December 07, 2021 5 min read
Geraud Delorme and his family, notably father Gilbert, farm & make cheese near Recoules in the Auvergne on land that has belonged to the family since its redistribution from aristocracy after the French Revolution. The family bought their first parcel of land in 1800 and have gradually added to it over the centuries. In that time they have always farmed Salers cows which are suited to the climate and altitude of the Auvergne. Until about 4 years ago however their animals were farmed for meat. Cheesemaking is a recent introduction and yet it is done to the most natural and traditional of methods.
A Salers cow in the Delorme herd with her calf at milking
The Salers cow can not give milk without her calf by her. Whereas in most dairy herds the calf is taken from its mother at a couple of days old and bottle fed by the farmer while the mother is milked in the parlour, for Salers cows, their milk supply dries up if the calf isn’t with them. This instinct hasn’t been bred out of them as it has for more modern dairy breeds. As a result the calf stays with its mother for the first lactation and takes a quarter of the milk she gives at every milking.
This is a unique milking system as the cow and calf are called together into a mobile outdoor parlour. First the calf is encouraged to suck at each quarter of its mother’s udder before latching on to receive its milk from the final quarter. This encourages the cows milk to flow but also and usefully for the cheese cleans each quarter ready for milking and deposits lactic acid bacteria from the calf’s mouth onto the outside of the teat. These are then carried with the milk into the milking bucket, ensuring that the correct bacteria are present in the milk from the very beginning.
Filling the wooden gerle (vat) with milk from the parlour
The milk, still warm from the cow is transferred into a wooden vat or gerle while still out in the fields and gently heated to ensure it remains at 32C. When the gerle has all the milk it will contain, it is driven a short way to the dairy for cheesemaking to begin.
Curds in the gerle in the dairy
Being wooden, the gerle is a surface on which the natural lactic acid bacteria can remain inactive between cheese makes. This means that it naturally carries on the flora from make to make with new ones added in the milk itself. As a result no culture is added, only rennet. However in order for this to work a few things need to be in place and it uses the whole ecosystem of the farm to make it work. Firstly the land is managed with minimum fertiliser use and the animals fed grass or hay with as little cereal as possible. The Delormes took veterinary advice on this when moving to cheesemaking and reduced their use of fertilisers by 85%. The result has been that the cows are much healthier and happier plus the diversity of grasses, plants, flowers and herbs in their pasture and hay feed contributes to the diversity of flora in the milk. Salers is only made during May and September when the weather permits that the cows can graze pasture all the time. Only 25% of their feed can be hay when Salers is made. This is because the nutritional quality of the grass is far superior to that of hay and again it contributes to the health and happiness of the animal and the quality of their milk if they are not being worked too hard. When milking, they change the site of the mobile milking parlour every few days to make sure that the ground around it isn’t churned up by the cows hooves as this would mean a greater chance of mud and muddy udders which would introduce the wrong type of bacteria into the ecosystem. As previously mentioned, the calves are present during milking and they are able to contribute lactic acid bacteria to the teats of their mothers. The wooden gerle has to be a certain size in order for contact with the wood and its microbiome of naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria. If it’s larger than 200 litres then there isn’t enough contact between wood and milk and added cultures have to be used. Finally when cleaning the gerle at the end of the day, no strong chemicals are used neutral washing up liquids and a final rinse with whey from the day’s cheesemaking ensure the gerle’s microbiome continues. Each step in the process from the animal breed to the methods of farming, milking and cheesemaking is geared to promote the presence of lactic acid bacteria so that they are numerous enough that anything else is unable to compete for the available lactose in the milk. It is far from the easy way of going about it as it means attention to every stage in the process has to be perfect.
The cheesemaker himself, Geraud Delorme in the dairy
What is impressive about Geraud’s cheesemaking is that this has not been a skill in the family for generations. The family has had to learn this in a relatively short time and they execute it very well. A further note is that the family produces its own rennet from soaking dried calf stomachs in brine. This rennet takes 3 weeks to produce but as with the naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria in the milk and make, it produces greater diversity of flavour than a commercial rennet because the stomach naturally contains more varied digestive enzymes. As with the naturally occurring bacteria each different type produces different enzymes which break the fats and proteins of the milk down in different ways, the same is true with the rennet. Each different digestive enzyme not only helps to set the milk but then also breaks down the structures of fats and proteins and it is this diversity that allows for such complexity from bold beefy notes to more subtle nuances in the cheese.
Geraud’s Salers is not only an incredibly impressive achievement from farming to animal husbandry to technical understanding of how to preserve the ecosystem that allows them to use the naturally occurring bacteria in their milk to make cheese, it is also delicious with meaty rich notes, a slightly yeasted dough element and uplifting notes of vegetal bitterness akin to hops. It is the whole package: unique and in a class of its own.