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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We wish you a Monsy Christmas!

The Mons Cheese Display

It’s December and this means it’s time for cheese retailing again.  This year, I will be working at the Borough Market Mons Cheesemongers stand.  I did a few shifts back in the spring this year when the stand was newly opened so in some ways it’s just a question of jogging the memory and hopefully it will all come flooding back.  So far I have helped close up the main stand so that we could set up our temporary stand at the Borough Market’s Evening of Cheese which seemed to go ok although perhaps not at my speedy best and helped set up the stand this morning – again not quite up to speed but not too disorganised.  Tomorrow is the first full shift and it being a Friday will hopefully be reasonably busy.

Borough Market is looking pleasingly Christmassy with mistletoe on the veg stands and christmas trees for sale on Stoney Street.  On the cheese stand we have mountains of Vacherin from Sancey Richard and it is blooming delicious.  I am about to spend at least half my wages on cheese again I can tell.  So far I’ve already had to head home with a Bicaillou and some Beaufort Alpage.  Incidentally if you’re near Borough Market, those are also my top tips – along with a Vacherin if you’re up for 500g of spoonably runny cheesey gorgeousness and really why wouldn’t you be?

Next week of course will be when it gets properly busy.  The Market is open daily now although most customers apart from the real local regulars won’t realise this and will still come along on the usual market days of Thursday, Friday and Saturday.  And as always, the biggest rush of sales and customers will come at the end of the month.  Every year, all retailers comment that the sales peak gets later and later.  You just have to hold your nerve and believe that it will happen.  Then on Christmas Eve, it’s all over for another year.

Elsey & Bent's Mistletoe and Holly

Christmas Trees on Stoney Street

Christmas Wreaths Borough style

Washed Rinds Blowing through my Mind

Somewhere into the Blue Cheese Course at the School of Artisan Food, Rose and I experienced the Neal’s Yard Dairy Dilemma and had to think long and hard over whether we were going to make a washed rind cheese.  As the answer was ‘yes’, it seemed like a rather good idea to sign up for the Washed Rind cheese course that was to be held in July.

The blue cheese course ended.  The first Taleggio experiment was held.  As you all know, it was not an unprecedented success.  The course was going to be very handy indeed.
The blue cheese course had taught me how to measure out DVI starters and combine different types to come up with a good mixture of lactic acid bacteria, yeasts and moulds.  During my experiments however when I had wanted to create my own bulk starter, I’d run into difficulties.   How to draw a parallel between the small wrap of white powders we’d thrown into our blue cheese and a percentage volume of a liquid starter culture.  I emailed Ivan Larcher with a request to cover cheesemaking with bulk starter somewhere on this course and was happy to notice that when I turned up on the morning of the first day, a pan on the side contained several litres of a white liquid which we subsequently added to our make.  Thank you Mr Larcher!  Taleggio experiment no 2 went considerably better as a result.
My fellow students on this course were enthusiastic amateur hoping to go professional Simon Raines and experienced cheesemakers looking to branch out: Carol Peacock from Parlour Made, Jane Bowyer from Cheesemakers ofCanterbury, Callum Clark who had travelled down from Connage Highland Dairynear Inverness for the course and finally from White Lake Cheeses, Pete, fellow cheesemaker to Roger Lakeman who I had met on the blue cheese course.  We settled in for the three days and as usual packed a lot in.
The first cheeses we made on day 1 (Ivan doesn’t teach cheese without making cheese if you recall) were a contrasting pair: a fairly industrial non artisan one Mamirolle which showed us about scalding and curd washing and Brie Noir, which is about as far away in flavour terms from a Mamirolle as it’s possible to get.  Brie Noir was intriguing.  I rather liked making a Brie recipe with its greater acidification.  I am not sure I’d want to mature it on for up to a year as the real Brie Noir but it’s intriguing none the less.

Salting Brie Noir
This accompanied the day of milk chemistry and microbiology which on the third hearing was starting to sink in and actually stay lodged in my brain.  I could see the usual signs of brain fatigue going round the group though as they tried to absorb the golden nuggets of information that Ivan gave them.  Poor Simon in particular, not yet being a cheesemaker like the others or having the benefit of doing Ivan’s course before like me, was looking terrified at times.  Unlike blue cheeses where a degree of acidification is helpful to favour the blue moulds, washed rind cheeses want to control their acidity.  Here we learned about the importance of developing a good coating of yeasts on the rind in order to begin to lower the acidity of the cheese and allow the subsequent coat of Brevibacterium linens to develop.
However the following morning we arrived bright and early to make our next lot of cheeses.  We split into 2 groups for this but as the day progressed there was a lot of crossing from group to group.  I started in the group that was planning to make a Reblochon and a Vacherin style, based loosely around Jasper Hill’s Winnimere.  The other group, using goats milk again brought from White Lake cheeses were going to make a Langres and a goats milk Raclette.

Langres in moulds
Raclette and Reblochons on racks
The Reblochon / Vacherin make needed to acidify very little, hold in a lot of moisture with quite high rennet content and predominantly use thermophilic bacteria in the make as these would stop acidifying soon, allowing the pH to stabilise at the right level so that the cheese develops the creamy, liquid in the case of Vacherin, consistency that is the hallmark of both cheeses.  For me, with my Taleggio interests, this was the group to follow.  While not my exact recipe, this was the sort of cheese I was planning to make.
Raclette of course, allowed us to try a semi hard cheese with more acidification and flavour than day 1’s Mamirolle but still playing with scalding the curd and washing it.  Langres, allowed us to try what was nearly a lactic cheese.  A true lactic cheese would have a set of over 12 hours and our Langres had acidification in the milk of around 5 hours followed by a set of a couple of hours.  We were speeding it along a little because of the time constraints of the course but while Mons Cheesemongers sell a Langres that acidifies overnight, it too is set is a comparatively short time of an hour or so.
As with blue cheese, Ivan explained, washed rind cheeses can come from pretty much any cheese family.  They can be hard (Raclette, Comte), soft with acidification (Langres, Brie Noir) or soft with low acidity (Vacherin, Reblochon).  This basically meant for very interesting three days as we got to try a very varied range of recipes.
Along the way, as is Ivan’s wont, we learned how to fix problems in the make, so that when we encounter them in the real world, we’ll know what to do.  These included looking out for over acidification in the vat and how to correct it, slow vats and the unexpected error on day 1 which was that one of my fellow students who normally make vegetarian rennet cheese, unthinkingly took out the vegetarian rennet to use on our Mamirolle make.  Ivan doesn’t knowingly teach with vegetarian rennet and this had probably not been used in a while.  The curd didn’t set.  We waited and waited, testing for flocculation time after time and to no avail.  Eventually when it looked like we were going to have a vat of acidified milk only, Ivan took a decision to add more.
‘Everyone will tell you that you must never add a second dose of rennet,’ he told us, ‘but if your milk won’t set, what are you going to do?  It may not be good cheese but it’s better than throwing the milk away.’
Luckily with a double dose the cheese set and seemed to follow its recipe pretty well after that.  I’ve tried double renneting in the past and it was a scary moment and produced a very odd grainy set as stirring in the second dose had damaged the beginnings of the set from the first dose.  It wasn’t good cheese, but as the man said, it was better than throwing the milk away.  At least it made it into some form or other.
Two rather exhilarating days of cheesemaking down and we returned for the final the morning to finish up and to learn about rind washing.  Suffice it to say there is a whole lot more to washing rinds than I had encountered before both at Neal’sYard Dairy and at Holker Farm.
At Neal’s Yard Dairy, when we started rind washing as a cheese maturing activity we began by creating a brine solution in a bowl with the washing cloth and pouring on boiling water to ensure everything was sterile.  The solution was then let down with potable cold water or left to cool of its own accord.  We washed young cheeses first and then on to the older cheeses.  After a while, the cheeses seemed too salty so we stopped using a brine solution and used plain water.  After a further while, it became a bit too much of a hassle to boil the kettle due to the amount of time the solution needed to cool and plain cold potable water was used.  I was the QA manager responsible for writing up these procedures and querying them and with that hat on, I wasn’t wholly happy about using cold water from the tap but when challenged, I couldn’t justify my hunch.  It was after all potable water.  If it was ok to drink it must be clean.  Besides we swabbed and tested any cheeses that we rind washed and the results were good.
At Holker Farm we were washing very young cheeses so we took this a stage further and made up a wash solution of Brevibacterium linens in water.  The rationale was that this would establish a culture in the rooms and sooner or later it would be in the atmosphere to the extent that we only really needed to use plain water.  After we encountered a few pseudomonas problems, we started trying a more acidic wash putting a measure of vinegar into the water and by this time not using any culture.  The vinegar did go some way to putting off the pseudomonas but didn’t entirely fix the problem.  It doesn’t help if they are in your water supply to begin with and Holker was on borehole water at the time.  The problem was intermittent despite having a UV filter. Since going onto mains water (and keeping the UV filter as belt and braces), their problem has disappeared.  However they still do use a vinegar solution.  It cuts the grease that accumulates in your wash water and with a cheese made from sheeps milk, that, at the end of season, can be over 12% fat, you notice the grease.  I suspect cows milk cheese will be a little different.
Rind washing as taught by Ivan is a different matter.  He doesn’t advocate the use of plain water as this leaches salt from your cheese.  He advocates using a brine solution made up to a specific percentage.  If you have oversalted your cheese, the excess will still leach out but if you haven’t then it will remain in the cheese and you don’t risk undersalting cheese.  He also explained a formula for calculating what to add if you want to wash the cheeses in alcohol.  As far as the hygiene goes, he advocates making up a batch of the appropriate amounts of your brine / alcohol / whatever concoction with boiled water and naturally as cleanly as possible, then storing it in a sterilised and lidded container in your cold room and decanting a small amount at a time to use on the cheeses.  Naturally your equipment (brushes or cloths and bowls) will be sterilised before use too and preferably with steam or boiling water.

Winnimeres & Bries Noirs being washed
Returning however to the concept of rind washing with an alcohol solution, I had always considered washing cheeses in alcohol to be a bit of an affectation in the past.  My ideas began to change when I started selling cheese with Mons Cheesemongers and tasted some cheeses where the alcohol wash is done very well, for instance on their Tomme de l’Ariege or on their Langres (made by the Schertenleib family near Saulxures in Champagne Ardenne).  This made me think a little more about what the wash added to the flavour of the cheese.  It does also act as an extra bit of food safety due to the preservation qualities of the alcohol but of course you have to be careful that you use the right sort of alcohol and that you don’t use it too strong.  Sweet wines and spirits of course have too much sugar and you run the risk of having strange and unwelcome fermentations on the rind as these sugars provide food for other organisms rather than the nice Brevibacterium linens that you want to encourage.  Too much alcohol and you sterilise the rind and ‘burn’ it.  On the course, we used a dark beer from the Welbeck Brewery (conveniently located just over the cart track from the school) on our Vacherin / Winnimeres and a dilution of whisky on our Brie Noirs.  We were also given the calculation of how much of the given alcohol to use in order not to have the solution over strong.  Actually with something like a dry cider or a beer, we could use it neat although in the interests of salting, we mixed it with brine, but the whisky most definitely needed diluting.

Washing solution close up
 I am not yet sure that washing with alcohol is something for me to do necessarily.  Cheeses like Langres or Tomme de l’Ariege have developed that way because locally they make Marc de Champagne or other wines.  I don’t know well enough what local microbreweries there are in Oxfordshire or if there is an Orkney whisky distillery which would tie in nicely with Rose’s family connections.  Besides the cheese underneath the wash needs to measure up before I think about doing anything flirty with an alcohol wash.  But I am thinking about it; really quite seriously too.