When Guerin the farmer expressed doubt that I could get in up time to make it to his farm to watch them making cheese, I knew I would make it. He even re-enforced it when he exclaimed that he has to get up that early everyday. So a 2.30 am start on a Saturday had to be achieved; especially hard, as Friday is my mountain cheese-flipping day (the 40kg pieces of Beaufort, Comté and Gruyère). Groggy-eyed I drove all the way to a little village hidden between the lakes and extinct volcanoes of the Auvergne. I arrived just in time to watch the milking finish. I was there to watch St Nectaire being made, one of the most popular AOC (Appelation D’Origine Controllée) cheeses in France (close on the heels of Comté).
Cheeses have been made there since Roman times, and the cheese itself has been renowned since the Middle Ages. Produced in the winter when there wasn’t enough milk to make the big Cantal and Salers cheeses, and aged on local rye straw, it picked up it’s name rather strangely – not from the holy Saint Nectaire (there isn’t one!) – but because of Henry de Senectère, a local baron in favour with French king Louis XIV (he won some battles or something). Henry de Senectère famously promoted and pushed the cheeses of his region, so much so that Louis XIV regularly demanded cheeses from “Senectère”, and the name gradually transformed into St Nectaire!
Poor production techniques, and a location a long way from major cities meant the cheese fell out of fashion in the 18th Century (they even began using the local milk to make Gruyère copies instead). Later, however, when the young peasants enrolled to fight in the Napoleonic wars, they probably didn’t do so to improve their cheese production skills. But that’s what happened, and after marching and fighting (not too much – they were French after all) through Holland, they returned, with their heads full of the new ideas they’d seen. Consequently the quality of the cheese improved massively; so much so a committee quickly returned to Holland to see if it could learn even more.
St Nectaire’s production methods now honed, it re-found its fame as a national treasure and farmhouse production leapt. An AOC was awarded (one of the earliest AOCs and the first one to receive a special designation for farm production) so you would think that this cheese is well protected.
Yet good St Nectaire is increasingly hard to find, even with over 250 farms still making St Nectaire Fermier. The quality is widely variable and the good ones rarely leave the region!
This is made worse by the massive amount of St Nectaire Laitier production - a very different cheese from the Fermier: it is made in very sterilised conditions, often with pasteurised milk, (with none of the wild moulds that populate the milk). Without aging in the natural caves, the rind doesn’t develop like that of Fermier, and the cheese often tastes of nothing, or milk at best. Laitier is often the St Nectaire you’ll find in supermarkets around France. It looks clean – an orange even rind with it’s square green plaque. By contrast the Fermier version (with an oval green plaque) is damn unattractive – a potholed, dusty, green-grey rind, mottled with brown, orange and yellow. Yet, as the ugly duckling of the cheese world, it shouldn’t be judged on appearance: when you find a good one, it’ll have flavours and aromas that are complex, nutty, fruity, earthy and musty. A real rustic cheese – look at the contrast in the picture above left.
These Fermier cheeses are made straight after each milking, each day, by small farms in the isolated villages, using unpasteurised milk from their herd. My early start meant I’d just caught the milking. Rennet was added and we waited, patiently staring at the vat full of milk from the 90 cows. It set relatively fast, the curds were cut and whey was drained. Then the moulding process began: we stuffed the curds into moulds, then the cheese was then gently pressed, wrapped in cloth, salted, and given it it’s official plaque “St Nectaire Fermier”. The 55 cheeses we made that day were pressed for 12 hours, then passed through a drying room before ending up in their caves.
Not many farmers affine St Nectaire themselves, instead passing it onto the many affineurs in the area. Guerin is one exception. With the help of Hervé Mons they built a small facility to start the process off. This means the cheeses can take on a bit of local character for a month before they arrive at Hervé’s caves. It would be me that then finished the process off – another month or two of turning, brushing and wiping until Hervé decides it’s ready.
In the humid natural caves the cheeses are washed three times before being left to take on the natural moulds of the region – including the infamous Mucor, hated by other cheese makers. These unique conditions produce a cheese which is a little unique – gently pressed and populated by natural moulds, yet soft supple and creamy inside.
Yet, as I said, even to find a good St Nectaire Fermier is difficult*, and if you find one like this – you might want to keep it to yourself. There aren’t that many to go around.
Read more about AOC in
my next blog.
* The difficulty in finding good St Nectaire is because of the massive variance in each production. This AOC protection may have been one of the earliest, but always be wary of the sign AOC: the St Nectaire’s documentation stipulates it must be … well not much really. A basic recipe and geographic area. That’s about all. You can milk any breed of cow, any altitude, feed them on whatever you want (top quality pasture versus hay, even silage), use unpasteurised or pasteurised milk. Even the recipe controls and stipulates very few conditions.
This leads to a massive variance – imagine a prime cow (i.e. Abondance / Salers) grazing high on the finest mountain pasture in the Auvergne mountains, producing milk which is used unpasteurised, naturally fermented, then made into cheese by a farmer who has spent years and lots of money (invested in his diary, education and consultancy) to produce a top quality product.
Now think of an intensive production system, using a cow breed that gives lots of milk (yet poor quality), such as Friesian, fed only on hay and silage, kept indoors all year. Then the milk is pasteurised, and much less care given to the production and affinage.
Unfortunately, the difference in the price between the two products is going not going to be much, with one being much easier life but giving a much better profit margin. AOC can sometimes be nothing more than basic protection, not influencing quality – although the opposite is also true in some areas, for example Beaufort – more to come on AOC in my next blog.