January 1, 2008
At one o'clock, Tomme de Savoie; nine o'clock, Fromage de Savoie
I would like to introduce to you one of my oldest cheese friends, Tomme de Savoie. I came across Tomme during my college semester at University de Savoie in Chambery, France. Another exchange student directed me to take the bus to the Carrefour store outside of town, which she described as the French version of Target. My expedition yielded such treasures as an all-purpose pot for the kitchenette and scented, pink toilet paper (with the texture of finest-grit sandpaper) for the bathroom I shared with my three suitemates. But I was blown away by the dairy section of the megastore: two mosaic aisles of yogurt and dairy confections (including yogurt flavors such as coconut and watermelon, and dark chocolate mousse in six-packs), an aisle devoted to butter, and a cheese counter populated by three fromagiers and a crowd of unknown cheeses. A patient fromagiere listened to enough of my stumbling French to determine that I was as ignorant of the cheeses of France as I was of her language; wisely, she steered me toward the family of Tomme, whose members were squat, unassuming, and unquestionably local. I tasted slivers of several, including one covered with grape must and another made from goat's milk, but chose to take home the simple Tomme de Savoie au lait vache cru (raw cow's milk).
A couple of months later, I got to know Tomme more personally on a journey to her homeland. One of my new French friends had a brother who was getting married in her hometown of Boege in Haute-Savoie. He was a chef in Geneva, and a lavish wedding dinner was planned; would I like to serve at the feast? Oui!
In addition to her chef-brother, ma copine also has a cheesemaker-father who crafted the regional specialties: Abondance, Reblochon, and my buddy, Tomme de Savoie. He showed me the small, tidy room where he heated fresh cow's milk in a large vat, and the compact cellar where immature wheels slowly ripened into luscious Savoyard classics. Outside, he pointed to the hilltops across the valley, where his herd of cows spent the warm days in high-altitude pasture. The beauty and serenity of that scene revisits me every time I taste Tomme de Savoie.
Of course, such an experience is not a prerequisite for enjoying the cheese. Under its inedible, natural rind, Tomme de Savoie offers a smooth, yellow paste with a mild, nutty flavor and a hint of sharpness. I recommend cutting one slice at a time and devouring each with a hunk of peasant bread (something with a little rye and molasses). As for a beverage, nothing too fancy: choose a mellow, brown ale or a soft, red wine to complement the simplicity of this charming cheese.
Note: Despite its tough-looking exterior, I find Tomme de Savoie to be a delicate cheese that suffers quickly when wrapped completely. To prevent your wedge from deteriorating, cover only its cut faces with plastic wrap and leave the rind exposed to breathe.