There are several reasons why Holpstagger is so loved by Buentoillitants, and why it has accordingly become the Official Municipal Cheese; the taste, so nutty and deep, the smell subtle and sweet, the long history and traditions that surround it. Perhaps the main reason for this love, above the other Buentoilliçan cheeses, is the fact that it takes exactly half a year to mature, and acts as another way to mark the passing of the year.
The cheese is made from the milk of the Buentoilliçan Blue, a smallish cow with short black fur that looks almost blue in some lights. They produce only small amounts of milk compared to more intensively farmed cows, but this milk is said to be of a higher quality. This also allows them to travel longer distances without tiring or injuring themselves, as they are not weighed down by impractically huge udders bred into them over centuries. This is an essential trait given the essentially itinerant nature of the cattle.
The Holpstagger wheels that will be cut into with great ceremony today were produced from the mid-September milk harvest, the harvest believed by many to be of the highest quality and flavour. The grass eaten by the cows at that time of year was from the alpine pastures of the Ancestor Mountains to the north of the City, where cattle are traditionally grazed in the summer months. For cheese lovers this grass has a certain magical quality, lending a far more complex, deeper flavour to the milk and cheese it is turned into, especially in comparison to the grass of the land surrounding the City where the cows graze in the spring and autumn.
A recent scientific study into the grass and milk of the alpine pastures concluded that the reason the late summer harvest is particularly prized is because the soil there is rich in a chemical that changes the cow’s metabolism over the course of a few months, leading their milk to contain much more fat than usual. By mid-September this chemical has reached its peak within the cow’s body, and the milk is therefore of the highest quality.
All of this means that the wheels of cheese produced at that time of year are highly prized amongst Buentoillitants, and command high prices accordingly. For those who are not cheese-mad enough to pay these prices, today serves as one of their only chances to try some of the legendary food; ten wheels will be brought up from a special maturation cave beneath Ranaclois Hill, then cut into very small pieces and shared out amongst all who attend. Whilst true connoisseurs choose to eat the cheese on its own, a number of crackers, chutneys and tracklements are on offer from local producers, alongside other accompaniments. The most popular accompaniment to the cheese is the unopened flower bud of the priscat tree, which usually bloom around this time of year. They are sweet and fiery, complimenting the deep, low, nutty flavours of the cheese. One hundred other wheels are sold by the slice at the festival today, held in the main hall of the Guild of Fromagers in the west of the City.
Outside the Guild, an old wooden building with murals depicting cheese-making painted on the front façade, are placed many long benches, along which hungry Buentoillitants sit. A green canopy is placed over the courtyard if it rains. Inside, the Chief Fromager, a personage of great prestige and skill, voted upon at the end of today’s festival each year, sits upon a throne with many small holes cut in it known as the ‘Ghost Chair’. The throne is so named because the holes which litter Holpstagger cheese are said to have been eaten by ghosts, their ‘share’ of the cheese they helped produce by tending the pastures of the Ancestor Mountains.
The Chief Fromager has the esteemed role of handing out a small piece of Holpstagger to all who attend the festival, and the equally important role of remembering all their faces and names so that they don’t come back for seconds. This detail gives proceedings the feel of a graduation ceremony, the Chief Fromager playing the role of Chancellor who smiles, shakes hands and asks a few quiet questions of those receiving their prize.
At the end of the festival, when everyone has been given their own piece of cheese, or has bought a few slices to eat with chutney and crackers, the remaining thousand-or-so wheels are auctioned off to the highest bidder. Those made from milk taken exactly six months ago today fetch the highest price, and will be eaten at large dinner parties across the western half of the City (the eastern half being primarily vegan) tonight, to ensure they they maintain the optimum taste.
Members of the Vegan Siblinghood will usually picket the festival today, handing out leaflets to those who enter, pointing out the evils of the milk industry. Whilst most throw away these leaflets, which also propose alternatives to cheese, some more vehement cheese lovers have been known to become violent with these protesters in the past, and harsh words are often exchanged. Tradition is king in Buentoille, and it’s unlikely that these protesters will have any large impact any time soon, but they do occasionally convert the odd vegetarian who wasn’t aware that, for example, the milk industry requires that the cows are kept pregnant, and male calves and then sent to slaughter. In its defence, the Guild of Fromagers states that ‘all the milk we use has come from organic cows that have the highest welfare standards, as we believe that this produces the best cheese,’ although the Vegan Siblinghood has contended on various occasions that this does nothing to change the industry’s systemic issues.
Other festivals happening today:
- The Vegan Siblinghood’s Introduction to Cooking with Cheese Alternatives
- The Union of Milk-Worker’s Day Off
- Undulating Rhyme: A Day of Worship for the Works of Danisan Galeveli