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.
In Switzerland this treasure is called Vacherin Mont-d’Or and it’s one of the cheeses that plays a starring role in my book, Cheese: Slices of Swiss Culture. In France it’s plain Mont d’Or (occasionally Vacherin du Haut Doubs), as the one on the right.
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.
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.
The 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.
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 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
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
- 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.
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.