Monday, January 15, 2007

Fromgeries in the Haut Jura

The Fromagerie Rietmann in Montbrillant, France

First Day in the Haut Jura:

The first day in the Jura included a very long and informative tangent from the cheese mission--a lesson in pipe-making. Aside from this, the day was spent getting lost in the mountains and discovering cheese shops along the way. The fromagerie is not something one sees in the U.S. In effect; the cheesemaker and cheese store worker are not well-known professions in our land either. In France, however, the profession of fromager (cheesemaker) is one about which dissertations and books are written, to be learned in school or by apprenticeship, and above all respected.

I came to this region, and especially the town of St. Claude, to visit the Crémerie Clément, a cheese shop (fromagerie). Marion, my hostess, had another receommendation, the Fromagerie Rietmann in Montbrillant. Through getting lost in the mountains, I found the Fromagerie Rietmann, which also provided windows for viewing the cheesemaking process (cheesemaking in a fromagerie is atypical here.) Unfortunately, I missed the hour of making cheese, so my visit afforded only a slice of Tomme montagne-- a cheese made from the same recipe as Comté but lacking in many of the specifics for it to earn the name--and a bottle of Jura chardonnay, on recommendation of the cheese shop worker (what we anglophones know as a fromager.)

After the Fromagerie Rietmann and the aforementioned lesson in pipes, I visited the Crémerie Clément. Jean-Claude, the manager of the store, was more than happy to show me his cave, used only for stocking, not for aging. But even a cave for stocking needs to meet certain measures to ensure cheese is at its prime for consumption. Above all, humidity is the most important, Jean-Claude tells me. His cave of wooden shelves, housed beyond a couryard next door to the shop, holds about twenty wheels of Bleu de Gex and four wheels of Comté, all of which will be sold in a weeks time. Jean-Claude keeps all cheeses in their original packaging--paper for the comté and cardboard boxes for the Bleu de Gex. This is necessary for maintaining the cheese's water weight. For once a portion is cut from the wheel, wrapped, and sent home with a customer, the cheese loses 10% of its water weight. Oh là là!

After the cave, Jean-Claude offered me a tasting of the 5 different Comtés. He took me from the mildest to strongest as any good maître fromager would. Although there are five different Comtés, they must all meet the same basic requirements to earn the AOC name. The milk must come from Montbeliarde cows grazing only in the Haut Jura or Doubs region. The flavor will then vary according to the process of salting the wheels (saumurage) and the amount of aging time. Less salt=lighter flavor. According to Jean-Claud, stronger flavor (longer aging, more salt)=a better cheese. Is there any variation to the brine solution to alter the cheese's flavor? No! Never! This is a constant, no secret recipes for brine solutions. Only time and terroir are the artistic agents in creating great says Jean-Claude.

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