Okeydoke folks! Here we have it … the one we’re all been waiting for … the stage that is all about … CHEESE!
Yep – we saved it up for this amazing stage – the alpine cows, the rustic production techniques and the rare cheeses.
(Okay, okay, so there are some mountains in this stage as well but you know- we’ve seen Alpe d’Huez before .. yes?)
So what’s so special about alpine cheeses? When summer finally arrives in the French Alps, the local cows are led up the hills to graze on the new alpine meadows. As the snow retreats they move further and further upwards, grazing on lush new growth grass. The herds are looked after by local alpagistes who stay in chalets, milk the cows and make cheese. There are chalets dotted all over the slopes and the alpagistes move between them as the herd moves. By the middle of August the herd will have reached almost the snowline, and will start to descend over the same slopes which will be rich and grassy again. On Saint-Michael’s Day, 29 September, the herds return to their barns to eat hay, calve and winter cheesemaking begins. The alpine cheeses come from a lifestyle, not a conveyor belt. They come from small niche dairy farmers and cheesemakers who have been managing cow herds in the same way for hundreds of years. And the cheeses they make are sublime.
Luckily for us in Melbourne we can get hold of some of these lovely cheeses from a few select Cheesemongers: Richmond Hill Larder, Simon Johnson, David Jones should all be able to hook you up.
I visited Richmond Hill Cafe and Larder’s Cheese Room to prepare for tonight’s stage and to grab some of the Beaufort that Anthony Femia had opened to celebrate Le Tour hitting the alps.
That decent sized slab is from the 45kg wheel that was opened. It was made in August 2009 from about 500 litres of milk. The milk comes from the beautiful mahogany coloured Tarentaise (or Tarine) cow. The milk of these cows can be around 35% fat (compared to 4% for our standard milk!) and 30% protein. That’s partly what makes this cheese so special and delicious.
The concave sides traditionally made it easier to carry the cheese down the mountain on the side of a donkey.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The other cow we are likely to see (who am I kidding! might see perhaps? Fingers crossed) is the Abondance. Their milk is used to make all of the star cheese from the region, and the cheese named after them, Abondance.
Abondance cows are unusually coloured with chestnut coats, white heads and patchwork eyes. Abondance cheese must be cooked in a copper pot and the best examples are made high in the mountains over summer.
Both Beaufort and Abondance are enjoyed melted in fondue form. So why not make a savois fondue to sustain you during this stage?
Photo: Will Levy
(I can’t recall seeing Australian cows sit down like that – can anyone set me straight? is this a French thing? [update] have been advised by Neil Prentice of Mondarra Wagyu andWarialda Belted Galloway Beef that they will sit if they’ve had enough to eat – so proof that these mountain pastures are good food then.)
And one last cheese I think, Reblechon – the cheese of devotion! Guess what? Yep, another cheese that was used as currency. Farmers would ask monks to bless their chalets and herds, and they paid the monks in Reblechon cheese. Historically, farmers were taxed on their milk production, so they wouldn’t milk the cows completely in the morning and therefore they paid less tax. The name “Reblechon” is derived from the verb “to punch to cows udder again”, indicating that this cheese is made purely from the second milking of the local Abondance, Montebélieard and Tarantaise cows. Simply serve melted on top of boiled new potatoes, with ham and cornichon on the side.
And here is Anthony in front of his “Le Tour” display and some of the cheese from Richmond Hill Cafe and Larder Cheese Room.
Thanks to cow-respondent Ed, who sen us amazing photos of cows in front of the Alpe-d’Huez sign for all you doubters out there who don’t believe us when we say cows live up in “them thar hills!”.