January 28, 2008

Savoie Fare II: The Return of Reblochon?

About a year ago, I was running a cheese counter in a store near Chicago.  I love talking about cheese as much as writing about it, so it was a treat to get to know customers and help them get to know our cheeses.  Usually, this was gratifying: watching someone leave their comfort zone and fall in love with something unexpected; identifying a flavor from their past and sending them home with a wedge to savor; figuring out a fun, unique combination of cheeses for a special occasion.

Inevitably, there were disappointments: someone would request a specific cheese that we didn't have or couldn't get.  When a cheesemonger "can't get" something, it usually means one of two things: a) the cheese took "Best in Show" at the American Cheese Society conference; b) the cheese is made with raw milk and aged for less than 60 days.  Thanks to a great distributor,  we were blessed with an enviable supply of Cabot Clothbound Cheddar (ACS Best in Show, 2006); however, not even they could deliver the sublime, delicious (and illegal) Reblochon.

Reblochon, from the same region as Tomme de Savoie, has a luxurious, melting texture that makes people fall in love with French cheese.  Its flavor is mellow and creamy, with undertones of bacon and walnuts, and it has the mouthfeel of fudge.  There is an appealing, funky scent to the cheese, but it is not overwhelming like some washed-rind cheeses.  I love it at room temperature, smeared onto some rustic bread.  It is also popularly enjoyed in the regional dish, tartiflette, in which it serves as the gooey topping over potatoes, onions, and bacon.

If you were to smuggle some of this precious, unpasteurized cheese past customs officials, you'd only be respecting tradition.  The original makers of this cheese, taxed on their milk production, devised a scheme to fool the tax man.  They'd short-milk the herd, wave au revoir to the inspector, and go back for reblochon, "a second pinching of the udders."  The resulting milk had higher fat content than the reported milk, and went into the family's private cheese creation.

Alas, Reblochon comes of age around 45 days, and is overripe at 60... or so I thought.  A non-AOC* version of the cheese, Fromage de Savoie, has spotty availability in the US.  Recently, I found a wheel at Whole Foods-- not in a secret back room, but in full display of the open cheese case.  The label proclaimed "au lait cru," and it tasted full-flavored and perfectly ripe.   I can't explain how it's available, but I'm thrilled.  If you have any insight, please post a comment!

If you can't find Fromage de Savoie, Edel de Cleron and Fromager des Clarines are excellent, pasteurized cheeses in that style.

*AOC (appellation d'origine controlee) status indicates that the product is produced in the traditional manner in a specified, geographical area.  Similar systems exist for Italian and Spanish products.  Some examples include Roquefort, Parmigiana-Reggiano, and Rioja.

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