Thursday, 15 July 2010

The Caves...

After a successful first month working with the affinage experts at Mons I thought I better explain the layout of Mons and each of the caves here and what they do. To start there is a huge refrigerated receiving area where the cheeses arrive everyday to be processed. Everything arrives here, from huge Mountain wheels to small little apérichèrve cheeses, no bigger than a thimble. Some of the cheeses arrive with a fully formed rind (having aged a bit in local conditions to pick up local flavours and according to some appellation regulations), whilst others come barely a day old. They are then processed and sent to the correct room.
Those with delicate fresh skins are gently handled and transferred to the drying room (with a higher temperature and lower humidity), where they will harden and form rinds to ensure even maturing. Their mould growth is patted down (a mere rub is a fatal mistake which can remove the beginnings of a rind). From here each individual cheese is inspected, turned, touched, squeezed and pinched everyday until the nod is given and it can be given the chance to graduate to its appropriate ageing cave.
Hervé has four such caves as well as an old railway tunnel. This old bricked up tunnel provides ideal humidity and temperature beneath the ground for cheese, becoming a haven for it - over 90 tonnes of cheese are stored here (you’d feta believe it! – sorry) All of these cheeses must be turned (by hand) every week; as well as examining, scrubbing, brushing, wiping, washing, turning, wrapping, rewrapping each cheese according to it’s needs. But that’s not it! There are the other caves, holding even more cheese, you can tell its France!
The caves vary in humidities, temperatures, air flow and atmosphere to match the needs of the cheeses and maximise their flavour and texture. With their natural earth and stone floors, and a natural spring nearby (they have no need to regulate the humidity due to this natural source of water) the cheeses look at home here –the giant mountain wheels inhabit one cave resting on sagging spruce boards (here for two years or more), another holds the petit goats cheeses, with the rustic rinded tomme’s residing in a third. All the other cheese facilities I have visited seem so purpose built compared with this idyllic cheese haven and the taste of the cheese’s here confirms Hervé and his family’s skill.
Each day the cheese is checked and moved according to their level of affinage. Hervé says “It’s crucial to find the peak age for each individual cheese, they’re living products and react differently everytime”. Watching him work makes it seem a simple art: tasting and checking each cheese, but greater scratching away of the surface reveals the great depth of knowledge required: cheese-production methods; cave dynamics, animal health, breed and husbandry, grazing pastures, the seasons, microbiology, the differences in look, taste and smell of cheese, as well as changing consumer trends in each country he sells in. Hopefully I will be able to at least gleam a bit of this knowledge in the next few months to take back to Britain.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Starting out at Mons - Cheesy Beginnings

After travelling down the country sampling France's gastronomic delights I thought I better do some work: I turned up, stylishly early, at Hervé Mons Fromagerie near to Roanne. Nervously I waited, the smell of cheese drifting up my nose. I saw someone arrive so ran over to them calling out "Eric! Eric!" (the name of my contact with Mons). In a typically Gallic way he just looked at me said "Non, je ne suis pas Eric" and walked away and I sheepishly returned to my car. Five minutes later another car pulled up so again I ran over looking like a lost sheep bleating for its mother. "Eric?" I demanded. The man looked me up and down and said I can get you Eric, but I'm not him. I all of a sudden went off him, but helpfully enough he managed to get in contact with Eric and confirm he was on his away. As the man left I asked his name and he looked at me and said Hervé Mons. Oh great!

Eric arrived a few moments later and was very helpful, showing me around their impressive cheese caves (I could feel my excitement brewing already) before taking me to my accommodation - a fantastic typically French house in the middle of the sleepy mediaeval village of St Haon le Chatel, where I have now become 'the outsider'.

So my apprenticeship commenced here. I turned up the next morning to be introduced to all my colleagues (whose names I promptly forgot in the excitement) and was directed to some cheeses I recognised . Tomme de Savoie, Crayeuse, Persille du Malzieu. "Flip and brush these," my new boss instructed. Several cheesy hours later, I was done. So he gave me some more to flip and brush, if his French accent wasn't so endearing I might have considered refusing, but I continued till the end of the day.

Day two was a little more exciting, I started by learning a bit more about how to handle the cheeses when they arrive - where to put them, and how to treat each cheese individually - whether it needed drying, to get more moist, or firming up, and which of the four caves was best for it, as well as whether paper, spruce wood or straw would aid it's development best. However, just to make sure I didn't get above my station, they gave me a few more cheese to flip (I think that's what I'm going to make my future children do if they're ever naughty).

At the end of the first week I was having a good time, although I'd flipped enough cheeses to keep a Frenchman happy for a few weeks at least. As well as learning a fair bit about their techniques here at Mons, my French language is also improving. I also got to meet Hervé's brother, Laurent: another talented individual whose passion seems to be cheese. It's weird around these people... I don't feel such a cheese geek.

Week two was much more interesting - I thought I had become a master cheese flipper until I saw Fred, who's worked all his life flipping the mountain cheeses (35kg+) as if they are made of air. Throughout the week I picked up lots of tips and tricks about affinage, best practice, and how to treat cheese differently and promote or stop bacteria growth, and I spent so much time wiping mould off a certain cheese that when I blew my nose, even my tissue got mouldy - there is a first time for everything!

It helps that my foreman, Gerome, is very useful. Although typically French (he almost went through the roof when he found out I still eat porridge everyday), he has a great sense for the cheese, knowing what they're like and what to do in any case of any event; he is a mine of knowledge! I must try and smuggle him back to England.

This third week I worked more on receiving the cheeses: they arrive everyday from hundreds of small producers throughout France, and each producer is individual, as is each cheese batch that arrives. It can even be affected by the cheese producer nipping out for a brew whilst making the cheese - that could slightly alter the final make up which means we need to treat it differently to get the best out of it. So when each batch arrives it is checked over and then transferred to the appropriate ageing material and cave.

More about each cave in the next blog.

How it all started

I grew up in a dairy-farming community in Northern England and can still remember milking my first cow! My grandparents all produced their own cheese and it was always taken very seriously in the community – my next-door neighbour’s sole job was to cultivate the bacteria for making the cheese at the factory down the road, and he’s still doing it now, 20 years on, at Appleby Creamery. From an early age I began to realise how wonderful cheese can taste when the whole process is executed with care.

After school I left England for France to work, which fueled my interest in food and all things nice! Consequently I decided to study for a BSc in Hospitality Management with Culinary Arts at Sheffield Hallam University, enabling me to study whilst all the while concentrating on fine food (who wouldn't?). As part of this I worked for over a year in The Balmoral Hotel's Michelin starred restaurant Number One. There I became further involved in cheese, taking responsibility for all the restaurant's cheese-oriented offerings, even making my own cheese (although you could break teeth on my Brie!). For my achievements at The Balmoral I won a national award (Young Guns).

After all this excitement I decided to run the Medoc Marathon through famous French vineyards. Here again I reconfirmed my love for cheese (and, naturally, wine), so I decided that once I'd finished, I'd immerse myself in all things cheesy. Consequently, I went to work for a brief period at London's famous Paxton and Whitfield Cheesemongers. Now, thanks to a scholarship from the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust I'm off to learn from the famous Mons Fromagerie in France, followed by some studying with Anfopeil.