Great opportunity for me to present my book and to introduce some Swiss cheeses at a Guild of Food Writers event in London last week. After a thumbnail sketch outlining the seismic shifts in Switzerland’s little cheese world of late – innovations, renovations, revival of alpine cheeses, introduction of goat’s/sheep’s milk and blue cheeses – we moved into a tasting of some epic offerings from KäseSwiss and Nick Dobson Wines. One of the stars of the evening was Michel Beroud’s oozy Tomme de Vache au Lait Cru. Here’s an extract from my book that explains how it’s made and why it’s so wicked.
Tommes in Switzerland – unlike their homonyms in France – are small, soft, bloomy-rind cheeses (think Camembert) made generally of cow’s milk, sometimes goat’s milk, and occasionally a combination of the two. They’ve been made in the French-speaking regions since at least the 19th century, often on a domestic scale and designed to be eaten when just a few days old. Sometimes they were the soft siblings of bigger, harder cheeses with which they shared the dairy, made from small quantities of milk left over after the big cheese had had its turn.
Nowadays most Swiss Tommes are made from pasteurised milk. They have a thickish downy rind, soapy texture and absolutely no flavour. There’s one that stands out from the crowd: Michel Beroud’s Fleurette, subtitled Tomme de Vache au Lait Cru.
The dairy in Rougemont, Canton Vaud, was producing Fleurette on a small scale before Michel arrived on the scene. What’s changed is the quantity made: when he took over as cheesemaker in 1989, the dairy was transforming 30,000 litres of milk into cheese each year; nowadays, the figure hovers around 650,000 litres annually – a twentyfold increase in 20 years. It gives an idea of how successful this gifted cheesemaker has been.
The breakthrough came when world-famous chef Frédy Girardet (who has a chalet in nearby Schönried) took an interest in Fleurette and saw its potential. “It was a stroke of luck having him as a customer,” admits the cheesemaker. “He was critical, but fair – at the beginning he sent some back, told me it could be even better – it was tough”, he adds, “but it was a big help.”
In March 2000, a state-of-the-art fromagerie was built at the entrance to the village, just opposite the sixteenth-century château and the fine old Romanesque church. The new dairy building is designed to meet the latest EU specifications. It’s owned by a cooperative of dairy farmers in and around the village; Michel is their tenant. All the animals are pastured in summer and fed on hay in winter. No silage is allowed in the feed. He contracts to buy the farmers’ milk, for which he pays above the market rate. They deliver once a day in the morning, combining the chilled evening milk with the morning milk. “I can still remember when they used to pull in the churns on sledges on freezing cold winter mornings”, smiles Michel.
The starter bacteria, a batch of whey reserved from yesterday’s cheese making, is added first. Then the milk is heated to barely lukewarm and the rennet stirred in. Once the milk has set, the curds are broken up into large, walnut-sized globs, pumped from the vat into small, cylindrical, perforated moulds and left to drain, pressed only by their own weight.
“How long will they drain?” I ask. “Ah”, responds Beroud with a smile, “we’re working with raw milk here – c’est pas moi qui décide – c’est le lait! (“it’s not me who decides: it’s the milk!”) He touches briefly on the various factors that can affect the cheese making process and influence the speed at which things progress, ranging from the temperature both outside and inside the dairy, the cows’ rations (grass in summer, hay in winter), and where they are in their lactation cycle.
Once the cheeses are formed, the perforated cylinders are lifted off to reveal little white discs of infant cheese. These are laid on wire racks, sprinkled with salt and then transferred on their racks to a cool, damp cellar. Within a few days a downy duvet of white mould starts to form on the surface – ‘la croûte commence à fleurir’ (‘the rind begins to bloom’) is how Michel describes it.
In the final step, the Fleurettes are hand-wrapped in the fromagerie’s distinctive white and blue waxed paper. Then there’s a brief, three-week window in which to savour this wonderful cheese at its most fragrant. Matured just long enough to develop a mind of its own, Fleurette runs about in a deliciously undisciplined sort of way. It tastes sublime, with layers of rich, creamy flavour that unfold on the tongue and persist long after the cheese has been swallowed. “C’est bon ça, putain que c’est bon!” exclaimed the famous French food writer and broadcaster Jean-Pierre Coffe when offered a taste, “un vrai fromage qui sent la ferme!” (“Jeez, that’s good! A real cheese that tastes and smells of the farm!”)