Avedemil

Anyone who has hired Ivan Larcher as a consultant will at some time or other, buy equipment from Avedemil.  It’s a mystical destination in the Poitou Charentes region of France that is regarded as a cheese Aladdin’s Cave.

Avedemil Warehouse
Avedemil Warehouse

Of course, when it came to buying our equipment too, we planned it into the budget to buy from Avedemil as well.  It needed a leap of faith but it was a leap worth taking

Their website is very basic and actually about 2 days before I left, just as I was trying to work out their address, it went offline.  I know from previous experience at Neal’s Yard that when it comes to communications, in France the phone is still king.  Email is used but particularly in retail or in agricultural sections of business, nothing replaces just talking to someone.  This is actually a pretty healthy way of going about things.  I am increasingly aware that as stiff-assed Brits, we rely too much on firing off an email, status update or tweet about something, because it’s easier than having to engage with someone in real time.  Talking is still the best way to get a repsonse, sale or communicate information.

However if it’s talking in a language you last studied over 20 years ago when you were at school, then thank God for the full arsenal of communication technology.  Emailing and running a sections of text through Google Translate before you insert them into the text of your email, allowed me to first contact Mr Yannick Le Blanc of Avedemil and to his credit, although not always all that speedily, he replied to the extent that before even visiting I had been able to buy a vat and send him a list of other things I was looking for.  For the latter, I found going through Coquard‘s online catalogue and making a list of technical equipment-based french vocabulary was also pretty damn useful.  The trusty Collins French English Dictionary that saw me through A levels would have sadly let me down there, I fear.

So with little idea of where I was going, recommendations from everyone I knew but only a belief that surely they would have the things we needed, I committed Nettlebed Creamery’s money to buying me a flight, hotel rooms, car hire and set off, fervently hoping I wouldn’t find out later I could have ordered it all cheaper in the UK.  On that point, I was at least relatively sure as long as they had the things we needed that they’d have them at a better price.  I’d been trawling around looking for vats before we arranged the trip and for the sort of thing I wanted, I only found two options: 1,000 litre cheese vat on the goat nutrition website which is too big for what we want and cost a hefty £25,000 or buy something new from Jongia which would also be into the tens of thousands.  Avedemil’s website had a blue cheese, tilting vat and on enquiring about the price we heard the very welcome news that they wanted 3,500 Euros + VAT.  That price difference alone justified my trip.

Having now been there in person, I can report back that yes, you just have to make the leap of faith and go there.  I flew out of Stansted into Poitiers which is a charmingly tiny airport.  We then drove an hour south in more or less a perfect straight line to Chaunay about a quarter of an hour out of Ruffec the town in which Avedemil is based.  The following morning at 10.30am we met Mr Le Blanc and having already heard something about us from Ivan who unfortunately couldn’t join us as a listeria emergency called him away to another client, he began to formulate the list of equipment that we needed.

Chaunay and its only hotel, bar and restaurant
Chaunay and its only hotel, bar and restaurant

Mr Le Blanc has been doing this job for a long time and he knows a lot about what you need for each type of cheese.  With a basic working knowledge of Taleggio and taking into account that we didn’t want to use square moulds because it would make the cheese look very like St James, he set about showing us the various combinations of bits of kit we might need: plateaux (draining trays), block moulds, racks, a clever pallet truck thingy to move the racks about so they don’t have to be on wheeled bases and then roll all over the floor you’ve specially had laid to slope for ease of drainage.  We looked at the vat, discussed the neccessity of a raised platform to stand on because of my lack of height.  We looked at soaking tubs that will fit our racks for ease of washing and the wheeled bases they can go on.  And so much more.  It was like going round a supermarket sweep.  Whereas in the UK we’d have had to get inventive or make do with things that didn’t quite fit what we needed them to do, here was a warehouse filled to the roof, in the style of the hangar at the end of Indiana Jones where they put the Ark of the Covenant, with things that just worked.

Racks and chariots
Racks and chariots

 

We spent a couple of hours there, made up a list which would form the basis for a quote he’d send us later and left.  Job done nicely.  The quote came in a few days later when I’d returned to the UK.  14,000 Euros for the lot.  I am still unsure about the block moulds.  I want to use individual ones and cloth lined at that.  I am also not sure that the ones he showed me would allow the cheeses to drain adequately as they didn’t seem to me to have quite enough holes and we may need to get a bit Heath Robinson where that’s concerned.

The only point, however is, you need to do your homework.  I had my list of technical vocab and I brought with me a pretty fluent French speaker in the form of my Dad for when my own stores of French ran out.  I think my old teachers would be relatively pleased with what I did manage to remember and I could just about have managed on my own but Mr Le Blanc and the rest of his staff don’t speak any English so be warned.

The AOC dilemma

BAlpage.1

I first met Bronwen Percival, now better known as the buyer at Neal’s Yard Dairy and the founder of the London Gastronomy Seminars when she was a student, writing a paper on the shortcomings of the PDO and AOC system.  At the time, my experience of this system was purely UK based and to be honest in the UK, PDO certification isn’t hugely meaningful.

Stilton, our most famous PDO (Product of Designated Origin) cheese has enshrined in its certified production methods, the use of pasteurised milk.  The PDO was organised and established when most of the Stilton producers in the UK were using pasteurised milk as this was the trend at the time in UK dairying.  I think this was sometime in the 1960s.  The second best known PDO in the UK is that for West Country Cheddar and in this, production standards were so loosely worded that it encompassed block and traditional clothbound wheels of cheddar.  Where the Silton PDO did at least ensure that its cheeses adhered to basic production standards, for instance a natural rinded cylinder form and that this was not bound in wax of plastic to lock more moisture in, the West Country Cheddar PDO only really established the geographical origin as a quality measure.  Jamie Montgomery, one of the best known and respected cheddar makers in the UK decided to leave the PDO because it was more damaging to his brand than enhancing it.  Hafod, one of the most traditional recipe cheddars currently made in the UK can not fit into the PDO although in essence its recipe is one that was followed on farms all over Somerset before the 1920s.

However, I was of the impression that the AOC system in France worked better; that it actually protected the important factors of traditional production as it was set up at a time when there was considerably more farmhouse cheese production knowledge and thus it was more meaningful.  Since working at Mons Cheesemongers it has become apparent that wherever it becomes a marketing tool and has financial importance as a result, it loses its ability to protect tradition.  And this, if I remember correctly, in a nutshell is what Bronwen Percival proposed around 9 years ago.  She’s a clever one.

Mons have recently encountered their own issues with the AOC systems and these cover the immensely petty to the more fundamental.  A key area that causes concern is that the AOC system in some places encourages the use of specific AOC approved starter cultures and this in turn means that individual producers cheeses personalities are not able to be fully expressed.  In fact, with different intentions of course, it achieves the same end as globalisation and industrialisation of cheese.  Many farmhouse cheeses in the UK who don’t have the same variety and choice of starter cultures or the knowledge to ferment their own, end up using around 2 or 3 freeze dried cultures bought from Christian Hansen.  These cultures are also used by the block, factory cheeses.  It isn’t the best way to reveal the full individuality of the milk.  This is a big topic and indeed it’s one for another post but the essence is that by buying commercial cultures, the individuality of each producer diminishes.  We will not ever live in an age of identikit cheeses: recipe, cheesemakers’ skill and farming methods resulting in differing compositions of the milk will answer for that, however it does mean that we don’t have the full effect of the terroir, farming system, breed of the animal and cheesemaking skill reflected in the final cheeses.  An example here of the bureacracy of the AOC system here is Mons’s Beaufort Alpage and Ete (see picture).  These are made by a cheesemaker who makes his own starter in the latte inesto style I described after the milk workshops I attended in Bra.  He makes his own rennet too from dried stomachs of his male calves.  However he has 2 farms.  This means he can not be considered artisanal because his production is too big and yet his recipe and key production techniques are the quintessence of tradition.

Meanwhile, Mons is having to rebrand a few of their Provencal goats cheeses as a result of wanting to improve them.  The AOC states that in order to be considered to bear their name, they have to have a minimum aging time in the area.  In principle, I can understand the argument for this, however in practice it has problems.  Mons in France (the parent company of Mons Cheesemongers) have been encountering problems with the goats cheeses as they needed better drying facilities before the age at which they arrived in Lyons for affinage.  It’s quite a big ask that each farmer should be able to invest in state of the art drying facilities.  Herve Mons decided that he could accomplish that for them better at his own caves.  However this means that they are no longer AOC cheeses.  And thus renaming has happened.  Jane, explained this recently to Mons Cheesemongers Wholesale customers.  I have copied her words so this is straight from the horse’s mouth as it were:

‘it’s time to focus in on our Loire goats cheeses… & in this region, change is afoot. Being such a well known area for goats milk, many of the Loirien cheeses are protected by AOCs. & within the rules of these AOCs, it’s stated that cheeses can only share the prestigious protected names if the remain in their region until at least 10 days old.

Well, Mr Mons has plans for improving his maturing of these recipes & part of his scheme entails bringing the cheeses into our caves so he can manage the drying process himself. And that means getting hold of the cheeses at the earliest stage possible.

In order to take this step towards improving the evolution of these cheeses, he’s had to rename a number of them so’s not to contradict the AOC rules. & so ladies & gentleman, we give you……

Selles sur Couffy for Selles sur Cher (the Couffy is a tributary of the Cher river which runs by the producer’s farm),

Pouligny for Pouligny St Pierre,

Ste Maure de la Dragonniere for Ste Maure de Touraine &

Auzanne Cendree for Valencay’

It may be time for the AOC system as well as that of our own UK PDOs to consider adaptation and evolution.