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!’