at Mons Cheesemongers
I've got to say from the outset that I'm a committed British cheese eater. I've not only watched the re-birth of our artisan cheese industry with interest but actively participated in its revival to the point where I'm pretty sure I've sampled each and every type of British cheese at some point. Yes, I am a cheese nerd.
I came late to Swiss cheeses - Gruyere was something you added to an omelette if you wanted to get fancy in our house, not a cheese to savour in its own right. I now know better and, thanks to Rachael Sills of Käseswiss, that there is very much more to Swiss cheese than Gruyere.
When it comes to French cheeses though, I head to Mons Cheesemongers and I'm not alone. If you eat out anywhere in the the capital, and beyond, where they source with care, some of their cheeses almost certainly come from Mons. Founded in France by Hubert Mons, the business is a family affair now involving the patriarch's children and grandchildren. Cheeses are matured at their cellars at St Haon le Chatel in the Rhône-Alpes. The British arm of the business was formed in 2006 and sells French and Swiss cheeses directly to shops and restaurants around the UK and also has a stall at Borough Market. On Saturdays, the shutters at their Bermondsey base are flung open to reveal a spread which, according to the season, may include creamy Perail, ash-dusted Fromage Cathare, vine-wrapped Mistralou or erupting Vacherin Mont d'Or.
An invitation to learn about and select the best Reblochon cheese was too good for any self-respecting cheese nerd to turn down. The prospect of spending 2-3 hours on a Friday night in a south London railway arch was, I was sure, not going to appeal to many people. How wrong could I be. At least 50 cheese- makers, mongers, buyers and enthusiasts are grouped over cheese slates, each bearing 6 quarters of Haute-Savoie potential heaven. Full cream, unpasteurised cows milk and a little alchemy produces a 10-12cm discus of semi-soft cheese with a fat content of 45%. Don't be afraid - saturated fat is not the enemy. As in all things, moderation is the key although tonight is an exception. It's not often you get the chance to compare and contrast on this scale. Add to that a welcoming glass of white poured from a magnum by Guillaume Aubert. Then, with the cheeses a couple of biodynamic wines courtesy of Cipriano Barsanti from 60 year old Tuscan vineyard Macea, stocked in the UK by Aubert and Mascoli. This biodynamic vineyard practices minimal intervention and produces fewer than 1,000 bottles of each of its two outstanding wines in which they are "always looking for personality and a sense of place". I like both the sentiment and the wines.
Negotiant and maturer, Jean-Pierre Missilier, ably translated by Jon Thrupp and Jane Hastings of Mons UK, gave us a run-through of the 200 year history of Reblochon. If, like me, you enjoy the way French cheese names roll deliciously off the tongue without giving too much thought to how they got their name, this will be news to you too. Reblochon derives from the verb "reblocher", meaning to "squeeze a cow's udder again" and refers to the C13th practice of not fully milking the cow until after the landlord's back was turned. Mountain farmers, being taxed according to the amount of milk their herds produced, would not fully milk the cows until after the landowner had measured the yield. The second milking also provided the richest milk and was used to make a creamy cheeses.
First produced in the Thônes and Arly valleys, in the Aravis massif, Reblochon was granted AOC status in 1958 and is subject to strict controls over its production. The cheese-making process must begin no later than 30 minutes after milking and the finished Reblochon is at its best at around 40 days old.
So, what of the tasting? Of the six, only one was a red herring, its inclusion serving as an example of all that can go wrong with a cheese - rubbery of texture with a distinctly overly-acidic smell and slightly uric taste. Two were perfectly good examples of the type, creamy and fruity tasting, their aroma making you long for a dish of Tartiflette. The other three were more special. A savoury flavour adding edge to the fruitiness and carrying a hint of the spruce wood to the velvety whey-washed rind. One was rejected because it wasn't firm enough to stand for long on a cheeseboard and it's from the remaining two that Mons will choose the Reblochon special enough to join their list.
A taste of local "Gentiane" digestif brought by Jean-Pierre and we went on our sated way with a determination to look out for that particularly good Mons Reblochon.
You can learn more about Reblochon at Culture Cheese Magazine