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Get Cultured: Top 10 Storied Cheese Destinations

There are some special places in the world where cheese is a cornerstone of the culture.
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Cheese is beloved the world over. Virtually every culture has a cheese to call its own. However, there are some special places in the world where cheese is a cornerstone of the culture. Many of these towns and regions are synonymous with some of the world's best-known cheeses and whet appetites near and far. Others celebrate cheese with creativity and passion. Whether they have a long history, fun traditions, or a culinary (or cult) following, these locales are Cheapflights.com's picks for places where cheese rules.

Parma, Italy
Cheapflights.com begins its world cheese tour in Parma, Italy. Imagine trading your house for an endless supply of a special cheese. That’s the level of love inspired by Parmesan, even more than 1,100 years ago. What started as a local specialty, initially made by monks in the Middle Ages, burst its regional boundaries with the growth of trade in the 13th century. Its first reputed claim to fame was a noblewoman of Genoa who, in 1254, traded her home for 53 pounds a year of cheese from Parma. Over the centuries, the cheese makers of Parma and nearby Reggio standardized their production process and officially adopted the name Parmigiano-Reggiano for their product. In Europe, any cheese labeled Parmesan is made in the Parma region. And efforts are underway to limit the use of the name in other parts of the world. Get a first-hand look how the so-called King of Cheeses shaped the development of Parma and surrounding provinces with a visit to the Museo del Parmigiano Reggiano or see it being crafted with a factory tour. Image: Parmesan series (Thor)
Gloucestershire, United Kingdom
Here, cheese’s biggest day comes in May when thousands descend for the annual Cooper’s Hill cheese-rolling races. Competitors from as far as Australia and Japan join in a series of races chasing a wheel of the local Double Gloucester cheese down an impressively steep hill. Sounds simple but it’s closer to insane. The rolling cheese builds up to speeds of close to 70 miles per hour. The mad dash to catch it, or at least be first down the hill behind it, repeats four times during the day – three men’s races and one women’s race. In between, kids 14 and under race up the hill, which isn’t really much easier though at least there doesn’t need to be a line of rugby players at the finish line to catch out-of-control competitors. The prize for the race winners is, of course, the very cheese they’ve been chasing. Image: Cheese rolling (Michael Warren)
Alkmaar, Netherlands
The history of Dutch cheese dates back centuries. In the 1600s, as the Dutch (and others) took to the seas, the renowned cheese of the Netherlands – Gouda, Edam, Beemster – went with them. To support the burgeoning demand, bustling cheese markets became the commercial center of the Dutch cheese world. Today, five such markets remain, including one in Alkmaar that opened in 1593 and continues to operate with the traditions of yore. Every Friday from April through September, the cheese carriers, dressed in the traditional garb of the cheese guilds and led by the “Cheese Father,” tote large cheese wheels on wooden carriers hung from the shoulder for weighing, inspection and purchase. Deals are made with hand signals, and cheese is tossed around and tasted with abandon. It’s a spectacle that’s been going on in the same way for more than 400 years. Image: Alkmaar Cheese Market (Cycletours Holiday used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license)
Île d’Orléans, Quebec, Canada
In the middle of the St. Lawrence River, just east of Quebec City, lies Île d’Orléans (the island of Orleans), which was one of the earliest French settlements in Canada. These settlers, true to their French heritage, were the first to make cheese in North America. Cheese-making methods on Île d’Orléans, which remained a rural farming island for generations and still retains its rustic feel, has been handed down over the years, dating back to the 1600s. Today, the traditional cheese of the island is sold locally by costumed vendors. There are three variations of Fromages de l’isle d’Orléans, with two sold only on the island. Image: Île d'Orléans, panorama (Jean-David and Anne Laure used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license)
Roquefort, France
While cheese is a way of life throughout much of France, the village of Roquefort is basically built on cheese. The collapse of Combalou Mountain created a network of natural caves that are the one and only place where Roquefort cheese can be aged. While the village itself is home to fewer than 1,000 people, its caves hold hundreds of thousands of aging wheels of this pungent but highly sought-after cheese. The history of the cheese dates back to the Middle Ages and is rumored to have been invented by a shepherd who left his cheese curd and rye bread lunch behind in a cave to chase a shepherdess who caught his eye. He returned days later to find his moldy meal. Quite hungry, he still opted to eat it and made a delicious discovery. Today, seven companies produce Roquefort, each with its own blend of sheep milk curds and specially bred molds. It’s this mold, however, that has prompted the most recent chapter of the story as the FDA just declared Roquefort and other moldy cheeses off limits in the United States, launching what some are calling a “war on cheese.” Image: Fabryka serów roquefort (ZSPNrdwa Krosno)
Pag Island, Croatia
This windswept island in the Adriatic Sea has the salt air to thank for its cheese-making acclaim. Specifically, it’s the work of the Bora, a strong and cool wind born in the mainland mountain range of Velebit that layers salt dust across the island. The goats of Pag Island roam freely in the salt-dusted fields, dining on the very hearty and aromatic plants that survive the effects of the Bora. The goats are, of course, the dairy source for making Paški Sir or Pag Island Cheese. Nature ensures that Pag Island Cheese is like no other, but so do the locals who are dedicated to the cheese-making tradition and to caring for the 40,000 sheep that feed the process. Image: From Island to Mountain (Dinko Srkoc)
Wisconsin, United States
No place takes pride in its cheese like Wisconsin. People wear their love of cheese and of home on their heads. Welcome to “America’s Dairyland” where 15 percent of the country’s milk is produced along with more than 350 varieties of award-winning cheese. Welcome, also, to Green Bay Packer country. The NFL team’s home crowd is easy to spot as fans fill Lambeau Field in green and yellow jerseys and giant cheese hats. These self-proclaimed “cheeseheads” are following in the footsteps of Ralph Bruno, who made the first cheesehead hat from the foam of a sofa cushion using a turkey slicer. Bruno wore the original to a Milwaukee Brewers baseball game in 1987. Its immediate popularity prompted Bruno to trademark and begin selling the hat, which is now a symbol of local pride for Green Bay and all of Wisconsin. Image: Cheeseheads in stadium (Chris F)
Chihuahua, Mexico
Spanish settlers brought the European cheese-making tradition to Mexico and, to this day, many towns and regions have their own local cheeses. However, the Spanish were not the ones to put the Mexican state of Chihuahua on the cheese map. In the 1920s, a wave of Mennonites from Canada settled in Mexico, buying much of the land that had belonged to William Randolph Hearst until he was expelled after the Mexican Revolution. The members of this group were welcomed to Mexico to farm this land with the freedom to form their own communities and abide by their own rules. Generally following a simple lifestyle and living off the land, the Mennonites of Mexico were the ones to first craft queso Chihuahua, or Chihuahua cheese. Also known as queso menonita, this cheese is still regularly made by members of the Mennonite communities in and around the town of Cuauhtemoc. It’s also a widely enjoyed staple of the Mexican diet, commonly melted for dishes such as chili con queso, enchiladas and queso frito (breaded fried cheese). Image: Mennonite Family (Adam Jones used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license)
Tibet
Move over cows, goats and even donkeys. There is a new milk in town for making cheese – yak milk or, more properly, dri milk as that is what the females are called. Atop the Tibetan Plateau, a new cheese movement is growing. Dri milk has long been drunk fresh well as used for yogurts and butter. Its role in cheese making is what’s changing. The Himalayans have generally favored more buttermilk-style dairy products than western-style cheese. However, in recent years, with the help of cheese-making experts from overseas, monasteries and diaries are crafting “yak cheeses” with the western palate in mind, capturing the attention of foodies and even big city restaurants looking for something special for their menu. By going global with their cheese, many Tibetans hope to bring outside income and attention to their region while still preserving their culture. Image: Yak & Everest (Jody McIntyre used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license)
Emmental, Switzerland
The mild, holey cheese from this German-speaking region of Switzerland has been extremely popular for centuries. It’s the country’s biggest cheese export, by far, and its devotees come by the tens of thousands each year for a first-hand look (and taste) at the cheese-making traditions thought to date back to the 1300s. While “Swiss” cheese might be made around the world, you have to be in the Emmen Valley to experience Emmental cheese. Fortunately, there’s an app for that – a downloadable Emmen Valley cheese trail walking and biking guide. Or, head on over to Cheese Street, which takes you through the valley and past dairies where you can milk cows and make cheese. The culmination is the Show Dairy, a village dedicated to teaching about Emmental cheese making through the centuries. Image: Schaukäserei (Affoltern - Emmental) (Sergio Calleja (Life is a trip) used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license)

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