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Brian's Photo Blog — Article 535
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The Anatomy of a Monk’s Head ... Cheese
Wednesday 23 March 2016   —   Category: Cooking & Food
One of the best parts of living in Switzerland for eight years was easy access to reasonably-priced Swiss cheeses. Sure, you can get Gruyère cheese in the U.S. but it’s pretty spendy. You can find Emmental cheese, or use Tilla­mook Swiss, a decent imitation made right here in Oregon.

Authentic Swiss Raclette cheese is hard to find and quite spendy but a real treat, although imitations from France and elsewhere can do in a pinch. Out of the more than 450 va­ri­e­ties of cheese produced in Switzerland, an even rarer treat is one of my absolute favorites: Tête de Moine (French for “Monk’s Head”).

Tête de Moine was invented and initially produced more than eight centuries ago by the monks of the Bellelay Abbey, a mere ten miles as the crow flies (or what­ever bird they use in Switzerland to measure distances) from where I had lived in Moutier. This unique-​looking cheese has a equally-​unique way of being eaten, as you will see shortly.

When my Swiss wife made her most recent visit to the Old Country last summer, I begged her to bring back not just one whole head, but two heads of this beloved and scrumptious cheese. One we enjoyed upon her return, and the other we froze for later.

When we decided to consume it in January, I made sure to document photographically the unusual process of preparing the cheese for eating, which I am now sharing with you. As usual, you can click on the photos here to see larger versions. Join me as we take a few minutes to explore the anatomy of a monk’s head ... cheese!
This first photos shows the label on top of a genuine Tête de Moine cheese. From the bottom label on the other end, we can glean numerous interesting tidbits of information:
  • The cheese was purchased at Migros, the largest supermarket chain in Switzerland.
  • In French, “action” means “on sale” — therefore it was priced lower than usual.
  • The French phrase “Le fromage à pâte mi-​dure est par nature sans lactose” translates as “Semi-hard cheese is naturally lactose-​free.”
  • This particular piece of cheese weighed 852g, which translates to almost exactly 30 oz... or 1 lb, 14 oz ... or 2 oz less than 2 lbs.
  • The price (on sale) was CHF 16.50 (Swiss francs) per kilogram. At the current exchange rate, this is $16.96/kg. Since there are 2.2 pounds in a kilo, this computes to a ri­dic­u­lous­ly-​low $7.71/lb — this hunk of cheese cost only $14.44! Just for comparison, you can get some on Amazon for $36.11/lb — 4.7 times the Swiss price.
  • This cheese is made with whole, raw — “gras, cru” — milk.
  • Tête de Moine has appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) status.
  • Part of the information has been rubbed away, but from what I can see I would say this cheese consists of 34% butterfat. On the other hand, the Tête de Moine product sheet states a minimum 51% fat. So much for bad guessing!
  • This piece of cheese was to be sold by 2 Sept. 2015 and consumed by 8 Sept. 2015. We put it in the freezer, and enjoyed it in January 2016. It was awesome!
 

After overcoming the huge obstacles to actually obtaining a Tête de Moine, the next step is to remove the packaging and then scalp the poor monk’s head!
 
This semi-hard cheese has a wonderful balance between firm­ness and creaminess, and a fairly-strong taste that is tran­scend­ent! What else would you expect from angelic Swiss cows eating heavenly Swiss grass to produce divine Swiss milk?

By the way, they make sublime Swiss chocolates from that same glorious milk!
 
Looking like some sort of medieval instrument of torture, this wood and metal girolle is an indispensible utensil for properly shaving and eating the cylindrical monk’s head.
 
Didn’t I tell you! In order to seat the cheese on the girolle, you have to impale it on the girolle’s vertical metal rod. For a twist­ed mind like mine, this almost felt like reenacting some sort of gruesome Spanish Inquisition torture on a poor monk who had strayed from the faith!
 
It is kind of tricky, but ideally you want the tip of the rod to penetrate the exact center of the cylinder’s bottom, and then by holding the cheese as straight as possible, have the rod exit the cheese in the very center of the cylinder’s top. Rarely do I achieve that level of precision — in this case I wasn’t too far off the mark.
 
Once the monk’s head has been properly im­paled on the vertical steel rod of the girolle, you can put his scalp back on, just to see how it fits!
 
Looking like yet another medieval instrument of torture, this scraper slides over the vertical metal rod of the girolle — as you will see in the next photo — so you can easily shave the Tête de Moine cheese into the proper form.
 
Once the scraper is installed, you’re ready to shave your monk’s head!
 
By applying a gentle downward pressure while rotating the scraper clockwise around the axis of the girolle’s vertical metal rod, you can create delicate and beautiful rosettes of thinly-sliced cheese.
 
Here is a close-up of a Tête de Moine rosette — it reminds me a lot of a carnation.
 
Last but not least, here is a picture I took last year when I had some Tête de Moine with a homemade pretzel, homemade spicy whole-grain pub mustard and a deviled duck egg.
 
Well, that ends our anatomy lesson for today ... class dismissed ... go forth and eat a scalped, impaled, shaved monk’s head!
Brian's Photo Blog — Article 535
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Brian's Photo Blog — Article 535
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