Saturday, 15 October 2011

Bonjour Mont d'Or!

The season for Mont d’Or has finally arrived!
 After a long summer of grazing the hillside pastures of the Haut-Doubs and the Jura to produce milk for Comté d’estive and Morbier, small herds of the regions’ famous Montbéliarde have been moved into winter housing in preparation for the harsh alpine winter months.  
It is now, when the cows are being fed only the purest, sweetest alpine hay cut and dried from May-August, that Mont d’Or (or Vacherin du Haut-Doubs) is produced. Not only has the cow’s diet changed, but the lactation cycle of the herd will be coming to an end, a time when the fat level of the milk naturally increases.
Calving is usually staggered in larger herds of cows, to give a continual milk supply with changes in milk composition at various stages of the lactation being lost in the volume of milk. A smaller herd will tend to “block calve” so all the cows give birth at around the same time, and are all on the same lactation cycle. This rich, fatty milk is better suited to making soft cheese than hard cheese (although Comté is always made using partly-skimmed milk), and so is utilised by making a very special cheese – one of Frances greatest soft cheeses.

Mont d’Or is beautiful to look at; beautiful to taste; and with a beautiful story of respected tradition and regional agriculture behind it – the seasonal movement of animals dictated by landscape and climate, and the seasonal production of artisanal cheese, dictated by the milk.

The famous spruce band which makes Mont d’Or such a visually striking cheese is tied around the cheese when the cheese is very young, before the rind has begun to develop. The spruce cambium (a thin, pliable layer between the bark and wood of a tree) serves a practical function – to hold the ripening cheese together as it develops a melting, almost liquid texture, and also imparts the most striking aromas to the cheese. An aroma of rubbed pine needles, of Christmas trees, of soft-wood resin. As the cheese ripens and this unmistakeable aroma begins to develop, a thin rind starts to form – a delicate geotrichum bloom which breaks down the firm paste of the cheese, giving a creamy texture and yeasty flavour. Fluffy white moulds coat the cheese and act with the geotrichum to ripen the cheese and also give the rind an undulating or crumpled appearance.  Once fully ripened, Mont d’Or will have a tender, delicate rind with a powerful aroma – not just of spruce, but of cream, cauliflower and cured meat.

Try baking a small Mont d’Or. Stud the cheese with thin slivers of garlic and small sprigs of thyme before sprinkling with a little white wine and baking for 25 minutes.
The cheese comes hot and molten from the oven, scented with garlic and thyme. Spoon the cheese over toasted pain de campagne, baby celery hearts, French mountain hams, saussie de Morteau, acidic little cornichons and maybe a salad of frisée dressed with the lightest drizzle of walnut oil. This is one of the best meals of the year.
The Mont d’Or will be available from specialist cheesemongers until February or early March when the season draws to an end. The cows are dried off, for a few months before returning the hillsides for the first spring grazing after a winter under snow.
It is here where the herds will calf, and begin to produce milk for summer hard cheese making. Here they will stay, grazing in the summer until next autumn when the Mont d’Or season will start again, just as is has done for over 200 years.

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