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A life dedicated to cheese. How to make organic Reblochon the hard way.

October 10, 2019
Cheesemakers holding a cheese in front of cowshed

Mathilde Duthier and Fabrice Ruphy

I gaze down out of the window at a woman hanging out washing in her garden. The look of incredulity on her face says it all as our coach turns the sharp bend of a narrow lane that winds up the verdant mountain slopes. She obviously doesn’t believe that we will make it up there and, as we switch in one direction then another round precarious junctions, I share her concerns. I have to trust our friendly driver Jean-Alix.  He is carrying on a conversation with our guide Francois Robin, expert cheesemonger, as he swings the steering wheel round with nonchalance. We find out later that Jean-Alix has won many awards for his off road skills – thankfully we didn’t need them here and, eventually, we step out of the bus into a yard.  This is Ferme des Pezières, a small farm perched at 1,300 metres above sea level in the Haute-Savoie region. We drink in stunning views over the valley and misty mountain peaks as we stretch our legs.

Alpine farmhouse in farm yard

Ferme des Pezieres

Ferme des Pezières

The small farmhouse and cowshed are picturesque, with sloping wooden roof and shutters, lace curtains at the window, ancient cow bells hanging from the beams; however, this is a working farm, and this visit will show just how hard that work is.

Clean, white muslin cloths hang neatly on some washing lines, a few straggly tomato plants bear the last fruit of the summer, a large blue tractor dominates the yard. Mathilde Duthier and Fabrice Ruphy, the couple who work the farm, come out to greet us along with their small daughter Ombeline who is sitting in her pushchair brought by Grand-mère.

The duo are young, Mathilde has a quiet, bashful manner, Fabrice is animated but serious as he leads us to the cowshed, both exude energy and enthusiasm. They need it. Making cheese this way takes hard physical work and very long hours.

The couple met while at agricultural college. Mathilde is from Indre-et-Loire, but Fabrice grew up nearby and it was always his plan to take over the farm from his Uncle. He spent all his holidays here as a child. It seems his Uncle retired early and quite suddenly in 2014; as the conversation is in French I don’t catch exactly why, but I get the impression that the strain of this life took its toll. His Uncle only sold the milk, but the couple converted the farm to 100% organic and started to make cheese. Fabrice felt strongly that being in such a beautiful area they should respect nature and not use chemicals. They are one of only two organic farms in the area.

cows going up into a field

Into the cowshed

The cows are lined up on each side of the small barn and look curiously at our little group. Then they all put their heads down to munch a little dried food in front of them. Fabrice warns us to stand well back as all 22 cows produce a stream of fresh cow pats – the usual reaction to eating their treat apparently.

Each cow has their name, with those of their parents, written on a piece of blackboard above their place in the milking parlour.  Artificial insemination means that they can choose bulls with a good temperament and ensure they only have female calves (for milk production). Here, as everywhere on the farm, there is a personal touch; one of the cows called Nutella is daughter of Danette (a French chocolate dessert). They’re milked twice a day, twelve hours apart, the first time at 5am so if their toddler doesn’t wake them the cows do, every day of the week.

If any of the cow’s udders are slightly infected they use a mixture of natural clay and tea tree oil (rather than the routine use of anti-biotics on non-organic farms). Milking over, the cows plod happily through a gate into fields, bells clanking, followed by Fabrice and the dog.

Cows allowed

Milk from just three breeds of cow are allowed to make cheese certified as Reblochon as all thrive in mountainous areas and cope with a range of temperatures and pasture.  Francois compares them to the big, fat cows down in Normandy who supply milk for butter, that need flat, lush pasture and wouldn’t survive up in the mountains. The approved breeds are thinner with longer legs so they can climb and forage. During our week in the Haute-Savoie he kept testing us on their characteristics so by the end of the trip I was a first-class cow spotter:

  • Abondance (literally meaning abundance due the quantity of milk) are mainly golden brown with pure white heads except for brown circles around their eyes which makes them look like they are wearing a mask.
  • Tarine (or Tarentaise) which are rust-coloured all over.
  • Montbéliarde have red and white coats, white heads with brown ears and strong legs and feet suited for mountain climbing.

A mixture of breeds are kept on Ferme des Pezières , mainly Abondance and Montbéliarde. Mathilde admits shyly that she keeps one Tarine to maintain tradition as it was the breed that the Uncle kept before. The farm’s cows are kept outside to graze on the mountain pasture from mid-April to mid-November, as soon as the snow melts (the PDO specifies a minimum of 5 months). Even during the winter months when they move indoors for protection from the cold and snow to eat hay produced on the farm, Fabrice says he lets them out into the fresh air every day while he cleans the barn.

Making Reblochon with Mathilde

We have to leave that beautiful fresh air as there is no time to lose. There are strict rules for making Reblochon and farmhouse-certified (Reblochon fermier) has to be made with raw milk directly from the cow while it is still warm. It has been transferred through a pipe directly from the milking area into the cheese room. Mathilde had already added natural rennet to the milk which is being kept at a steady temperature (no higher than 37 C) and she is watching to see when it reached exactly the right consistency. The live bacteria start to convert the sugars in the milk into lactic acid and help the formation of the curd.

Mathilde’s at home here in the cheese room. Her bashful manner disappears as she’s immersed in the craft of cheesemaking which she does twice a day. She narrates every step and answers questions while slowly and rhythmically cutting the curds by hand with a long metal tool strung with strands of fine wire. There’s a meditative quality to the process which I’ve witnessed with other cheesemakers I’ve visited. It’s an utter absorption, it sounds a bit far-fetched but the line between maker and cheese starts to blur, there’s an elemental connection with the metamorphosis of liquid, creamy milk into complex solids. Cutting the curds separates them from the whey (or water). The smaller the curd is cut, the more water is released and the drier the final cheese will be.

shaping the curds into the moulds by hand

Curds and whey

Mathilde judges that the curd might be ready due to its density and resistance. Then she plunges her arm into the vat and stirs it gently to get the right texture. Doing it by hand means she can sense exactly the right suppleness. Being this attuned to cheesemaking has been gained through experience. A neighbouring cheesemaker retired recently and said “I learned until my last day” so every day you learn something, says Mathilde.

She always follows the same procedure but the reaction of the milk changes every day due to the diet of the cows, the season, the weather, their natural hormones and even their temperament. 4 litres of milk will go to make one cheese, each weighing around 500g.

The next stage is to line little moulds with cheese cloth. Using the cloth in this traditional way assists even draining, a smooth shape and maintains the temperature of the cheese.  It’s another difference between Reblochon Savoie Fermier produced in a farmhouse rather than the standard which is made in a dairy and just uses plastic.

A lovely, warm, yeasty, citrus smell fills the cheese room as she scoops whey out of the vat and pours it over the moulds to warm them. The whey that flows through them is not discarded. In the past they made butter with it “but the machine broke” Mathilde says ruefully, so now they make a kind of local ricotta called Sérac.

moulding the reblochon

Into the moulds

Finally, the curds are liberated from the whey, poured from the bucket into the moulds by Mathilde. The heavy, repetitive work is shown by the smooth muscle of her arm. In contrast, the way she now moves the curds into the little moulds with her fingers, shaping and pressing them, almost stroking the creamy, soft, wobbly substance into mounds is extremely gentle.

Then suddenly it has transformed into something else. She lifts the cloth of one and balances a smooth, squat cylinder on her fingertips which she flips over and pops expertly back into the mould the other way up.

At this stage it’s called Tomme blanche de Savoie, like fresh cottage cheese. We taste some, it’s light, crumbly, very slightly dry and not at all acidic, with aromas of milk and yoghurt. She’ll keep one of them to eat with tonight’s supper alongside some potatoes, herbs, salad and some charcuterie – a traditional Alpine farmhouse meal.  It can also be  eaten with honey or jam.

From now on the Reblochon really start on the journey of developing their flavour. A green label, made of edible casine, with the Reblochon syndicate and the batch number for traceability, is placed on each cheese. Green shows it’s from the farmhouse (opposed to a red label from dairy-made); they are each put under a little weight to drain a bit more overnight.

Drying and ripening

In the morning these fledgling cheeses are put on wooden boards and sent to the drying room. This is a misnomer as the room is kept at the perfect humidity to preserve the natural bacteria in the air. The rounds start to turn a light orangey-yellow colour and are turned regularly so that they form an even shape. The cheeses tell her exactly when to do this “If you hear this sound, and the cheese sticks to the board you need to flip it” says Mathilde, hyper-attuned to each stage in their development.

After a week the cheeses are salted and washed then most are sent to a specialist Reblochon ripener or affineur for a minimum of 21 days. The small, squat rounds have already started to form the distinctive fine, white mould on their rinds and develop a nutty taste. Mathilde and Fabrice keep a few back to ripen themselves.

The secret of really good cheese? Mathilde says it’s all down to good milk. You can be the best cheesemaker in the world but you won’t get anywhere if your milk is not rich enough or deficient in something.  “For good milk you need good pasture and healthy, happy, unstressed cows”.

Reblochon then and now

Reblochon evolved from a time when, in the 18th century, farmers paid rent based on the amount of milk they produced. When their landlords were around they only partially milked the cows in front of them, doing a second milking or ‘reblocher’ once they’d left.

Before ski-ing became a thing, there was no food production in winter so the cheese was a lifeline. Like most of the farmers in the area, the couple do a bit of freelance work at the ski station in the winter to supplement their income. It sounds exhausting on top of all their other work which includes selling their cheeses direct to their customers at local markets. This is the way of life they have chosen, however, and they have no ambition to expand the farm but want to focus solely on the quality of the cheese made organically and as close to tradition as possible.

This is not left to chance as a committee from the Reblochon de Savoie PDO conduct regular tastings to ensure all producers meet the right size, acidity and taste. Any that don’t meet the mark consistently will be kicked out of the appellation – a commitment to quality that’s repeated across France, especially for cheese and wine.

The dedication by Fabrice and Mathilde is a step back in time to when every step behind cheesemaking was very hard won. When the round, smooth-rinded cheese was something to savour and would nourish the hardy mountain folk through their equally testing lives. An extreme contrast to tossing a plastic wrapped slice in the supermarket trolley today.

The taste of Reblochon fermier

Shadows are lengthening as the sun starts to sink behind the mountains when we troop back out into the yard. A small table is laid with a sliced cheese and some local wine.

What does it taste like? Francois picks up a slice and inhales. “It’s one of the closest things you have of hugging a cow”, he says, “the smell is so cow-y”. Realising this might not be a recommendation for everyone “… but a clean one” he adds. “It’s really, really creamy and subtle, the rind is just a little bit dry, and it’s way more balanced with less animal taste than you’d expect from smelling the rind. The salt rate is perfect, not too salty, it leaves a lot of room for the milkiness of the cheese.”

cows bells under the eaves of the farm house

Haute-Savoie comfort food – Tartiflette and La Péla

Reblochon is used for tartiflette, the traditional local dish so beloved of skiers to replenish the calories  burnt on the slopes. A comfort food that goes back centuries? In actual fact it was a marketing ploy invented in the 1980s to promote the cheese and named after the Tartifla potato from the region.

It was inspired by a satisfying recipe made up in the mountains to see the Savoyarde natives through the winter. La Péla is also made of potatoes and Reblochon, but cooked in the embers of the farmhouse fire or a communal bread oven to be shared. Péla is a pan with a long handle that looked like a spade (la pelle).  Elizabeth David also mentions a pelle rouge or salamandre which is round iron utensil with a long handle, heated in the fire then held over the top of a dish to brown it. Tartiflette, adapted to modern times, is cooked in an oven and has added white wine, a dollop of cream or creme fraiche and sometimes bacon.

Cheese at the heart of everything

Tasting the cheese, sipping wine and gazing out over the beautiful view it’s easy to be romantic but this is the result of utter dedication. If this week has taught me anything it’s that the French are absolutely obsessed with the traditions and quality of their cheese to a degree I never imagined, and the couple take it to another level.

Mathilde and Fabrice pose for our cameras, sitting next to each other, laughing like teenagers and holding their precious cheese like a baby. They’re united in following a simpler way of life, in tune with their surroundings, close to nature, with the reward of making most delicious Reblochon they possibly can.

Thanks very much to Dalia for the pics of me.

More information here from the Reblochon PDO

I visited Haute-Savoie and Ferme des Pezières as a guest of The French Dairy Board and Cheese of Europe.

pinterest images of the farm

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. October 10, 2019 1:37 pm

    Blessed are the cheese makers. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. October 10, 2019 3:35 pm

    Wonderful post and what a wonderful trip for you. Thanks for sharing.

  3. crasterkipper permalink
    October 11, 2019 11:46 am

    I think this is my favourite ever post from your blog. Your descriptions took me right there – I was feeling the curds with Mathilde! I have never thought of cheese as a seasonal food before – of course, makes sense to preserve the milk of summer pastures for a winter food source. Your post is so comprehensive – I understand every process, even the breed of cow! I would never have expected a description of cheese making to be such a compelling read. Your writing descriptions & photos are wonderful & better than in many publications.
    I hope the cheese makers enjoy your post & photos – keep up the good work, supporting sustainable, seasonal, organic food – inspiring! Thanks ☺️

  4. October 11, 2019 3:23 pm

    I am probably the biggest cheese eater in the world – which is why I ended up with a French person 😀 Looove Reblochon! Interesting to see, how it is made!

  5. October 12, 2019 2:33 pm

    As always, this was a joy to read – your descriptions are so wonderfully vivid. It’s certainly not an easy life they have there but wow, what a stunning place to live and work (and cheese!!).

    • October 15, 2019 3:32 pm

      Thank you – it’s easy to write about something that captures my imagination so vividly.

  6. October 13, 2019 3:59 pm

    What a beautifully written post, Sally! I felt I was right there in the field and farmhouse with you. I even conjured up the distinctive aroma! I especially loved this: “the line between maker and cheese starts to blur, there’s an elemental connection with the metamorphosis of liquid, creamy milk into complex solids” That’s the sign of true passion for your vocation and product. Wonderful. 🙂

    • October 15, 2019 3:31 pm

      It was a very special place Kellie – I was in my happy zone. Thanks for kind words.

  7. October 15, 2019 9:50 am

    How lovely to read about Mathilde and Fabrice and their little corner of France. This is one of few regions in France I’ve not visited at all and would love to explore, even with those vertiginous roads! Their natural approach, great pasture, wonderful cows and hard work clearly pay off in their finished Reblochon, one of my favourite cheeses! What a treat. I love it as is, or in dishes like Tartiflette. Not had La Pela before though!

    • October 15, 2019 3:30 pm

      I really hope you get to explore Kavey. It’s a beautiful part of France and they are cheese obsessed. Butter isn’t served very often at restaurants because it’s not made locally.

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