Cheese Vacation
June 13, 2006 6:45 AM   Subscribe

European vacation with a focus on cheese?

I'm starting to plan a two week European vacation and am seeking advice and tips. We'll hopefully be going next year. My main reason for going is to try a great variety of cheeses that I'll never find here in California. We also want to do general touristy stuff, but that is secondary.

Before I get down to the nuts and bolts of actually booking the trip I'd like to get a better understanding of the practicalities. I'll do more reading later on general tourist and American in Europe topics. General issues I'm wondering about now: (Please excuse the shotgun nature of this question)

- How hard is it to find good cheese shops in places we're likely to visit during a whirl-wind tour of Europe - France, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, etc.? (I'm sure that's a stupid question, but there it is.)

- How much of Europe can we fit in in two weeks if our main goal is getting access to as many cheese regions as possible? My assumption is that we'll find a few cheese shops which will allow us to try cheeses from a large region. It would be nice to fit in British Isles, Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and some Baltic counties. But is that doable?

- Since we speak zero non-English languages, how silly would it be to try this without a guide or interpreter?

- Here in California I'll go to a cheese shop and try lots of different cheese. But the expectation is that I'm going to then buy a bunch of cheese. That's going to be hard to do if I'm on the road without a fridge. I can buy a cooler of course, but that will just fill up and go to waste. Does anyone have a good solution here? I really need to try 50+ cheeses at a minimum.

- I'm assuming that I'll need to get hooked up with some sort of tour since I'm a clueless idiot American. I've been to Ireland on a couple freestyle trips where I just got a car and a pile of B&B vouchers, which worked out fine. But I don't think that will fly in a mad dash through France, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, etc. Is this assumption valid?

(I should point out that I really like British cheeses, but I feel I can get my hands on those just fine here in the US. Or, more likely, we'll make that a separate trip.)
posted by MrCheese!!! to Travel & Transportation (33 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
- Since we speak zero non-English languages, how silly would it be to try this without a guide or interpreter?

You're going to be fine everywhere, except for the Baltics depending on which country you go to. Tallinn, for example, is tough without a speaker of Estonian or Finnish (you can get by in Russian, but it will make ethnic Estonians less friendly and they're already pretty shy). Latvia and Lithuania are more english-friendly (but less so than the non-Baltic countries you mention), but I don't know that you can count on the proprietor of a little cheese shop talking servicable English.

But I think you'd get by everywhere with just a modicum of frustration.
posted by Mayor Curley at 6:52 AM on June 13, 2006

You're going to be fine everywhere, except for the Baltics depending on which country you go to.

Do you think so? In my experience in France and Spain, I can't imagine walking into a local shop and expecting anyone to understand English. But you probably won't need a very large vocabulary to say the necessary things about cheese, so it's likely still doable with a little preparation.
posted by ludwig_van at 7:10 AM on June 13, 2006

My cheese-related experiences in Italy and the Czech Republic suggest that vendors will offer you a sample before you buy. Even if you only purchase 100g you should be able to eat that within the day. Tours of cheese production facilities are popular in Italy and offer samples without obligation to buy more. (Although a friend came home with a ham-sized Parmagiano Reggiano so he found the temptation too much.) Alternatively, seek out the best restaurants you can afford and have a cheese course in place of dessert.

You can B&B your way through Europe, no problems. It only takes a little planning and most places can be booked on the Web. Bring phrase books and be friendly.

If I only had two weeks, I'd stick to France, Switzerland and northern Italy. Cheese is practically a religion. Even bad shops seem to have great cheese.

If it goes well, maybe you should organise cheese package tours for other visitors??? I'd book one ;)
posted by methylsalicylate at 7:13 AM on June 13, 2006

To clarify on the language situation - I spend plenty of time in cheese shops, and I'm sure I could pantomime my way to a nice hunk of handmade Fontina d'Aosta. But Since I can't really *buy* all the cheese I need, I worry that I'll need to open a rather involved dialog. I see this as perhaps the main challenge.

But that hinges on the strategy for actually pulling off something this silly (50-100 cheeses in 10 days), and of course I don't have a strategy yet.
posted by MrCheese!!! at 7:21 AM on June 13, 2006

And just to make sure people don't get the wrong idea - The only reason I can't *buy* the cheese is that I'll have no way to keep it all. But I'm willing to pay lots of money to *try* lots of cheeses. And I'm sure we'll be bring back as much as we can, but no where near the amount I'd like to try.

I'll be doing something like this on the East Coast later this year, so that can be something of a dry run.
posted by MrCheese!!! at 7:26 AM on June 13, 2006

Aaah, cheese. Me and two friends, five days, two tents, one mini cooper, northern France, thirty-seven different cheeses.

In the UK you could do worse than visit a farmer's market. And the mother of all farmer's markets in terms of posh+fancy stuff is Borough Market, just south of the thames in London (underground station=borough or london bridge, I think it's open most days).

In France, generally I think that the cheeses in the supermarkets aren't bad but then again I'm English so what do I know. The deli counter in French supermarkets does stock a wider and more interesting range of cheeses than I've ever seen here in a specialist shop, anyway.
posted by handee at 7:34 AM on June 13, 2006

The next Salon du Fromage et des Produits Laitiers will take place in or around Paris in 2008. I didn't find any information on exact dates, but if you wanted to delay your trip a bit, the show would be absolutely ideal for your purposes.

I think cheese-buying could easily be performed by pantomime. You just use your hands to show "a little less" or "a little more" and the shopkeeper will ring you up and the numbers appear on the cash register of how much you should pay. I would think a guide would be very expensive. You have enough time to brush up on some basic shopping vocabulary in several languages before your trip.

Above all, don't be intimidated by anything you may have heard about travelling in Europe. A simple "Parlez-vous anglais?" or its equivalent in the local language, and a friendly, humble smile is all you need and people will, for the most part, be very happy to help you and will love the fact that you're showing an interest and making an effort.
posted by hazyjane at 7:35 AM on June 13, 2006

Ah, sorry, I just read your comment about not buying all the cheese. In this case, your best bet would be to research restaurants that specialize in cheese, or that are known for their great cheese plates. Also, cheese plate etiquette is important in France - never cut off the tip of a cheese, for example.
posted by hazyjane at 7:39 AM on June 13, 2006

A few pointers, not necessarily specific to cheese (while a fan, I am not an expert):

How much of Europe can we fit in in two weeks...?

Is the emphasis quality or quantity? For sure, you could spend each day in a different country, but do you want to?

Low-cost and regional airlines (some for the Baltic region, which you mention and seems off the beaten path: Estonian Air, airBaltic, Blue1, and the unstoppaple juggernaut Ryanair) can hurl you to surprisingly rural regions easily (and cheaply with advance planning). Perhaps fly to somewhere larger from California (Dublin, London, Stockholm, Amsterdam?), and then connect the dots?

For cheese sampling en route without refrigeration, perhaps visit cheese shops in the morning and take your newfound wealth to a bucolic town square for lunch, or, if you'd like to tote your cheese about for the day, perhaps something like this (via this thread) would keep cheese cool for the day until you get back to safer cheese quarters? Or perhaps just take the trip in the winter, when Europe as a whole is colder and the cheese is less likely to melt or otherwise deteriorate in a hot car?

How hard is it to find good cheese shops...?

Ask your local cheese folks about their trips to scout new cheeses. What are their favorite fromageries in Paris? They'll have some great tips, I'd imagine. Ask local tourist bureaus who, no doubt, will love pushing their local produce on someone who's actually looking for it, and they might speak English and be e-mail-ready as well.

Language-wise, if you aren't taking the trip for a while, could you not enroll in your local community college's absolute-beginner's level French/Spanish/German/Italian? It'd be a great relatively-low cost way to get excited about your trip a little bit more every week.
posted by mdonley at 8:00 AM on June 13, 2006

In general, I don't think you should go into a cheese shop with the sole purpose of trying as many cheeses as you can and then leaving empty handed. However, cheese shops ARE a good way to get in a variety of cheeses. Why not just buy tiny wedges (just a single serving) of the things you try and like. Grab a pack of crackers and save the cheese for a picnic later in the day.
posted by necessitas at 8:01 AM on June 13, 2006

Ok, here is an idea.

How about opening a dialog with tourism boards throughout europe. Perhaps they can identify not-to-miss cheese shops (and or restaurants known for their cheese menus). Contact those shops ahead of time (it probably wouldn't hurt to mention your cheese review website) explain your situation, and see if they can put together a great tasting plate ( for no more than x euros) for you to enjoy in their shop/restaurant.

Then you get all the cheese, no try-and-not-buy guilt and no left over cheese to haul around europe.
posted by necessitas at 8:07 AM on June 13, 2006

"Is the emphasis quality or quantity? For sure, you could spend each day in a different country, but do you want to?"

The emphasis is rather obsessively on cheese. So quantity I suppose. If we can get to a different cheese shop every day, and get through Spain, France, Italy, and a couple other countries, it will be a success.

However.......... It's certainly possible we could find 3-4 really good cheese shops that were willing to indulge my silly plan. That would allow a much slower pace with room for quality.

I know I'm being slightly ridiculous, and I have much homework to do as far as talking to real cheese mongers, contacting cheese shops in Europe, build a cheese wish list, etc. Part of my trip to the East Coast will be quizzing the cheese mongers about how they do their European cheese tours. But AskMe has always been a good place to start such adventures, so here I am.

Also - I could never leave a cheese shop empty handed. And I *always* try to be a good customer. If I'm not going to buy several cheeses I'll at least find the most marked up thing in the shop and buy some.
posted by MrCheese!!! at 8:18 AM on June 13, 2006

Not sure why people are suggesting the Baltics... I'm sure they're lovely, but has anyone here tried Estonian cheese?
posted by altolinguistic at 8:37 AM on June 13, 2006

Wherever you are in rural and not so rural France you won't be far from a Sunday market. All markets have at least a couple of cheese stalls, often locally produced. You can always try before you buy, and often they'll just hand a sample out while you're waiting in the queue (there's always a queue).

A lot of areas known for their cheese, eg Gruyères in Switzerland, Normandy in France, have tours of the cheese making place, which is nice to see, before you try and buy - obviously this is limiting to one type of cheese, but there will often be different strengths and varieties on offer.
posted by jontyjago at 8:40 AM on June 13, 2006

Also, there are two fantastic cheese shops in London - Neal's Yard dairy in Covent Garden, which sells mostly British cheese if I remember correctly, and La Fromagerie which has branches in Highbury and on Marylebone High Street, and which sells highly fragrant cheeses from all over Europe.
posted by altolinguistic at 8:40 AM on June 13, 2006

"Not sure why people are suggesting the Baltics... I'm sure they're lovely, but has anyone here tried Estonian cheese?"

Actually I brought that up. On one of my websites (this is weird I admit) I'm trying to personally taste and review all of the cheeses mentioned in the Monty Python "Cheese Shop" sketch. I only have a few cheeses left, and several of those are from the Baltic area. Indeed, the asinine nature of John Cleese's cheese selections is the main excuse my wife and I are using for our trip. Try finding some real Abertam around San Diego. And while I've been told one can get real Lipto in LA ethnic shops, I haven't found any. It's a small thing though. Surely we'd be able to get those in some other cheese shop.

I told you. Weird.
posted by MrCheese!!! at 8:54 AM on June 13, 2006

In Spain there are a good variety of very excellent "quesos" (kay-sos). There is cabra (goat), oveja (sheep), vaca (cow), y mezcla (cow & goat). Then there is curado y semicurado (cured & semi-cured- pronounced 'coo-ratho'). There also is queso fresco which is a very light, soft cheese. The spanish version is much different and better than the Mexican version. My favorite is queso semicurado cabra.

The best places to find cheese in Spain are the Asturias and Cantabria in the far north of Spain. Almost every city has many mercados where there are booths specializing in every type of product. You can find more info on about the many different varieties of cheese. I don't think you will have too big of a problem in Spain by knowing this little bit and having a phrase book. You may get lucky and find people who speak english to help you.
posted by JJ86 at 8:59 AM on June 13, 2006

If you stick to large cities you'll have better luck finding english speaking cheesemongers. Also, you need to understand that cheese philosophy is quite different in europe. When you go to a regular grocery store in the states, you'll find maybe 3 or 4 types of cheese from a few different cheesemakers, but an average grocery store in europe will have dozens of types of cheese from dozens of regions and dozens of cheesemakers. You could probably stay in one city for two weeks and find hundreds of cheeses from all over europe fairly easily. That being said, good luck on the Venezuelan Beaver Cheese, it's qutie rare and spoken of only in hushed tones in darkened corners of eclusive cheese swilling houses. Bon Apetit!
posted by blue_beetle at 9:52 AM on June 13, 2006

"an average grocery store in europe will have dozens of types of cheese from dozens of regions"

Hmmmm...... Hadn't even thought about this. And I know someone else said it upthread, but I sort of dismissed that as obviously silly. Okay. That could changes things a bit. Are these pre-cut potions, or cut to order? Sort of like Whole Foods here in the states perhaps?

And rest assured my wife and I *will* get some Venezuelan Beaver Cheese. This will probably involve either sneaking some beaver milk over the border, or just making some cheese here in a style particular to Venezuela. Either way we need to find someone raising beavers, and that doesn't appear to be much of an industry these days (plenty of beaver farming back in the 20s).
posted by MrCheese!!! at 10:03 AM on June 13, 2006

blue_beetle said: When you go to a regular grocery store in the states, you'll find maybe 3 or 4 types of cheese from a few different cheesemakers, but an average grocery store in europe will have dozens of types of cheese from dozens of regions and dozens of cheesemakers.

You've never been to Wisconsin, have you? Every grocery I go to here has a mad variety of cheeses from many cheesemakers. It definitely rivaled even the big El Corte Ingles stores and Eroski stores in Madrid.
posted by JJ86 at 10:31 AM on June 13, 2006

[off topic]
Actually I've been to several grocery stores in Wisconsin. I found their selection of great Wisconsin cheeses to be pretty poor. Of curse I probably went to the wrong places, and that was seven years ago, but still........

And here in San Diego the grocery store I where I do my daily shopping has Double Gloucester and AOC Roquefort, but *zero* California Artisanal cheeses. What the hell?

It's a real crap shoot.
[/off topic]
posted by MrCheese!!! at 10:48 AM on June 13, 2006

but has anyone here tried Estonian cheese?

It's funny you should ask...

I lived there for a bit and remember being impressed by their range of dairy products, but don't particularly remember any cheese. This was 10 years ago though, so maybe their dairy artesans have picked up their game.

The main thing I remember was kohupiim, kind of like a smooth cottage cheese (might be the same as the Quark that Germans love, but I've never worked out what Quark was). Estonians love it so much they even dip it in chocolate and freeze it, and eat it like choc ices. Oh, and they deep fried big blocks of cheese in breadcrumbs too, mmmmm....

If you should need it: Estonian for cheese is juust (with a soft 'j', like "you-st"). Cheese shop would, I think, be Juustupood. But this shopping guide doesn't suggest you'd have a very fruitful search wandering the streets of Tallinn.

Has anyone noticed how weird the word cheese is when you say it enough?
posted by penguin pie at 10:55 AM on June 13, 2006

I want to repeat the aforementioned emphasis on markets. This applies to most places in Europe I know of. Cheese stalls there will not only have a more local selection, but will also usually give better contact to locals.

Second, I personally would reduce the numbers of places you visit significantly. The reason is that if you are only going to zip by, you will only make it to larger cities anyway. Shops there will have a wider selection, but what's the point in visiting different shops with the same products?

For me, part of enjoying local culinary specialities is the atmosphere of the place. I think that if you keep it to northern Italy, France, Spain, and maybe Switzerland, you will be better off. You can get your basic fix in two or three larger cities, covering a broad European selection of cheeses, and after that spend your time in the countryside, visiting cheesemakers and hunting for specialities on village markets.

Should be much more fulfilling for a true cheese fetishist, IMO.

And thanks for the inspiring post.
*heads for the fridge*
posted by uncle harold at 10:59 AM on June 13, 2006

IANACE, (I am not a cheese expert) but regarding the refrigeration problem, I was under the impression that many cheeses doesn't necessarily need to be refrigerated, just kept in a cool dry place? Perhaps a collapsible cooler might come in handy?

Also, could you ship some cheeses home during your travels?
posted by platinum at 11:02 AM on June 13, 2006

Have to agree with Uncle Harold. Hit the small towns with local stuff, and hit them harder.

(If Switzerland, particularly the German side, stays on your list, make sure to drive through the areas where you can buy fresh Alpenkäse from the farms along the road, and make sure to go through Glarus, where one of the local specialities is cheese flavored with pine.

The cheesers up in the mountains there are mostly really friendly, glad to show people around, and are proud to be as old school as you can get.)
posted by whatzit at 11:15 AM on June 13, 2006

Have you considered using pre-printed cards?

"I am an American, travelling through Europe and learning about cheese. I want to taste small samples of as many different cheeses from as many different places as I possibly can, so that I can write about them on my website. Your assistance in my cheese-tasting adventure will be greatly appreciated. Thank you very much."

Translate that into all the languages you're likely to encounter and print it onto cards that you can give to the people you encounter. It's silly, but I bet it'll work.
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:24 AM on June 13, 2006

Heh. Cool idea.
posted by MrCheese!!! at 11:44 AM on June 13, 2006

Ok, a search for "European cheese tour" (which is totally going to be my new band name) came up with this, that might help you get started.

I'd also recommend emailing European food bloggers and asking for their recommendations. The only one I can think of offhand is Clothide from Chocolate and Zuchinni, but I'm sure she could suggest others, and she'd be a good resource for cheese in Paris.

I'll bet you could also get someone from Murray's in New York to help. Who knows, they might even take the initiative and organize a tour.

Speaking of tours, check out some of the sites that offer gourmet tours of Europe. This one says they'll customize a tour of Italy for 2 or more people. And this one will do the same for Spain. This could be your Parisan resource. I found these off of's site that I found by searching Europe gourmet tour.
posted by MsMolly at 12:01 PM on June 13, 2006

As this gets closer to scrolling off the page, I just wanted to pop in and thank everyone for the great ideas. This is great stuff.
posted by MrCheese!!! at 1:43 PM on June 13, 2006

And........ Since everyone helped out here, I thought you might be interested in my "grand plan" version 0.1 -

1) Take some dry run practice cheese tours using the east coast cheese shops and Wisconsin.

2) Quiz any cheese monger who will stand me long enough about how one might best go to Europe and try 50-100 cheeses in two weeks.

3) Try to open a dialog with some of the US cheese buyers to see about tips or a possible hook-up.

4) Look into local European blogs for some tips. Find out about markets and grocery opportunities.

5) Get a flexible and large list of "wish list" cheeses that can't legitimately be obtained in the US.

6) Look into foodie events and large scale cheese tastings.

7) From the above, start building a "must see" list. And once that is ready, set dates and start formal booking for transport and lodging. Arrange for guides as needed.

8) Get some resources for making myself understood in the local languages.

9) Depending on advice I get from various cheese folks, possibly contact cheese shops or producers in Europe to make an appointment.
posted by MrCheese!!! at 2:11 PM on June 13, 2006

Good luck! Let me know if you need any info on Wisconsin cheeses.
posted by JJ86 at 2:40 PM on June 13, 2006

About Estonia (and this is coming from a native Estonian):
1) Contrary to Mayor Curley's opinion, I'd say pretty much everyone here speaks English.
2) There are a lot of good reasons to visit Estonia but the quality of our cheese is... not one of them.
posted by A Kingdom for a Donkey at 5:22 PM on June 13, 2006

Just wanted to put in a word for Greek cheeses, which haven't been mentioned yet. I can see you having a blast cruising 'round the islands for a week sampling the local specialties.
posted by hazyjane at 3:24 AM on June 15, 2006

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