"It's not about the cheese!" might have been St. Deuberex Montclair's most famous words. But Montclair doesn't exist.
A few years ago, Jane and I decided to follow in the footsteps of the world's greatest cheese traveler in search of the world's finest artisanal cheeses and the places where they are made.
Other travel writers seem to be doing it all the time, following the routes of their favorite icon or explorer. But after agreeing to a lifelong journey, we found that the subject of our travels simply didn't exist. And so we invented him – an imaginary guide whose wisdom exceeds that of every other travel writer's muse.
Jane and I carry our sleeping son to a restaurant in a small alpine town in the Allgäu region of Bavaria. This is a favorite of my parents, and a chance for them to show it to Jane's mom in the few days we have left before fifty friends and family converge here.
My family orders all the specialties of this restaurant – deer and local lake fish. But I haven't the appetite for the hearty Bavarian restaurant faire. Instead, I look for the plate that most resembles what Bavarians eat at home – a simple plate of bread and cheese.
The right fromage, caseophiles might say, requires a perfect pairing of the appropriate wine. In Bavaria, and for this particular cheese, however, the perfect wine is a beer. A pils in a tall glass.
The traditional cheese plate in Bavaria is thick cuts of bergkäse ("mountain cheese") and dark rye bread, and cuts of smoked ham or pickles.
Bavarian cheese is a product of the Roman Empire, like most of the famous cheeses of the world. The Romans did not invent cheese, but they instituted the methods that would pave the way for the most famous cheeses of the world. What separates Bavarian cheeses, or, high mountain cheeses of the northern alps, from other cheeses, is climate: these cheeses didn't need the high salt content of cheeses from the warmer weather of Southern Europe.
An Alpen cheese, then, is less about salt, and more about the taste of the plants ingested by the cheese-producing animal. Bergkäse has a nutty, rich flavor. It is mild but with a nice complexity that fits a good beer well.
A European fromager by trade, Montclair left his post at a fine urban Fromagerie later in life, for what he called The Constellation Gallia.
Although history has buried Montclair's actual nationality, we know, based on his imaginary journals in English and French, that he was, as a man and a traveler, entirely a product of the Enlightenment.
Montclair's Constellation Gallia was itself an Enlightenment allegory. What he meant is that he saw each cheese-producing town as a bright light, like a star. And so, looking down on the Old World, you would see the brightest stars of the constellation as places like the Pyrenées, Savoie, or Emilia-Romagna, where production of the world’s finest cheeses is concentrated.
Montclair's window of opportunity to enter into Bavaria would have been around the year 1925.
As a child of the age of the Enlightenment, Montclair would have been very conscious of the German contribution to the age that created the modern world. Although the Enlightenment's earliest ideas sifted throughout Western Europe and New England, its earliest shoots were German. Today, we see Immanuel Kant as the instigator of this age of reason.
Kant questioned darker ages with simple words:
“All that is required for this Enlightenment is freedom; and particularly the least harmful of all that may be called freedom, namely, the freedom for man to make public use of his reason in all matters. But I hear people clamor on all sides: Don't argue! The officer says: Don't argue, drill! The tax collector: Don't argue, pay! The pastor: Don't argue, believe!"
Montclair took Kant’s words to heart. “Happiness is not an ideal of reason but of imagination,” Kant had written in 1785. As a successful fromager with big city connections, Montclair had all the access to what people defined as happiness. But at some point in his life, he realized that the collections of furniture and paintings yielded no such happiness.
The more you own, Montclair realized, the less you have. The more you live, the more you love, the more you taste – this is surely what Kant meant. Leave it all behind – walk out that door.
The Great War would have eliminated any possibility for a man like Montclair to near the German border, but by 1925, the country had miraculously recovered its Enlightenment roots. This was the Germany that was, in Montclair's mind, the end product of the Enlightenment: industriousness alongside art and architecture. Science alongside poetry. Dance and jazz and coffeehouses. Progressive, liberal Democracy alongside a renewed interest in preserving the rich fabric of Germany's past.
Those were the elements that would have made entry into Germany possible. But that was Kant's Germany, which, technically, was a very different Germany: the Germany north of the Rhein.
The Germany that interested Montclair, naturally, would have been the part that was brightest on his constellation. The Germany of mountains and foothills and rolling grazing lands – Bavaria and the alps.
Everything about Bavaria belied the direction of Germany at the time. For one, Bavaria is, as a land of people, much older than the other parts of Germany. Its people are a melting pot of European races mixed over and over again by the expansion of Rome. Rural and Roman Catholic, the Protestant Reformation, or even, for the most part, the age of the Enlightenment, simply passed this region by.
This was both reassuring and unsettling for Montclair, who found the country people of Bavaria the most exceptionally welcoming people in all of the alps. At the same time, run-ins with what he called "uncomfortable people who do not smile" were also frequent here. You would meet these men from time to time. They didn't feel comfortable around men who may have looked like Montclair, British lanky, with a French nose, and gypsy skin.
Bavaria in 1925 held the roots of the weird and the fringe and the far, far right, and their occasional strange intersection with the far, far left, and they despised jazz, the "Americanization of Berlin", and the early Democratic experimentation of the Weimar Republic, which, to the extremist groups in Bavaria, was Bolshevism.
But Montclair was naturally optimistic, and he liked the cheese. I like the cheese too, but it’s not about the cheese. It’s about the experience of eating a new cheese, in a new place. Everywhere you go, when cheese is made by hand locally, it tastes different than any other cheese. And that is the experience that Montclair sought.
As a fromager, Montclair was naturally a collector and a lister. It was only when he broke away from home and gave up on his collections of things that life began to truly resonate for him.
It is a cool evening here in Thalkirchdorf. Jane and I talk about our plans to cross borders in search of more cheese. Our son snores quietly. Outside, a few hundred feet higher in elevation, it snows. The interior is decorated like almost every other Bavarian restaurant – wood on wood on wood. And it gives the place a timeless feel, and I can imagine Montclair himself sitting near our table. Were this 1925, perhaps he would listen in, and admire the fact a family can enjoy the experience of food in an unfamiliar place together.
Perhaps he would even get up from his table and ask what we think about the cheese.
Winter came early to the Bavarian Alps. Clouds rolled in, fog filled the valleys, and almost as soon as we arrived, all evidence of the migrating birds of Europe is gone. It is mid-October, but the Allgäu at this elevation is white with snow.
Like a miracle, on the day Jane and I are to leave our son behind with family in Bavaria, the skies are bright blue and the road-snow melts by mid-morning. This is our first time leaving our son behind together - instead of a long goodbye, we sneak out on him and in no time, we’re on the road headed west.
We are in a blue Opel, and I might say that we are flying fast on the Autobahn, although it would be more true to say that we are the slowest car on the road, and it’s only that we feel fast. Fifteen minutes into our drive, I am ecstatic to at last be alone with my wife. And at this point, Jane looks at me and tells me she misses our son.
We stop in Lindau to pick up some fruits and crackers for a picnic, and then we enter Austria in the city of Bregenz, south of which is where we pass over the Rhine and turn right onto a road alongside the Rhine Delta levy. This is where I tell Jane that on our first afternoon alone together, we have work to do. For all the cheese we have ahead of us, we have to get some walking in.
At the end of the dirt road, we park the Opel in a dirt parking lot and walk along the spit of sand and rubble created by the Rhine headwaters pushing into Lake Constance. We walk out as far as we can, where we can see clear to the other side of the third largest lake in Europe.
Lake Constance is a lake, but it is also the river Rhine, and this is important because it is the Rhine that, for the most part, created the northernmost border of the Roman Empire. Its sheer size and navigability made it a crucial waterway for the transportation of Roman commerce. North of the valleys created by the Rhine was a very different sort of Europe – a tangled, swampy no-man’s land inhabited only scantily by barbarian tribes.
The Rhine’s headwaters begin in Switzerland, and pass through rich mountain regions of Switzerland, Lichtenstein, Austria and Germany. This, then, explains why so many provinces alongside the river glow so bright in Montclair’s Constellation Gallia. The Romans brought with them to the far ends of Europe a sophistication for cheesemaking, so that by the time Pliny the Elder wrote about the Lake Constance region, and about cheese in the first century A.D., the art of cheesemaking was already well established even here on the outer boundaries of western civilization.
That is the beauty of cheese in travel. Cheesemaking is a living, breathing craft, and it has been so for a time nobody exactly knows – it is not archaeology or artifact. To eat cheese is to step into museum and café.
What we think of as European cuisine is something that is relatively modern, a product of the ages of science and reason, the ingredients of the new world and the spices of the far east.
Europe’s ancient contributions to cuisine are best represented by its single foods – bread, beer, oils, wine, salted meats, and of course cheese. Of all of these simple foods, cheese strikes me as one that has changed very little. And because cheese is an experience of taste, what is more true to capturing the essence and passions of older times?
We walk out onto a spit of rock and sand formed by the river pushing into the lake. The Rhine delta means marshes and protected waters, and so it is a favored autumn geography for many migrating birds. This means, for one thing, a whole lot of ducks.
It also means this is favorable water to the common kingfisher, a small turquoise and orange fishing bird which sits on lonely posts and tree stumps across Europe, Asia and North Africa.
I came around here a few days ago, really, because the weather was just too awful to go in the opposite direction. I ended up on this very same spit of sand. But then, the weather was just a wreck – raining so hard I could barely see. When I came to some quiet water on the delta, I looked up from my parka and there in all the gray was a shining turquoise jewel on a stick alone in the water.
Just then, in all the racket of the rain and the wind, the blue idol caught sight of me and flew. Most Europeans live their entire lives without seeing the common kingfisher, even though it is quite common, and even though it is the continent’s most brilliant creature.
Now, I want to see if maybe Jane can see this sparrow-sized fisherman. The common kingfisher is a specialist – he is the master of spearing fish from a perch. He has evolved very special tools to do this. For example, his eyes are monocular while he stands on his perch. This means that he can use each eye independently from the other, like most birds and reptile. But as he strikes the water, he is able to flip special eyelids into operation, in order to do something very unique – switch to binocular vision intended to compensate for the distortion and refraction below water.
Today, we see no kingfisher. Instead, Jane spots a marsh harrier, hunting in the marsh pond. This marsh harrier has been migrating, marsh to marsh to marsh, from Northern Europe, and may be on her way to Moroccan wetlands, or the Nile.
Then she spots a pair of shorebirds walking along a rocky shore. Now, Jane, who wears leather boots and is dressed in all black and sunglasses, might not admit it, but it is she who spots a pair of tall shorebirds walking along the shore, only a few feet from me. We’ll learn that these are ruffs, shorebirds which started off in Norway or Finland, and are headed for rice paddies in Africa for the winter.
Montclair might have seen himself as rather more like the ruff than the kingfisher. Both the kingfisher and the ruff are specialized for extracting certain foodstuffs in a certain way. But the kingfisher, like humans, are widespread, but are specialized to live in just one certain area. The ruff, like Montclair, covers incredible amounts of land in search of his specialty.
In the late afternoon, we return to the blue Opel, and continue into northeastern Switzerland, destination St. Gallen. This would be the same route Montclair took, but he would be looking out the window of a gray passenger train.
In his years as a cheese traveler, Montclair spent a lot of time looking out the windows of trains, crossing through the Alps with little more than a briefcase or a satchel. When he crossed out of Bavaria in 1925, and into Austria and Switzerland, he would no doubt be troubled by his growing collection of run-ins with people of unusual ideas – about immigrants, about education, about Jews, about economies, about art, about homosexuals, about science. And he could feel it in the newspapers too. The newspapers were no longer telling the news, but were creating the news; what had never crossed a mind before suddenly became a compelling issue. And this phenomena, which would later overtake all of Germany, began right in these mountains.
In Bavaria and Austria, regional papers were being bought up by men with agendas. Those agendas were evolving in the country, in churches, and in the unemployment lines of the valleys beneath the alps. Montclair, who never followed anyone, ha an early understanding of what was happening - that men who want to be led are prime targets for being misled, and that the countryside that he so loved was the breeding ground for anti-Enlightenment ideas. And Montclair knew that the newspapers and the talk in the pews was a direct affront to what he was so optimistic that Northern Europe was going to become.
Those long train rides would have given him the time to reflect on the significant changes in his life, as he withdrew from his past as a successful big city fromager. Montclair grew up in a boisterous community in a family of successful doctors and merchants, and this made him a successful conversationalist. This was his greatest asset as a fromager, because selling handmade cheese required a social personality and the ability to free-form stories to hold customers in rapt attention. With no close friends but thousands of acquaintences, Montclair’s personal life and salesman life were interlocked. At the bar, he was still the fromager.
Montclair was also an autodidact, which was a component of his character that was sometimes at odds with his exceptional social skills. Montclair would never make a good apprentice and he didn’t have the type of patience for traditional learning. This is perhaps why the boy who had the potential through family to become anything he wanted chose such a peculiar trade for his class. He simply could not do things anybody else’s way, and that made him as unqualified for merchant trading and the medical field as he found these professions unsuitable to his nature.
Managing an urban cheese shop was honest work to Montclair, and he found a sort of intellectual challenge in cheesemongering. He enjoyed exchanging letters with cheese producers hundreds of miles away. He appreciated the exotic stamps that came back to him, and the personalities that walked into his shop. He saw each face that walked through the door as a nut to crack. If they were set on a fresh goat cheese, for example, he would break them down somehow , using every note of their clothing and accent to send them home with a Valençay, because deep down, he believed he could make them better people by expanding their horizon and shattering their prejudgments about cheese.
As an autodidact, Montclair really did live in a world of his own. He had his own rules, his own way of learning, and his own suite of mental challenges racing through his head. Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century – war, depression, hyperinflation - gave Montclair a deep sense of uncertainty, and so he was also an insomniac.
Growing up in a tradition of science and competition and status, ideas raced through his head late into night. While he never had the patience to learn chess play through the books about openings and endgames, Montclair could replay a chess game he had played that day over and over again in his mind. By refusing to learn chess traditionally, he would never be a very good player, because good chess play required standing on the shoulders of giants – reading the books, becoming a follower of a master.
Montclair did not understand these basic principles of success in the human world, and he may have wrestled with chess moves and all the other problems of the day, late into the night. By the time Montclair was in his twenties, he would stay awake late into the night each night, distracted by racing thoughts.
One night, he let his racing thoughts of chess transform into something new. In his head, he turned four pawns into soldiers walking across a field. He gave them a challenge that might have been simple for his mind to grasp – maybe they were defending a fort on a cliff. And for the first time in his life, he fell asleep.
As he grew older and fell into the world of cheese, his nighttime imaginations evolved. The pawns became nations, and each night he would reconstruct new nations, entirely imaginary nations from the fantastical older Europe of chessboard artwork. Each nation would have a certain type of economy, a certain amount of soldiers, a certain kind of cheese. And he proposed a conflict into each imagination, and this slowpaced mindgame, leading him away from the worries of the day, would set him into deep sleep.
Montclair worked hard, and he enjoyed the challenge and the social environment of the fromagerie. But it would be a long time before he realized that he was far from content or satisfied. As a self-learner whose mind kept leading him in new directions, Montclair would come to learn that it was that field between four nations where he belonged. Because the world he had been constructing in his mind at night was his subconscious easing him into the focus that suited him best. He was a ruff, and not a kingfisher. He a was a foot soldier, not a merchant. And he was, more than anything a product of the age of reason and enlightenment. And when he finally stepped off the cobblestone footstep of the fromagerie for the last time, giving up his financial security and the warmth of his network , he at last found peace and contentment as a simple galavanteer, out there riding the trains between nations.
We pass through St. Gallen, the stunning urban center of Eastern Switzerland, flanked by the Appenzell alps, and we continue into the foothills of the alps.
We drive up small, winding roads into the Appenzell region. Up here there are several farms, whose grassy meadows are draped in the shadows of steep mountains covered in snow. Pale yellow Simmantaler cows chew at the grass in the fields. This is the breed that produces the milk for Appenzeller cheese, the type of cheese which has led us here.
These are a handful of the seventy-five producers of Appenzeller. One such farm would have been Montclair’s destination, because he would have known the families that produced the best, and he would have enjoyed a cheese right here with one of his former suppliers.
But for us, these hills are just a chance to see the cows that produce the cheese. We make our way to the town of Appenzell by nightfall. This lovely town is packed with old swiss buildings, flags and decorative flowers hanging from windows. At the heart of the city, we find the local cheese shop. The fromager explains the three categories of the cheese – classic, aged about three months. Surchoix, aged about six months, and extra, aged over six months.
Each of the three varieties comes in a small, yellow wheel. The semi-hard mountain cow cheese is the color of wheat, and just inside the rind, its color is darker, with a hint of blue or green. This darker color is part of the magic of appenzeller. For 1300 years, this cheese has been made by washing the rinds with secret blends of herbs, spices, wines and herbal brandy. Each producer has his own particular rind wash. But the effect of these herbal brines is the specialty of appenzeller – an explosion of rich, spicy flavor. We test each of the three varieties, and agree that the Surchoix is richest in flavor – tangy, salty, but almost with a flower delicate quality.
It is good to have come this far to taste a cheese we have imagined for a very long time. At home, we prefer eating cheese from our own backyard. To first taste something right where it is made makes it unforgettable.
Montclair, of course, does not exist. He is a figment of our imagination, and this is why, perhaps, we have created him as a man troubled by imagination. Some people believe that the consistent factor of unhappiness around the world in this modern age is the pull of information, the noise of a connected society and the weight of every direction all at once, by the simple fact that we cannot ignore every temptation and distraction. Montclair is a man who learned to step away from that noise and to follow his focus.
In the morning, Jane and I share a simple breakfast of eggs, toast, and cheese. On this bright sunny morning, we are here in Switzerland because we are following in the footsteps of St. Deuberex Montclair. But we are not following him, we are constructing him out of our own imagination, to give us the focus we need to search for cheese.