Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Cutting Loose in Thiers

Have you ever heard of Thiers? I hadn’t either. What about Laguiole? Maybe? Well, they’re both famous for knives. The rustic French goats herder (Yves, see Blog 3) had told us Thiers knives are Laguiole knives for normal people (in fact he said non-snobs).

Well, Thiers is close by so: “On y va”. Lots of knife shops, some good, some brilliant. It’s a lovely location, with the centre of the town on the hillside. The shop we were recommended (Chambriard) was a veritable knife heaven (although the classic Frenchman serving us refused to believe that stainless steel was invented in Sheffield, England). I quickly realised Thiers does make a lot of knives, you can tell, and the town has an industrial feel. The chefs’ knife brand Sabatier is also made there.

Laguiole by contrast is more touristy and more quaint, and it shows in the knives: Laguiole – elegant, Thiers – practical and functional (the difference in price is minimal, if anything). Although I gather the vast majority of Laguiole knives are nowadays made in Thiers (the style of knife originated in Laguiole but not a lot is currently made there).

And before you ask if I bought a knife in Thiers, of course I didn’t: my Dad’s from Sheffield - if I want a knife, I’ll get one from where stainless steel was invented!

But what about cheese? I hear you say. Well, on the way to Thiers I had to stop at a local laitière (dairy) who works very closely with Mons. In fact he only produces cheese and Mons affinés all of his products for him in the tunnel, before giving them back to him to sell when they’re ready. It was nice to understand the production of certain cheeses before they arrive at Mons. In particular the local cheese – Lavort – is made there then shipped to Mons where it is aged until the flavour, texture and appearance develop to their best. Lavort is a sheep's milk pressed cheese that is made in an interesting shape (reflecting the extinct volcanoes in the area). When they arrive at Mons they are barely out of the brine bath (which gives them their salt), over time their rind goes through several micro-bacterial changes to form the characteristic brown, tough dusty rind.

Monday, 29 November 2010

St Maure and St Maure

After tasting all 17 varieties of Paccard’s Reblochon, as well many other affineurs’ and producers’ too, I was ready for a wee break from the big flavoured cheeses of the Savoie. And what better than a nice, fresh, lactic St Maure goats cheese.

St Maure is the original goats log. Thin and long, made in the Loire (where many of France’s famous goat cheeses hail from); it is characteristic by the straw through the middle, used to hold the fragile curd together; by the time it reaches you it’s probably not necessary but when we are handling it, at the early stages of affinage it is indispensable. If you want to impress your friends, pull out the straw and show them inscribed on it in tiny laser writing “St Maure de Touraine” and the producer’s details.

We were having a bit of an experiment at Mons. We needed a bit more St Maure and we already took all of our farmers supply! So we got in several other producers, and aged their cheeses. Then we tasted - comparing against our current supplier as well as comparing our ageing with each producers ageing. And what a difference - there really is St Maure and St Maure! I find the same again and again - although two cheese can share the same name, AOC, region of origin, production techniques, the range in quality is amazing.

After a blind tasting, it was determined: our method of affinage and current supplier was best (of course!). Our cheese had a homogenous, smooth delicate paste and good developed flavour. The others could be a little bit dry, floury, clarty/sticky in the mouth. You can see our cheese in the picture - it's the one with a nice cream line under the skin, the other is a bit dry and floury.

Yet there was another current contender, close to ours but not quite. So what does Hervé do - sends that supplier off to work with our current farmer, to pick up his tricks and tips. Then Hervé visits, watches the production, make suggestions, tweaks. A month down the line and our second producer’s product has increased quality by leaps and bounds; good enough to put our name on it - a George Foreman special!

Lyon's Les Halles

My good friend Will Harper (Restaurant Manager at Liverpool’s Malmaison, that's him on the left) came to visit for the weekend. Being a man who likes and appreciates good food and wine, as well as the occasional Greggs (I know you do, too!), we decided to visit the gastronomic capital of the world, Lyon (and I thought it was Sheffield Indoor Market).

Well for two northerners who don’t like to show their emotions much… we were mildly impressed.

I’ve spent my time in many a market in France and England: indoor, outdoor, farmers’, foodie, from the cheap and cheerful to the gastronomic and fine – I could probably list it as one of my hobbies. Yet Lyon’s Les Halles indoor market is truly a food paradise. I was like a child in a sweetshop: marvelling at the ultra-fresh produce from the glistening fresh fish to the newly baked sparkling pastries. There were lots of permanent market stalls serving the best produce that France can offer – no wonder Lyon’s Les Halles has become somewhat of an institution to the locals.

And it has five cheesemongers. Five! I didn’t know where to start. So we had a glass of wine to calm down in one of the many side stalls serving produce straight from the market. We then attacked oysters, charcuterie, pastries and fine wine. A house re-mortgage, sore head and happy tummy later, we decided it was time to explore the rest of Lyon.

That was impressive too – as well as being beautiful and historic, this really is a town that revolves around food at every corner. We revolved around the beer. Then the wine. A lovely meal later, and we decided Lyon was definitely a place where we could eat (and drink) well.

But the gastronomic capital of the world? We weren’t too sure… now if they’d had Yorkshire pudding there...

Saturday, 13 November 2010


Sheep! I hadn’t seen that many in these parts, and being a Cumbrian was starting to feel a little lost. But a short distance away from our caves is Richard, a humble farmer who gave up his job as an accountant to buy 30 hectares of land. Of that, his sheep (60) take up 20 hectares, 10 hectares is vineyard, and a little restaurant adjoins the farm, which he runs at only the weekend. A jack of all trades, and after tasting his cheese, his wine and his restaurant food - he’s a master of them all too!

I was here to help him make cheese for the day; as per usual I hoped to pick up the little tricks and trips that will help me on my cheesy quest. Only a tiny amount of cheese is made at Richard’s each day, and Mons pretty much takes it all – which is great for Richard as he can concentrate on the farm. One of the reasons external affineurs are important is that they allows the farmer to concentrate on the farm and increasing quality of production. Affineurs concentrate on ageing the product properly and take responsibility for the tricky task of selling the cheese. Selling the cheese takes a lot of time for a farmer – visiting farmers’ markets, searching for clients, delivering – all these take time that can be better spent on the farm!

The day starts early as the sheep are milked in his small parlour; they are of the Lacaune breed (identical to that used for Roquefort) – their milk is of very high quality and a great flavour, which comes through in the cheese. Richard doesn’t have to add very much salt at all to bring out the flavour. After milking we put the sheep back in the fields and set about adding the ferment and rennet. Then yesterday’s cheeses were removed from their moulds, salted and set to dry. The newly set curd was moulded and I was finished for the day (Richard was off to tend the vines and sheep). Easy peasy!

But that’s only because he has this technique honed down, and I was working with a man who definitely knows his land and his animals. We made one of the last batches of the year: the sheep will soon stop producing milk (breeding up until lambing) for 5-6 months. All sheep’s milk cheeses are seasonal like this. Many producers, however, freeze the milk (or keep the cheeses at really low temperatures) to have cheeses out of season – be wary of these cheeses: their flavour and texture is much poorer. Hervé sent a load back to one producer this week as we could tell it was frozen milk when it arrived: it simply doesn’t age, taste and feel the same.

In Search of Reblochon

Reblochon is a very ancient cheese (13th century), but not well-known for many years, and is still not that famous within the UK. Its availability and popularity comes and goes with the occasional celebrity chef’s recipes, but it is rarely, if ever, found on a cheeseboard, even in France. One of the reasons could perhaps be because the majority (80%) is made in creameries rather than on a farm (fermier) – although this has the same velvety texture, the flavour is often plain, un-complex and rather like milk (it has a short coagulation time and affinage, so relies heavily on the rich milk flavours). Even with the fermier cheeses (discernible by the green casein plaque and green label on the packaging) it is still hard to find a magnificent one outside Savoie - the Savoyards like to keep them for themselves!

For many years Reblochon was in fact kept a secret. Sorry to all those who know the story, but for those that don’t, the farmers used only to partly milk their cows on the day when stewards came to measure their yield and determine the tax to be paid. The resulting withheld milk (which also happens to be richer) would then be milked from the cow and transformed into a cheese – ‘lait de reblocher’ means ‘withheld milk’. This cheese-making had to be fast - hence the fabrication immediately after milking, heavy use of rennet, short coagulation time and quick ripening by washing and ageing at a high temperature.

Those that know Reblochon often know it because of the French dish - Tartiflette. And it isn’t often that Reblochon is mentioned without Tartiflette cropping up in the same sentence. In fact Tartiflette was invented only recently (in the eighties) by the Syndicat Interprofessionnel du Reblochon in order to sell and popularise Reblochon. Yet this was a double-edged sword – the reputation of Reblochon runs now alongside the dish and the cheese is rarely recognised on its own for the quality, smooth, unctuous beast it can be. I wanted to find that cheese!

Setting off from Thones, I headed up into the mountains of Aravis. At 1300m, I thought I had got high enough and I saw a sign for a farm that made Reblochon, so popped in. No one was around. I asked a neighbour if they made cheese there. He looked at me gone out. In the summer? Of course not - go higher! So half an hour of winding roads later I reached the Col de la Croix Fry. From there it was on foot up winding mountain trails till I reached the Plateau de Beauregard. At last, here they were: farms a plenty, cows in the pasture with their bells dinging and donging, playing the tune of the mountains. Let the tasting begin! Several farms and Reblochons later I was just about to give up (they were great, but not that great). Then - bang! I found it! That flavour, texture and smell I was looking for. Now to quiz the makers: production techniques, sales and, most importantly, affinage.

But when it came to how they aged their cheese the same name cropped up - Paccard of Manigod. Well it just so happened their 20th anniversary of being affineurs of Reblochon was that night, so I squeezed my way in to the celebrations.

And what a night. We started by tasting each of the products from each of the farms Paccard work with (17 Reblochons anyone?) – an amazing array of different distinct flavours. The quality was fantastic in every one, although of course I naturally had my favourites. And yes, they know how to affine the others too: their Beaufort, Chevrotin, Abondance, Bleu de Termingnon and Tommes were equally fantastic.

Then the celebration meal: if you could write a list of who’s who in affinage and top quality cheese, they were there – Bernard Anthony, Van Tricht, Androuet; as well as the twenty-odd farms that Paccard work with. Jean-Francois, one of the family, very kindly invited me up into the mountains early the next day to watch the milking and production of Reblochon and Abondance, before giving me a tour and explaining their process of affinage for all of their products – very complex - various rooms, moving, washing, temperatures, wrapping and of course – the touch (see my later blog - Tools of the Affineur).

As Joseph Paccard said in his speech at the end of the night: Reblochon is a cheese that should not only be famous for Tartiflette - it should be on the best cheeseboards in France. And after tasting his - I have to agree: his Reblochon is ‘Top!’

Thursday, 14 October 2010

The Great Affineurs of the Savoie

Affinage. That buzzword, which I seem to keep going on about (it is why I’m in France after all). Hervé Mons is considered one of the best affineurs in the World, and that is why I’m here with him to improve upon my affinage craft. However, there are other affineurs out there too, although many of them specialise in the products of their own region. As affinage is such a subjective subject, with everyone using their own tools, tricks, techniques, caves and other idiosyncrasies, I thought it would make sense to visit a few of the other affineurs to pick up what I can from them!

First stop - Savoie! The Savoie is an amazingly beautiful region in France, with 93% of its terrain classified ‘mountainous’. But, more importantly it is home to some of my favourite, and the world’s best, cheese: Beaufort, Abondance, Reblochon, Bleu de Termignon, Chevrotin, Tarentais, as well as numerous Tommes (de Savoie, de Roche, de Crayeuse, de Bauges - every farm here makes their own style).

And although there are numerous dairies here too, the beauty of the cheese in the Savoie is that much is made in high alpine farms with maybe just 30 animals and tiny production (look out for Beaufort Alpage, Reblochon with a green sticker, as well as any Chevrotin, Tarentais and Bleu de Termignon). The high mountain pastures give fantastic floral diversity; consequently the milk of the cows and goats here is rich, floral and – by gum – delicious! This passes straight through to the cheese and that’s why it has such flavour.

All these small farms, at dizzy altitudes (1500m+), need someone to fetch the cheeses, age them and take them to market. That’s where the affineurs step in: Savoie is home to some big names in the affinage world.

My first stop was Denis Provent, Chambery, retailer of all Savoie cheese delicacies, he has recently come to fame for his Tarentais cheese. Only 2 producers of this relatively rare cheese exist, and its become a buzzword among cheese connoisseurs at the moment; it’s very interesting because it’s characteristics change completely with age (affinage), and eating three different ages is like eating three completely different cheeses. Yet unlike many other cheeses, all the different ages are fantastic and it’s hard to choose a peak in its life! So I visited his caves, and had a chat about his methods of affinage, picking his brain where I could! He has six caves, all located underground – old tunnels, ice sheds, natural caves – with many cheeses sitting there quite contentedly.

Next stop: Schmidhauser. A much bigger, commercial affair. Large, purpose-built caves (again with Hervé’s help – he pops up everywhere!), to age masses upon masses of cheese. That being said, the quality is good, and their specialities are particularly interesting - Tomme de Crayeuse and Chartreuex. Their master of ceremonies gave me a tour and a taste, before taking me off to visit one of his dairies making Tomme de Savoie.

My trip next takes me to Farto de Thones, a bit further up the mountain, (again one of Hervé’s friends - who isn’t?). They are actually a co-operative and started by working with fermier (farm) Reblochon producers up in the mountains, ageing their products, and taking care of all the selling and marketing. This is still the lions’ share of their business, yet now they also make and affiné other Savoie delicacies. Their tunnels are massive and almost as impressive as Schmidhauser’s. Yet again, a few more tips: different ways of working, different ideas. With these Savoie cheeses, although all these affineurs carry the same cheeses by name, the slight differences in techniques of production and affinage result in a remarkable diversity: no two Abondances, Beauforts, and Reblochons are really the same. Each affineur has his own expertise.

Yet, after all my time in France I was still to find a Reblochon that would blow me away. They were great here, but not especially better than other Reblochon I had tasted before: a velvety texture, a strong assertive smell and creamy, buttery, floral, complex flavour, or some that were a bit like eating a rare tender rib-eye steak. I was looking for that special Reblochon – a cheese that would make me think, “Yes! I’m in the right trade.”

So I asked around and all the locals said just one word – “Paccard”. Go up into the mountains, they said. So off I went, in my search of that Reblochon.

To be continued…

Comté and Affinage

A wee bit more science for you, on the famous French cheese of Comté (Gruyère style). Appellation controlled, the production and first four months of affinage happen in the Franche-Comte region of France. It then arrives with us at Mons.

To show you how different affinage can affect the final flavour can be seen very clearly with two examples we have in the cave at the moment. One has been kept at about 7°-8°C, the other 12°-14°C. The cheese at the lower temperature is actually older, but the other cheese has far more flavour. The reason for this is the temperature; the lower temperature is perfect for protein breakdown but is too low for propionic fermentation, which is essential to fully develop the flavour of Comté. The warmer cheese was kept at the lower temperature for the first month of its life then put at a higher temperature to allow the propionic bacteria to develop the flavour, leading to a more rounded, complex final taste.

The reason why Hervé Mons takes the cheeses as young as he can (four months) rather than leave it with the affineurs in the area, is so he can control this process. And he cannot just take any cheese. Each day’s production from each farm is tasted so we can determine which will age the best to develop the finest flavours – we then take that whole batch. As Mons age at higher temperatures than most, several farms’ production of Comté age too fast because of the types of ferment they use and their individual production process, so we also have to know that before we choose.

Then the cheese arrives. It’s weighed and put in the cave. At Mons each cheese is turned and dealt with individually by hand, rather than by machine. Although more expensive (and back breaking!), it means that instead of treating every cheese the same, we can react to each cheese as it develops differently and at different speeds. This week for the same batch of Comté, some were just turned, others brushed, some washed with a special solution, some floured and a few dry-salted and wiped, according to how they were developing – leading to a more consistent higher quality.

Now, imagine this is one example of over 150 cheeses we affine here, that’s some knowledge you have to got to have – no wonder being an affineur is a trade for life! Although some techniques are similar; every cheese is in reality treated differently to bring out its best flavour; a knowledge and skill that I’m slowly picking up

Monday, 27 September 2010

Vacherin Mont D'Or is Almost There!

Vacherin's off its planks, had its final wash & in it's sealed box cocoon for it's final step off affinage.Only a few weeks now and the first bacth will be ready for reaching your shores, ovens, spoons and mouths!

Cheddar in France? Surely Not?

When I think of French cheeses I think of the classics: Brie, Camembert, Munster, Epoisses, Beaufort, Comté. The soft, the washed rinds and the supple mountain cheeses. None of the textures and flavours we find with the hard British cheeses such as Cheddar, Gloucester, Leicester and the like. But there it was, hiding in the corner of the cave at Mons – an English Cheddar. Regarded suspiciously by the other affineurs, I give it a bit of English love and attention. But England’s most famous gift to the cheese world as a cheese style cannot be denied, can it? Apparently, in France, yes: “Ah, but we invented it first…” Surely not? I had to find out!

Searching around the cave I found cheeses with a similar texture and flavour – Cantal, Salers and Laguiole, native to the Auvergne region and neighbours (Central South France). These cheeses, however, have a different flavour profile from Cheddar, helped by the fact they have slight differences in production (but not much), different breeds of cows, different terroir, and they all form natural rinds (not cloth-bound like traditional British Cheddars).

In fact, I’d tasted these cheeses before in the UK and have never really been impressed, until an encounter with Ann-Marie of The Fine Cheese Company: the Cantal she had brought for me to taste was amazing, with a complexity of flavour and texture not easily rivalled. It had been aged by affineur Xavier Morin of Aurillac (who specialises in cheeses of the Auvergne), so I swallowed my Cheddar-ish British pride and went to meet him to see what I could learn.

All of Xavier Morin’s cheeses were fantastic, and beautifully aged; he really has a true connection with his terroir. His unique cave and tunnel, as well as his specialist affinage techniques, really contribute to the flavour of his cheeses. (You can buy some of them online at The Fine Cheese Co.’s website.)

After viewing his caves we went up into the mountains to view the fabrication of Salers. Salers de Buron is made only in the summer (actually 15th April – 15th November, though often cut short by the weather) in the mountains of the Auvergne region. Exclusively made on farms, the name comes from the small wooden huts called burons. The rich flora, under-sown by phosphorus, potash and magnesia soils, adds real depth to this cheese.

The fabrication of Salers starts immediately after the milking, and takes several days before the wheel is formed ready to be aged. Rennet-set (the quality of the milk has no need for commercial starters and ferments); it is then gently cut, pressed into blocks for 1½ hours with regular turnings, and then left to rest for a day, before being milled and salted. Then rested again before being pressed into its wheel shape for 48 hours. Affinage often takes place in small caves on the farm (although Xavier takes them straight after production and ages the cheese in his tunnel), with the natural flora, affinage temperature, humidity and process forming the rind. And when it’s finished, yes, it has a great flavour.

There are unfortunately less than 100 producers left for this labour-intensive cheese. I went to watch ‘Salers de Buron Traditional’. Even more traditional, even more hard work, with only eight producers left, what makes this cheese unique (and different to generic Salers de Buron) is that the cheese must be made with the milk of only the Salers cow, which gives only a tiny bit of rich flavoursome milk (seven litres per day, compared with 20+ litres for more commercial breeds).

The Salers cow looks big and aggressive with its huge horns. It is, however, the opposite: gentle, quiet and very maternal. The maternal instinct is what makes the cow a right pain to milk. At each milking the cow’s calf must be present. To milk the cows the farmer rejoins the calf with its mother by gently calling out for the name of the calf (knowing them all by heart) The calf obediently trots forward and lines up next to its mother. The suckling starts, and then it is gently removed and the cow milked normally. Without doing this, the cow refuses to be milked. That’s why there are less and less producers every year – every day starts at 4.30 in the morning and finishes at 10 each night, often to produce only one 30kg cheese. It’s also why Xavier, rather gallantly, does not add a margin when he sells ‘Salers Traditional’, giving all the profits back to the farmer.

Hervé Mons also champions this cheese, and does his best to promote and preserve it too. All those years ago (he won’t tell me how many!) when he was learning his trade, he did a whole summer season with Salers Traditional. His deep friendship with the old farmer Marcel has continued to this day. An early start to view the milking here was also in order. High in the mountains the farm hands travel out the cows to milk them in-situ using little one-legged stools. The milk is then returned to the buron, situated in the middle of nowhere, where the next generation of Salers producer is learning his trade. Several hours later, the process finished, he places a finished cheese in his small cave. Guarded by the cross of butter above the door (a superstitious ritual using the first milk of the season), the finished Salers rest, awaiting Hervé to turn up with his van and take them to his cave.

And as to who invented the ‘Cheddar’ recipe first, I think it depends who you ask… But I think - the clue is in the name!

By the way, we’ve got another intern here for a short while: Elizabeth Chubbuck is wholesale manager at Murray’s, and she’s with us for a week to get an idea what we do, before going to the promised land (England) for dairy tours and some time with Neal’s Yard Dairy. So I spend a few days with her explaining and showing her how we conduct the affinage here, whilst secretly, when Hervé isn’t listening, trying to persuade her that English cheeses are the best! But to no avail, a quick trip to Salers and she is in love with France, can’t blame her really.

It’s great to meet another keen cheese enthusiast and for those Americans interested, she’ll be running a course on what she's learnt at Murray’s, the iconic cheesemongers in New York, later this month.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

It's Not All About Cheese

Just in case my cheese stories were starting to grate on you, I thought I’d give you a slice of some different action (two jokes in one – bargain!).

Whilst travelling around I’ve also visited some fantastic wine producers in Burgundy and here in the Côte Roannaise – I had to find something that would go with all this cheese I was eating. It all started with a gentle weaving cycle ride through the Puligny and Chassagne Montrachet vineyards before arriving at Meursault. Here we stopped at the negociants ‘Ropiteau’. Generally only available in on-licence (restaurants, hotels) in the UK, I’d never tasted their wines before. But a friend at Beacon Purchasing enabled me to visit their cellars to have a taste with their cellar-master, Nicolas Burnez and Ropiteau’s UK Manager Jean-Pierre Grangé. The wines were fabulous, classic Meursault taste with just the right hint of oak. Tasting straight from the barrel with their cellar-master was a real experience, as he hopped about the cave drawing off wine here and there. It also meant I could taste wines that weren’t quite ready and needed a bit longer to see how they develop.

After tasting quite a few wines, I mounted my bike and made my wobbly way through the vineyard lanes to Beaune. There I had an appointment with the export director of Louis Jadot. I’d tasted their wines before, working at The Balmoral Hotel and was looking forward to this tasting – their Burgundy pinot noirs are impressive. Here the operation was on a different scale to Ropiteau: Louis Jadot’s cave was as long as the eye could see, filled with bulging burgundy barrels (or pièces as they call them). This time I didn’t make the same mistake of drinking too much at the beginning of the tasting, but saved myself for the impressive premier and grand crus of the Côte de Nuits. Again, I’m not going to bore you with what they tasted like, just be assured that I left Louis Jadot in love with pinot noir!

When I returned back to the Roannaise, I visited a little producer named ‘Palais’, almost next door to the Mons affinage tunnel. A different story again here! Yann Palais has about three fields surrounding his farm and instead of following the appellation regulations he plants something a little different alongside Gamay – Gewurtztraminer, Viognier and Syrah. His small production is all done in his barn and he stores his wine in a tiny cellar. In this small home production he produces several lovely wines, which will perfectly suit my copious cheese supply.

It's Not All About Cheese

Just in case my cheese stories were starting to grate on you, I thought I’d give you a slice of some different action (two jokes in one – bargain!).

Whilst travelling around I’ve also visited some fantastic wine producers in Burgundy and here in the Côte Roannaise – I had to find something that would go with all this cheese I was eating. It all started with a gentle weaving cycle ride through the Puligny and Chassagne Montrachet vineyards before arriving at Meursault. Here we stopped at the negociants ‘Ropiteau’. Generally only available in on-licence (restaurants, hotels) in the UK, I’d never tasted their wines before. But a friend at Beacon Purchasing enabled me to visit their cellars to have a taste with their cellar-master, Nicolas Burnez and Ropiteau’s UK Manager Jean-Pierre Grangé. The wines were fabulous, classic Meursault taste with just the right hint of oak. Tasting straight from the barrel with their cellar-master was a real experience, as he hopped about the cave drawing off wine here and there. It also meant I could taste wines that weren’t quite ready and needed a bit longer to see how they develop.

After tasting quite a few wines, I mounted my bike and made my wobbly way through the vineyard lanes to Beaune. There I had an appointment with the export director of Louis Jadot. I’d tasted their wines before, working at The Balmoral Hotel and was looking forward to this tasting – their Burgundy pinot noirs are impressive. Here the operation was on a different scale to Ropiteau: Louis Jadot’s cave was as long as the eye could see, filled with bulging burgundy barrels (or pièces as they call them). This time I didn’t make the same mistake of drinking too much at the beginning of the tasting, but saved myself for the impressive premier and grand crus of the Côte de Nuits. Again, I’m not going to bore you with what they tasted like, just be assured that I left Louis Jadot in love with pinot noir!

When I returned back to the Roannaise, I visited a little producer named ‘Palais’, almost next door to the Mons affinage tunnel. A different story again here! Yann Palais has about three fields surrounding his farm and instead of following the appellation regulations he plants something a little different alongside Gamay – Gewurtztraminer, Viognier and Syrah. His small production is all done in his barn and he stores his wine in a tiny cellar. In this small home production he produces several lovely wines, which will perfectly suit my copious cheese supply.

Monday, 6 September 2010

A Bit of Science

Guilliame was over the moon. I could tell this because his normal gruff French expression had been replaced with the beginnings of a smile at the corner of his lips. And why? Because his Ossau Iratys had begun to get some small spots of red mould. “That bacteria,” he said, “looks good, and the Ossau taste even better.” So why had it been missing for the last few months? Problems with the Ossaus acidity and the micro-bacteria balance had meant it was not present. But luckily it had returned to the cave.

It got me thinking about moulds. At Mons there is an excellent balance, which has built up over many years. But they still need encouraging and pointing in the right direction – as we’d seen, that slight change in acidity with the production of Ossau had meant we’d lost our dear old red spotty friend. There are obvious ways you can encourage some bacteria – for example washing the Livarot and Epoisses twice weekly in a secret recipe, alongside keeping it in a humid atmosphere, helps it form ‘Brevibacterium linens’ - the orange mould responsible for the smell and flavour on washed rind cheeses.

However it’s not that simple with others: to encourage the blue penicillium spots you see on some goats cheeses (e.g. Crottin de Chavignol, Pouligny St. Pierre) we have to act in different ways. Some cheeses form it better on straw; others form it too fast and dry out too quickly on the straw. The expertise I’m picking up here is knowing when and where to put each cheese, not only according to type but also by how it arrives and how it is responding this week (this expertise has been built up by continuous testing of every possible variable over the last 40+ years). Simply, it’s the balance between the atmosphere, humidity and temperature to enable the correct moulds and yeasts to grow. We try to facilitate this by using different materials: wood, straw, paper, stone and earth. A slight change in either may mean a different mould or yeast may be more successful and a different product is produced.

Another example is our Lingot de St. Nicolas: we are trying to form a cream line beneath the rind, just thin enough to enhance the flavour but not so big so as to form frog-skin (when the rind and paste detach itself). The mould responsible is geotricum. Luckily our caves are full of it - but we have to catch the Lingot at the right time before it goes too far, whilst also making sure the other moulds present are also fully formed for the flavour!

When I leave I am going to have to take a lungful of air and hold my breath to take some of the air and moulds with me!
The pictures here show the evolution of (left) Tomme de Bois Noirs (a Mons speciality) and (right) Lavort. Forming the correct ‘mucos’ and initial rind takes the right conditions and handling; you can see the development to the final product. This affinage has developed the texture, smell, taste and rind to the point when it’s at its best; without correct affinage of the cheese the characteristic of each cheese won’t truly reveal itself to its full potential or may go too far, as bitter/rancid flavours, disagreeable odours and bad textures start to develop.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Spruce and Pseudomonas

Blimey, I could hate Americans. But not for any other reason than Hervé Mons has a promotion on at the moment with Gabeitou. It’s a delectable cows and sheeps milk cheese with a vegetal flavour and texture not dissimilar to Morbier. But in preparation for the promotion we have been taking all the farmers’ production for the last few weeks and maturing it so it will be ready to start sending to America next week. Tastes lovely, looks great, but over 600 to turn, change the spruce boards, and wash every week, on top of our normal workload of cheeses to manage - you had better like it, America!

The spruce boards on which our cheeses rest are an important feature in a top affineur’s cave. Although not cheap (and not light!) they have a natural biofilm, which is encouraged here by our cleaning methods, which keeps bad bacteria at bay whilst allowing the cheese to breathe. On the subject on ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ bacteria (perhaps a future George Lucas film?), I asked how they maintain the balance (which is regularly checked). A classic French answer - “good products”; but from my experience of working here I know it is also because of how we pay attention to cleaning (there is no fumigating kill-all here!), the components we use to aid different bacteria (e.g. straw, paper, wood, stone, steel), humidity, temperatures and air flow; in fact the caves have established a natural perfect atmosphere after 40+ years of having the world’s finest cheeses resting in them - so much so that when they created the new tunnel they transferred hundreds of cubic metres of air from the age-old caves to help start it off.

The regular checking of each cheese ensures those that could cause problems are quickly removed. In-between my regular cheese flipping and turning, something caught my eye - a batch of Selles sur Cher - but nuclear neon green. The quality control manager (Eric) examined them with a knowledgeable look, simply shrugged in a Gallic way, and said “Pseudomonas”. A bacterial problem caused at the milking parlour or production site. So I thought I’d dig deeper - was it a common problem? How does he deal with it? What are the common problems? He smiled (a knowing smile that a master gives their apprentice when the world is complicated and unfortunately there isn’t a simple one-sentence answer). As he begrudgingly placed the Selles sur Cher in the bin he explained that everyday posed a new problem; the wonders of artisan and small farm production lead to better flavours and interesting cheeses, yet also small daily problems because the methods of farm production are not controlled like those of larger efficient cheese-producing factories. Experience here seemed to be the key; the ability to identify the problem and continuous dialogue and visits to the small producers work brilliantly; and this is evident with the next batch of Selles sur Cher, which sits there content in its cave with no trace of the nuclear neon green - problem solved.

All is still going well here at Mons, I’m getting to taste an amazing array of different cheeses also at different ages, determining when each has affined to its peak; my palate is improving and my knowledge is increasing.

The master fromager of Fauchon (a famous Paris Boutique) stayed with us for a few days and that was thoroughly interesting: although he has only been in the industry a few years, his knowledge and ability to explain tastes is impressive, as good as any sommelier I’ve ever worked with. He came to study and converse with Hervé for a week as he has entered the competition for MOF (Meuilleur Ouverier de France) this year. The competition awards craftsman of France who excel in their field and is only given every four years (Hervé was the first ever recipient for a fromager/affineur). I looked at the guidelines and it’s like running the gauntlet; the French I work with even call it “running the challenge”: the depth of knowledge as well as the quality of products, cutting and presentation is immense. But I’m English - as my test I’d rather chase a piece of Gloucester cheese down a hill.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

This weekend, to increase my cheese knowledge, I biked up to a nearby hill farm called Bois Blanc. I was greeted by Yves, a rustic French goat herder. On what was an amazing afternoon we started by chatting over his table in the farmhouse, about life, geography (and, importantly, cheese) before walking up the hill to see his small herd of goats. He has a range of breeds (naturally he affectionately points out his favourite animals), letting them graze freely on his grass which is full of herbs, flowers and wild grasses, all of which add a great flavour to the milk which is passed on to the cheese.

He milks the goats everyday, and then uses the milk to produce a small amount of farmhouse cheese in his little shed. This cheese is then sold on at markets and through local shops (including the local Mons shops), but only in small quantities as he barely has enough to sell (between 20-30 of these petit cheeses a day!)

The cheeses are a great expression of affinage, from his young just-set cheese (about 3 days) to his affiné (about a month old). They really tell a story of Yves’ farm’s terroir, goats and cheese-making techniques. Tasting the different cheeses is like tasting a tangible expression of time - you get a real sense of how affinage works. Everyone has a favourite age for their cheese, as the texture, taste, appearance and smell changes as time passes. These cheeses were mild, with only a delicate hint of goat flavour, and a lovely creamy freshness in the young, contrasting with a nice bite to the affiné.

Yves is a true artisan farmer in the real sense of the word; it was a pleasure to visit.


I went back. I couldn’t help myself. Yves invited me to spend the day making cheese with him - how could I refuse passing the time with a big Frenchman making cheese in a shed no bigger than a cupboard. We were certainly going to get to know each other, if nothing else!

First we chucked yesterdays cheeses into the bin - a storm had arrived the day before and the change in air pressure, electrostatic fields, humidity and temperature had rendered the whole days batch useless.

Then we added the ‘petit lait’ to that morning’s milk and let it ferment for 20 hours. ‘Petit lait’ (or lactosérum) contains bacteria which starts the fermentation, changing lactose sugars (in milk) into lactic acid, and forming important flavours as it helps to form the curds. Most cheesemakers use freeze-dried or commercially made starters, but Yves, in the true spirit of capturing his terroir, uses his own bacteria from a ‘petit lait’ he creates at the beginning of the milk season by essentially letting the milk go off. This ‘petit lait’ is used for the first batch at the beginning of the season, for every subsequent production he uses a bit of leftover curds and whey (from the day before) to start the process off.

As the goats’ animal husbandry is fantastic, the unpasteurised milk poses no problems. By letting it naturally ferment he uses all the natural bacteria remaining present (usually killed by pasteurisation). This means he captures the true natural flavours of his land - the only thing he adds to his cheese that he doesn’t make himself is salt. However, it also means the cheese varies vastly in taste, flavour and texture; the production and affinage must be altered accordingly.

We had two buckets of goat milk from the same day’s milking - for some reason (Yves answer to my query was a Gallic shrug) one had formed a hard curd and the other much softer. So we carefully scooped the hard curd to form a base in the mould followed by a topping of soft. Yesterday’s cheeses were un-moulded, flipped, and salted; with a flick of the wrist that was best left to professional (when I tried, I managed to cover everything in the room with salt!)

While the moulds drained we took a break: a piece of fresh cheese wrapped in a salad leaf, so simple, so delectable! Over the next 2 hours continuous topping up of the cheese moulds took place, as they drained. After that our work was done, ready to start all over again the next morning.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

The Caves...

After a successful first month working with the affinage experts at Mons I thought I better explain the layout of Mons and each of the caves here and what they do. To start there is a huge refrigerated receiving area where the cheeses arrive everyday to be processed. Everything arrives here, from huge Mountain wheels to small little apérichèrve cheeses, no bigger than a thimble. Some of the cheeses arrive with a fully formed rind (having aged a bit in local conditions to pick up local flavours and according to some appellation regulations), whilst others come barely a day old. They are then processed and sent to the correct room.
Those with delicate fresh skins are gently handled and transferred to the drying room (with a higher temperature and lower humidity), where they will harden and form rinds to ensure even maturing. Their mould growth is patted down (a mere rub is a fatal mistake which can remove the beginnings of a rind). From here each individual cheese is inspected, turned, touched, squeezed and pinched everyday until the nod is given and it can be given the chance to graduate to its appropriate ageing cave.
Hervé has four such caves as well as an old railway tunnel. This old bricked up tunnel provides ideal humidity and temperature beneath the ground for cheese, becoming a haven for it - over 90 tonnes of cheese are stored here (you’d feta believe it! – sorry) All of these cheeses must be turned (by hand) every week; as well as examining, scrubbing, brushing, wiping, washing, turning, wrapping, rewrapping each cheese according to it’s needs. But that’s not it! There are the other caves, holding even more cheese, you can tell its France!
The caves vary in humidities, temperatures, air flow and atmosphere to match the needs of the cheeses and maximise their flavour and texture. With their natural earth and stone floors, and a natural spring nearby (they have no need to regulate the humidity due to this natural source of water) the cheeses look at home here –the giant mountain wheels inhabit one cave resting on sagging spruce boards (here for two years or more), another holds the petit goats cheeses, with the rustic rinded tomme’s residing in a third. All the other cheese facilities I have visited seem so purpose built compared with this idyllic cheese haven and the taste of the cheese’s here confirms Hervé and his family’s skill.
Each day the cheese is checked and moved according to their level of affinage. Hervé says “It’s crucial to find the peak age for each individual cheese, they’re living products and react differently everytime”. Watching him work makes it seem a simple art: tasting and checking each cheese, but greater scratching away of the surface reveals the great depth of knowledge required: cheese-production methods; cave dynamics, animal health, breed and husbandry, grazing pastures, the seasons, microbiology, the differences in look, taste and smell of cheese, as well as changing consumer trends in each country he sells in. Hopefully I will be able to at least gleam a bit of this knowledge in the next few months to take back to Britain.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Starting out at Mons - Cheesy Beginnings

After travelling down the country sampling France's gastronomic delights I thought I better do some work: I turned up, stylishly early, at Hervé Mons Fromagerie near to Roanne. Nervously I waited, the smell of cheese drifting up my nose. I saw someone arrive so ran over to them calling out "Eric! Eric!" (the name of my contact with Mons). In a typically Gallic way he just looked at me said "Non, je ne suis pas Eric" and walked away and I sheepishly returned to my car. Five minutes later another car pulled up so again I ran over looking like a lost sheep bleating for its mother. "Eric?" I demanded. The man looked me up and down and said I can get you Eric, but I'm not him. I all of a sudden went off him, but helpfully enough he managed to get in contact with Eric and confirm he was on his away. As the man left I asked his name and he looked at me and said Hervé Mons. Oh great!

Eric arrived a few moments later and was very helpful, showing me around their impressive cheese caves (I could feel my excitement brewing already) before taking me to my accommodation - a fantastic typically French house in the middle of the sleepy mediaeval village of St Haon le Chatel, where I have now become 'the outsider'.

So my apprenticeship commenced here. I turned up the next morning to be introduced to all my colleagues (whose names I promptly forgot in the excitement) and was directed to some cheeses I recognised . Tomme de Savoie, Crayeuse, Persille du Malzieu. "Flip and brush these," my new boss instructed. Several cheesy hours later, I was done. So he gave me some more to flip and brush, if his French accent wasn't so endearing I might have considered refusing, but I continued till the end of the day.

Day two was a little more exciting, I started by learning a bit more about how to handle the cheeses when they arrive - where to put them, and how to treat each cheese individually - whether it needed drying, to get more moist, or firming up, and which of the four caves was best for it, as well as whether paper, spruce wood or straw would aid it's development best. However, just to make sure I didn't get above my station, they gave me a few more cheese to flip (I think that's what I'm going to make my future children do if they're ever naughty).

At the end of the first week I was having a good time, although I'd flipped enough cheeses to keep a Frenchman happy for a few weeks at least. As well as learning a fair bit about their techniques here at Mons, my French language is also improving. I also got to meet Hervé's brother, Laurent: another talented individual whose passion seems to be cheese. It's weird around these people... I don't feel such a cheese geek.

Week two was much more interesting - I thought I had become a master cheese flipper until I saw Fred, who's worked all his life flipping the mountain cheeses (35kg+) as if they are made of air. Throughout the week I picked up lots of tips and tricks about affinage, best practice, and how to treat cheese differently and promote or stop bacteria growth, and I spent so much time wiping mould off a certain cheese that when I blew my nose, even my tissue got mouldy - there is a first time for everything!

It helps that my foreman, Gerome, is very useful. Although typically French (he almost went through the roof when he found out I still eat porridge everyday), he has a great sense for the cheese, knowing what they're like and what to do in any case of any event; he is a mine of knowledge! I must try and smuggle him back to England.

This third week I worked more on receiving the cheeses: they arrive everyday from hundreds of small producers throughout France, and each producer is individual, as is each cheese batch that arrives. It can even be affected by the cheese producer nipping out for a brew whilst making the cheese - that could slightly alter the final make up which means we need to treat it differently to get the best out of it. So when each batch arrives it is checked over and then transferred to the appropriate ageing material and cave.

More about each cave in the next blog.

How it all started

I grew up in a dairy-farming community in Northern England and can still remember milking my first cow! My grandparents all produced their own cheese and it was always taken very seriously in the community – my next-door neighbour’s sole job was to cultivate the bacteria for making the cheese at the factory down the road, and he’s still doing it now, 20 years on, at Appleby Creamery. From an early age I began to realise how wonderful cheese can taste when the whole process is executed with care.

After school I left England for France to work, which fueled my interest in food and all things nice! Consequently I decided to study for a BSc in Hospitality Management with Culinary Arts at Sheffield Hallam University, enabling me to study whilst all the while concentrating on fine food (who wouldn't?). As part of this I worked for over a year in The Balmoral Hotel's Michelin starred restaurant Number One. There I became further involved in cheese, taking responsibility for all the restaurant's cheese-oriented offerings, even making my own cheese (although you could break teeth on my Brie!). For my achievements at The Balmoral I won a national award (Young Guns).

After all this excitement I decided to run the Medoc Marathon through famous French vineyards. Here again I reconfirmed my love for cheese (and, naturally, wine), so I decided that once I'd finished, I'd immerse myself in all things cheesy. Consequently, I went to work for a brief period at London's famous Paxton and Whitfield Cheesemongers. Now, thanks to a scholarship from the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust I'm off to learn from the famous Mons Fromagerie in France, followed by some studying with Anfopeil.