Vacherin, Sancey Richard


(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.


(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.

A Very Neal’s Yard Dairy Christmas

For just over a week at the end of December, I was back in the wellies; back at the Neal’s Yard Dairy coal face.  I was working in the Covent Garden shop with Martin Tkalez, Nathan Coyte and Adam Verlander.  It was knackering but it was really, really good fun.  The shop was well organised, the atmosphere busy but controlled, friendly and high spirited. I have, since, slept for practically the whole 12 days of Christmas, but I had a great time.
People buy a lot of cheese at Christmas and they tend to make a special trip to the 2 Neal’s Yard Dairy shops in Covent Garden or Borough Market because, even in these austerity times, splashing out a bit on some nice cheese is a treat… and after all it is Christmas.  In my full time days at Neal’s Yard, I would explain to friends and family that it got very busy; that consequently I was very busy.  They all nodded sympathetically and seemingly understood, but you could tell that they didn’t really.  They suggested meeting up for drinks or tried to hold social events and invited me, little realising that I had cheese to sell!  Didn’t they know I had just worked 14 hours without a lunch break and didn’t have a day off until Christmas Day.  When I did turn up (inevitably late) to any of the functions, I was in a slightly shell-shocked world of my own.  I felt as though I was looking at my nearest and dearest from an out-of-body height.  They smiled, laughed and chatted happily amongst themselves while I tried to join in and also tried not to fall asleep in my food / pint.
Days were regimented and organised.  Up at 5 or earlier, no hanging about, straight into the shower, dressed, out the door.  A lull while the train / bus / tube did its thing then into the shop or office.  15 minutes for the necessary strong coffee (thank god for sister company Monmouth Coffee Company) and then… Showtime!  Be it retail, or more often in my case mail order, it was time to turn on the adrenaline and get going. Evenings, too, were a business like affair: head home, cook food that had been purchased especially for its quick cooking appeal, wash up (because if you don’t do it right there and then it won’t be done till January), all the while calculating at what hour I needed to be in bed, in order to get enough sleep, before I had to get up at godawful o’clock the following day.
It sounds like a nightmare when I list it like that, but the thing is, it wasn’t.  It was a lot of fun and it certainly was team building.  After your colleagues and you had been banded together through the battle campaign that was a Neal’s Yard Dairy cheese-selling Christmas, you were thick as thieves.  You’d been on the front line together selling that Stichelton to literally hundreds of people a day.  There was a bond there.  On the memorable 2 years that the country was hit by massive snowfall (the winters of 2009 and 2010) when I was in charge of mail order, my man Friday Flynn Hall had keeled over with a nasty bout of chicken pox, over 45% of our deliveries were delayed due to weather conditions and I had around 900 anxious customers who were afraid of Christmas without their Colston Bassett to reassure, it was more than our well laid plans could handle. Jason Hinds (sales director and my direct boss) had to come to my rescue, help field the phone calls, help strategise and probably most important of all, did this with irrepressibly positive spirit and enthusiasm.  Of all the baptisms of fire Christmas has thrown at me, this was the hottest.  By hometime on Christmas Eve, I was so grateful, I would probably have taken a bullet for him.
You think on your feet, you react, you solve problems on the run and at the speed of light, but it isn’t flying by the seat of your pants. You have also planned for this one month of December since the end of the last one.  You see your plans, thoughts and decisions tested and delivering success and probably the most important thing for me is this:  you do your damndest to give all of the hundreds of people, to whom you are selling, the very best cheese and the very best service they have had in their lives.  Just being ok is absolutely not good enough when they have made a special effort to get to the shops or have chosen the mail order.  You fight for your department’s rights to the best cheese.  No matter how many people you have spoken to that day, you listen to your customer carefully, get to know their likes and dislikes and advise them accordingly.  In the case of mail order, you get their orders packed up perfectly and you follow up every single delivery online and track them until you know they have got to the right place.  They didn’t have to choose Neal’s Yard.  Waitrose cheese is really pretty good these days as are numerous little delis around the country.  Some of the latter are excellent in fact.  These people chose Neal’s Yard because they perceive it as a Christmas treat, so you make bloody sure it is.
I hate doing things badly.  It’s a question of pride to do things as well as I can.  The importance Neal’s Yard puts on its customer service, really plays to that instinct in me.  It was a happy marriage.
So a week back in Covent Garden was busy, exhausting but fun.  Jokes bantered back and forth.  Cheese was cut. 50lb wheels of Cheddar were hauled around and chopped up into 2kg pieces for display.  Stiltons and Sticheltons were halved, quartered and chopped up continuously.  Customers queued down the street stretching past the shop window and obliterating the doorway of the shop next door (oops – sorry Cambridge Satchel Company) and yet waiting time didn’t exceed 20 minutes in all that time.  While they waited, customers were fed cheese and are chatted to by the ‘door person’ who then directed them to the next free monger when it was their turn to be served.  The busy atmosphere bred energy as the week inevitably built to what had been predicted as the busiest day.  This year it was Friday 21st (luckily the world didn’t end).  The 2 Neal’s Yard shops in that one day sold £75,000 of cheese.  Gobsmacking is the only word that springs to mind.
That makes it 2 Christmases since leaving that I have returned for a fix of the Neal’s Yard Christmas Experience.  Part of me actually yearns for more of the sort of Christmas build up I remember from the pre Neal’s Yard days, decorating the tree on Christmas Eve whilst listening to the Carols from Kings on the radio, making mince pies, making Christmas puddings, really enjoying the Christmas preparations and wrapping presents ahead of time rather than on Christmas morning.  But it’s a hard habit to shift.  Who knows, I might yet don the white wellies again….if they’ll have me back.
the infamous Christmas Queue courtesy of the Rockets & Rayguns blog on Tumblr