The Mont d’Or is here! The Mont d’Or is here! (Week 46)

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It’s a…. cheese volcano!

I started this year with a description of the Rush Creek Reserve, a cheese that is more or less the American version of the Vacherin Mont-d’Or, a mountain cheese that is produced in fall and winter, when the cows are in their stables and eat hay instead of gras.

Between the French and the Swiss there is a bit of acrimony about the AOP of this cheese, which is understandable – the landscape doesn’t care about international borders and it stands to reason that the farmers in the mountains that separate the two countries over hundreds of years would have, through trial and error and exchange of idea, have reached similar conclusions about the things they can do with their cow’s milk. So a soft runny cheese with a strip of bark around it to keep the gooey torte from collapsing existed on both sides of the border for a long time and for the sneaky Swiss (or clever Swiss, depending on your point of view) to claim the Vacherin Mont-d’Or as theirs (and by extension not French), is a bit, well, sneaky. So off went the pouting French when all of this happened and decided to name their cheese the Vacherin du Haut Doubs, or simply Mont d’Or (sans trait d’union – without the dash). This cheese has made quite a career, because it had lowly beginnings: the farmers in winter often had a harder time getting their milk to the fruitières (and milk from hay-fed cows was considered inferior to begin with) so they often just made this soft, bloomy rind cheese for themselves and spent their dark winter evenings spooning warm cheese from their bark-reinforced wheels.

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The Shar Pei of cheeses: Mont d’Or’s bloomy, loose-fitting rind

Today, as soon as the first hay-milk is being turned into fromage, the cheese fills the cheese counters in fromageries and in the better supermarkets, and often they come with pretty packages and in this case, with a small bottle of Arbois Béthanie 2010 a Chardonnay-Savagnin blend, a very robust white wine that comes from the Jura.

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Cheese & wine in one nifty package

The idea here is to punch a few holes in the top of the cheese, pour the liquid all over it to let it soak and put it in the oven at 200 degrees centigrade and spoon it out when it is warm. And yes, indeed, it is exactly what you think it is: a creamy, ecstatic cheese climax. Think of a cheese fondue right out of the cheese. You can eat it with potatoes, use nice country bread or even carrots and broccoli if that’s your fancy – anything goes. Drink white wine with it if but something with big flavors, because the cheese does have a lot of it already. A dainty lil’ white wine will do well here. The cheese texture is smooth, and white the wine, there is a delicious balance between creaminess and acidity – it’s cheese fondue without the Emmentaler, in essence. It also is lighter than cheese fondue – you can probably overdose on it easier, because you do not fill up quickly.

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Cheese Volcano erupted

Since it is a seasonal cheese, there is the hype about the first Mont d”Or of the season, as in: ‘they’re baaack!’. Of course, this happens in October and spring in these parts does not arrive until April, at least not in the mountains, so there will be Mont d’Or aplenty for months to come.

Rush Creek Reserve (Week 1)

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Cheese: Rush Creek Reserve

Producer: Upland Cheese Company

Where: Dodgeville, Wisconsin

My first cheese of 2016 came from the local Whole Foods. I simply went for the most interesting cheese I could find, so I ended up with Rush Creek Reserve, a farmstead cheese from Wisconsin. According to the rules of the American Cheese Society, this means that the milk from which the cheese is made comes from one farm (or one herd, I guess), without any other milk mixed in. In this case, that would be the Upland Cheese Company farm, which is in the southwest of the state. It looked nothing like the big blocks of yellow foam cheese Green Bay Packers fans put on their heads on game day, and that was a good part of its initial appeal.

When I looked up the farm, the cows and the people behind this cheese, its appeal rapidly grew. From the way they breed the cows (9 different races are crossbred, according to the website), the way the cows graze (new paddock every day) and the fact that it is a raw milk cheese, it was clear that these folks mean business. Rush Creek Reserve is the American response to the French/ Swiss Vacherin Mont d’Or (the cheese is made on both side of the French/ Swiss border, but the Swiss own the name, in France it is known as Mont d’Or or Vacherin du Haut Doubs – it’s a long story, and the French are still seething). It means that this is a cheese produced only during the time the cows are fed hay instead of fresh grass. This happens in winter, so Rush Creek Reserve is a seasonal cheese. It is a soft, washed rind cheese that comes with a strip of spruce bark tied around its edge, so that the cheese keeps it shape, even if it is not in a box. Mine was only wrapped in paper, not sure it this is how it comes, or if the Whole Foods people broke the box…

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The idea is that once the cheese is ripe (you can push the rind and it will give) you take the rind of the top like you would open a can, and you can then spoon out the cheese, which has a consistency of thick custard. It has a beautiful pale yellow color and a very, very interesting flavor: salty, smoky, and woodsy, all in a perfect balance. I found it a little unusual at first but with the second spoonful I was completely sold. There are probably a host of different ways you could use this cheese in cooking, but I enjoyed it with just some crusty bread – it really doesn’t need anything else. It is quite pricey (13 ounces will set you back somewhere in the neighborhood of $30) but it is worth it, and considering that the entire production is sold out for 2015, the cheese has a lot of fans.

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Interesting detail: Upland Cheese didn’t make any Rush Creek Reserve in 2014, because of the unclear FDA-issued regulations. The FDA is quite concerned about cheese made from raw milk. Cheese in the US has to be aged for at least 60 days – the idea being that all bad bacteria are dead by that time, an idea for which there seems to be scant scientific evidence, but the FDA seems to take a better-safe-than-sorry approach. Good thing, I say. Imagine living in a country like France, where you could freely buy such lethal weapons as a Camembert au lait cru – naturally prohibited in the U.S., on account of it being a public health and safety issue….