Our second Alpine cheese this week brings us back to Switzerland, specifically to the town of Bellelay in the canton of Bern. Tête de Moine, which translates to “monk’s head” from the original French, was – surprise – originally made by monks, though now dairy cooperatives have taken over the cheesemaking. Why the unusual name? Tête de Moine is traditionally not cut into slices, but rather shaved across the top and sides with a knife held parallel to the cheese. The cheese’s appearance mimics the shaved head of the monks who developed it. The Swiss use a special device called a girolle to cut Tête de Moine – it skewers the cheese like a kabob and a vertical blade is swung around the top of the cheese to create pretty little ruffles. I thought it would be a bit much to buy a girolle just for the one cheese, but hey, if you’ve got the money and inclination, you’re welcome to it (lend it to me sometime). Instead, I used a simple paring knive to shave small pieces of Tête de Moine from the wheel and assembled the “petals” into a rose on my plate.

But enough about its appearance – how does Tête de Moine taste? Delicious! Steven Jenkins describes it as “beefy” in his “Cheese Primer,” and I have to agree that it’s a fitting description. A raw cow’s-milk cheese, it has a saltiness that reminds me of a well-seasoned steak, and, as my husband pointed out, a slight smoky flavor, too. (My husband also called the Tête de Moine “sexy,” which may sound odd until you learn about his unbridled love for beef.) The cheese could definitely stand up for itself on a plate of smoked or cured meats, but it would also pair nicely with fruit (not the strawberry shown – that was just to make the rosette pretty – but apples or pears) or a hearty cracker.

The big flavors of Tête de Moine would match well with a full-bodied wine – Jenkins recommends a Burgundy or Rhône. I had neither on hand but had already opened a bottle of a Chilean 60/40 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot earlier that night, so I gave that a whirl. The pairing wasn’t bad by any means (not like my Epoisses mismatch a few weeks ago), but I think a stronger wine would have really made the Tête de Moine shine.

Tête de Moine also lends itself well to cooking – check out the cheese’s official Web site for recipes.

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