Europe’s Best Cheese

By / Food / November 24th, 2011 / 1

I am quite certain that your idea of making cheese begins with a romantic notion of gentle, contented cows quietly munching on summer Alpine grasses, herded by the loyal sheepdog down to the valleys during the winter months. The truth is not far from the fantasy. Especially in a mountainous area of France where, arguably, you find a range of the best cheeses — the Jura Mountain area of the northeast, Franche-Comté, bordering Switzerland.

The tradition of making fermier, or farmhouse cheeses, in small individual quantities has not changed to a significant degree in the past 200 years. The techniques for milking, and the subsequent stages of separation, the addition of rennet, filtering and then shaping, and the applicable bathing in salt water and placement into the appropriate forms remains the same.

If there is one special “cheese to make your heart melt” it is undoubtedly Vacherin Mont-d’Or, a superbly nutty smooth taste of bliss made from pasteurized cow’s milk and salt, indeed at its best in the winter months beginning in November and usually running through March.

Cheesemakers, like other food producers — most certainly including winemakers —  jealously guard the names of their products. Without doubt it helps us as consumers to have confidence that we are getting the real thing. Vacherin Mont-d’Or is the name confined to the product made on the Swiss side of the Jura mountains, and Vacherin du Haut-Doubs is the special cheese protected by French law.

In both cases and protected by regulation, this ne-plus-ultra regional mountain cheese comes from the milk of the two breeds of cows that feed exclusively on natural hay. In each case the end product, Vacherin, is quite small and is packed and protected by a ring of blanched spruce bark, which ensures uniform shape and added flavour.

Each cheese has been bathed in salt water and matured for a minimum of three weeks, during which time it is turned and massaged again with a salt solution. This of course not only helps preserve the cheese but affects the intensity of flavour.

It appears on the shelves from November and is great for dessert, especially fulfilling after a hearty course of winter meat. It’s best served after being heated so that the centre is liquid and really needs little more than plain white bread or crackers to scoop it out.

While the two cheeses are almost identical, in the 1970s,the Swiss cleverly protected the name Vacherin Mont-d’Or. So technically Vacherin producers from the adjacent French territory of Franche-Comté are obliged to use the official name of Vacherin du Haut-Doubs, but they often circumvent the name recognition problem by simply calling it Mont-d’Or.

It is the perfect Christmas cheese, not unlike the Stilton so popular with cheese lovers in December. As with choosing your seasonal Stilton, select a Mont-d’Or from a good shop where it will be fully wrapped and not over-chilled. Even considered and compared with the great (but increasingly few authentic) camemberts and bries, there are many of us who consider the Vacherin the king of cheeses.

When purchasing, look at its texture on the top, which is velvety and slightly reddish brown. It is ideal if its surface is rippled and wavy. If it’s possible to purchase just a wedge, make sure that your cheesemonger wraps it up very tightly to prevent the cheese from seeping out from the rind. And if you have a choice between the French or Swiss variety, I would opt for the French (Vacherin du Haut-Doubs), which has more depth of flavour. If you’re serving it when it is best, as a dessert, accompany it with the sweetest fruit you can find, and add complexity to the experience with either a glass of classic styled Beaujolais or Chardonnay. It is meant to be served on a plate by itself and eaten with a spoon rather than knife and fork.

While the Vacherin is the most unique cheese from the mountains, there are certainly other first-class high-quality farmhouse cheeses. Everyone knows the name Gruyère, a semi-hard cooked and pressed cheese that usually matures six to 10 months before going on sale. And while there are many imitations, the real McCoy comes from the canton of Fribourg. The authentic product can easily be identified because it has “Switzerland” stamped all over the rind, which is slightly oily and looks a little like wrinkled almond skin. Texture is quite firm, a little softer than Emmental. It has a few very small holes and, as it ages, the paste becomes more firm and turns from yellow to a slightly greyish yellow. Part of its attraction is the strong peaty aftertaste. The imitations, of which there are masses, are known in parts of the trade as “rubber cheese”; their most notable characteristics are their rubbery texture and low price.

Authentic Gruyère is a cheese that is often served with accompaniments like crackers with grapes or figs, or else melted over toast and teamed up with smoked ham or sliced tomatoes. It melts beautifully and so is perfect for sauces with chicken or veal. In fact when used as a topping it gives an even and not-too-dry crust that can be mixed with breadcrumbs to cover deep-fried vegetables.

Of the many cheeses that come from the Franche-Comté region bordering Switzerland, the famous Comté is certainly one of the clear favourites. Comté — also a name-controlled or AOC cheese — is in some ways not unlike French Gruyère; however, it has a far more distinct nut-like flavour. It often appears in various quiches and is a perfect addition to onion soup. While the many Comté copies made in other countries, including the US and Canada, have a hopelessly bland taste, the authentic best are made with Franche-Comté milk. Look for the Comté name and the image of a bell stamped on the rind in green, and a pungent nut flavour. It is superb as a snack and wonderful on thinly sliced bread or toast, topped off with a twist of freshly ground black pepper. It’s also delicious in small cubes added to a salad served on the side.

Without a doubt, one of the top three best cheeses of this area is Emmental. You can almost drown in choices of the many copies, but those with grand cru imprinted in red on the rind are a rich alpine delight. It is made both in France and across the border in Switzerland. The French version has a slightly stronger taste and even at that young stage seems more fruity and nutty with a somewhat deeper colour, probably due to its bulbous shape. The Swiss variety is always less expensive but is often used as a flavour sharpener in fondue or cooked in soups and gratins.

As you become a cheese aficionado, you may find Emmental a bit on the bland side. Avoid any that look dry, as the “eyes” of Emmental will “cry” when exposed to the air. Served alone after a main course, Emmental can be a disappointment; it’s at its best in sandwiches or as a mid-day snack and is a top choice for fondue.

In our supposedly refined world, along comes wondrous Morbier, which is made from a single milking of raw cow’s milk and is treated with commercial ash. It is a semi-soft cheese neither strong nor mild. It has no hole in its structure but does boast some similarity to Vacherin Fribourgeois. It has a complex flavour full of nuts and fruit, and some aficionados claim to taste hard-boiled egg. But the aroma is just like fresh hay or spring grass. The downside is that there are pasteurized varieties that don’t even come from the region but are made in factories in the Auvergne or Poitou regions and trucked to the Franche-Comté region to aging caves and finally inauthentically labelled Morbier. But close inspection will usually reveal “Fabriqué en Poitou” or “Fabriqué en Auvergne.”
To choose and serve Morbier, look for a creamy brown crust that’s dry and smooth. If the crust is cracked or full of tiny white dots, it’s a sign of staleness. Inside, it’s got a glossy appearance with an ivory yellow colour. The dark line of ash separating the halves should be unmistakable. If these characteristics are not readily visible, it’s likely an imposter, mildly pleasurable but far from the real connoisseur’s Morbier. Raw milk Morbier is arguably the most seductive of the semi-soft cheeses, delicious with walnuts and always with sturdy red wine.

These are just a few cheeses in the astonishing range of styles and flavours available from a small area of the Jura mountains in France and Switzerland. It is certainly worth a culinary trip.

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