One of the oldest traditions in the region of Savoie is making cheese. Three alpine cheeses are made in this region of the French Alps: Abondance, Beaufort, and Comte. These cheeses evolved over time due to the unique, isolated community of alpine herders who collectively used their dairy supplies during the summer months to make large cheeses that were easy to transport down the valley into the markets.
Since I know nothing about cheese except how much I love to eat it, I thought I’d do a little research on the history of Beafort and how it is made. I found a wonderful website called Cheesemaking.com where I gathered all this information on alpine cheese below:
Alpine cheeses were traditionally made in remote regions of the mountains in eastern France, where large collective herds were moved to the alpage (mountain pastures) in May/June and remained through the middle of September each year. The cheeses needed to be large enough to accommodate the large amount of milk as well as sturdy enough to withstand the rigors of travel to the valley markets. Each region developed it’s own unique style due to herd sizes, remoteness and local preferences.
These cheeses were produced in the primitive mountain chalets where the cows grazed. Sometimes a particular herd would have 2-3 chalets located at different levels on the mountain as the cows moved during the summer and the vats would be moved with the herd. The cheeses were collectively referred to as Gruyere. The Gruyere of old being the assigned person who monitored the grazing activity and assesed the taxes for these Alpage areas. Specific cheeses such as Abondance, Comte, Beaufort, Ementhaler, and Morbier are good examples. The Abondance and Beaufort are the current remaining examples of traditional Alpage production, whereas the others are now produced in Valley cooperatives with the milk being transported.
Beaufort is produced in the Beaufortain, Tarentaise and Maurienne valleys, as well as parts of the Val d’Arly valley, all located on 450,000 hectares of the Savoie region. Our hike through Vanoise National Park took us through the ideal landscape to make wonderful Beaufort the traditional way. Of course a hike through this park wouldn’t be complete without stopping by one such place to see Beaufort made and have a taste for ourselves of perhaps the freshest cheese I’ve ever had.
A step inside the cheese making room was suprisingly hot, smoky and steamy. I couldn’t imagine working in here all day long making cheese. It is a lot of work and hard manual labor.
To make Beaufort, first, the milk is heated and then cast into a beechwood hoop or mold which gives the cheese its distinctive concave shape. It is pressed for 24 hours, taken out of the hoops and then cooled for another 24 hours. Once cooled, it is soaked in brine and then stored on spruce shelves for one to two months. During this part of the process, one side of the cheese is hand-salted each morning, then turned over and massaged each afternoon. Once the cheese rind has reached a level of maturity, the cheese is smear-ripened with a mixture called morge which produces its strong flavor and pale yellow rind. The prepared cheese must then age for 6–12 months, or even longer, in a cool mountain cellar.
Here is a good illustration of the steps from Cheesemaking.com. I found it fascinating! Feel free to check it out if you are interested.
Now back to our tour. We stepped inside to a steamy, smoky room and marveled at the manpower it took to make Beaufort the old-fashioned way without all the modern day processing.
After the tour came the best part….the tasting! I remember during my time living in France the tradition of eating fresh cheese….jelly, salt, and/or plain. It is delicious any way you like!
After too much indulging it was time to go and hike it off. We had three more hours left in our hike and we would be back in civilization. It was a bittersweet feeling as I was excited to have a real bed again but sad to leave my beloved mountains.