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The weather we’re experiencing around here these days suggests fondue. For other parts of the country even more so! Nothing warms you better than melted cheese and currently there are several specimens here that dissolve beautifully into simmering white wines. One of the original fondue cheeses is Fontina d’Aosta, always crafted from raw cow milk, as they have been for over a thousand years. The so-called “mountain” cheeses are the ones to seek out, especially the cow milk varieties.
It seems that cow milk cheeses are better at melting into a fondue than sheep, and certainly better than goat cheeses. Many of these mountain cheeses are delicious on their own at room temperatures, yet Fontina (though delicious at room temperature) simply does not hold up so well when left out. A wedge of Fontina will start to slump, the butter fats will leach out, and the wedge will dry out quickly. The cheese seems to demand that it be melted down, which is one reason why it makes an excellent cooking cheese.
A similar cheese from across the border in eastern France is Morbier, more of a smear-ripened cheese than Fontina but equally nice at melting. The Morbier has the same disposition when set out at room temperature as the Fontina d’Aosta. The harder cheeses that are closely related to these stand up better when left out, such as Comté, Gruyère, Uplands Pleasant Ridge and Tarentaise. When I first started snacking on these types at room temperature I was admonished, as though that was the only way to fully enjoy them, melted.
Maybe that is true for today’s weather but when it warms up in a few months, I would prefer to leave the fondue pot in storage and instead shave off several thin slices of these marvelous cheeses, invariably some of the most popular in cheese competitions.
What makes a cheese a “mountain cheese,” other than that it comes from a mountain?
It was fascinating to discover that mountain cheeses are more aromatically complex than low-land cheeses. Upon reflection, it does make sense. Dairy animals grazing on upper elevations would have a greater diversity of plant species than their cousins by the sea. This wider mix of pasturage leads to greater nutritive values as well as more complex aromas.
Another reason why most mountain cheeses are more complex than those from the lower elevations is that historically, the mountain cheeses were created in larger formats so that they could age longer to help sustain its makers and their families throughout the winter months when other sources of nutrition might be a little scant. The larger sizes had a practical function as well. It is easier to transport one larger wheel of cheese than many smaller ones, especially up and down mountainsides. The low-land cheeses are mostly made for quick consumption, so these cheeses may not acquire the depth of flavors that the more aged mountain cheeses may exhibit. One notable exception to this is an aged Dutch Gouda; those can age out to six years, developing greater complexity throughout their ripening.
Dairies in upper elevations take advantage of other qualities of their terroir. The water is usually cleaner up in the hills than down in the valleys, after the water picks up impurities on its descent. The air is also usually much cleaner in the hills than down in the valleys and near waterways where our own species congregates. The lowland settlements have left their imprint on the land, not only the human impact but also that of the animals themselves, farming, and the use of pesticides and herbicides. Moving up the hillsides you have less residue from all this.
Some lowland pastures feature only a couple of different plant species to enjoy, whereas the higher pastures can contain dozens of species. The greater the diversity in the pasturage, the more complex the milk will be, as well as the resulting cheese. Some of the greatest regions for dairying in Europe include the alps of France, Switzerland and Italy; the Pyrénées of France and south of the border into Spain, and westward to Asturias; the higher elevations of the Rouergue, Franche-Comté, the Auvergne, Alsace, and Bavaria, to name a few. Here in the United States we have the hills of Vermont, Virginia, Oregon and Colorado, among others.
There is a greater proportion of raw milk cheeses produced in the upper elevations than there is in the lowlands. This can be partly attributed to the larger formats of mountain cheeses — those that can age out longer and thus easily satisfy the minimum aging requirements of sixty days, a minimum that has taken hold in other countries besides the United States.
I should not have to go into why the raw milk cheeses have greater complexity, on average, than the compromised milk varieties. Yet if anyone needs more clarification on that I will be happy to hold forth.
Head for the hills! I recently did. I spent last weekend in the high altitudes of the fifth Colorado Cheese Festival, this year in Longmont.
- Max McCalman
I can’t seem to get enough of this one particular cheese – Le Moulis. I have loved it for many years. It is a cheese without a P.D.O. – a Protected Designation of Origin, which would guarantee its production in the unique region where it originated, in this case the Moulis region of the Pyrénées – but it has been a cheese of exceedingly high quality for many years. There are many similar tommes produced in this corner of France so they could be lumped together under one P.D.O. umbrella, though this may not be necessary, or advantageous. I love all those fermier cheeses dearly: partly for their simple elaboration, but also for their correspondingly complex flavors. How this can be so: simple crafting leading to profound profiles?
This is precisely the point. Milk is, or should be, a nutrient-dense fluid. When it is fermented and made into cheese the goal is to preserve those nutrients and to possibly enhance or elaborate those nutrients as well. The fermentation helps reach both of these goals: preservation and enhancement. The many nutrients themselves give depth to the overall profile of cheese.
Le Moulis does not receive complicated secondary treatments; it is a basic farmer cheese. No bloomy white coating, no smelly orange rind, no blue veining, and no superfluous floral adornments, just cheese: pure and simple. Definitely uncompromised milk.
The flavors upload onto the palate without a lot of fanfare; they open up gradually but finish authoritatively. Most everyone loves Le Moulis at the start because it reminds them of their first food – mother’s milk. The flavors evolve across the palate, highlighting all the variegated plant species those cows enjoyed that afternoon in southwest France. The balanced simplicity makes Le Moulis an ideal marriage candidate for many wines; its lingering complexity leaves the shy wines to themselves.
- Max McCalman