When it comes to cheese, the French enjoy a lot of it. And more importantly, they are deeply connected to and are proud of it. In fact, France takes its cheese so seriously, they have a whole system of Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC). This means “controlled designation of origin,” and serves to protect the authenticity of cheese. You’ve probably heard of Comté, Brie, and Camembert, but there are a whole lot more than just the famous fromages – so much more.
Our recent trip to Southern France helped us learn everything about these glorious French cheeses – right from the way it’s produced, to how it’s stored, to how its sold and we even learned the art of distinguishing one cheese from another and appreciating the maturity of different kinds of cheeses. Before we begin, due recognition needs to be given to the team of Sopexa who markets European Cheeses Arabia, and who carefully organized this trip for the 7 of us making sure there were no loopholes and everything went smoothly. And then, of course, there’s Francois Robin – a French cheesemonger and consultant who was voted best French cheesemonger in 2011 and who guided us throughout the entire tour, patiently translating what his fellow cheese enthusiasts had to say and adding that special touch of warmth to the entire tour.
No Monday Blues in Bresse Bleu, that’s for sure:
We were up bright and early, a little dejected to be checking out of our ‘Game of Thrones’ castle but super excited about our first ever cheese factory visit! The scenic drive to the factory was, in fact, the first time we got to truly appreciate the beauty of the Alps, and after a 45 minute ride, we finally halted at the factory in Bresse – a former French province located in the regions of Rhone-Alpes, Bourgogne, and Franche-Comte of eastern France. Bresse Bleu initially started out specializing only in Bleu Cheese when it first launched in 1951. Their products are made from milk collected and refined in Bresse, with the milk being resources from over 276 farms. In fact, Bresse collects 45% of the total Union Bressor’s milk production. Although Bresse Bleu which is a Blue Cheese dominates their retail, being one of the most imperative products created in their factory, the plant produces a range of different cheeses to choose from like Carré Frais which is one of their oldest products and are cheeses based on pasteurized cow’s milk with a fresh salty paste, St. Môret, a fresh and low in fat cream cheese served in the shape of round balls stuffed with tomato, fig, sweet pepper or pesto. We tried these glorious balls of cheese and they were by far our favorite product at the factory. Perfect for parties or as an appetizer! Before we were taken up to the factory to see how their cheese is produced, we were briefed on the safety measures to be taken and were given our safety gear that we pulled off oh so elegantly (not!). We were first taken to the Milk Reception Room (milk treatment) which is open 24 hours, all year long due to the continuous inflow of milk. Next, a milk-clotting enzyme called rennet is added to coagulate the milk, forming a custard-like mass. The entire process of the milk turning into curd takes approximately 12 minutes. It’s then cut into small pieces to separate the curd from the whey (liquid). The whey is then drained off and the curd eventually becomes durable. The curd is then pumped and the whey is used to make milk powder. The cheese is then ready to be molded the next day in the molding room. The cheese is then pierced by a device that pokes tiny holes to create openings allowing air to enter the cheese and feeding the mould, eventually encouraging the blue/green veins to form. The cheese is stored for 12 days in a cold room with 98% humidity. After 14 days, they’re ready to be wrapped and packaged.We ended our tour with a beautiful selection of some delicious cheese and ate to our heart’s content! Little did we know that this ginormous factory would be our first and last factory-produced cheese visit.
Lunch at one of the pillars of French haute cuisine – Restaurant Georges Blanc in Vonnas:
We thought our stomachs wouldn’t take any more food since our visit to the Bresse Bleu factory, but a visit to Georges Blanc’s restaurant proved us wrong. Georges Blanc is a 3 Michelin stars family restaurant in the beautiful village of Vonnas. The restaurant started out in 1872 as an inn and after all these years, the Blanc empire has now become a village within the village with not just a restaurant but a bistro, a shop, three hotels, a spa and a garden! Fun Fact: Georges Blanc is the first male chef to be at the helm of the Blancs’ kitchens. Before him, the restaurant was run by three generations of female chefs and received its first Michelin star under the reign of his legendary grandmother Elisa Gervais. It was such an honor to meet the French restaurateur himself who was absolutely humble and down to earth. Needless to say, the food was exquisite too! We tried the Mignon de Cochon Rolie au Thyme which translates to pork tenderloin rolled in thyme and served with fragrant truffle risotto. Absolutely delicious to say the least!
Our first ever visit to a cheese cave at Fromagerie Janin in Champagnole:
Yep, we didn’t know cheese caves existed either until we came across one in Champagnole, a commune in the Jura department in eastern France. We explored the beautiful underground cave of Fromagerie Robert Janin – a cheese shop run by the Janin family for over six generations. The fromagerie specializes in Morbier cheese which is a semi-soft cows’ milk cheese of France named after the small village of Morbier. The Janin family were cheesemakers up till the 1960’s, they then turned into cheesemongers who are essentially trade people who specialize in cheese, and affineurs (agers). The fromagerie might be compact, but it was buzzing with customers from the moment we stepped in. You could tell their brand is well known in the vicinity. In fact, we were also privileged enough to meet Robert Janin, the 67-year-old father who works seven days a week at the fromagerie and watch him operate at the helm of the counter, greeting guests as they walk in and attending to them. His son, Matthieu Janin took us on a tour of their underground cheese cave and the experience was absolutely surreal! The cave is used to aged mainly Morbier cheese that is aged for up to 120-145 days, but they also age Comte (a type of cheese we will elaborate on a bit later). We were then taken upstairs for the best part – cheese tasting! We tried the 18 months Comte PDO fruite, the 24 months Comete PDO Tres Fruite, the 36 months Comte PDO Reserve, Tomme Cironnee, Tomme au Vin Jaune, Morbier PDO, Bleu de Gex PDO, and Cancoillote. Living in Dubai, we’ve obviously never been to a cheese cave before, so to witness it with our own eyes was an incredible experience. And it’s wonderful to see how a passion can be passed on from one generation to the next, and still maintain its success story.
Ferme Du Beau Pre Farm – Our first visit to a cow farm:
Quality cheese begins with one key ingredient – quality milk. It all starts with collecting milk from dairy farms and once the milk is brought to the cheese plant, the cheesemakers check if the milk passes the quality and purity tests, after which the entire process of cheese-making begins. Which is why we woke up before sunrise to head to Dominique Faivre’s farm in Champagnole to learn about the milking process. Before we begin – it’s important to know that female cows are GOLD in the milking industry. The female cows are typically impregnated through artificial insemination and after birth, the female cows are either reared in the same farm or are sold to dairy farms elsewhere, whereas the male cows (veal) are sold for meat. Dominique Faivre rears 45 cows over hectares and hectares of scenic land. The cows are milked twice a day and the milk is then collected by a local Comte PDO maker. Not only did we get to witness the entire milking process, but we also got to taste the milk straight from the cow and boy was it sweet!
All comte ́ dreams come true at Fort des Rousses:
Now this moment during our cheese trip blew our minds in particular. Why? Picture the country’s second largest military fort nestled in the French Jura mountains which were also known as Napoleon’s Fort des Rousses in 1800s. The fortress held over 3000 men and 2000 horses back in the day and today, it holds over 140,000 wheels of comte ́ cheese! All this was made possible when Jean-Charles Arnaud – heir to the Juraflore dairy empire turned this magnificent fort into one of the largest cheese-aging caves in the world! He realized the potential of the fort when he served at it in the 90’s and discovered that the long chambers and tunnels would aid to aging cheese beautifully. We were lucky enough to be one of the very VERY few who could explore these gigantic caves and be in awe of the plethora of cheese wheels that are carefully and beautifully displayed on wooden shelves almost symbolizing Arnaud’s proud golden medals.
When we met Pierre Gay:
We give due credit to this tour for helping us discover places in France that we’ve never visited before or barely heard of. I mean, who knew such a small town like Annecy could be this breath-taking. Annecy offers you the perfect concoction of nature and city-life. To get to the city center, one must first pass the large clear water lake offering breathtaking views of the mountains, and in a matter of minutes, you find yourself in a completely contrastual area. We spent a couple of days discovering the streets of Annecy, and if there’s one personality during our Tour de Fromage that would be hard for us to forget, it would be Annecy’s very own cheesemonger Pierre Gay! The fromagerie is relatively tiny, with Gay at the helm and his wife and four other employees by his side. His cheese shop is one of the oldest in the city, going way back to 1935, with the founders of this Annecian institution being Lea and Alexis Gay, the grandparents of Pierre. As you walk in, you’re greeted by the aroma of beautifully displayed cheese at Gay’s shop, a little further ahead and you find a room with a glass floor that enables customers to look through his underground cheese cave (pretty cool, eh?) and then there’s the final door that leads you to his kitchen – where we spent most of our morning. For those of you who know us, you’d know masterclasses get us super excited. We learned how to make Fontainebleau which is a dairy specialty that can either be enjoyed as a cheese or dessert and our favorite – Chocolate Mousse! If you do plan to visit Pierre Gay’s shop make sure to tour around the area and visit the local market selling fresh fruits and vegetables, pastries and of course – cheese!
The hills are alive with Reblochon!
For those of you who aren’t aware, Reblochon is a soft, washed-rind cheese with a mild taste, made in the Alpine region and is one of the best-selling cheeses in France. It was a scenic hour’s drive from our hotel in Annecy to the top of an Alpine peak where we got to visit the home of a kind, humble and young couple – Mathilde and Fabrice, whose lives revolve around reblochon – literally! They farm a small heard of 25 cows. The two of them follow a remarkably methodical process and produce wheels of reblochon twice a day and are then sold on location or in markets in organic stores. Mathilde was kind enough to take us through the entire process of producing cheese once the milking process is completed. The cheese-making process didn’t take too long, however, the aging takes time (of course) – up to 21 days.
Getting our hands dirty with Chef Mariana Deluca:
What! Another cooking workshop? Best. Trip. Ever.This time we headed to Lyon, the capital city in France’s Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, and visited L’atelier des Sens which is a cooking studio that brings together chefs and professional experts to host fun and practical cooking workshops for amateurs like us. The gorgeous chef Mariana Deluca curated a delicious four-course cheese-centric menu that was easy enough for the entire group to prepare ourselves, yet equally delicious. She split the group into two teams and got us chopping, peeling and sautéing in an organized manner. We started off with tomato, zucchini and goats cheese samosa, followed by green peas soup and sheep cheese fried balls, sheep cheese spring rolls and finally, apple and camembert pastilla. Once we were done and tasted the food for ourselves, we honestly couldn’t believe how good it tasted.
Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse:
Lyon’s famous indoor market has near five-dozen stalls selling countless gourmet delights like macarons, to the finest grape, to sausicons and escargots. There are butchers, bakeries, chocolatiers, cheesemongers (of course) and ever bars, cafes and restaurants. Les Halles de Lyon – Paul Bocuse is one of the reasons that Lyon is dubbed France’s capital of gastronomy and which is precisely why it was the perfect way to end an extraordinary cheese trip!