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Hard Core Swiss Vacherin Cheese (page 2 of 2)

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Follow me as I wake up in the wee hours of the morning to see Swiss armailli make a unique cheese in a small chalet up the Gruyere Alps.
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... and Clément pulls it out of the whey.

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A cascade of white liquid falls back into the pot ...

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... and the cheesemakers slide the hook on the rail until the heavy bag rests on the work bench.

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The curds are placed into square wooden boxes to drain off.

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When the boxes are full ...

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... weights are placed on top.

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Meanwhile, the junior cheesemaker cleans the cheese forms in the kitchen.

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After a few minutes, the cheese curds have set and Yvan unmolds a huge white slab on his work bench.

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One never tires of witnessing the magic of milk curds. After having be cut into pea-sized pieces with a guitar, then boiled for half an hour, they reconstitute into a solid block within minutes of being put in a form. Such is their mystery.

Yvan grabs a giant knife and slices the slab ...

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... into four blocks.

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The third armailli, Sébastien Goumaz, joins them. He is much younger but already a seasoned and passionate cheesemaker, proud of his trade. He just finished cleaning the cheese forms and comes to help him.

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Each block is wrapped in cheesecloth ...

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... then Yvan grabes a cheese form.

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... and he presses the square cheese block into the circular form, with the cheesecloth on.

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The cheeses are piled up and a weight is placed on top to press them into shape.

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After only a few minutes, the curds have reset into their new, permament circular shape. The younger armailli removes the forms and piles the cheese, still wrapped in their cheesecloth, in a plastic tube with little discs to separate them. The cheese is ready for storage.

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All of this cutting, pressing and squeezing produces impressive of quantities of whey that quietly drops into those milk vats they call boye in the Gruyère.

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There is no space in La Hautachia to store the cheese heads the armaillis produce, so every day they drive the eve's production in a jeep to the first of the three chalets, the one closest to the Valsainte monastery. There, in a dark cellar the cheeses are piled up in a vat filled with brine. For the greated enemy of the cheesemaker is not the European union and its soulless hygienic rules, but homegrown molds and mites.

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A day later, Yvan removes then from the brine and places them on the wooden shelves where, every day, his fellow armailli will come and brush them with more brine to keep the nasties out.

The armaillis work in the four chalets of the Hautachia alpage during 4 months every year with only 40 cows. The rest of Yvan's 100 cows stay in his farm down in the valley. From those 40 cows fit enough to climb the alpage, they make 250 Gruyère cheese heads, each about 27kg (60lbs) and 80 Vacherin of 8kg (17lbs) a piece. These cheese will first be matured in this tiny cellar, then moved to a huge communal cellar in Charmey where thousands of cheeses from all of the region's alpages are matured for a year.

Vacherin has more taste than Gruyère. More tart and less sweet, it sometimes has a tiny hint of ammonia in it, not displeasing in the least. You need to try this exceptional cheese. But please don't mistake it for the Vacherin Mont d'Or. This here vacherin is sometimes called Vacherin fribourgeois to distinguish it from its brother made in the Jura, the Vacherin Mont d'Or, sold in pine boxes. These are two different cheeses with similar names. And make sure you get vacherin d'alpage, not the vacherin they do from stay-at-home cows during the winter. You'd miss half the fun.

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After a workday longer than the statutory French work week, the armaillis sleep in a spartan bedroom upstairs, directly above the stables. Only one of them will sleep here tonight. We have three chalets on the way up from the monastery, so we each sleep in one, explains Yvan. like this we can entertain whenever we want, jokes in colleague. It's a joke because the life of the armailli is monastic. They wake up at 4 to milk the cows and send them grazing, then do the cheese, then move the cows and milk them again. Sunrise to sundown, 7 days a week. A look at this room tells you what their life is about. On the wall, three decorated spoons they carve during their few spare hours. A poya, those traditional paintings of cow processions going up the alpage. A couple pictures of another photographer who visited them many summers ago to take pictures of the magic they work with the milk. A small bed where in the past the armaillis would sleep in with the stable boys. A bare bulb you need to screw in to turn the light on whenever the generator is running. This is a life of work and contemplation not totally unlike those of the monks at the foot of the mountain. This is the life of their fathers, a life they embrace like a religion, one they never quit.

Published 13/10/2008
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41 Comments

  • #1
  • Comment by will
  • on: 13/10/2008
Looks great, how cheesy does it smell in there?
  • FX's answer→ Will it does not smell much like cheese but rather like smoke, there are huge quantities of smoke and only a small hole in the ceiling to evacuate it ...

Wow great article! So this is a rennet only cheese? unlike your earlier cheese making posts there were no bacterial support. can you taste the difference?Finally is fresh whey cheese similar to ricotta? do you have some info on how it is made?
  • FX's answer→ Ahmet, I think they add a starter culture to the milk to increase the acidity and that's for all cheeses, the problem is I never seem to arrive early enough to take pictures of the culture. But it looks like yoghurt, and then they add the rennet a couple hours later. For the whey cheese I'll post another article in a couple weeks!

  • #5
  • Comment by Jill
  • on: 13/10/2008
Once again François, a beautifully evocative article with wonderful photographs. I used to do a lot of walking in the hills around Gruyère. Thank you for bringing it all back!
  • FX's answer→ Jill thanks for visiting and glad this brought you back pleasant memories of the Gruyère!

Fabulous as always, FX!

I'm curious about the cheese you describe the armailli as having for breakfast. You say it's a "fresh whey cheese". Is it hard or soft? (because most of the whey cheeses I know are fairly hard.) Did they tell you anything about how it was made?

Best! -- Diane
  • FX's answer→ Diane they were eating day old sérac, a hard and lean cousin of slothy ricotta. Soon I'll post an article about yet another cheesemaker (a cheesemakress in fact) who will show you all about sérac-making!

  • #9
  • Comment by mya
  • on: 13/10/2008
Hi Fxa fantastic article once again I enjoy reading your articles they keep me entertained during revision breaks I shall have to find some of this cheese would love to try itBest WishesMya
  • FX's answer→ Mya glad you liked the article and good luck for your exams!

  • #11
  • Comment by Kelly Shannon
  • on: 13/10/2008
Good morning François,
I was so enjoying your article until, while reading about hygiene, an ad for Pampers diapers appears right underneath the photo of the Yvan removing the curds with what could be mistaken for an enormous, leaky diaper!
Is there any way you could ditch the ads? I so enjoy your documentaries. I look forward to reading your next entry when a reminder pops up in my mailbox. The very romantic voyage is soon spoiled by the bombardment of commercialism. Is there no way to proceed, as does the magazine The Sun, without advertising? Please give it some serious consideration; your work is too beautiful for distractions from the world of brainwashing.
Yours sincerely,
A big fan of your work
  • FX's answer→ Kelly, thanks for visiting and sorry about the Google Adsense humor with the Pampers ad! I can't really do without advertisement as the bandwidth is humongous. I'm glad to do this blog for free but having me pay for the bandwidth is not possible. And I don't want to ask for donations. Perhaps I could do a paid membership with no ads?

  • #13
  • Comment by kim
  • on: 13/10/2008
I adored your article.  I'm passionate about cheese, am fortunate enough to travel almost weekly to Paris and am continually researching cheeses to taste during my travels.  I was a bit confused about the difference between vacherin fribourgeois and vacherin d'alpage.  I'm certain you're extremely busy, but if you have an opportunity could you drop me an email?  I would be grateful.  I'm sure I'll be looking for both, anyway.
Loved your pictorial, as well.  It makes me happy to see the beautiful ritual and craft of cheese making; definitely an art form.  How lovely you were privy to such a time honored tradition.
Thanks for the peek inside
-kim
  • FX's answer→ Kim thanks for your appreciation, indeed the two vacherins are much different and not made in the same mountains, and yet many people think it's the same!

As a huge lover of cheese, it never ceases to amaze me how something so wretched looking in various stages of its development can morph into pure luxury in the mouth.  Gruyere is one of my favorite cheeses for cooking because it doesn't get lost in any dish where it's used.

The work ethic of these old-school cheesemakers is truly inspirational.  I'm glad they do what they do.  
  • FX's answer→ Real chiffonade, I'm glad you liked this artisan's way of life and their extraordinary products. It does look so simple, but the flavor that comes out this cauldron is so complex. One feels there is nothing to change to the process.

  • #17
  • Comment by chef4cook
  • on: 13/10/2008
Francois, What a wonderful insight into a rapidly disappearing
art.
  • FX's answer→ Chef4cook, I am glad to say that there are still many alpine meadow cheesemakers and young people to replace them when they retire. It's such a privilege to see this done today much like it was centuries ago, and not for tourists, you can't really reach any of these chalets unless you know where to look!

  • #19
  • Comment by Karine
  • on: 13/10/2008
Bonjour Francois!

This time I will write in English (hope there's no mistake)

Thank you for this great article, I often do my cheese fondue with Vacherin Fribourgeois (easy to find in Quebec), it's such a good cheese and of course, "la viande sechee des Grisons" which I would love to see how it's done. Maybe in another great article of yours...

A la prochaine
Karine
  • FX's answer→ Karine, I am most impressed you know about fondue au vacherin, that's the cheesemaker's fondue, the real thing put just on a small candle rather than a full heater. For the viande des grisons I am not such a fan but soon there'll be a post about Tyrolian Speck, much better in my opinion!

  • #21
  • Comment by Rosa
  • on: 13/10/2008
That's one of my favorite Swiss cheeses! Thanks for the interesting post!

Cheers,

Rosa
  • FX's answer→ Rosa, thanks and make sure you get proper vacherin d'alpage next time you buy some!

  • #23
  • Comment by José
  • on: 13/10/2008
Hi,

Great presentation of how traditional cheese is made, even if some mechanical accessories are used.
As you know, Portugal is also a country where one can find cheese among the best in the world.
My preference goes for those made out of sheep and/or goat.

Kind regards,

José
  • FX's answer→ José, the mechanical accessories are really a tiny part of this, I don't think they could milk the cows by hand and get the job done, they would need many helpers for this!

I think it's wonderful that you are documenting the work of these artisans. More people need to appreciate these ancient crafts that are disappearing.
  • FX's answer→ Fran I am confident this particular ancient craft might survive for quite a while, there are young cheesemakers making it all over the place in Switzerland.

  • #27
  • Comment by Alys
  • on: 13/10/2008
A wonderful combination of traditional with some modern adaptation. Thanks again!
  • FX's answer→ Alys, indeed this is very traditional, the only modern thing is a small motor to turn the cheese curds for half an hour.

I want your job. I am so insanely jealous. How can you do this all the time? Does your head not want to explode with all this coolness that you get to witness on a daily basis? C'mon man, castles... monks, cheese. What more is there to life?
Seriously though, it is nice to experience in pictures the amount of work that goes into the cheese. You see, I am constantly harping on the cooks/apprentices about respecting food items like cheeses and such. I will be directing my apprentices to this post and quizzing them on it, and I hope that they will have a newfound respect for the product that they are using. Hopefully I will NEVER see cheese wrapped up in plastic wrap again. Thank you for that.
  • FX's answer→ Jason, glad you like my little articles! In fact I do this mostly on my off-time, sometimes manage to take a morning off to go up the mountain see some cheesemakers. The castle thing was initiated by a reader of this blog. Cheese definitely is one great product, especially when made by the same hands who care for the cows, there is just magic in that product!

  • #31
  • Comment by Taz
  • on: 20/10/2008
Lovely article, I enjoy the glimpses of life and work of the armalli with their interesting (albeit tough) occupation. Your pictures are excellent as usual, but as these were shot on site in seemingly dark indoor areas, I'm just wondering about the lighting, if you don't mind sharing your tricks! Did you use the white umbrellas couples with portable flash?
  • FX's answer→ No problem - I had two flashes, one shooting through an umbrella and placed on a light stand facing the cheesemaker and wirelessly synched to my camera, then another one attached to a beam using a contraption known in the trade as a Manfrotto/Bogen Superclamp. Then bang, bang, bang, picture properly lighted every time. I wish I had used a higher sync speed on some pictures though, and also would have needed another body for the spontaneous shots since my camera being all on Manual to do this I had many dials and buttons to change to grab a quick shot of some side action.Check on www.strobist.com for more on this. Hope this helps.

  • #33
  • Comment by Guy Zebert
  • on: 30/10/2008
Bonjour Francois,
Your articles are always great and never miss to make me homesick.I remember going to Charmey with my parents for summer vacation.Now I have to research where to find some vacherin d'alpage in southern California for my next fondue.

Le Vaudois de Pully.   
  • FX's answer→ Guy, I told about your story of jumping in the lake in the wake of Le Savoie to a friend just yesterday! Are you sure that "alpage" cheese is legally importable in the US? I saw a booth for US raw milk cheeses at the Slow Food Fair, so it's not impossible, but the production of fromage d'alpage is really tiny and confidential compared to the huge United States, it seems so improbable you could find it there.

  • #35
  • Comment by zafar
  • on: 09/11/2008
this is wonderful
Wow. Great. Wonderful.
Great story, great photographs, great article. I wish I was living back in Europe.
Canada is a great place but I miss lots of the great food, especially the cheese.
  • FX's answer→ Geoff, glad you liked it!

  • #38
  • Comment by Steve
  • on: 08/12/2008
Alpage greyer is available in the US from some specialty stores such as Zingerman's and Artisan Cheese - they get a few wheels a year. It is $30 or more a pound plus exspensive 2-day shipping. I wish I had some now.
  • FX's answer→ Steve, this is great news, I feared overzealous US custom officials might have forbidden the importation of this unpasteurized delicacy...

  • #40
  • Comment by Anthony
  • on: 06/05/2010
This is a fabulous article.  As a novice home cheese maker, it is exciting to see how the cottage industry works.  What these people are doing here is most likely the same as it was done 500 years ago.  I am very impressed.

Anthony
Florida, United States
  • #41
  • Comment by Anna
  • on: 24/05/2011
Dear FX,

What a beautiful article! I was reading it, and my hand were literally itching for these curds - especially for this fitting squares into a circle part. You do speak Russian, do you? Так вот, руки чешутся...

I am an artisan cheese maker, and I am planning to go to Switzerland in a month with my family. Can you suggest a cheese making chalet that would allow us to visit? Preferably not to high in the Alps.

Thank you so much!

I will keep on reading your blog.

All the best,

Anna


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