24 December 2008

Christmas cheeses

For us, Christmas cheeses are the ones we use to make a fondue savoyarde — what we call Swiss or cheese fondue in English. Walt and I have been making a Christmas Eve fondue for at least 10 years now. And every year we've bought the same three cheeses: Gruyère, Comté, and Emmental.

Gruyère and Comté cheeses for a fondue

Except this year. We are going to replace the Emmental this year with some Cantal, which is a cheese not from Alpine regions but from the Massif Central of France, the Auvergne, a province down south of Saint-Aignan. Actually, the Cantal is the French département where the cheese is made as well as the name of the cheese.

The word "Switzerland" on the cheese means it is
authentically Swiss and not a Gruyère knock-off.

Gruyère is a cheese that we Americans call by the generic term "Swiss cheese" — a category that also includes cheeses like Comté, Emmental, and Beaufort. Gruyère and Emmental are actually made in Switzerland, but they can also made in the French Alps. Comté and Beaufort are really French cheeses.

All these Alpine cheeses are called "cooked" cheeses. After the milk curds form, they are subjected to heat up to 57ºC — that's about 135ºF. So there is no such thing as a raw-milk Gruyère or Comté, as far as I can tell. But even so, the milk curds are not really cooked. Pasteurization, by comparison, involves heating milk up to the even higher temperature of 161ºF for several seconds — and you can't even call that "cooking."

Gruyère cheese comes from the Gruyères Valley in Switzerland. Emmental comes from the Valley of the Emme River, near Bern, also in Switzerland. Gruyère cheese does not have holes — called yeux, or "eyes," in French — but Emmental does.

Comté cheese from the Jura mountains of
France, near the Swiss border

A Comté cheese might have "eyes," but they are very small ones compared to the walnut-size holes in Emmental cheese. Comté is also called Guyère de Comté, according to my cheese book, but I've never seen that term in the markets or supermarkets here. Comté cheese comes from the old province known as the Franche-Comté — the "Free County" — in the mountains called the Jura along the Swiss border.

Beaufort cheese is made in the higher mountains south of the Jura, and south of Geneva, in the province called the Savoie. Beaufort cheese doesn't have "eyes" either. Next year I might use Beaufort instead of Gruyère in the fondue.

Three cheeses for the 2008 fondue at La Renaudière

The differences in all these Alpine cheeses have to do with the different breeds of cows that produce the milk; the temperatures the milk curds are heated up to; the weight of the different wheels of cheese (which affects the ripening process); and the amount of time the cheeses are ripened before they are put on the market. Each cheese has its own particular flavor and texture. They don't all melt the same way when you put them into a fondue.

This year we have decided to use some Cantal cheese in our fondue instead of Emmental. Cantal reminds me of a good white English Cheddar, and according to the Larousse des Fromages book (Robert Courtine, 1973, 1987) it falls into the same category as Cheddar. Cantal and Cheddar are made by pressing the milk curds, grinding them, and pressing them again. These are not "cooked" cheeses. They can be made from raw milk.

Cantal cheese — this one is made from unpasteurized milk.

According to Monsieur Courtine, Cantal is probably the oldest variety of French cheese — it goes back 2,000 years or more. It is made in a cylindrical shape, not a wheel, and each cheese weighs from 50 to over 100 lbs. Cantal used to be known as Fourme de Salers, and there is still a cheese called Salers that is not really different from Cantal, except that Cantal is made in dairies and Salers is made only on farms (evidently). Salers is made seasonally, Cantal year-round. Salers is the name of both a village and a breed of cow.

This is my fondue recipe. It was dictated to me
in about 1975 by a friend who grew up in the town
of Besançon in the Franche-Comté region of France.

There's a translation in this topic.

The thing that is nice about Cantal is not just its flavor but its texture. It melts much more smoothly than Gruyère or Comté. If you grate one of the Alpine cheeses into hot soup, for example, it forms a stringy mass and sinks to the bottom. With Cantal, you get a smooth melt that doesn't sink but spreads through the liquid. With some Cantal added, we are hoping for a smoother, less stringy fondue this year.

A day or two ago, I heard a chef on French Cuisine TV say that you can make a very nice fondue out of Saint-Nectaire cheese, which also comes from the Auvergne region. It's a cheese we both enjoy. There's a Saint-Nectaire fondue in our future, I can just feel it.


  1. Xmas Cheer to y'all.....no snow here in richmond....only rain forecast....have a merry one

  2. We've done a fondue savoyarde (à l'américaine:)) a couple of times for Christmas Eve in the past few years. Yumm!

    It's about 4:00 p.m. chez vous... happy eve!!


  3. We got a fondu pot as a gift when we married. Our daughter, Cathy loved having what she called "fundo" and we made it for her birthdays sometimes.

    I wish we could get some of those good cheeses here. Your recipe looks like more than dictation to me unless you are able to handwrite in french.

    Happy Christmas Eve to you and thanks for a good post.

  4. Rain in the forecast for Boston today, but that's a welcome relief from the foot-plus of snow we've had in the past week. We missed the ice storm west of Boston by just a few miles; some of those folks have been w/o electricity for over 10 days.

    Merry Christmas, Ken and Walt. That fondue sure looks like a winner.

  5. Merry Christmas, Ken and Walt. We sure envy your choice of cheeses. Thanks for blogging every day.

  6. Je profite de cette occasion pour vous offrir, Ken et Walt mes meilleurs voeux pour un très joyeux Noël et une année marquée par la paix, le bonheur, la santé, la réussite et la prospérité.

    For the first time since 1971, we are having a white christmas from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic coast and, for sure, in the northern territories.

  7. Your fondue sounds wonderfully yummy! Enjoy your Christmas Eve!

    Is Callie still ignoring the tree?


  8. Merry Christmas....Here in Bellingham, WA we have two feet of snow and are expecting another 8 inches.....It's my husband's first white Christmas.

    Enjoy your fondue tonight.

    Victoria, Casey McLaren-the Border Collie's Mom.....Bellingham, WA

  9. merry christmas, it's been so nice meeting and reading this year.

  10. Looks like rain for XMas here in Northern Calif. Hope your fondu was great and hope you have a very happy XMas. I will be offline (quelle horreur!) until Monday. Happy holidays to all Ken and Walt and all of their followers!

    What irony.. my verification word is perms. As if I've ever needed one in my life!

    Curly-headed girl

  11. Melinda, Judy, Evelyn (and Lewis), Bob (and Norma), Carolyn (and Ernie), The Beav, BettyAnn, Victoria, PJ, and Cheryl — HO HO HO!

    Callie has only been mildly curious about the Christmas tree. She was very interested in that capon when I brought it up from the cellar this morning, however.

    Cheryl, have a good time up on the river, despite the rain. It's supposed to turn very cold here over the weekend.

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