with excitement. After a bit more time at the lake, we took a very long (and very crowded) train ride down to the city of Krakow. We explored the city on bikes and stopped at a couple local restaurants where I was introduced to new things. At a little stand in the pouring rain, I tried “Zapikanka”, a popular Polish snack. It’s a long piece of toasted bread with melted cheese, mushrooms, and whatever other toppings you might desire. I don’t have the slightest idea what any of the cheeses I tried in Europe were called. Not even my dad, who is Polish, could ever tell me exactly what we were eating, probably because there are no English translations. On top of our “zapikanka”, my dad suggested we get, in his words, “mountain cheese made from goat’s milk”. It was smokey and thick, with a strong fragrance. I took a bite and my mouth filled with a saltiness. Smoked cheese is not my favorite, but it was still enjoyable - that cheese exemplified the depth of flavor that cheese can have.
After a few more days in Krakow, we went on a spontaneous roadtrip through Slovakia to Hungary. I shared the backseat with two other people, but my loaf of bread and spreadable, chive-flavored cheese made the 8 hour car ride quite tolerable. It was on the car ride back to Krakow from Hungary when I had my first scarring European cheese experience. I ordered a pizza, and waited excitedly in starving anticipation. But the crust was dry and thick, the type you might expect from a cheap pizza in the frozen aisle of the grocery store. I am quite positive the sauce was straight ketchup. And the cheese was thick - the consistency of gum - and badly burned on top. I got back in the car with an hungry stomach and a disliking for Hungarian cooks.
We were soon back in Krakow, but not for long. After getting lost in the German countryside at night with a faulty GPS, our hosts in Dresden welcomed us with grilled cheese sandwiches, made with a thick, mild cheese from the Czech Republic that unrolled like a roll of paper towels. I was starving and wouldn’t have cared what I ate, but the hot, rich, flavorful cheese was just what I needed. On our way through Berlin back to Poland, I encountered my second terrifying cheese experience. At a crepe stand, I ordered a cheese crepe, and watched in horror as she put down two cheese singles. Resisting the urge to dunk her head in crepe batter, I pointed at the phony processed slices and asked her what she was doing. She just shrugged and gave me the crepe. Despite my efforts, I couldn’t bring myself to eat it. Another 8 hour car ride back to Poland, welcomed again by much-appreciated cheese sandwiches. I piled it on: first butter, then spreadable cheese, a slice of cheese, and finally a tomato slice. It may sound like a lot, but it was utterly delicious.
The next day, we endured yet another 8 hour car ride back to my dad’s town, but this time driving the last 100 km without working brakes. Quite an adventure. My grandmother probably prepared “nalesniki” when we arrived, but I’m not sure. All I know for certain is that when we went back to the lake one last time, I was thrilled to see one last cup of vanilla cheese in the fridge.