While the Italians are proud of their prized “parmigiano” and the French crazy about their creamy “camembert”, Tiroleans have their “Graukäse”. Though almost completely unknown outside the region, this delicious dairy delicacy definitely deserves more attention. It is made from fermented milk and not only tastes great but is also surprisingly healthy thanks to its very low fat content.
“Superfoods” are everywhere you look these days. The term comes from the world of advertising and is used to describe foodstuffs considered particularly healthy and beneficial for the body and mind. Some of the most well-known examples include chia seeds and goji berries shipped half way around the globe for our convenience. However, there are plenty of superfoods right on our doorstep here in Tirol, just waiting to be discovered – and one of them is Graukäse.
Low in fat, high in taste
“Graukäse is perfect for people who love tangy cheese but don’t want too much fat,” explains Stefan Kranebitter. The trained cheese sommerlier sells all sorts of dairy delights from his stand in the Markthalle indoor market in the centre of Innsbruck. One of his absolute favourites is Graukäse. This regional delicacy unique to Tirol has just 1% fat, yet just a small piece provides much of a person’s recommended daily amount of protein. Moreover, Graukäse is also lactose-free and therefore an interesting option for people suffering from intolerances.
Here in Tirol, Graukäse has for centuries been a core element of local cuisine. Literally meaning “grey cheese”, it has its origins in the widespread poverty and tough living conditions characteristic of Tirol for much of its history. Farmsteads would traditionally process the milk given by cows into butter, most of which would be sold. The remaining fat-free milk would be left to become sour before being heated, salted and pressed into wooden moulds. Left to mature for two to three weeks, the soft, cottage-cheese-like mixture would slowly turn into delicious Graukäse.
A delicacy with a difference
“Guests who are not from Tirol often ask me if it really is cheese,” says Stefan Kranebitter with a wry smile. Understandably so, for the appearance of Graukäse is without a doubt a little different to what most people associate with the word cheese. Early in the maturation process it is soft and crumbly, but over time the consistency changes. From the outside in there is a greyish layer which develops and gives the cheese its name. While many Tiroleans simply can’t get enough of it, visitors often need a little time to get used to the intense taste.
“It really depends on the maturity of the cheese. Young Graukäse is pretty mild. Really mature Graukäse, on the other hand, is more of a refined taste. Still, I would say that Graukäse is definitely something everyone should try. The customers who buy it from me come from all over the world,” explains Kranebitter. Among the most intense varieties of Graukäse available is the cellar-matured blue cheese version from the Zillertal Valley.
“Zieger“: the Tirolean version of parmesan
“In the past, Graukäse was a popular way of using up the fat-free milk left over from making butter. But even then, once the Graukäse has been made, there is still some whey left over,” explains Stefan Kranebitter. This is flavoured, pressed, placed into a mould and left to mature for three months. The result? “Zieger”, a small, round cheese with a brown-ish colour that tastes a little like parmesan and is ideal for cooking and grating.
This hard cheese is often used in traditional Tirolean meals such as Käsespätzle, a deliciously doughy pasta-like dish, as well as dumplings and pasta. It is also used in soups and sauces to create an intense, tangy taste. However, a word of warning! The taste of Zieger is so intense that it needs to be kept well-wrapped during storage. Thanks to its water concentration of almost 0% it remains fresh for ages without going off. “Despite its name ‘Zieger‘, which is very similar to the word ‘Ziege’ meaning ‘goat’, it has actually has nothing to do with goats or goats’ milk,” adds Stefan Kranebitter.
Hut cuisine or haute cuisine?
Preparing Graukäse is really easy. All you need to do is cut it into slices around two centimetrs thick and serve it with raw onions, lots of pepper, a pinch of salt, vinegar and oil. This traditional serving style is particularly popular during the hot summer months. Other classic ways of serving Graukäse include Graukäse soup and Zillertaler Krapfen, a savoury dish filled with Graukäse, cottage cheese and potatoes.
“I also love cheese dumplings made with Graukäse, but it is a good idea to use a mixture of Graukäse and hard Tirolean mountain cheese,” says Stefan Kranebitter. Once considered a poor man’s food, Graukäse is being used more and more in haute cuisine. “Graukäse offers so many options to creative chefs. I think it is a product with huge potential.”
Where can I buy Graukäse?
Even today, some mountain huts in Tirol continue to make Graukäse by hand – albeit often only in small quantities for personal consumption. There are also larger dairies which make their own Graukäse and sell it in their own farm shops. Three of the region’s largest dairy producers, the Erlebnissennerei Zillertal, the Käserei Lieb and Tirol Milch, make large quantities of Graukäse which is available in almost every supermarket in the region as well as in many local restaurants.