As old as the mountains themselves, so it seems is cheese production in the Alps. Well, maybe not quite as old but it can be traced back to the Romans.
We are stepping outside of the French Alps for a moment and heading back to around 8,000BC when cheese was thought to have first been discovered. As with all other utilised parts of their animals, farmers used the stomachs of their livestock as pouches to carry water and milk. Across long distances, the milk would start to curdle due to the rennet still found within the stomachs and from there we have the very rudimental beginnings of cheese. Fast forward to Roman times and it is from then that we can begin to give thanks for the cheeses you enjoy from Slate & Wedge.
The Romans were the first to introduce cheese into France and also write about the cheesemaking process. In 60AD Columella, a Roman agronomist, detailed the different stages in the process and from there cheese recipes started to be documented. It is from these recordings, that our esteemed Beaufort has its origins, although the name we know today came much later, in the 19thcentury. With the fall of the Roman empire, so did many of these recipes. However, a handful of secret cheese making processes remained, hidden deep within French monasteries.
The landscape of the French Alps that we all know and love looked very different before the 14thand 15thcenturies. Covered in thick forest, mass deforestation was ordered by the local lords and church authorities who desired a forward-thinking agricultural landscape instead. Forests gave way to pastures and these wide and open spaces gave way to dairy farming which thrived. With the lush pastures ensuring a rich milk supply, it wasn’t long before cheese production in our favourite mountains was established.
Returning to the secrets of cheese making harboured within the monasteries, it was the monks of the 13thcentury who developed and advanced cheese production into what we now recognise. A fine example is that of Abbaye de Tamié, the Savoie cheese easily distinguished by its white packaging and blue Maltese cross. Made by the monks of the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Trapié, a Cistercian-Trappist monastery located at 2,952ft. With the same rich, meaty flavour only slightly thicker and less nutty, Abbaye de Tamié is very similar to Reblochon, another cheese we give thanks to the monks for.
Although not directly responsible for the making of Reblochon, monks do have a large part to play in what makes Reblochon the cheese all Alpine enthusiasts know and love. In the 13thcentury, the local landowners were often monks, who taxed farmers on the volume of milk their herds produced each day. When the landowner arrived to collect his taxes, the ingenious farmers would carry out an incomplete milking to ensure they paid less money. It also meant that the milk collected from the second milking was much creamier, ideal for cheese making, giving way to the name Reblochon from the French word reblocher to re do.
Ask any winter sports lover for another truly Alpine cheese and closely followed from Reblochon you are sure to hear Raclette de Savoie. A name that never fails to bring memories of your favourite days on the slopes to mind. The theatre of Raclette has certainly been enhanced for convenience and tourism sakes but even as far back as the Middle Ages, shepherds were already eating “roasted cheeses”, with the term Raclette appearing in 1874. Another refined dish that originated from ancient traditional techniques is the all-time favourite, Tartiflette. Formally known as “Pela” from the local patois dialect for frying pan (poéle in today’s standard French), this was a dish of Savoie heritage. Much like with production methods, little has changed with this dish today, with the simple difference between Pela and Tartiflette being the potatoes were originally fried, whereas today they are baked. From delving into the history of Alpine cheeses, it is clear that mountain cheeses were as much of a celebrated food product centuries ago as they are today.
As farmers still are to this day, the landscape and harsh climate held great influence into the regional cheese specialities developed by monks within the French Alps. In these mountains, tradition and cheese production is determined by the rhythm of the seasons, with most cheeses made during the spring and summer, whilst the pastures are at their most abundant. Still to this day it is what ensures a true Emmental cannot be found anywhere else in France, just like a true Camembert is produced in Normandy and could not come from the Savoie. These traditional farming methods have been passed down from generation to generation. Often still in the same family owned chalets and tending their herds, or troupeau, is where we still see true alpagistes in the French Alps.
With many Alpine cheeses, including Abondance, Beaufort, Chevrotin, Reblochon de Savoie and Tome des Bauges all protected by the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), we can guarantee and rejoice that the origin of the ingredients and traditional methods of production of our favourite cheeses will continue to be long adhered to.