Food heroes – there are many claimants. Few are a patch on a monocled Major credited with saving traditional British cheese. From the Fifties onwards war hero Patrick Lowry Cole Holwell Rance promoted the real thing through his polemical writing and regular stock of 150 cheeses at his village shop in Streatley, Berkshire.
Current champions of raw milk farmhouse cheeses the Courtyard Dairy near Settle are quick to acknowledge their debt to the great man, who died two decades ago.
Yet Rance’s partisan spirit was never insular. The majority of the unpasteurised wheels and rounds stacked to the rafters at Wells Stores were French and arguably his greatest contribution to cheese chronicling was The French Cheese Book (1989). I have this treasured 550 page magnum opus in front of me now as I seek out his thoughts on the adjacent Mont d’Or, one of the great French autumnal treats, much more readily available here than in his day.
Like the first cuckoo of spring, I await the first oozing Mont d’Or image of the autumn from out little town’s resident cheesemonger. Jay mailed me a selection this year as the cheeses, all the Brexit bureaucratic boxes ticked, trickled in from the Jura after the mid-September start of the six month season.
It’s early days yet and the billowing crust is yet to attain the peach-pink hue of perfection, but stick a spoon in and the interior ooze offers a buttery, almost clotted cream flavour, with a beguiling sappiness no other cheese quite matches.
This year’s first hand experience comes second best to that of September 2019 when we just happened to be in the Jura mountains – also home to Comté – when the first Mont d’Ors hit the restaurants in the shadow of the ‘Golden Mountain’ that gives its name to the cheese.
At an unpretentious village auberge, as tradition demands, a whole Mont d’Or was baked in its spruce bark ‘belt’ and served with potatoes, gherkins and a bottle of the tart local white, Savagnin. A posher establishment might have partnered the cheese with an aristocratic Vin de Jaune. Check out Fiona Beckett’s Matching Food and Wine blog last month for further tips.
Back to the bark wrapping. Major Rance’s take in his chapter on Franche-Comté is magisterially atmospheric: “In my mind I have often put myself in the place of a snowbound comtois farmer, collecting logs from the neat stack under the snow-heavy eaves. I have pictured his being suddenly struck by the warm beauty of the cut spruce and its resinous bark, which can glow like mahogany and smell like heaven.
“A cheese could look like this, he might well have felt. So, on a base cut above the log, with a ring of épicéa bark around it to contain its enthusiasm, a new soft cheese was born. Bathing in brine helps seal bark and cheese together, and the resinous flavour and aroma spread into the cheese as it ripens.”
Quite. That’s the full experience I’m getting now, not neglecting the sensory delights of gnawing the bark too. I scoop the unctuous cheese out onto a sourdough slice, the first of several. My preference, I’ve chosen not to bake this mini Mont d’Or.
Vacherin is its more familiar name. The nefarious Swiss across the border nabbed the legal right to use the Vacherin-Mont d’Or moniker for their inferior, semi-pasteurised version, leaving the French with ‘Mont d’Or’ or ‘Vacherin du Haut-Doubs’ (the local département).
It’s no truism when you say you can taste the mountains in the cheese: as autumn nears the cow herds come back to the stables after summering on the high sub-Alpine pastures. The key to its allure is the richness of the milk, exclusively from Montbéliarde cattle. It is made when the yield from the cows is less and more intense, so more suitable for production of soft cheese, rather than the harder Comté cheese. After 21 days’ ageing Mont d’Or is packed in spruce boxes ranging from 480g to 3.2kg.
Closer to home Montbéliardes are also the milk source for Baron Bigod, Suffolk’s feisty answer to Brie.
Our own encounter with these brown and white beasts came during that Jura foodie road trip. The evening of our fondue-style Mont d’Or meal we had arrived at our folksy gite, La Ferme de Fleurette, in the village of Les-Hopitaux-Vieux. After a long drive we were keen to freshen up, No chance. We were immediately off in the hire car to a milking parlour high up among the forests. Our farmer host Mickaël steered us through the mud to introduce his beloved herd, raw milk from which is used to make Comté.
Raw, yes. Pasteurisation would destroy much of the character. Rich from unsprayed grazing teeming with wild flowers and herbs, Mickaël’s milk will go to a ‘fruitier’ to be turned into traditional cheese. There are roughly 150 of these small village dairies, supplied by 2,700 farms across this beautiful, unspoilt region in the east of France. Below are the Fromagerie du Mont D’Or at Metabief and the Fruitiere des Lakes at at Labergement-Sainte-Marie in the Haut Jura.
Comté is built for ageing, for up to 24 months before it is released; Mont d’Or is for early consumption. Keep it wrapped in greaseproof paper inside a polythene bag, and store in the fridge – it should keep for around a week. Don’t wrap in clingfilm, as it will make it sweat.
It has never lasted that long at our house. The final word goes to Major Rance: “If you are not in stuffy company: lick the bark after each mouthful of cheese, and do not waste what is left; put it on the fire to die in a scent of glory…”
Calder Cheesehouse, 56 Patmos, Burnley Road, Todmorden OL14 5EY. For Mont d’Or and all your cheese and deli needs.