Westmalle… where Trappists say “Cheese”
Author: Erik Verdonck / Published: 2016-07-06 11:19:55 +0200 / Last Updated: 9 months ago
Westmalle Abbey is built on moorland which is quite bleak and not very productive from an agricultural point of view. However, throughout the years and by sheer virtue of hard work, the monks established fields and meadows that now cover around 300 hectares.
This has enabled two hundred dairy cows to be grazed which are mainly from two breeds: Groningse Blaarkop and Brown Swiss. These cattle varieties are not generally known for their high milk production; however, the milk they do produce on the monks’ lush meadows is of a very high quality.
The cows are milked twice a day. They will step into the auto-tandem – a type of carousel – that has 28 milking positions. These pampered cows lead a stress-free life and are treated with care, producing milk destined for the cheese workshop and some also goes to a local dairy.
“We have opted for sustainable agriculture and this includes the rearing of our cattle,” Brother Francis tells us. “The cows graze in our own meadows, they are fed from own fields and from the milk they produce, we make our own Trappist cheese. The term ‘short chain’ can be taken quite literally here.”
The Blessed Peace
I am allowed a peek within the abbey walls where I am shown a modern cheese dairy unit (built in 2011) and the places where the cows are housed. Once more, I am overwhelmed by the atmosphere of peace and quiet that prevails here - at no point during my visit do I have the feeling of visiting a business.
“The former cheese dairy (1860) was located right next to the brewery,” Brother Francis explains. “Cheese has always been important to us."
"Ever since 1834, when the Abbey was founded, we have been producing beer, cheese and bread. Just take a look at the shape of the cheese: it is perfectly attuned to the way we shape our bread."
"This is how the cheese forms a natural complement to our bread and makes for the ideal sandwich filling."
The Trappist cheese from Westmalle was a well-kept secret for many years; only the locals knew that you could buy it from the abbey gate. These days, the cheese is more heavily promoted and can be often found in specialised cheese shops.
Today we are tasting this cheese with a degustation glass of Dubbel and Tripel in Café Trappisten, located just across the road. Westmalle cheese is low in salt (1%), is pure, healthy and nourishing as it does not contain any preservatives, colouring agents or additional flavours.
Its aromas and tastes are determined by the way the animals are fed and also depend on the seasons. Just like they do with their beer, the monks are striving for harmony, balance and complexity.
I find the slightly sour taste of this cheese quite exceptional. “You’ll not get bored with this cheese,” Brother Francis tells me. “And I should know: I eat it every day!”
This cheese forms a great pairing with the robust beers produced by the Trappists. “On ageing, this cheese will developed even more intense tastes,” the monk assures us.
Take Your Time
The day starts early in the cheese dairy. The cheese tub is filled with the previous day’s milk, heated to a temperature between 40°C and 72°C. The cheese master is now heating up the milk to a temperature of 30°C, stirring all the while.
“You need ten litres of milk to produce one kilo of cheese,” he explains. Rennet is added to create a gelatinous mass: these are the curds. The cheese master allows the curds to firm up before cutting it into shapes.
The liquid whey is now separated from the curd – the whey is used as cattle feed – whilst the curds are rinsed in warm water.
To produce a hard cheese, the Westmalle Trappist for example, the curds will be transferred to a mould before being pressed to ensure the last traces of whey drain away. This cheese will pressed three times, resulting in a homogenous cheese where all the solid particles stick together.
Now, the cheese will be bathed in brine for ten hours to allow it to develop its zesty taste. And finally, it will mature for anything between eight weeks and 12 months in a dedicated maturation chamber at a temperature between 13 and 15°C, at a humidity of 85 to 95%.
During this time, the cheese forms a crust that protects it from mould and the cheese makers will turn each cheese by hand every day.
After all that time, loving care, skill and patience … the delicious cheese is ready to enjoy. Have you put your Westmalle Trappist in to chill?
More info on Westmalle
Abdij Westmalle Antwerpsesteenweg 496
Recent Blog Posts
BASECLES - You may not have heard of this little village, halfway between Tournai and Mons. Its former quarries are now filled with water where the black marble that adorns Cologne Cathedral was once ... [ read more ]
MELLE - Alain De Laet, CEO and owner of Brouwerij Huyghe, is a firm believer in the power of the Belgian beer brand around the world. The success of the brewery speaks for itself, with Huyghe ... [ read more ]
SOIGNIES - Belgians drink their beer from the correct glass. An abbey beer tastes so much better from a traditional chalice, a pils beer from a pils glass... Only in Belgium, will you come across such ... [ read more ]
WESTMALLE - Time appears to stand still in a Trappist abbey like Westmalle. However, appearances can be deceptive - even here the latest technologies are quietly creeping in. The abbey has an up-to-da ... [ read more ]
VAL-DIEU - Those monks certainly picked some beautiful spots for their abbeys. The rumble of the busy motorway lies far behind me as I swap the flat northern Belgian landscape for the gently rolling ... [ read more ]
You must be logged in to leave a comment
Beer and cheese are made for one another. This isn’t exactly a well-kept secret. Cheese provides tastes and aromas that are not found in beer, most notably salt, and thus, beer and cheese are complementary. ... [ more ]
The name ‘Trappist’ refers both to a religious order and to the world famous abbey beers that they produce. In Belgium there are six abbeys that belong to the order of the Trappists, otherwise k... [ more ]
I recently heard it straight from the brewer’s mouth: “You need a good story nowadays if you want to sell beer.” This may go some way in explaining the hype around Belgian Trappist beer. Achel, C... [ more ]
BERCHEM - A store in Berchem near Antwerp has been crowned Best European Specialty Cheese Provider, according to the Wall Street Journal. It has the stellar performance of cheese affineurs Miche... [ more ]
It was Prior Alexius who, at the start of the 19th-century, decided to motivate the Westmalle brothers with his so-called 'liquid sandwiches'. Every single morning he would offer ... [ more ]
Beer Tourism Newsletter Signup
Enter your name and email address on the right and click "SignUp" to join.