Vacherin, Sancey Richard

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(Vacherin production at Sancey Richard)

If you’re selling British cheese, then Christmas is all about Stilton.  Even with the advent of Stichelton, Colston Bassett is still a major player on the Neal’s Yard Dairy counter and at Mons, we get several customers per day asking for Stilton and needing to be directed to the Neal’s Yard Borough Shop, which we happily do.  Many people ask if Neal’s Yard Dairy is competition, but to be honest that’s not the attitude.  Neal’s Yard Dairy will happily direct French cheese lovers in our direction so we will happily return the favour.  It goes beyond that too, we all want to promote small cheesemakers who are making artisanal, traditional cheeses.  We’re a team.  Nationality isn’t all that important.

However, I digress from my main point, which is, that if you’re selling French cheese at Christmas, it’s all about the Vacherin.  Most cheeses adhere to the usual seasonal pattern of when the cows / goats / sheep go out to grass and production happens over the summer.  This is particularly evident in the mountain cheeses where the summer season is so short and the difference between grazing the amazingly varied pasture of the alpine meadows versus the hay of the winter housing is so pronounced.  Vacherin is very different in that case because its season begins as the animals go indoors.  To an English person this smacks of winter.  Cows here went in to their indoor housing fairly recently because the weather has been quite mild so far this winter.  I was at Nettlebed at the end of October and the cows were still outdoors on pasture, although it was recognised that this was due to the mild weather.  Meanwhile in the Alps, it has been snowing at pasture level since September.  This summer, I spent some time in Vigo di Fassa in the Dolomites and while there, I set the app on my phone to monitor the weather.  It’s a ski resort so it’s available.  While there, I realised it’s at the right altitude to be interesting from a cheese point of view as well and indeed I saw plenty of very happy looking cows there grazing away while I was on my walking holiday.  I kept the app monitoring Vigo di Fassa’s weather, long after the end of my walking holiday,  just for interest and I noticed that fairly early on in September it started snowing and temperatures plummeted into the minus degrees.  The cows they have there, whose milk contributes to Cuor di Fassa and Puzzone di Moena (amongst others), were most definitely indoors at this point.  I can’t really imagine that over the border in the mountain areas of France things were hugely different.

Some people romanticise the milk that goes into Vacherin production, claiming that it’s the richest milk that is produced when the cows go in to their winter housing and as such is reserved for Vacherin.  I have to be honest and say I think that is not a reflection of their housing but just a lucky coincidence.  In mountain areas, it still makes sense to have seasonal grazing and seasonal calving, meaning that the cows are calving in the late winter and getting to the end of lactation towards August through to October.  The end of lactation milk is always richer in fats and proteins.  It’s probably nature’s way of getting the last bits of nutrition into the calves.  If only we weren’t nicking it to make cheese!  A higher fat milk, however, isn’t great for making Comte which is the summer cheese in Vacherin areas.  To make a long maturing cheese, you don’t really want too much fat as it hinders drainage in the cheese and that ultimately means a moister cheese which can go a bit leftfield when maturing over many months.  It is, however, great for a quick maturing soft cheese.  So the enterprising mountain cheesemakers who, due to the early onset of winter in the mountains, have to house their cows indoors when they still have rich end of lactation milk to give, developed a recipe to showcase this milk and turn it into what we now call a marketing opportunity.

Vacherin is a high moisture cheese.  It is set very quickly and firmly which allows the rennet to trap in the maximum moisture.  The spruce cambium binding actually serves a practical purpose, to stop the cheese from overflowing its rind and spilling out as it matures.  The bonus is that it also adds to the flavour.

Sancey Richard, personified by Patrick Richard the head cheesemaker, make their Vacherin particularly well.  Interestingly they make their cheese using a vegetarian rennet.  I’m sure there are other Vacherin producers using animal rennet which would basically be the more traditional way but vegetarian rennet is often more proteolytic than animal rennet (more prone to protein breakdown) and this causes a more liquid and runny texture.  If you think of the Spanish and Portuguese sheeps milk cheeses that use a thistle rennet and need to be spooned out of their rind, you get the idea.  The choice of rennet has been due to technical reasons, however it does mean that for the vegetarian cheese buyer coming to a French cheese stand, they can buy a Christmas Vacherin!  Commercial bonus.

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(Vacherin on the Mons stand with Max in the background)

Patrick is also apparently a great character.  There is no shortage of these in the cheese world and particularly when you venture into the cheese world of France which while it may have strong traditional standards in its AOC certification also has its fair share of iconoclasts.  However nearly everyone I spoke to on the Mons stand when asking about the Vacherin, remembered fondly the time Patrick was convinced to do a promotion at Selfridges Food Hall.  A couple of hours in and he was autographing the cheeses for his customers and proudly pronouncing

‘Je suis le producteur!’

Vive le Vacherin de Sancey Richard.

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