Sunday, 31 July 2011

Mons fromager-affineur

Last week I got back to England from a month in Vermont, where I was based at Jasper Hill Farm and the adjoining Cellars at Jasper Hill. I will post one or two blogs on the cheeses and the maturing facilities in Vermont (both of which were incredible!) but today I'll write about a French cheese business, Mons fromager-affineur
During my time at the Cellars at Jasper Hill, Herve Mons and Laure Dubouloz visited and conducted an underground French cheesetasting for us.
I visited one of Mons' maturing caves in May, when I was traveling around the Lyon area, en-route to the Jura, but didnt write about it at the time.

Mons is a French affineur, specialising in the fine art of cheese aging, mateuration and ripening, a high skill which requires experiance, and an deep understanding of cheese making. The affineur can only judge a cheese's maturity organoleptically - by touching, tasting, smelling and listening to the cheese.

Tomme Crayeuse at Mons. A raw milk,
mould ripened tomme cheese made in
the Haute-Savoie

One type of cheese may not always be at its most perfect, sensual moment at the same age. Their are so many potential variables. For example, a Beaufort Alpage may be matured upto a year, perhaps 18 months for a very special cheese, but the next batch of the same cheese, from the same producer even, may reach it's aromatic peak at, perhaps 8 months.
Only a trained affineur can predict how a cheese will mature.  
In May I visited La Compagnie d’Affinage des Caves de la Collonge, an underground tunnel running through a mountain near the town of Roanne. The tunnel was abandoned. It is 185metres long. 
Inside, the air is cool, 11C, and holds up to 94% humidity. Rock walls and stone beds below the cheese shelves store water, acting as natural humidifier.
100 tons of cheeses sit on local spruce shelving, continuously being turned, brushed, washed and tasted.  
Mons has 4 retail shops in France, and also wholesalers and exports across Europe and the USA.
In England, Mons cheese can be found at 59 Stanworth Street, SE1 3NY, London, on Saturdays, 9am-2pm where they are part of Maltby Street Traders.

One of my favourite cheeses from Mons is the Salers de Buron, a cheese which has been made in the volcanic Avergne mountains for over 2000 years.
The cheese is made with raw milk from the Salers cows, a rustic breed with long, curved horns and a thick red coat. The cows must be milked by hand in the field as this breed will not be milked without the presents of there young.
A little salt is sprinkled onto the calves backs for the cows to lick, a distraction while the milker takes the milk for cheese making.
The fresh, still-warm milk is soured only with the addition of whey from the previous days cheese making, a traditional practice seen rarely now as it can lead to great variety in the flavours of the cheese. 
The cheese is firm, but open textured and fluffy, even after an 18 month aging. The flavours are deep and complex, sometimes quite wild, representing the windswept mountain where it is made. Often fruity, the cheese has both a salty, "aged" flavour as well as a lactic, milky quality.
Very, very delicious!!

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Artisan goodbye

My time at the School of Artisan Food has now come to an end. It’s been an incredible year of intensive learning, making, and thinking.
The days of early morning cycles across Nottinghamshire farmland, past red-tiled farm buildings, poppy fields and limestone crags, evenings spent cooking, drinking wine and taking about food into the small hours, the days spend thinking about making cheese whilst sipping Monmouth coffee have all drawn to an end.
 It would be massively clichéd to say it has been a life changing experience, but in all honestly, is has been. I’ve met the most outstanding people who sometimes have challenge the way I think about, not just food, but life. I’ve had the opportunity to spend a year at Welbeck; one of the most historic, secret and beautiful country estate in the UK, and to travel across the UK, France and America to visit, work with and learn from artisan food producers and suppliers of all types.
Here are some of the producers I’ve been able to visit and spend time with and foods I’ve been able to help make or seen being made over the past year:
Joe Schneider at Stichelton  Montgomery Cheddar • Tom Calver at Westcombe Cheddar • Keen’s Cheddar •Charlie Westhead at Neal’s Yard Creamery   Tim Jones from Lincolnshire Poacher Robin Betts from Winterdale Linda Dutch at Berkswell • Val Bines • Stacey Hedges at Tunworth • Neal’s Yard Dairy • Marcel Petite Comté • Hervé Mons • Mateo Kehler at Jasper Hill Farm • Cellars at Jasper Hill • James Swift from Trealey Farm Charcuterie •Ray Smith • Saucisses de Morteau •  Arthur Potts-Dawson • Carolyn Steel • Flour Power • and the man who invented Mars ice-cream

These people have mostly been introduced to me through the School of Artisan Food. Some gave inspirational talks, others allowed me to work with them or visit their production site. There have been plenty of others too, those behind some really exciting transitional food movements and not-for-profit food projects; food writers and journalists; scientists and microbiologists.
But the people who have been shared this experience with me, from such a range of backgrounds and past careers, all drawn together by a hunger for real food, have been amongst the most special people I’ve met – the artisan food producers of the future. Children of the revolution. The revolution that is the growing interest in food; whether it be cooking, producing, eating, or concern for the one thing which humans depend on for life. Food.
So now, having examined my own thoughts, morals, and beliefs on food and food production, I find myself asking the same question I did 12 months ago. Actually, a question I ask most days…What is “artisan”? Or, at least “who is an “artisan?”

Artisan – Person, Place, Product, Passion

A kind of personal integrity that can be confused with eccentricity: “However strange it may seem to you, this is the way I do things.””

The belief that their work is not a means to something else, but one of the ways to give meaning to their life.”

Artisan. Genius: the brilliance that comes to those driven by their personal vision rather than a desire for success, money or fame.”

An artisanal product is passionately handcrafted, using traditional methods, sometimes combined with modern innovation. By using knowledge, skill and quality ingredients, the artisan creates a special product; embarrassing the individual characteristics of the maker.”

From the authority, the School of Artisan Food’s website, “There is no single definition of artisan food. Artisan producers should understand and respect the raw materials with which they work; they should know where these materials come from and what is particularly good about them. They should have mastered the craft of their particular production and have a historical, experiential, intuitive and scientific understanding of what makes the process that they are engaged in successful. They should know what tastes good and be sensitive to the impact of their production on people and the environment. Artisan producers get better over time and probably never stop improving or tweaking their practise, learning from other people and their own mistakes

Friday, 8 July 2011

The sugar maker

Travelling through rural Vermont in the warm, still days of July, I see maple trees stretch across the hilly landscape, beyond the horizon, only making way for glacial lakes and occasional meadows. From the dirt roadside this looks like a wild place, spared from human interference, agriculture or infrastructure. This however, is far from the case – New York was built on Vermont timber to the result of mass de-forestation, followed by mass sheep farming. In the 1800s, granite mining was huge in some areas. Thankfully, the few remaining forests were protected in the 1920s, and Vermont’s mountains have become green with trees once again.
Step off the dirt road into the depths of the forests and you will be waste-high in ferns and wild plants, with a thick canopy of maple leaves above you. Look at the trunks of the trees and you’ll see small round scars in the bark, bare a centimetre in diameter. There will probably be a cluster of them, all on the same side of the tree, about 1.5m high. These little scars are left every spring after the sugar maker’s harvest. Vermont has more sugar maple trees than any other state in America, and so unsurprisingly is the largest producer of maple syrup in the country. I adore maple syrup; on pancakes in the true American way; tossed over chunks of root vegetables with thyme and chilli; in a deeply spiced, sticky, mahogany cake; or even a little in a sausage mix where alongside sage, it gives a sappy, woodsy flavour of bonfire night. I had never really given a thought to where the dark, runny liquid came from. Of course, I knew it was American maple trees, but had never wondered how it was harvested or treated.
Last Saturday evening I met with Clarence Wheeler, a man from the small community of Greensboro. Clarence, like most of his neighbours, is a sugar maker. He lives with his wife on her father’s farm, overlooking Lake Caspian. Clarence is a true man of the local soil. We drove around the surrounding farms, where he told me stories of who farmed which fields and when, the struggles for the dairy industry in Vermont, the wild turkeys he shot down that track, the deer he stalked over this hill and once, the bear he killed by those bee hives, and the trout he caught in the lake. We arrived at the patch of woodland where he taps the maple trees each April. Like any other harvest, no calendar or diary can tell when the harvest will be, that is decided by nature. “The ideal tapping time is when the sun gets warm in the day and the snow begins to melt, then it gets really cold again at night”, says Clarence. “When the tree wants energy to grow leaves, sap is drawn up the tree from the roots. Its water and sugar, food for the tree. If all the branches are on one side of the tree, that’s where I tap, that’s where the sap will be running.”
Clarence explained how the sap is extracted from the tree by hammering a small tap about 2/3 inch into the tree. This little tap is connected to a thin pipe which leads to a main pipe line running downhill to his sugar house. There are around 200 taps off various pipes running down the wood.

Clarence’s sugarhouse was built in the 1940s by his father-in-law who had a large commercial sugar operation. The house is wooden, with a tall, lofty ceiling. A wood store at the back of the building is full of old boiling equipment – vats, holding tanks, burners. Compared to the equipment Clarence uses, they are massive; Clarence makes 2 gallons of syrup a day for around three weeks a year. His father-in-law made 12 gallons a day.

Once the sap is in the sugarhouse, Clarence must boil it. 14 gallons of sap makes 1 gallon of syrup.
I was curious as to why Clarence made syrup. It is hard work; taking many long hours in the cold wood, he can’t make any money to speak of from it. There is nothing particularly special or unique about his product, it is very good syrup, but every other person in the area does the same. Clarence says making sugar is in his blood. He has the wood and the sugar house, and so he makes the syrup every spring. His sugarhouse has no electricity, no gas and no mobile phone signal. It is lit by a small oil lamp and heated by the wood burning furnace below the vat.
“I love coming here to my sugarhouse. I wouldn’t want electricity here. This is a tradition of my family, of the area, of Vermont. It’s in my blood.”