Thursday, 14 October 2010

The Great Affineurs of the Savoie

Affinage. That buzzword, which I seem to keep going on about (it is why I’m in France after all). Hervé Mons is considered one of the best affineurs in the World, and that is why I’m here with him to improve upon my affinage craft. However, there are other affineurs out there too, although many of them specialise in the products of their own region. As affinage is such a subjective subject, with everyone using their own tools, tricks, techniques, caves and other idiosyncrasies, I thought it would make sense to visit a few of the other affineurs to pick up what I can from them!

First stop - Savoie! The Savoie is an amazingly beautiful region in France, with 93% of its terrain classified ‘mountainous’. But, more importantly it is home to some of my favourite, and the world’s best, cheese: Beaufort, Abondance, Reblochon, Bleu de Termignon, Chevrotin, Tarentais, as well as numerous Tommes (de Savoie, de Roche, de Crayeuse, de Bauges - every farm here makes their own style).

And although there are numerous dairies here too, the beauty of the cheese in the Savoie is that much is made in high alpine farms with maybe just 30 animals and tiny production (look out for Beaufort Alpage, Reblochon with a green sticker, as well as any Chevrotin, Tarentais and Bleu de Termignon). The high mountain pastures give fantastic floral diversity; consequently the milk of the cows and goats here is rich, floral and – by gum – delicious! This passes straight through to the cheese and that’s why it has such flavour.

All these small farms, at dizzy altitudes (1500m+), need someone to fetch the cheeses, age them and take them to market. That’s where the affineurs step in: Savoie is home to some big names in the affinage world.

My first stop was Denis Provent, Chambery, retailer of all Savoie cheese delicacies, he has recently come to fame for his Tarentais cheese. Only 2 producers of this relatively rare cheese exist, and its become a buzzword among cheese connoisseurs at the moment; it’s very interesting because it’s characteristics change completely with age (affinage), and eating three different ages is like eating three completely different cheeses. Yet unlike many other cheeses, all the different ages are fantastic and it’s hard to choose a peak in its life! So I visited his caves, and had a chat about his methods of affinage, picking his brain where I could! He has six caves, all located underground – old tunnels, ice sheds, natural caves – with many cheeses sitting there quite contentedly.

Next stop: Schmidhauser. A much bigger, commercial affair. Large, purpose-built caves (again with Hervé’s help – he pops up everywhere!), to age masses upon masses of cheese. That being said, the quality is good, and their specialities are particularly interesting - Tomme de Crayeuse and Chartreuex. Their master of ceremonies gave me a tour and a taste, before taking me off to visit one of his dairies making Tomme de Savoie.

My trip next takes me to Farto de Thones, a bit further up the mountain, (again one of Hervé’s friends - who isn’t?). They are actually a co-operative and started by working with fermier (farm) Reblochon producers up in the mountains, ageing their products, and taking care of all the selling and marketing. This is still the lions’ share of their business, yet now they also make and affiné other Savoie delicacies. Their tunnels are massive and almost as impressive as Schmidhauser’s. Yet again, a few more tips: different ways of working, different ideas. With these Savoie cheeses, although all these affineurs carry the same cheeses by name, the slight differences in techniques of production and affinage result in a remarkable diversity: no two Abondances, Beauforts, and Reblochons are really the same. Each affineur has his own expertise.

Yet, after all my time in France I was still to find a Reblochon that would blow me away. They were great here, but not especially better than other Reblochon I had tasted before: a velvety texture, a strong assertive smell and creamy, buttery, floral, complex flavour, or some that were a bit like eating a rare tender rib-eye steak. I was looking for that special Reblochon – a cheese that would make me think, “Yes! I’m in the right trade.”

So I asked around and all the locals said just one word – “Paccard”. Go up into the mountains, they said. So off I went, in my search of that Reblochon.

To be continued…

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