Cheese-Tasting on the Tour du Mont Blanc
You’ve hiked and trekked your way to the Col du Bonhomme the highest point on the Tour du Mont Blanc(TMB) trail, deep in the Beaufort cheese-making region of Savoie. What are the chances there will be something good to eat around here? You’re in the French Alps, so the chances are one hundred per cent! Watch for an opportunity to visit one of the small cheese makers while traversing the Beaufort-Mont Blanc area. You’ll be treated to the sight of giant cheese wheels, weighing in at over 80 lbs, over 40 kilos.
In fact, Beaufort cheese is among the most prized in the Alps and in all of France, perhaps because it has been a local tradition since Roman times.1 There are three varieties of this style, including the Beaufort d’alpage, made with milk from Tarentaise and Abondance cows, which graze high above the valley floor at the summer pastures.2
Cheese-making is a passion, as the days are long and the work labour intensive. Most cheese making operations are small, run by just a few people who care for herds of about 250 cows. Most days begin at 0500 and finish late in the night. Herders must care for animals, repair machinery, prepare meals and maintain hygienic operations.
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Animals are milked twice per day; once in the early morning and once mid-afternoon. Mobile milking stations, which can be driven to higher altitudes as the summer progresses saves time and keep milk production higher as cows do not have to move to be milked. Most small farms will make between 2 and 6 wheels of cheese per day, kept in ageing cellars for a few weeks and then moved lower in the valley for ageing which can take nearly a year. The wheels of cheese are placed in cheese cloth, then pressed for several hours in order to remove the moisture. Once this process is completed, the cheese is then placed in a brine solution in order to harden the rind. After that, cheese is rubbed with salt in order to protect the cheese from bacteria and harmful mould. Wheels are turned frequently and rubbed with salt to maintain a hard rind. Imagine rotating 80 pounds several times per day, over and over, month after month. No need to go to the gym after that.
If you enjoy a classic Savoyarde fondue, one of several smooth cheeses you taste will be the Beaufort, probably blended with a Comté and a Reblochon. Alert your taste buds for hints of the hundreds of herbs and flowers these lucky bovines consume to give the cheese its special fruity, delicate flavor. Eaten in hard form, it is often paired with white wine and served with smoked meat.
Cheese in France is highly prized and strict norms and rules are placed on farmers when it comes to traceability of the milk and the cows. Each wheel of cheese is dated with the seal of the manufacturer, herd and area where it was produced for complete transparency. Cheese in the Alps is always made with natural products such as naturally occurring rennet, made from a calf’s stomach. enzymes in rennet enables the milk to curdle and once heated, the whey is filtered out and the curd is kept to make the cheese. In the Alps, whey is used to make a soft, fresh cheese called Sérac, heated over an open fire in a copper cauldron, then poured in wooden molds to harden slightly. Best served on fresh bread with jam or honey. Yum!
A knowledgeable guide from Alpine Interface will enrich your Tour du Mont Blanc hiking trip. The TMB Express introduces you to some of its most characteristic small cheese-making enterprises, as part of the stunning beauty and peaceful way of life still found in the French Alps.
1. Cheese-France.Beaufort. Web.17 Jun. 2014.
2. Savoie-Mont-Blanc. Gastronomy and local produce/Discover our cheeses. Web. 17 Jun. 2014.
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