December 07, 2021 3 min read
Natural cheesemaking runs in Catherine Richard’s family. She has been milking cows since she was 6 years old and started making cheese at 15. The cheesemaking is absolutely a product of the transhumance practiced in this part of the Savoie. For four, short, snow-free months from May to September, she takes her 18 Taurine & Abondance cows up to their summer pastures 2,000 metres above the Val de Termignon in the Haute Vanoise National Park.
Catherine Richard milking one of her cows
Milking, which begins at 5:30am, occurs in her remote parlour using a portable pump. The importance of this to the quality of the milk is the length of piping involved. The longer and more convoluted the milking system, the more it can create a microclimate of bacteria of its own that influence what is naturally in the milk. The longer the pipework, the cooler the milk becomes which again affects whether the naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria thrive or other bacteria which favour colder temperatures for growth.
As the cows are milked, it is carried across in pails to her chalet, where it is added to milk which has been left to ripen overnight in her copper vat. No starter cultures are used and her Bleu de Termignon blues entirely naturally without the addition of any commercial mould cultures. This is made possible by the unique environment of her mountain and her chalet. After making curd and cutting it, the grains are drained through cloths on a wooden draining board for 48 hours before the curd mass is cut into blocks and left to mature in wooden buckets of whey, which is topped up every day, creating a mother culture to aid the acidification of the curd. The majority of the acidification due to the natural flora of the milk occurs during draining and this maturation stage.
Catherine grinding up the matured curd before moulding
After maturation in whey the curd is ground up, salt is added and it is packed into cloths and into wooden moulds for 3 days.
Bleu de Termignon in its wooden moulds
The cheesemaking is a very slow process and allows the maximum influence from the flora of the milk and the mountain environment. There are even red moulds that grow outside on the rocks of the chalet walls which find their way onto the rinds of both Catherine’s Bleu de Termignon and Tomme d’Alpage and yet when the cheeses are brought down from the mountain to mature in cellars in the valley they disappear, the conditions no longer being right for them to keep going. This red mould is unique to their mountain. Even other chalets making cheese in the region do not have it.
The outer chalet wall with its distinctive red moulds
Bleu de Termignon blues very slowly because the mould spreads inwards from the rind as the air filters through the open curd. We often cut the wheels in half in order to speed the blueing on a little, as with greater contact with the air, the blue is encouraged to grow. Because of the slow maturation and the diversity of flavour-producing elements that occur naturally in the cheese, this has amazing complexity but it isn’t overpowering and strong. The veins of blue are subtle and slim lending a herbal, fennel seed note when the cheese is younger. As it ages and the curdy texture breaks down under the mould’s influence, the flavours deepen. We have noted chicory, milky coffee and even a rich umami element that reminds us of Thai fish sauce.
Catherine makes Tomme d’Alpage at the end of the season as her milk supplies decrease. There is very little of it made as a result. The Tomme is a simpler recipe with lower acidity & a less open texture. As a result, the blueing doesn’t tend to appear. Tomme d’Alpage is a lovely example of how complexity doesn’t have to mean bold flavours. There is a broad spectrum of subtle, warm flavour in this cheese but it’s all gentle: notes of fresh cream, gentle earthiness, a toasty quality and malted milk.
One of Catherine Richard's herd during milking
Click HERE to see watch the milking & cheesemaking at Catherine's chalet.