A photo found on the web of Vacherin Mont d'Or on display in thewindow of la Cave à Fromage cheese shop in South Kensington. Taken 07 February 2009 in London by Fanny Bickel.
The Story of Two Countries and One Magnificent Cheese
Ô! This mythical and confusing cheese - Vacherin Mont d'Or or Vacherin Haut-Doubs! One can hardly be a fromologue living in the UK and France and not write about this wonderful cheese, which is sadly not available in either the Swiss pasteurised or the French non-pasteurised version in the United States. However, it is one of the summum of cheeses for the cheese aficionado to seek out.
The origins of this cheese are hotly disputed between the Swiss and the French with legends, history and myths supporting the claims. Just how long it has been made in the mountains surround Mont d'Or in eastern department of Franche-Comté in France and the Jura in Switzerland is also in doubt. For the record, a legend in Switzerland says that the recipe for Vacherin came to Charbonnières in 1871 when a certain General Bourbaki was retreating through the forests of the Jura deep in winter. The French used their herd of cows guided by their cowherd, Roguin, to forge a path through heavy snow. Apparently, Monsieur Rouguin was the keeper of the secret recipe for Vacherin Mont d'Or and for some reason, decided to stay in the Jura and produce this cheese.
The Swiss would not be the Swiss if they did not add, that although 'charming', this story has been put in doubt due to delivery records from around 1845 clearly detailing the delivery of said cheeses in the area, a good 26 years before the good General's disgraceful retreat.
They also assert that Vacherin is the descendant of Chevrotin, a goat cheese made in the region and that when the farmers ran out of goat's milk, they used cow's milk and the name changed naturally from Chevrotin (chèvre being French for goat) to Vacherin (vache being French for cow). The cheese is made in the Savoy region of France since the 17th century and has its very own spruce palette similar to the belt and box of the Mont d'Or.
However, these assertions that this cheese has only been made since the 1800's and implications that the French 'copied' the Swiss cheese are a bit disingenuous because the cheese has been made in the region of Franche Comté in northeastern France for as long as those people can remember. Upon further research, the first written traces of the cheese are from the 18th century accounts, i.e., 1700's, when it was described to be at the table of Louis XV who apparently love the cheese for its finesse and unctuosity.
Since it is only in recent history that this area of production has become clearly divided by country boundaries, all of these assertions are probably can be accepted as truth and fiction. Whatever the real history, a story of legal stage management is to blame for the confusion caused with its patrons and raising hackles when discussed in French or Swiss circles. To clarify the situation surrounding this cheese, in the 1970's, the Swiss succeeded in gaining the legal right to call the cheese made within their borders Vacherin Mont d'Or. This was well before the French figured out their neighbour's attention to such detail allowed them to control the name and restrict the use of what was a generic name.
Of course not to be put off by this legal out manoeuvring, the French applied for and received an Appelation d'Origine or AOC (Designation of Origin) for their cheese in 1981, which restricts the location and fabrication techniques of the cheese. They then sought a further protection within the EU against industrial imitation by gaining an Appelation d'Origine Protégé or AOP (Protected Designation of Origin) in 1996.
The areas stipulated in the French AOC for production of this cheese must be within the area of the Haut Doubs in the Franche-Comté, which includes the cantons of Mouthe, Morteau, Pontarlier, parts of Levier, Maîche, Montbenoît and Russey. The official name for the French version of this cheese is Vacherin du Haut-Doubs (the area in France where it is made), but you will see it referred to in France as Mont d'Or, uh, we should say Vacherin du Haut-Doubs. The AOC permits both artisanal and coopérative production of this cheese.
The Swiss produce the cheese year-round in the high mountainous area just east of the Franche-Comté, in the cantons of western Vaud, Neufchatel and Jura.
Basics: The primary difference in these cheeses is the French make theirs from raw cow's milk and the Swiss generally use pasteurized. The French version is seasonal being made from milk that comes from two races of cows called Monbéliarde and Pid Rouge de l'Est (French Simmental), who spend their summers eating mountain grasses and hay in the 700 meter altitude pastures of the Massif Mont D'Or. No grain, silage or other fermented fodder can be added to the feed. In all, the cheese is typically 45 to 50 percent milk fat (in dry matter) and takes only 7 litres of milk to make 1 kilo of Mont d'Or. History has it that when there was not enough milk to make Comté because the quantity of milk diminishes once the cows are back in their stables, farmers came up with the idea to make a smaller cheese which they named Fromage de bois (of wood), or de crème (of cream) or even de boite (boxed). Today the cheese is indeed made by the same 20 fruitières who make Comté during the spring and summer.
How & when: The cheese is made in both places utilizing the same techniques with their respective milk type, i.e., unpasteurised for the French and pasteurized for the Swiss. First the curds are pressed into cloth-lined moulds to begin to shape them. Once the curd has set, they are taken out and encircled with a band or belt made from spruce sapwood called une sangle d'épicéa. (This of course is another story in itself, but one that points to a true working partnership between the farmer, cheese maker and the regional sanglier, in this case a belt maker, not a wild boar.) The belt is scrupulously sanitized and bleached to control any unfriendly bacteria infecting the curd, but its raison d'être is to help further develop the shape and to impart another bit of terroirs in the form of a liquorice-like resinous flavour. The wheel is then bathed in a salt brine bath and left to age for a minimum of 21 days on wooden racks at around 13-14 centigrade. The young aging cheeses are turned frequently and rewashed with salt brine that as with most cheeses protects the developing curd and imparts flavour.
Vacherin Mont d'Or - Haut Doub is made from the period of the 15th of August through the 15th of March and available from the 10th of September to the 10th of May, depending on your local cheese monger in the UK or France. With the most sought after being the summer milk versions which of course come right at the beginning of the season. It is normally available in its spruce box formats in as either a small box of 4 inches or 12 centimetres in diameter and about 480 to 600 grams and a medium box at 700 to 800g, the favourite French size as it is usually enough for four. I have also seen and sold a large boîte of about 20 cm or about 7 ½ inches which weighed in at about 900g. All of these round boxed versions are about 9 centimetres or 3 ½ to 4 inches deep. You can also find at cheese mongers the slightly firmer version in large 'roue' or wheel used to cut into wedges for customers, which is about 30 centimetres or 12 inches in diameter and 4 cm or 1 ½ inches thick.
Terroirs - taste & smell: A well made Mont d'Or of either variety has a firm undulating cream coloured, bloomy pâte (supposedly recalling of the folds of the Mont d'Or Mountains) and should have an extremely unctuous or runny centre. The smell is dominated by the spruce 'sangle' or belt which gives the cheese a unique smell of wood, and then you should smell mushrooms and potatoes. The taste is of mountain milk, resin and liquorice of the spruce. And if this is not enough to send one to firmly on ones way to gourmet heaven, I have also experienced, albeit at Christmas time, these cheeses blanketed with either thin slices or finely diced black truffles!
How to eat: The simplest and most traditional way to eat one of these wonders of French or Swiss terroir, is with spoons from either the spruce box or a beautiful bowl. That being said, in the mountains this cheese is used a little like fondue. In other words, the spruce box is wrapped in aluminium foil and heated in the oven, either nu (as is) or with a clove of garlic tucked into the centre or a little bit of crisp, white Jura wine poured into a trou (hole) made in the middle, or why not both together, then served with roasted or boiled potatoes to dip into it. Truly decadent! It is also often a traditional French Christmas eve dinner guest.
Links: For further reading pleasure, the official site of the Vacherin du Haut-Daubs/Mont d'Or although in French has videos of the production worth watching: http://www.mont-dor.com/ and the official sit for Vacherin Mont d'Or is in all four Swiss languages, including English: http://www.vacherin-montdor.ch/