Cream of the Crop – Artisanal Cheese
Artisanal cheese bears a timeless appeal that is a tribute to the communities producing it. The story of the Rigotte Condrieu and the AOC appellation illustrates the lengths producers and certifiers of artisanal cheese will go to protect their common heritage.
On the slopes of the Massif du Pilat, south-west of the city of Lyon, in the Rhône-Alpes of France, 105 farmers perform a ritual that has been carried out by their forefathers since the 19th century.
They collect raw milk from some 10,000 head of Alpine and Saanen goats bred within Massif Central. Each one is reared according to the strictest regulations, detailing everything from the composition of their feed and the space of their living quarters to the maximum quantity of milk collected each year. Each goat has the luxury of a minimum mulching area of 1.5 square meters, at least three square meters of outdoor space for exercise, and not more than 180 days out to the pastures to forage for their own food.
Even when they do forage by themselves, they feed off agricultural land that is fertilized organically. And every year, a maximum of 7,000 liters per hectare of forage area and grain operations is collected so as to not stress the animals.
Using only the first two draughts from each collection, the farmers proceed to the filtration process. To remove any impurities present, the milk is sometimes heated macroscopically at temperatures between 18 and 25 °C for rennet—but there will be no other physical or chemical treatment to the milk at this stage. The farmers then mature the raw milk for no more than 24 hours, following which they leave it to ripen for 10 days, letting the rennet, milk enzymes, salt and yeast work the magic, turning raw milk into creamy curd. The curd is molded and cast, ladle by ladle. Each scoop is gently executed to preserve the structure of the curd.
It takes another day to drain the cheese before it is released from the mould. When the 3 cm high by 6 cm wide block of cheese—just about 30 grams in weight, is removed from the mould—the farmers salt each cake on both sides, just once or twice to dry the cheese further at a mild, agreeable temperature between 15 and 20 °C. It is left to cure and mature at 10 ° C and 16 ° C (respectively) at humidity levels above 80 percent for at least another eight days.
Generally, cheese is sensitive to temperature and humidity during the affinage process. Even after the drainage process, the raw material is still relatively wet and thus drying out is called for. Additionally, cheese must be allowed to breathe during the process and high humidity is as beneficial as high temperatures are baneful.
“Every wheel of traditionally produced cheese holds not merely the blood, sweat and tears of the rarefied cheese makers but also the shepherds and farmers of the region”
However, different cheeses need to mature at different speeds, hence the precise attention to humidity and temperature. As we shall see, what makes this cheese in particular special in this regard is that the farmers only use traditional methods to control these factors.
But the work is not done—a period of three weeks is still needed for the cheese to go through the final step of affinage: the aging of the cheese, or the refining process, as the French would say. Only then, like a debutant who has completed a rigorous regimen at finishing school, is the cheese ready to let the world bask in its glory.
WHERE TRADITION TRUMPS SCIENCE
While nothing is left to chance, everything is left to nature; modified atmosphere storage of the fresh cheeses is strictly prohibited. In fact contemporary science is anathema in this decidedly anachronistic curriculum. Farmers must rely on accumulated knowledge and traditions from centuries past to determine the precise timing, temperature and humidity levels required at every step of the process to ensure the production of a cheese of certified quality—the Rigotte Condrieu.
On 13 January 2009, this soft goat cheese became the 45th French cheese to be awarded the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) classification by the Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité. The AOC is a term often associated with French wines but the first-ever product to be bestowed the status was, in fact, a cheese. Since Roquefort was awarded AOC classification in 1925 by the French parliament, only 45 other cheeses have been awarded the same.
While the AOC label helps to sell French wines, it does not necessarily have the same effect for French cheeses. To wine connoisseurs and novices alike, the seal printed on the label is a testament to the wine’s heritage and quality. Yet with only a small fraction of France’s 500-odd cheeses bearing the seal, the association is clearly not about marketing and sales. For the 105 farmers painstakingly making Rigotte Condrieu, the classification represents far more than increased profits, as we shall see later.
While the classification comes with a long list of guarantees of quality for the consumers, it comes with an even longer list of regulations for the producers: the product will be produced consistently in the traditional manner; production follows strict regulation by a control commission following AOC-defined standards; ingredients will be from a designated geographical area; made and at least partially aged in this area; and that the characteristics of the product will be consistent and in line with clearly defined standards—and that is only a summary. The Decree No. 2009-49 of 13 January 2009 concerning the designation of origin “Rigotte Condrieu” is an article almost 7,000 words long.
Nevertheless, the community of farmers in Pilat Mastiff put themselves to the grueling test and submitted themselves to the indignity of certification when they sent in the request for an AOC classification in the summer of 2005. It took them almost four years to obtain the classification but they are far from being alone in going through these motions in recent times.
Almost a quarter of the new AOC entries for cheeses were added to the list in the past decade, despite it having been a good 75 years since Roquefort’s ascent to the revered AOC ranks. Then again, the passage of time follows different rules for the farmers of Pilat Mastiff and their peers.
PRIDE AND PRAGMATISM
Artisanal cheese defies the vagaries of time and the forces of contemporary efficiency alike. These cheeses are made in limited quantities in farms and barnyards over days, aged for weeks—sometimes months—and produced by people who follow recipes perfected by trial and error. The cheeses are sometimes dressed in wax or soft strips of wood from trees indigenous to the region, or are simply cloaked in a natural rind—you will never find them suffocated in plastic.
Every wheel of traditionally produced cheese holds not merely the blood, sweat and tears of the rarefied cheese makers but also the shepherds and farmers of the region. Virtually everyone plays a role in the intensely community oriented process. Pride in the product is pride in the community.
In his paper Activités fromagères dans la France préindustrielle, du XVIe siècle au milieu du XIXe siècle (Cheese-related Activities in Pre-Industrial France, 16th to 19th centuries) published in 2006, Jean-Claude Parot dissects the significance of cheese production—with surprising results. He states plainly that there is nothing romantic about the origins of cheese. It was a product of necessity.
“AOC classification probably came about as an effort to protect the region’s ownership of the Roquefort. It was a copyright stamp on a product made through a unique process that also served as a guarantee”
The raw ingredients for production were readily accessible and it was a practical if ingenious solution to the difficult challenge of preserving excess milk. As a food product, cheese lends flavor to “the monotonous rations of bread”, and conveniently helps the consumer overcome deficiencies in calcium and animal protein. It was seen as the poor man’s meat in days when one’s social status was measured by richness of diet. It was even perceived as the “cookie of the drunkard,” because its salt content encouraged the consumption of fluids.
As a commodity, cheese was also portable and had a relatively long storage life, making them sales items of considerable longevity. “Even if the surpluses are never very large, the families could easily sell the cheese to supplement the household income” wrote Parot. “Small change perhaps, but still very popular because, for most farmers, such opportunities are rare.”
Yet as methods evolved, cheese became a diversified product. Everything hinges on the type of milk used; coagulation process; conditions of drainage, duration and intensity of the operation; treatment of curd; and drying process. In fact even the unique characteristics of each specific area’s natural environment impacts upon the end product: creamy, soft-ripened Brie de Meaux; Roqueforts, marbled with streaks of blue; solid wheels of washed-rind Saint Nectaire. Thus cheeses from different countries, different regions within the same country, and even different families within the same region, came to posses unique characteristics.
By the 18th century, cheeses from France were sought after not just by the French but by people of means across Europe. The Encyclopedia of Diderot and d’Alembert notes: “Several districts of the Kingdom provide excellent [cheese]. Cheese Rocquefort is unquestionably the first cheese of Europe: that of Brie, one of Sassenage the Marolles, not inferior in any way to the best cheeses from foreign countries; the mountains of Lorraine, Franche-Comte and neighboring regions, mimics that of Gruyere; Auvergne cheese is as good as the best cheese of Holland.”
The AOC classification probably came about as an effort to protect the region’s ownership of the Roquefort. It was, in a way, a copyright stamp on a product made through a unique process that also served as a guarantee to those who lusted after the cheese.
Helpfully, it was also a vain proclamation of its own virtues; an advertisement that this was an exquisite food favored by the noble and influential. Indeed, Roquefort had a fan in Charlemagne, as did Saint Nectaire in Napoleon I and Brie in Talleyrand.
At production levels of close to 2,000 tones a year, France is one of the top-three cheese producers of the world. Figures also show that they are in the lead in terms of cheese consumption as a nation. Cheese is also a major export for the country. The famous French ardour for cheese comes not for what it has done for the nation economically but culturally. Like wine, cheese is an expression of the land and the country’s heritage. Throughout the ages, the people of France have come to see their finest cheese as a product of cultural pride.
More than a business strategy, the AOC classification is France’s attempt at preserving a part of its gastronomical heritage. They want people who step into a fromagerie to speak of localities and farms—never mind that of the producer. He is unimportant, for he is simply a vessel delivering what the land meant the people to produce.
THE INSTITUT NATIONAL DE L’ORIGINE ET DE LA QUALITÉ
Among France’s more than 1,000 cheeses, only 46 have been awarded AOC status by the Institut national de l’Origine et de la Qualité. Of the 46, 11 were honored with the classification in this decade.
- Morbier: A mild and aromatic cow’s milk cheese from Franche-Comté
- Pélardon des Cevennes: A fruity, well-balanced goat’s cheese from Languedoc-Roussillon
- Tome des Bauges: Delicate and mild cheese made from skimmed cow’s milk, in Savoie
- Chevrotin: Hard goat’s milk cheese that is floral in aroma, also made in Savoie
- Banon: Made from unpasteurized whole goat’s milk, and matured in brown chestnut’s leaves, this is an easily recognizable cheese with a distinct flavor. From Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur
- Époisses de Bourgogne: Subtle cow’s milk cheese from Bourgogne
- Macônnais: Soft goat’s milk cheese from Bourgogne
- Mont d’or (Vacherin du Haut-Doubs): Runny cow’s milk cheese from Franche-Comté, easily recognized by a belt of pine bark
- Gruyère: The Swiss cheese named after the Swiss municipality was awarded the transnational AOC in March of 2007
- Rigotte de Condrieu: A fi ne textured goat’s milk cheese with ivory, white or even blue surface flora 2010
- Charolais: A firm and smooth goat’s milk cheese of complex flavor profile