Thursday, February 02, 2006

Bruss: More than just a cheese

The Piemontese are well known for their food and wine and rightfully so. In the last few weeks I have been served beautiful Salumi, hand-made from personally selected pigs and Salccicia made from pork, ground fresh every morning in a specially designed refrigerated meat grinder, so it can be served raw on the luncheon tables of half the houses in the village. Raw pork and beef are quite common here in the Piedmont. It seems the quality has never lapsed so there is no fear of contamination. Strange customs perhaps, but I have welcomed them with open arms and without apprehension.
I have been feeling pretty plucky about my new food courage, after all, how many people eat raw pork sausage regularly and live to tell about it? In fact, I really like Salccicia and that has started me on the road to all kinds of raw meats like Carpaccio and Steak Tartar. I suppose eating raw meats these days can be considered daring but frankly it pales in comparison to Bruss.
Bruss (pronounced exactly like the name Bruce) is a sort of cheese. I stress the words “sort of“. I encountered Bruss at a lunch with a winemaker in the Langhe a couple of weeks ago. “Do you like a strong cheese?” he asked me, as he handed me the cheese tray. “Oh yes” I smiled and looked down to the tray waiting for his recommendations. “Ah” he said “just a moment then” and he was off in a flash… “Limburger” I thought, “that would be the worse case scenario!” He quickly arrived with a pot-bellied jar full of a grey-white substance that looked like wet concrete. He flipped the lid open and took a long sniff and smiled. His wife made a loud comment in Italian and at that point I was bracing for a Limburger-level experience. “How bad could it be” I thought. I have never encountered a cheese that I wasn’t willing to try and this “Bruss” wasn’t going to break my record.
He passed me the glass pot with a big smile and, as if to seal my fate…he added “I make this myself”! I was overflowing with resolve and I was sure this was going to be one of the great culinary experiences of my newly adopted home here in the Piemonte.
The smell from the glass pot was altogether startling! “Putrid” only begins to describe the horrid stench that emanated from that jar. It smelled like the stinkiest sheep's cheese you have ever smelled times 1000. The whole table was looking at me and laughing. They were all sure that I would never eat it. My face was green. My breathing had doubled. I must have looked like I was going to pass-out. There was absolutely no way I was going to even smell that vial concoction again …much less eat it.
Proper Bruss is never purchased in a store. Bruss must be made at home but it takes a little time. You start with three tomes or small wheels of sheep's cheese each tome is about 3 inches in diameter. Cut the tomes into chunks put into a jam jar and top up with olive oil. You put the jar in your cellar and every day for two weeks you turn it up-side-down. After that you turn it upside down every week or so….continue this for 4 years. After 2 or 3 years the whole mess begins to become one thick paste, kind of like thick concrete. The smell that this stuff makes comes from the Devil himself. Honestly, I can not understand how anything like this ever came into existence. All I can figure is this cheese is based on a bet or dare of some kind.
Well the pressure was on and the whole table was either watching and waiting or laughing sympathetically at me so I decided I would load up a piece of bread and do the dirty deed. So I did…. I wasn’t prepared for the taste. It was almost as bad as the smell. I thought I would pass out. My head began to spin and I felt myself breathing quickly. I heard laughing and the room began to spin. Surely I was going into shock or something. Then slowly everything started coming into focus and in 3 or 4 minutes I felt more or less normal. I washed everything down with a big gulp of excellent Barolo. Clearly, the thrill of Bruss must be surviving it! I was feeling pretty good about the whole event, until my host offered me another round!
Now, I’m at that special age where a man likes to think that his brain has overcome his testosterone but I will be damned if I didn’t hear myself say “Sure, I’ll give it another go!” I felt everyone else’s head snap with a double-take, but I pretended not to notice as I popped the lid on the on the cheese version of “weapons grade plutonium“. In went my knife and I looked on in horror as I drew out the blade covered in the tan-colored goo. Christ, it stunk up the whole room! Once again I slipped the foul concoction into my mouth and began to slowly chew it.
The truth is it was disgusting. I wish I could tell you that it was a heavenly flavor but it wasn’t. It was 4 year old fermented sheep's cheese and it emanates a smell and flavor I will never forget. But you know…after all of that….I am very glad I tried it because it made my host very happy and it expanded my food horizons just that little bit further.


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