Story by Jou Pabalate
Written by Deena Dakhiel
The Farm to table journey of French Cheese.
There are trips that give you a glimpse of a country’s culture and those that lets you take a dive into people’s way of life. Our recent trip to Lyon, in order to discover their famous affair with cheese, turned out to be both. This gastronomic tour de France turned out to be as much about artisanship, passion as it is about the flavors and wonderful cheese it produces.
On the first day of the trip, we made our way to Abbaye de Tamié and met the cheesemaking monk, Bro. Nathaniel. He is at the helm of the abbey’s production of an eponymous soft cheese. The latter has a creamy richness close to reblochon. It is one of three monasteries that make and age their own cheese from scratch. For 36 years, they have used a famous and original monk recipe before pasteurization – a big part of the monastery’s history that has been preserved to this day. Twenty-four monks work to produce 150 tons of cheese per year, and they have maintained their traditional way of cheese making even as they have modernized some parts of the process. Since 2004, they have been converting whey from cheese into energy used to warm their area instead of using oil. We then visited the cheese-making room where cheese is laid out during the ageing process.
From the Monasteries caves, we took a turn and found ourselves facing the stunning view of the alps. Our Sound of Music moment was taken to new heights upon meeting Christian. A Cheesemaker whose love for art of Beaufort and the community is admirable. On this leg, we watched a herd of Taurine cows grazing on the mountainside and partook in milking them. It’s this free reign state that perhaps produces the quality of beaufort unique to the alps of Lyon.
Our next stop was the Entremont production site, which is part of the cooperative called Sodiaal, one of the largest French dairy cooperative with about 20,000 farms supplying milk from all over France. Entremont production is located in Annecy, a tiny yet beautiful town in France where the flowers bloom and the lake is ever vibrant. There, we observed as 5,000 large wheels of cheese are received at the site where it is then ripened, cooled, heated, then cooled again. Depending on the cheese, the ageing process differs. For example, it takes 7-8 weeks in the cave for 8kgs of cheese to come out as emmental.
My favorite moment on this trip was meeting Mathilde and Fabrice, a young couple who took over their uncle’s farm and started their own business creating fresh, organic reblochon, one of two in the whole of France. We were left unplugged from the world for a few hours and somehow the time passed as we watch in fascination how this couple live their lives every day. Mathilde’s fine attention to detail and dedication to every step of the process shows in their product. Embracing a low waste, greener lifestyle, they make use of every element when possible, like the tomme blanche, a raw curd that hits the cheese cloths and mold which finds its way on their dinner table. Watching her flip and salt each reel to remove the whey, while her husband, Fabrice took care of the cows, made me realize the idyllic life with all its labors is an underrated craft.
Ending our abbey to alps to factory to table journey was Pierre Gay – One of the best Cheese mongers in France, who conducted a cheese-based dessert workshop making a fontainebleau using orange blossom and honey. His wife, Sophie, further completed our session with a unique camembert fused with middle eastern spices.
It is through the hands of these artisans that we truly understood what cheese meant to the French. And it is this that translates into the quality of cheeses they produce. The care of terroirs matched with a dedication to meeting regulatory requirements while remaining authentic to the process is something unique to French cheese. Whether it be aged, textured, soft, or hard, what you can be guaranteed of is that it will be done to a standard, defined by French excellence.