Vacherin Mont d'Or: Make your heart melt……with French Vacherin
Produced in the north-east of the country, where France meets Switzerland, this nutty, melt-in-the-mouth cheese, made from unpasteurised cows' milk, is at its best in the winter months, as Dee McQuillan discovers.
If this cheese is completely new to you, I suppose I could tell you that Vacherin is in the school of the best Brie or Camembert – but this kind of generalisation would enrage French cheese makers. All three cheeses are round and runny when ripe, but Vacherin is a particularly succulent, rich, rind-washed cheese, which melts in the mouth and is distinctly more-ish.
The character is more robust and nutty than Brie and the smell should never have that strong, glorious but almost-suspect Camembert aroma.
The Vacherin identified as du Haut-Doubs is a very special cheese protected by French law. At the peak of perfection from November to March, by regulation it can be made only from the milk of two breeds of mountain cow during the winter months when their feed is natural hay. Indeed, the cheese originated in hard weather when farmers had to make their own small cheeses or lose the milk money – or so the story goes.
To explain, Franche-Comté is one of the most distinguished dairy areas of the world, famous for two very big cheeses indeed, Le Comté, which is a variety of Gruyère, and the French version of Emmental called Emmental grand cru.
To make just one of these cheeses might use up all the milk from two or more farms, so the region developed a system of collective dairies, a system that worked well, except when the routes to the dairy (called a fruitière) were closed by bad weather. When snow or gales struck, the farmers were stuck at home and had to make their own small cheeses. Naturally, they turned this into an art form.
Each French Vacherin cheese is encircled with a ring of spruce bark that has been hygienically blanched and works to both protect the shape and add to the flavour.
The cheeses are bathed in salt water and put to mature for a minimum of three weeks, during which time they are turned and rubbed with salt water. The salt and water has many effects: it is antiseptic, of course, and helps the cheese keep, but it also affects the developing flavour.
How the makers like their cheese
Vacherin is a great cheese to eat after winter meat and game dishes and really needs nothing more than plain white bread or crackers. Okay – and maybe the plainer kind of green salad if you wish. It is made in two sizes: the larger cheese, sold by the slice (about 10 inches/25 centimetres across) matures more quickly than the thicker, smaller cheeses sold whole. Generally the rind is not eaten.
Where to buy Vacherin Mont d'Or
Vacherin is available from all good cheese shops, including La Fromagerie, and from selected supermarkets. The labelling can be confusing, and the simplest way to find the cheese described above is to look for one made in France. For many years, both Switzerland and France made a cheese called Vacherin Mont d'Or. In the 1970s, the Swiss managed to get the exclusive right to call their cheese Vacherin Mont d'Or. Since then, correctly, Vacherin from Franche-Comté is called Vacherin du Haut-Doubs, Haut-Doubs being the official name of the region. Yet it is often just called Le Mont d'Or by the French makers, who no doubt still think the Swiss pulled a fast one.
The specialists do not get excited about Vacherin until late October, at the very earliest. They say the milk is only then starting to develop its full character. On the continent this is the Christmas cheese, in a similar way to Stilton at home. To buy a whole cheese perfectly ripe requires help from the shop – tell them how soon you will eat it. You need a good shop, too, because some lose the nuances of cheese like Vacherin with over-chilling and wrapping. A section of the larger cheese is easier in some ways, as you can ask for a taste, but remember that once it has started to run it will go on running.
Note: Vacherin is a soft cheese made from unpasteurised milk. Pregnant women are advised to avoid all soft cheeses.
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