Quel fromage? Ski sweetheart Lindsey Vonn stumped some U.S. cheese sellers with the obscure curd she slathered on her bruised shin to help her heal quickly for the Vancouver Olympics.
When Vonn was injured Feb. 2 during training in Austria, she did as some Austrian skiers do: She wrapped topfen cheese curd on her right shin to ease swelling.
What's it called? Is it from cows?
"I've never heard of it," said Zack Schafer, manager of Cheese Traders & Wine Sellers in South Burlington — Vermont ski country. "In this part of the world, poutine's pretty common, but I'd look at them quizzically if somebody put poutine on an injury."
Rachel Riggs, who owns the cheese and wine shop Quel Fromage in Bellingham, Wash., just this side of the Canadian border and 45 minutes from Mount Baker, was similarly challenged.
"Is that a home remedy, or is that an old wive's tale, or what is it? She basically tried to leave no curd unturned," Riggs said. "Curds are not a sophisticated cheese. They're like a fun, campy sort of cheese. Their flavors are not complex. It's kind of like string cheese versus an aged gruyere."
The gourmet cheese royalty over at Murray's Cheese Shop, among the best in New York City, had no clue. "We are not familiar with topfen cheese," said a spokeswoman, Mindy Lvoff.
A little placenta on your hamstring?
Vonn's not the first athlete to reach for unusual treatments for help with an injury: Serbian soccer player Danko Lazovic reportedly had placenta juice rubbed into a bad hamstring by a Belgrade housewife with a reputation for speeding up recovery. His experience led Dutch player Robin Van Persie to the housewife's door after an ankle injury.
There are devotees to oil from the fat of emu for a multitude of ailments, including a rub for pain, swelling and aching muscles and joints, just as the Aborigines of Australia have done for thousands of years, according to Emuoilnaturally.com. "The ancient people of Australia have long known what the western World is just beginning to realize in the last decade or so."
Then there's the hyperbaric chamber crowd, including many on the pro cycling circuit.
Athletes' treatments 'usually ahead of the curve'
"Some athletes think they can recover from a hard workout or a hard game just from being in it. Athletes are usually ahead of the curve when it comes to finding alternative methods for either enhancing their performance or their healing," said sports Dr. Nicholas DiNubile, an orthopedic surgeon in suburban Philadelphia who has consulted for the Philadelphia 76ers and the Pennsylvania Ballet.
In the dairy lands of Wisconsin, food chemist John Lucey said Austrian topfen does indeed come from cows but is virtually unheard of his way. It's a white, semisoft cheese but doesn't have chunky bits like cottage cheese. It's fresh, high in acid and low in fat with a grainy texture somewhere between mayonnaise and spreadable cream cheese. The variety is very popular not only in Austria but in Germany, Poland and Russia under other names — for eating.
"Using it on an injury is an unusual purpose for cheese even in those countries," said Lucey, who teaches and does research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "It's not clear if there's anything in this that would help."
Research has emerged that points to anti-inflammatory benefits of bioactive peptides from milk proteins broken down in fermented yogurts, cheeses and other dairy products — again, when eaten. Whether Vonn's topfen is among them is unclear, he said.
More likely, Lucey said, Vonn's Austrian counterparts — and her Austrian coach — were influenced by a tradition of applying poultices to injuries.
When she reached for the cheese, the 25-year-old Vonn also tried laser therapy and massage. She's using painkillers and a Novocaine-type cream. Perhaps more importantly, according to DiNubile and other sports doctors, she's had several weather-related days off for rest and a reprieve from a brutal competition schedule as she pursues medals in five events.
"Elite athletes are so on the brink of over-training and collapse," DiNubile said. "This is why you see a lot of injuries. Is the cheese a placebo? Who knows. Sometimes a little bit of rest goes a long way."