It's that time of year again, actually has been since mid-September, and I have been meaning to write about it. Cheese, I mean. Not just any cheese, but the Vacherin Mont d'Or, of haut Doubs, in the Franche Comté, a region far to the mideast, bordering on Switzerland.
This seasonal, raw milk cheese is named after the highest peak in the area, and is said to have been a favorite of Louis XV. The most famous cheese from the Franche Comté, unsurprisingly is the superlative Comté. The Mont d'Or, its lesser known relative, was developed as a way to make small rounds of cheese in autumn from the depleted quantities of milk produced by the Franche Comté Montbéliarde breed cows. A single 35 kilo (80 lb.) round of Comté cheese will require both a long, labor-intensive maturing period and some 530 liters of milk (the daily production of perhaps 30 cows). A single one-kilo round of Mont d'Or, however, is ready in just 21 days and requires only 7 liters of milk.
During its relatively short maturing period, or l'affinage, a Mont d'Or cheese, once solidified, is wrapped with a thin length of spruce pine, and allowed to rest upon a length of pine in the cave. The wood will lend an inimitable resinous element in the maturing process, as the cheese is regularly "washed" with brine (a solution of salt and water), in order to develop the rind your spoon will later cut into. Finally, toward the end of the aging process, the pine-belted cheese will be placed in a round pine box that is ever so slightly too small. This will ensure the characteristic buckling of the rind that you look for in a fully aged Mont d'Or.
A well-aged Mont d'Or will have a mouth-filling richness that might bring to mind a particularly flavorful and melty Brie, a suppleness and long-lasting aromas of mushroom, balsam and sometimes potatoes (which is why the fondue version is so prefect drizzled atop baked or hash-browned potatoes). I usually buy it in the smallest round, which fits in my cupped palms and is about half a kilo. The larger size I reserve for a winter crowd, when a rib-sticking fondue is called for; I bake it directly in the humid wooden box, adding a bit of white wine to make what's known as a boîte chaude, or hot box. Another one of those instances when the expression, once translated, somehow disappoints.
Extensive travel is generally not well-tolerated by any fine cheese, and the Mont d'Or does seem to get more delicious the closer to its home that you can sample it--that certainly applies within France as well. But you can get a pretty delicious idea by staying away from supermarkets and sampling some at your local fromagiste-affineur if he is well-versed in his craft. 'Tis the season, grab your spoon!
Update: one of my kind readers pointed me in the direction of blogger Chez Loulou who highlights favorite cheeses (with some great shots) in her Fete de Fromage. Do check it out if you go weak in the knees for cheese.