Vacherin Mont d’Or – an Autumn Treat

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a Swiss Mont d’Or from Hauser in the Jura

Autumn signals open season for one of the greatest cheeses known to woman: a wondrous, washed-rind, cow’s milk cheese that comes on the market every September, made in small dairies in the Jura mountains, on both the Swiss and French sides of the border.

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a French Mont d’Or, raised by Bernard Antony, master affineur in Alsace

In Switzerland this treasure is called Vacherin Mont-d’Or; in France it’s plain Mont d’Or (occasionally Vacherin du Haut Doubs). Each year as the temperatures drop and the trees start to take on their vivid autumn colours, cheese-fanciers throughout Europe await the timely reappearance of this marvellous product with eager anticipation.

It’s one of those rare, strictly local, seasonal delights that still punctuate the calendar – a particular pleasure in a world where everything we eat seems to be available all year round, and where our food is increasingly turning into an anonymous commodity undistinguished by links to either place or season.

The cheeses range in diameter from about 12 cm (5 inches) to about 30 cm (12 inches) – picture a CD and an LP respectively – with a depth of some 5 cm (2 inches). The smallest ones weigh in at 450g (a pound), the largest – the size indicated for a good crowd – is 3 kilos (over 6 lbs). The presentation is distinctive – this is the only cheese that must by law be sold in its sprucewood box, whose weight is part of the price.

1-vacherinWhy the box? The reason is obvious once you plunge in: if the cheese were not firmly corseted in this way, it would simply run away with the spoon.

And a spoon is certainly what’s required. Attempts to broach this exuberant cheese with anything else will certainly end in tears, for inside it’s nothing but a pool of liquid gold.

Now take a piece and roll it slowly, experimentally, over your tongue. Close your eyes and picture the scene up in the Jura.

The mountain air is crisp and cool, the mixed sprucewood and deciduous forests have turned to brilliant golds and reds. Speckled Montbéliarde cows are munching peaceably at the last blades of grass in their manicured hill farm pastures; soon they will be taken indoors for the winter. In the tiny French village of St Point Lac not far from Pontarlier, Monsieur Michelin is busy making his Mont d’Or.

IMG_3030The small village dairy is warm and humid, full of soothing milky smells. The raw milk, from the combined evening and morning’s milking, is heating up gently in a huge copper cauldron. The starter, which will give the cheese its inimitable Mont d’Or flavour and velvety-smooth texture, is stirred in, followed at a decent interval by a dose of rennet to curdle the milk into solids and whey.

Next the whey is drawn off and a huge comb-like instrument drawn back and forth through the curds, which now resemble trembling blancmange. The curds are shovelled unceremoniously into big white buckets and tipped into tall cylinders set on draining trays.

In another corner of the dairy Madame Michelin is blanching the fragrant strips of mahogany-coloured spruce bark. They perfume the air beautifully, like a steam bath in an expensive spa. Once blanched, they become supple enough to be wrapped around the young cheeses.

All around is an impressive panoply of buckets, brushes, soap squirters, disinfectant baths, high-pressure hoses and gallons upon gallons of water, prerequisites for the scrupulous hygiene required when working with raw milk products.

Monsieur Hauser with his Vacherin Mont d'Or by Nikos Kapelis

Monsieur Hauser with his Vacherin Mont d’Or, picture by Nikos Kapelis

Just across the border in Switzerland in the little village of Le Lieu on the Lac de Joux, Monsieur Hauser is likewise hard at work on his Vacherin Mont-d’Or. He’s one of only 14 producers left in the area (against over 60 twenty years ago), and he’s intensely proud of his artisan cheese.

In accordance with Swiss law, his milk must first be thermized – a sort of halfway house between raw and pasteurised milk, where the milk is heated briefly to 62oC (145oF) and briskly chilled – before cheesemaking begins. Then there’s the same, comfortably familiar rhythm of turning the milk and cutting the curds.

The fresh curds, once set, are unmoulded from their perforated plastic cylinders. Belying their apparent fragility, the lightly pressed curds somehow miraculously hold their shape. Monsieur Hauser slices them horizontally in two and tosses the infant cheeses nonchalantly across the stainless steel surface, where they are retrieved by another pair of hands and braced by the fragrant spruce strips. An elastic band is snapped around to hold the spruce in place during the cheeses’ 25- to 28-day ripening period in the cool, damp cellar next door.

The final task of the morning for Monsieur Hauser’s small team of helpers is to box up a batch of perfectly mature cheeses that are ready to go on sale. The pale wooden boxes stamped with the dairy’s name are pulled down from a shelf. They’re made purposely slightly smaller than the finished product, so that when the cheeses are deftly coaxed into their containers, the upper crust erupts into a sort of ecstatic, voluptuous wave. The new season’s Vacherin Mont-d’Or is ready to roll.

Whether you choose the Swiss or the French model will depend largely on where you live and shop (unless you’re in the US, where you may not have the choice at all since the minimum 60-day ageing requirement for cheese officially rules out both Swiss and French versions).

Sample with proper country bread, or allow the cheese to slither gently over baked potatoes, and serve with smoked ham and pickles.

Another idea is to bake Vacherin Mont d’Or in its box in the oven. The result is a kind of instant, intimate fondue for two. Here’s how:

Vacherin Mont d’Or baked in its box

1-IMG_8691Serves 2
Ingredients
1 Vacherin Mont d’Or in its box, weighing around 1 pound
Tiny slivers cut from a clove of garlic
3-4 tablespoons Jura wine or Swiss Chasselas
Freshly ground black pepper
To serve
6-8 small, firm potatoes boiled in their skins
 A selection of pickles (gherkins, pearl onions etc.)
Thin slices of air-dried or smoked ham
Directions

  • Remove the lid and any cellophane or plastic from the box.
  • Place the lid underneath the box to provide a base and to prevent any leakage.
  • Set the cheese in its box on a piece of heavy-duty foil and bring the foil up snugly against the sides of the box (but not over the top)
  • Stick a small sharp knife into the crust in a few places and insert slivers of garlic at strategic intervals.
  • Drizzle white wine over the crust.
  • About 25 minutes before serving, heat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius)
  • Bake the Vacherin for around 20 minutes or until it yields plumply and invitingly when pressed in the centre.
  • Remove the box from the oven, set it on a plate and serve straight from the box, spooned over boiled potatoes, with accompanying pickles and ham.

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Wine suggestions

Serve Vacherin Mont d’Or – whether cool or molten – with a firm, well structured white wine. With a French Mont d’Or, hunt down a fragrant Savagnin from the French Jura, preferably one made in the modern style known as ouillé - on a recent trip down there researching a wine travel piece for Decanter I flipped for a gorgeous one from Benoit Badoz in Poligny. For a Swiss Vacherin Mont d’Or, you could go with Chasselas – try an Yvorne Grand Cru from the Chandra Kurt Collection, Bolle et Cie.

 

Bistrot la Cave, Saint-Louis

1-2-IMG_9919It’s a well-established fact that you’re never going to go hungry – or thirsty – in Alsace. At one end of the scale there are good-to-great places (L’Auberge de l’Ill inter alia); at the other there are decent enough Winstubs (wine bars with a über-trad dishes of the choucroute, tarte a l’oignon school). But then in the squeezed middle, that bit where I’m always hoping to find interesting, fun food with a smidge of creativity, at sensible-not-silly prices and quirky wines by the glass, there’s a socking great hole. Continue reading

Savouring Sicily

Chiesa San Giuseppe, Ragusa Ibla, SicilySeptember is the moment to savour Sicily. The skies are still deep azure (think Quink royal blue), which shows off to perfection the sparkling white of Baroque jewels like Scicli, Modica, Ragusa and Noto. The sea is reliably warm, the midday sun delicious but not impossibly dazzling, the evenings balmy, the nights agreeably cool. Best of all, the crowds have flown north again – to Rome, Milan, Paris, London – leaving you the pick of hotels, B&Bs and villas. And as in any place that’s annually steamrollered by summer crowds, the local people are learning to smile again, they’re more chilled in this back-season, whether in the mercato, trattoria, gelateria or cantina. Continue reading

Crown jewels: venison liver, kidneys AND heart

1-autumn walkIt’s dusk on a dying summer’s evening and the doorbell rings. Our local chasseur (hunter) is on the doorstep, wreathed in smiles. He’s just been out in the woods checking up on the deer and wild boar population (as he is contracted to do by our commune) and he’s shot a roe deer. It will take him a little while to butcher the beast, but would I like him to set aside the liver for me?

I love game and I’m very partial to the Fifth Quarter (aka offal or organ meats), but I’ve never tasted venison liver. What’s clear from his body language (he’s wriggling and grinning like a delighted spaniel with a prize bone) is that this is quite an honour, and that the liver constitutes something of a trophy. After the merest moment’s hesitation, I tell him yesssss, I’d love it. He disappears to do his butchery, giving me just enough time to pull down from the shelf my fave book on game, Nichola Fletcher’s Ultimate Venison Cookery. On page 199 I read: “Venison liver is one of life’s great gastronomic treats.” Continue reading

Weingut Dr Heger, Ihringen, Baden/Germany

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Vineyards around Durbach in the Ortenau region of Baden

One of the [many] perks of living here astride three borders (France, Germany, Switzerland) is that we’re within striking distance of some fine vineyards, each with their own distinctive grape varieties and winemaking styles.

When stocks of Riesling, Gewurz or Muscat dip below danger levels, we head up to Alsace’s Route des Vins. To top up on the Pinot family (Blanc, Gris and Noir, aka Weissburgunder, Graubunder and Spätburgunder) we cross the Rhine to Baden. And when we get homesick for Swiss wines (Petite Arvine, Cornalin, Humagne or even Chasselas), the lack of world-class vineyards in the Basel region is amply compensated by the trusty Coop, which has a good selection of all of the above (go armed with the latest ed. of Chandra Kurt’s Weinseller).

The best way to discover what makes a winery tick, how/where the wine’s grown and how it was made is – of course – to meet the wine maker and taste his/her wines sur place. This is easy around here. For some you can just fetch up on the doorstep; better still, ring to make an appointment. Others have open days when you can taste the full range. Continue reading

New Workshops for Autumn/Fall

1-1-capo2Time to get cooking together again! Bettlach workshops will start up again soon and I’ve scheduled four sessions, from Savouring Sicily in September to a full-on Middle East Vegetable Feast in October. In November we’re back closer to home with some New Tastes of Switzerland for a possible future re-edition of my book A Taste of Switzerland, in print continuously since 1992. And finally, December will bring a workshop entitled Christmas is for Sharing, a selection of snappy little holiday bites to tempt even the most jaded/overfed palates. Go to the Workshops page for the full schedule. Continue reading

A Different Kind of Tarte Tatin

1-5-IMG_0770Tarte tatin doesn’t have to be made of pommes (aka apples). It can also be made with pommes de terre (aka spuds). Here’s a wicked recipe from Geoffroy Vieljeux, erstwhile host at one of the world’s most stylish B&Bs, Mas Parasol near Uzés, now sadly no longer functioning.

We’re talking an upside-down potato tart here. For this you need a bunch of firm, waxy potatoes, a cake tin, olive oil and a salty dough a bit like Salzteig. You arrange said potatoes in said cake tin, drizzle with olive oil, cover with the salty dough and bake. And here’s where we veer away a bit from the real Tarte Tatin, for the crust is completely inedible. Its sole purpose is to imprison all the goodness and flavour of the potatoes beneath and to season them gently the while. When the tatin is ready, you turn it out to reveal the by-now-gently-golden spuds, sitting up and begging to be speared with a fork. Here’s how: Continue reading

Blackcurrant Ice Cream – The Business

1-1-IMG_0732Redcurrants have their uses but – full disclosure – blackcurrants are streets ahead on flavour. If you like sorbet cassis, you’re going to love this recipe. Store-bought sorbet (even from Picard) is fine, but home-made blackcurrant ice cream is the business. Here’s how to make your own (and you don’t even need an ice cream maker):

 

First you cook the fruit briefly, sieve it and let it cool. Next you make a sugar syrup, boil it to the thread stage (not nearly as scary as it sounds, see the recipe), pour it onto egg yolks and beat like crazy. Separately (OK, so you do use a few bowls for this recipe but it’s worth it, I promise) you whip up some cream. Finally you combine all three (purée, yolks + sugar and whipped cream) and chuck it in the freezer. Sorted. Continue reading

Swiss National Holiday Signals Brunch on the Farm

Every year in Switzerland on August 1st, Swiss National Day, there’s a big tradition of the farmhouse brunch. This year, 350 farms all around this pint-sized country are opening their doors and barns for the annual shindig. One of our favourites is held at Hof von Allmen in Beatenberg high above Lake Thun at the von Allmen farm. Continue reading