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Cheese Connoisseur

Culinary passion is legendary in France; a rich cultural heritage, Michelin Stars, and exquisitely inventive chefs. Enjoy a curated journey of south-east France to discover the extraordinary world of cheese making

There are a few places on earth that ignite epicurean passions like France; and when I was asked to take the Tour de Fromage around Lyon (a city of exceptional culinary delights), the picturesque Rhône-Alpes, and the splendid Franche-Comté region I knew I was in for a journey of gourmet indulgence.

Deemed by culinary experts to be one of the planet’s most important agricultural regions; we set out to explore the region for not only the diversity of its cheese offerings but also to appreciate an area steeped in heritage, its name long entwined with old hamlets, towns and cities that pepper the hills, along with the intriguing topography and pristine lakes. We followed the same waterways that shaped the cultural and economic landscapes of one of Europe’s most remarkable nations. A journey that transported us across time and space: through France’s rolling countryside, timeless villages and places of great historic note.

There are those that say some of the cheeses produced in these regions alone are worth a trip to France in themselves — such as Reblochon, Morbier, Bleu de Termignon, Saint-Félicien, Comté and others, since few other regions can boast the amazing ‘terrior’-driven synergies of eastern France, particularly those of the Savoie and Jura areas —and must add that I wholeheartedly agree!

Alpine pastures

The morning is cool and drizzly, as our coach bumps along the road that winds through the French Alps towards the sound of clanging cowbells. A blank GPS screen is not needed to confirm that we are navigating through chartless space in the milky early morning light. Villages fly by: cows nibbling wild flowers in verdant pastures, mountain dwellers clutching rope bags of fresh bread and somewhere below lie the carved chalets of the alpine village of Manigod. Enveloping us from all directions is the primordial landscape of Savoie, the eastern reaches of the French Alps.

Spiritual travellers cover great distances and scale perilous summits to seek wisdom from saints on mountaintops. In our case we have come to learn from cheese masters.

Specifically, we set off to unlock the mysteries of Reblochon, an elastic, soft, bulgy wheel of buttery delight encased within a velvety, orange-tinted rind. Guiding us on this mission is, François Robin, a Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF), who is a tirelessly upbeat cheesemonger with an infectious passion for cheese; without whose impartial knowledge and guidance this trip would not have been half as enjoyable. The MOF (translated as the best craftsman of France) is the highest designation for a cheesemonger in France and a rigorous path of expertise and excellence is required in order to attain such heights – hence the assurance that we were in great hands.

François explains that, for our culinary excursion, Reblochon was chosen because it is a noble cheese (consumed by the nobles) and very much at home on luxurious cheese plates next to celebrated names of the cheese world. And it is made, according to ancient and invariable principles, exclusively within this region, as it has been since the 13th century. The French government has safeguarded its exalted status with it being the first cheese in the region to obtain AOC certification (in 1958) to deter second-class impostors.

A well-curated cheese tour will suggest that it’s much better to leave the fancy confines of a restaurant and trace the product back to its source on the mountaintops of Savoie. The actual charm of this pilgrimage is not that the cheese tastes better at its origin (though it always does) but the opportunity to sample farmstead cheeses: such as a young, sharp Reblochon known locally as Tomme Blanche; or Persillé de Tignes, which dates back to the eighth century and is alleged to have been the favourite cheese of King Charlemagne.

The aim of driving all the way up here to these elevated pastures is, in part, the pleasure of the discovery itself, the journey to that specific crossroads of agriculture and culture that is defined by cheese. And more importantly to witness and appreciate the hard work and passion that goes into every step of cheese production, and to applaud the small village-based cooperative diaries, a system that has created a sense of solidarity and pride and simultaneously preserved the traditions and small-scale production techniques that have helped ensured the legacy of French cheese. It is equally crucial to recognise the importance of the natural environment – each cheese (regionally and even within the same house) has it’s own distinct profile that reflects the soil, climate and the flora upon which the cows graze.

François, fondly talks about the history of Reblochon – a story of ingenuity and survival of a sturdy breed of mountain folk. The cheese is made by mixing the milks of three different breeds of cow: Abondance, Tarine, and Montbéliarde. In the 13th century, the farmers were taxed based on the amount of milk they extracted from their herds. They developed a system of cheating the tax-men by under-milking and then, when they had left, secretly milking the cows a second time. This illicit milking yielded a creamier product that they turned into a cheese, the name of which is derived from re-milking (Reblochon).

The best Reblochon cheeses come from small family owned farms like ‘Ferme des Peizieres’ in Le Bouchet-Mont-Charvin. We are graciously welcomed by the owners: Mathilde and Fabrice, a young couple in their late twenties, who purchased the farm from Fabrice’s uncle; whose family have been making Reblochon fermier (farmer-made), sturdy Tommes de Savoie and pastoral goat-milk Persillé de Manigod on these slopes for as long as anyone can remember. At this farm, we witnessed all the hard work and passion involved in cheese making; a famer’s day begins before sunrise and ends around 10pm: from milking, handling the herd, managing the farm, undergoing the lengthy cheese-making processes (heating; stirring, ladling and moulding the curds) and then repeating the whole process once again. To maintain the AOC appellation for Reblochon, farmers need to milk their cows twice a day, seven days a week and more importantly the milk has to be procured from the same herd!

For centuries, independent, family-owned producers have fed their herds in the summer months on mountain fields like this one and then, when the snow arrives, descended to the valleys below. It make’s you marvel at nature’s finer design in this part of world; meadows of rich green, abundant with wildflowers; white-dusted peaks glittering in the distance; and air as clean and crisp as water from a burbling mountain stream.

‘Would you like to try some cheese?’ Fabrice asks hopefully, when he’s run out of processes to explain. We all gather around an outdoor table nestled within panoramic vistas of the French Alps- what had started, as an insightful lesson in the process of dairy production became a raucous marathon of cheese consumption.

 

The art of the affineur

The cheeses of Savoie are produced in the invigorating atmosphere of Alpine pastures but they ‘age’ in the cold, humid caves of the towns below. Upon arriving in Annecy, the capital of the Haute-Savoie, we are mesmerized by this charming, affluent resort town, set on the north shore of the placid and bewilderingly blue Lake Annecy, a short 45 minutes drive south of Geneva, marked by canals and winding medieval streets.

Annecy also houses the region’s finest ‘affineurs’, in other words masters of cheese caves. More than a cheesemonger, the affineur operates an underground finishing institute for cheese, aging each according to its needs and particular character until it reaches it’s full potential. The farmer is the hard-working labourer extracting the natural dairy products. The affineur on the other hand is sophisticated, worldly; part cheese-whisperer, part specialist and salesman.

We visit a highly regarded third generation ‘fromager’ (cheesemonger) and ‘affineur’, Pierre Gay. His family has been in the business since 1935. He animatedly explains that he hand-selects the cheese from his favourite producers long before they arrive at his fromagerie. Once the cheese undergoes it’s initial affinage (ageing) in the farms near where they are made, they are transported to his underground cheese caves. Pierre, tells us that he ‘treats cheese like children; raising each cheese wheel to its full potential’. An affineur needs to have wide knowledge and experience; his heightened senses ensure that ageing develops the flavour and aroma of the cheese, and strengthens its structure ensuring the cheese reaches its prime.

Both François and Pierre (who were both awarded the MOF title in the same year; 2011) agree that cheese caves are one of the most important part of the process, natural materials like wood, stone, straw are used to create the ideal environment. François recounts that the single most important ingredient in any cheese making is ‘life’ (he likes to use the word life to replace microbes -live cultures or good bacteria) and this is controlled within cheese caves. In fact this microbial wealth is among the many reasons that traditional cheeses can be so much more complex than modern, controlled-culture cheeses. It is due to these different microbes, that various cheeses have different textures, taste and rinds.

Another fascinating discovery was the various sections within cheese caves; controlled by variable temperatures and humidity; since certain types of microbes might not be right for a specific cheese, hence the need for varying atmospheres.  To become a good affineur an understanding of microbiology and chemistry is required to decipher the potential of the cheese as it ages and how best to care for it. Pierre tells us, ‘it will take about 10 years to be a good affineur, a further 10 years to be a master’.

To further witness the art of affinage in greater detail, we head to a slightly larger establishment – the esteemed affineur Joseph Paccard’s facility. Difficult to make out on the southern slope of the Manigod village, at the heart of Aravis mountain range, in Haute-Savoie, lies the family dairy. The large building where the cheeses are matured can easily be confused with the neighbouring chalets faced toward the Aravis mountain range.

The Paccard family have been refining and ageing cheeses from dairy farmers for the last 25 years.  They refine cheeses for 30 farmers in their caves in entirely natural surroundings, using traditional methods.  Each year 240 tonnes of Reblochon is refined and aged here.  The cheese arrives when it is 10 days old and is placed on spruce boards  which are an integral part of the refining process. Interestingly the spruce boards can only be cut three weeks of the year at the end of a waning moon.  The spruce boards produce the microbes required for the Reblochon to mature and at the same time inhibit the bad bacteria from growing.  Each facility has its unique edge and insight, and at Paccard the spruce boards add the secret ingredient. At Paccard we also witnessed the ageing of several other important cheeses that are awarded the AOP status from this region including Tomme de Savoie Fermier, Tomes de Bauges, Beaufort été, Beaufort d’alpage, Abondance Fermier and Chevrotin a goats cheese Reblochon.

The artisan fromagerie

The next leg of our journey took us to the eastern region of Franche-Comté to discover one of the most famous cheeses in France – Comté. It is made from raw milk and needs to ripen under perfect conditions in order to develop its signature hard texture, dusty-brown rind and strong, slightly smoky and sweet taste. The flora in the Jura region is extremely diverse and depending on where the montbéliarde or simmental cows graze as there are so many different wild flowers and grasses; these differences are reflected in the milk producing a variety of flavours and colours of cheese. French law forbids the use of additives (colouring) for it’s cheeses and butters hence in the summer the cheese tends to be a bright yellow, as the herd graze in the higher pastures. While cheese produced by the same cows in the winter is lighter in colour as the herd are fed in the winter barns with local grass collected during the summer and a limited amount of cereal grains; no silage can be fed to these cows at any time of the year, in fact even antibiotics and growth hormones are strictly forbidden. Comté was the first cheese to pass all the strict French restrictions and to be awarded an AOC.

The Janin family had been producing high quality cheeses in the Jura region for five generations. From humble beginnings in 1885, each generation has further expanded the family business based on a shared passion for quality cheese products and the cheese making heritage of the region. Today, specialising in just curating and ageing cheese, their family business- Fromagerie Robert Janin, located in the centre of the quaint town of Champagnole, is one of the most famous artisan cheese shops in the region and particularly well known for its Comtés.

The stone cellars under the fromagerie date back to the 1800s and as we descend the stairs, it feels like a journey through centuries. Down here, owner, affineur and also an MOF, Marc Janin, leads us through the various rooms and displays a world where patterns of blue, grey and white mould grow on cheese wheels lining endless shelves. ‘We age them from a few days to a few months to a few years,’ he explains with unrestrained pride. ‘The quality originates from the producers first, and then we acquire them and nurture them as gently as we can, to produce the most glorious cheeses. Affinage is certainly important however the most important factor is the producer.’ Janin demonstrates the turning of the Comté cheese; he brushes off some of the mould on gigantic wheels, or washes others with salt. Perhaps somewhat conservatively, after various cheese tastings, my favourite is the two-year-old Comté, speckled with tiny, crunchy white crystals known as tyrosene.

The production of Comté began more than ten centuries ago on farms in the Jura Mountains in Eastern France. In a land of long, harsh winters, villagers and farmers formed cooperatives in order to pool their milk and make cheese that would nourish them through spring. The cheeses that resulted were large in format and able to age over a long period of time. Born from this ancient tradition, each day, milk is delivered to 160 small fruitières (cheese making facilities), many of which are situated in the heart of villages scattered throughout the Jura Mountains. Each fruitière receives milk from dairy farms situated within an eight-mile radius to guarantee its absolute freshness. It is fascinating to witness the passion and commitment to produce quality products at every level and the strong affinity towards preserving heritage.

Wonders of the cheese world:
Fort des Rousses

The last afternoon led us to one of the most fascinating expedition of the tour, to the village of Les Rousses that lies on the border of Franche-Comté. And it holds one of the wonders of the cheese world – the Fort des Rousses.  Created by Napoleon to deal with incursions through the Jura region, the Fort is a classic example of 19th century military architecture, encircled by a moat and tall beams protecting the interior building.  But the main part of the fort is underground with high vaulted caves carved into the bedrock.  Initially designed to house 3,000 troops, 1,500 horses and what must have been enough ammunitions to tackle half of Europe, the Fort has been given a new purpose – aging Comté.

Today it holds over 100,000 Comté cheeses in its cheese caves. Jean-Charles Arnaud, current manager of the Juraflore dairy, had the idea of converting this former military fort for affinage. Over the years he has created a genuine temple. It’s a hotspot for cheese and a sophisticated labyrinth, made to house Comté. The objective is clearly to impress the visitor and it is achieved! You feel extremely small upon entering the front door of the immense Fort des Rousses, which comprises of 50,000 m2 of vaulted caves! It is an awe-inspiring place with hazy lighting, a constant drip of water that falls into the solemn silence of the aisles which is punctuated by the sharp ammonia smell from thousands of ripening wheels.

Meanwhile, the wheels of cheese rest on solid wood planks, where the Comté is piled up to 22 wheels high. The corridors are never-ending; shelves of Comté line both sides of the chambers. The ‘Charles Arnaud’ cave, is the most majestic measuring more than 200m in length. In each chamber there is a dedicated robot that proceeds down the lane between the shelves stopping at each cheese sliding it off the shelf, turning it, brushing it and reinserting it, before proceeding to the next wheel.  

The cheese wheels also shift caves, and most importantly temperature. They do not leave the fort until at least a year has passed. With 100,000 wheels and more than 70,000 visitors a year, the Fort de Rousses, with its series of successive cheese vaults, never ceases to amaze. Arnaud, says that ‘even today there is still 20% of the Fort that he has yet to discover’.

Arnaud claims “We listen to the cheeses and do exactly what they tell us to do,” and demonstrates how each and every wheel is tapped with a little cheese hammer and tasted not once but three times before it gets moved or flipped, left to mature further or head to market.

He also excitedly updates us, that Fort de Rousses is conducting scientific research regarding ripening and developing microbes (live cultures). ‘A machine will be used to smear cheeses with mature microbes; we are the only aging facility to experiment with various strains of cultures (bacteria) within the laboratory. It is not difficult to grow these microbiological cultures but preserving them is very complex.’ Arnaud can rightfully be declared a cheese wizard for his unique vision of repurposing Fort de Rousses and for also trying to revolutionise the world of affinage.

Between the farmers on the alpage and their affineur brethren below, I gained an exceptional insight and appreciation into the craft of cheese making.

Places to eat

Georges Blanc in Vonnas: Georges Blanc is a family restaurant set in landscaped gardens in the pretty village of Vonnas and has held three Michelin stars since 1981. The restaurant started out as an inn in 1872 and after three generations of female chefs, Georges Blanc is the first male chef to be at the helm of the Blancs’ kitchens. The crowning glory of this restaurant since the 1930’s is no doubt the iconic Bresse chicken for which the restaurant is still famous today.

Le Manoir des Montagnes, Jura : Situated near the Swiss border and within a short distance from the village of Les Rousses in the Jura mountains, the restaurant set within the Le Manoir des Montagnes hotel offers a magical and restful ambience situated in a valley within the heart of the mountains. The restaurant has great regional and traditional food options on the menu.

Clos des Sens, Annecy: Lunching on the terrace, under the shade of beautiful green trees, is an amazing experience in Annecy. Although situated away from the town centre, both the inventive menu and the exceptional food make the trip worthwhile. The specialities include candied trout to more local dishes such as Serac goat’s cheese.

La Ciboulette, Annecy: Awarded with a Michelin star in 2007, offers beautifully presented food with unbeatable freshness. Situated in a serene part of town, it offers spectacular views. La Ciboulette’s soufflé of Pères Charteux and its crispy raspberries and milk foam are particularly delicious.

Apellation D’origine Controll (AOC)

Apellation d’Origine Controll (AOC) is the French government’s highest cheese award and rating. Currently, over 45 cheeses enjoy this merit and the protections that come along with it. Only the finest cheeses (butters and wines can also be celebrated in this manner) are granted this award. To achieve it, a cheese must have been made using only specific ingredients from a specific region following a specific traditional process. AOC has a history dating back to 1925 when Roquefort (bleu cheese) was first regulated by a parliamentary decree. The AOC distinction — in addition to making demands on the dairies that produce the cheeses — also offers protection to those who still make cheese according to the rules and ways of French heritage. For example not just anyone can make a Camembert: It must be made in Normandy from the milk of cows raised and pastured in Normandy. An AOC rating guarantees a certain market protection for the cheese makers who have earned it.

WORDS: AISHA ZAMAN AND NICK BAINES

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