30 September 2009

Pounti, a savory cake from Auvergne

The food of the Auvergne is rustic and filling. It's the kind of food people living in a chilly climate need, especially when their life requires spending a lot of time outdoors. Cabbage, potatoes, cheese, bread, and cured pork products — hams and sausages — are staples. Soupe aux choux, cabbage soup, in various forms, has always sustained the local people.

One specialty I didn't know about when we went to spend a few days in the Cantal department was Pounti, a savory cake made with local country-style ham, the smoked pork chunks called lardons, Swiss chard, prunes (dried plums, that is), and cheese. I saw Pounti in the market in Salers and in food shops, but I wasn't sure what it was.

A shop in Salers selling regional specalties —
sausages, pâtés, honey, and Pounti, among others

Then back in Saint-Aignan I was looking through a recent edition of a French cooking magazine (thanks to Peter Hertzmann) and came across this recipe for Pounti. I made it a couple of days later. By the way, I haven't found any information about the origin of the name.

Translation/adaptation below...

This version of Pounti might be "cakier" than many, but that makes it a good food to serve with an apéritif, especially what is called « un apéritif dînatoire ». That's a light dinner of finger foods that people here in France serve when they want to spend an informal and convivial evening with friends. Savory cakes are popular for such occasions — our version of American zucchini bread, for example, has been a hit in our neighborhood (we reduced the amount of sugar).

Auvergne Pounti cake

The Pounti I saw in Auvergne seemed to be heavier and wetter than this cake. I read on a couple of Internet pages that one way to eat Pounti is to fry slices of it until they are lightly browned and crispy. Then eat it with a knife and fork as a filling supper dish. I can't see doing that with this Pounti cake.

Here's the recipe in American English:
Auvergne Pounti cake

3 eggs
1 cup flour
½ tsp. baking powder
¼ cup vegetable oil (or more)
½ cup warm milk
½ lb. grated cheese
½ lb. cured ham (prosciutto)
¼ lb. smoked bacon
15 pitted prunes
½ lb. chard, spinach, or lettuce leaves
1 medium onion
salt and pepper

Preheat a convection oven to 350ºF.

In a mixing bowl, combine the eggs, flour, and baking powder. Gradually stir in the vegetable oil. Warm the milk briefly in the microwave and gradually incorporate it into the batter. Mix in the grated cheese, a little salt, a good amount of pepper.

Chop the onion and saute it lightly in a pan with the bacon (or lardons). Meanwhile, cut the country ham into strips. Chop the chard or other greens roughly, and cut each prune into two or even four pieces.

When the onions and bacon have cooled slightly, mix all the ingredients into the cake batter.

Cook the batter in a buttered or non-stick loaf pan for 45 minutes. Let it cool for 15 or 20 minutes before taking it out of the pan.

Some notes on the ingredients —
Prunes these days are not dried to the degree they used to be. Drying allowed them to keep for a long time; these days, you buy them at the supermarket in plastic or cellophane bags and they are still pretty moist and soft. Use them as they are, without soaking them, unless they seem very dry and tough.

Pitted and chopped prunes, unsoaked,
and a piece of Salers/Cantal cheese

For cheese, the recipe says to use Gruyère. That's classic Swiss cheese, and I'm sure it would be good. But this is an Auvergne recipe, so why not use an Auvergne cheese? I had a piece of Salers cheese left from our trip, and that's what I grated and put in the batter.

If you can get Cantal, good. Otherwise, cheddar would be good. White cheddar is similar to Cantal in flavor and texture. I think the next time I make Pounti I'm going to use a blue cheese from Auvergne, maybe Fourme d'Ambert, in it.

At any rate, after all that, I have to say that cheese is an optional or unconventional ingredient, according to a lot of the Pounti recipes I've found.

This is cured ham, called jambon cru (raw ham),
jambon sec
(dry ham), or
jambon de pays ( country
in France, where there are many regional versions.

Prosciutto, or Parma ham, is fairly similar to the cured hams of the Auvergne region. It's salt cured, lightly smoked, and not cooked. If you buy it in very thin slices, you don't need to cook it before you put it in the cake batter.

Bacon is the other meat in the Pounti cake. The recipe doesn't say to pre-cook it, but I decided to, along with the onion. If you can get smoked bacon, that would be the best. American bacon is often sugar-cured, but I think that would be good in the Pounti. Get thick sliced bacon, cut it into small pieces, and saute it lightly before putting it in the cake batter.

You can vary the quantities and proportions of the meats. Altogether you want 6 to 8 oz. of ham and/or bacon. Chunks of cooked ham would be good, and strips of sandwich ham might be too. You can also adjust the number of prunes to your taste.

Chopped cured ham slices can go into the batter
without needing to be pre-cooked.

Swiss chard is the preferred leafy green vegetable for the Pounti, but fresh spinach would be very good too. I'm not sure about using frozen spinach, but I might try it one day soon. The recipe says you can use lettuce, but if you do, choose a dark green leaf lettuce, not iceberg.

Finally, the French recipe says to use 2% milk in the batter, but I think whole or skim would be fine too. If you have skim milk, you can always add a tablespoon or two of cream to it.

Did you ever crack an egg and have the whole thing
spurt right out of the shell onto the work surface?

A slice or bite-size piece of Pounti cake is really good with a glass of wine, be it white, red, or rosé. The salty, smoky meat; the melted cheese; the slightly sweet prunes; and the just-cooked greens give it a good taste and texture. Pounti is a pre-dinner treat, or it can make a light meal with a green salad. One recipe I saw on the Internet says you can serve it heated up and topped with a little tomato sauce. I'll have to try that combination before I can recommend it.

29 September 2009

Endless summer

Wishful thinking. I admit it. But summer will end suddenly in 2009. The sun will go behind the clouds, which will open up and drop many hectoliters of cold rain on us. At least, that's the way it will feel, in contrast.

Temperatures are running 10ºF/5ºC higher than normal for late September. The sky is luminously, abnormally blue. The grape harvest couldn't take place under better conditions. Neither could the hedge trimming and general yard clean-up.

Sunrise over the vineyards in late September 2009

It's dry — the last time the grass had to be mowed was July 15. That was more than two months ago, and it has hardly grown at all. The tomatoes and eggplants are still producing. The mornings are a little chilly now, however, and you can tell that that tomatoes plants are finishing up. Just when you think they have given their all, though, they keep on giving.

The garden from out back, and a compost pile full of apples

The Swiss chard is still giving too. I cleaned up the plants last week, pulling all the brown and yellowed leaves off the bottom of each plant. They bore up under the real heat of August, but I can tell that they are happier with September's cool, dewy mornings and sunny, but not quite so hot, afternoons. I pulled out half a dozen plants last Saturday and we ate them, leaves and ribs, in a sauce béchamel enriched with grainy, old-fashioned mustard (called moutarde de Meaux or moutarde à l'ancienne). They're good that way.

Chard from the garden, pulled up roots and all

The collard greens will probably experience a burst of growth as the temperatures continue to moderate. They are a late fall crop. I'm surprised they didn't bolt during the long hot spells of July, August, and earlier September. I'm hoping for some bigger, fleshier leaves. I've been watering them. Now I think I'll fertilize them.

Collard greens, getting ready to really grow, I hope

The corn, lima beans, and pole beans are gone. So are the tomatillo plants, cherries, pears, and plums. Apples, however, keep raining down, and we pick up wheelbarrow load after wheelbarrow load of them to compost over the winter. I told Walt that maybe we should cut down the biggest apple tree, the one that produces so many tons of fruit every second summer, but he doesn't think so. It's true that it's an attractive shade tree. Of course there are two others next to it that are just as nice. Don't stand under them right now — you'll get conked on the head.

A wheelbarrow load of apples — the umpteenth — from the big tree

The hedge trimming and clean-up work continue apace. We don't work on it that many hours a day, but we do put in our time. There's lunch to cook, however, and to recover from in the afternoon. And there's a certain dog that wants a walk every morning and every evening. It's nice to have the luxuries of time, good food, and nice weather.

Hedge trimmings and the clean-up — I finally realized that
piling the leaves on a tarp, bundling them up in it, and
dragging them to the burn pile was the best way to do it.

On our walk yesterday, Callie and I ran into Chantal Guerrier out on the paved road. She and husband Jean-Noël are busy bringing in the grapes. But like all the other local vignerons, they aren't in a very big hurry, because the weather is cooperating. The grapes are sunbathing, and ripening.

Tomates confites are roasted for 2½ hours in a slow oven
with olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper, and a pinch of sugar.
This is a mix of yellow and red tomato wedges.

Sunday afternoon, Carolyn (who leaves comments here) and her husband came by for a light lunch. They were spending about a week in the area, as they often do this time of year. We had roasted red peppers and slow-roasted tomatoes (tomates confites) from the garden, with local goat cheese and local wines.

Surfinia flowers in a planter under the kitchen window
have been spectacular all summer.

They brought a bottle of Muscadet and some local rillettes de porc, and we had a little pot of pâté de lapin (rabbit) that I bought at the market in Noyers. Walt made an apple tart with a calvados-flavored custard base and apples from out back. It was a nice afternoon around a table out in the back yard.

28 September 2009

Salers, the pronunciation

Salers is one of those place names in France that has two pronunciations. Yesterday, for example, I went to the outdoor market over in Noyers-sur-Cher, across the river, to buy some cheese. My goal was goat cheese, and I got three nice pieces, along with a slice of the Auvergne blue cheese called Fourme d'Ambert.

Then I noticed a shrink-wrapped piece of tomme fraîche like one we had bought in Salers. It's cheese to cook with and I'll make something with it later this week (truffade — stay tuned). The wrapper says it's good cheese to put on pizza.

The old post office in Salers

I told the cheese vendor, who is starting to get to know me after two or three years of seeing me occasionally on Sunday mornings, that I had just come back from the Cantal. He asked me where I stayed, and I said Saint-Chamant. He didn't appear to be familiar with that name, so I said it was not far from Salers.

Walt and Callie taking a picture in Salers

His face brightened and he starting singing the praises of the Salers area. How beautiful it is, how green, what good food, especially the cheeses, he said. I told him we had visited a dairy farmer and watched him make Salers cheese late one afternoon. I think he was impressed — or envious. At the least it called up good memories for him.

Here's what I meant when I said flowers add color to gray Salers.

Anyway, every time he said Salers he pronounced the final S, saying something like [sah-LEHRSS]. I used to pronounce it that way too, when I lived in Paris. There are a lot of French place names that end in an S where the final S is silent, and a lot where it is pronounced. Everybody knows that Paris is [pah-REE] and Tours is [tour] — those are often-used names. But how many people are sure how to pronounce names like Tournus, Carpentras, Alès, or the Rhône wine villages Gigondas and Vacquéras? S or no S at the end?

The church tower in Salers and a coq

Once Walt and I went for lunch at a restaurant near Ecole Militaire in the 7th arrondissement in Paris. It was called Le Bistrot de Papa, I think — yep, just looked it up and that's the one. When we went there, one of the specialties on the menu was le bœuf de Salers, steaks of Salers beef. That's what we, or at least I, ordered. I asked the waiter if I should say [sah-LEHR] or [sah-LEHRSS]. He said he was from Auvergne and that down there the final S is silent, but that in Paris a lot of people pronounce it. So you really can't go wrong, I guess.

A typical solid-looking house on the edge of Salers

That's what I tell English-speakers who want to know how to pronounce town names that end in an S. Go ahead and pronounce the S. French people will understand you, even if that's not the way they normally pronounce the name. Then listen carefully to see if you can hear the French-speaking person say the name back to you. Imitate that pronunciation.

Nice street view in Salers

Well, I got carried away with those pronunciation questions. The pictures in this post are ones I took in Saler' on September 2. It is a very photogenic place.

27 September 2009

Salers, the town

Town or village... It certainly feels like a town, with its narrow winding streets, ramparts, and big central square. But it has fewer than 500 inhabitants, so I guess it is a village. It has a church, of course, and an outdoor market. Salers is in Cantal, in the Auvergne region.

Auvergne lost a lot of its population starting in the 19th century, when the railroads came in. Paris is full of "refugees" from the region. Life down there in those deep valleys, with a harsh climate, wasn't easy. But it's a fantastically beautiful area now. Green and a little empty.

On the streets of Salers

The day we were there in early September it was very foggy. The sky was white, and you couldn't see the valley below the town because it was fogged in. We wandered around, taking pictures and enjoying the street scenes. It was all kind of dark and quiet at first.

A view out over the edge of the town to the cow pastures beyond

The dark volcanic lave stone that everything is built out of is hard to get used to. The fog that morning gave us a taste of what winter must be like — all in grays, blacks, and whites. At least in summer and early fall, however, the monotone quality of it is broken up by some greenery and plenty of flowers (a lot of red geraniums, as everywhere in France).

A nice weathervane

Most of the houses in Salers were built in the 1600s and 1700s, a period of prosperity for the town. It became the judicial center of the region, and a lot of well-to-do lawyers settled in. The wars of religion were ending, and France was entering into an era of relative political stability. The railroads hadn't yet arrived to take so many people away to Paris.

An old doorway with its decorations, dating from 1700

Salers was not deserted the day we walked around it. There was at least one busload of senior citizens — people our age, ha ha ha — clogging up the streets. We tried not to be engulfed by that crowd. Walking into a crowd with a dog on a leash is always a dangerous thing to do. Callie was glad to be out of the car and walking around, but she was a little confused by the whole experience.

One of a kind vases and lamps made by "The Recykler" —
and a splash of color on the side of the street in Salers

I bought some things: a bottle of apéritif wine made from the gentian plant, for example, and some cheese and ham at the market. We spent time talking to a woman who makes Salers and Cantal cheese just a ways west of town and sells it at the market from her truck. This was before we went to the dairy farm near Saint-Chamant, so we had a lot of questions. We looked inside several shops, and there was no lack of them. We tried to stay ahead of or behind the crowd of old people.

There's a lot of picturesque stuff to see in Salers.

Just as we were finishing our stroll and starting to think about lunch, the sun came out. But we had made our afternoon plan, which was to drive 25 miles north and see the Château de Val. The town of Mauriac looked like a good place for lunch, and we had pizzas in mind. But I'm not through with Salers (the town) yet.

26 September 2009

Roasted red peppers

One of the garden crops we have had the best results with over the years is red bell peppers. Starting in 2004, our first year of gardening in Saint-Aignan, the pepper plants have proven prolific and the peppers perennially perfect. (How's that for alliteration?)

What do you do with a dozen or more big plump red bell peppers? There are basically three options, and one that I prefer above the other two. First, you can stuff them with rice or meat or a mixture of the two and bake them in the oven. Or secondly, you can chop them up, removing the stems, seeds, and pulp, and cook them in a little water. Then run them through a food mill and make a puree, which is good in — or as — a soup, or as a pasta sauce or sauce ingredient.

A red pepper, roasted, collapses and shrivels some

The third and best way, I think, to prepare red bell peppers is to roast them. It's also pretty easy, at least until the time comes to peel and, especially, de-seed them. But the messy, tedious work of doing that part is more than repaid by the delicious result.

De-stemmed and peeled, but not yet
opened up and completely de-seeded

Roasting peppers is pretty straightforward. Rinse off and dry 6 or 8 fresh red peppers and put them whole on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Pre-heat the oven to 200ºC/400ºF. Put the pan of peppers into the hot oven and wait for about 30 minutes. The peppers will collapse and shrivel up a little. The skin will start to blacken.

Go through the pepper pieces one last time to remove
stray seeds, and then roll or fold them and arrange
them in a dish if you plan to use them immediately.

Take the roasted peppers out of the oven and immediately put them into a big bowl or baking dish — use tongs. Cover the dish tightly with plastic wrap. The hot peppers will create steam inside the sealed container. The steam will help loosen their skins. And meanwhile they will also release a lot of delicious reddish brown juice, which you'll want to save.

When it has cooled completely, put the dish of cooked peppers into the refrigerator if you don't want to work on skinning and cleaning them right away. It'll hold there for 48 hours easily. When the time comes, remove one pepper at a time from the dish and work on it. I put each pepper into a big shallow pasta bowl and clean it there, so that I don't lose any of the juice.

The rest of these pictures are here just to make you hungry.

First, pull out the pepper's stem and press lightly on the top of the pepper to squeeze as many of the seeds out of it as you can. Then see if the skin won't just peel right off. Usually it will, but sometimes you have work on it a little big, peeling off a strip at a time.

Finally, tear the pepper open from top to bottom. It will come apart at the natural seams, very easily. Then start picking the seeds off and out of it. That's the part of the process that takes time. Plan on having wet, sticky hands for the remainder of the peeling and seeding operation. If you want to take pictures, you'll have to stop and wash your hands frequently so as not to gum up your camera.

Pour the pepper juice over the pepper pieces
before you put them away or serve them.

Just stack the pieces of pepper flesh in a dish and keep working. When all the peppers are processed, wash your hands and then go back through all the pieces one more time to remove any stray seeds that remain. This takes some time and again is fairly messy. But remember, it's worth it. And don't rinse the pepper strips off — you'll lose a lot of the good flavor if you do.

Pour the juice from the bottom of the bowl you peeled the peppers in, and from the bottom of the dish you stored them in, through a strainer into a big measuring cup or a clean bowl to remove those pesky seeds. Don't throw the juice out!

Roasted red pepper pieces swimming in sweet, thick pepper juice

The best way to preserve the roasted pepper flesh long-term is to freeze it. Put some of the pepper pieces in a plastic freezer container and pour on enough juice to cover them. Put them in the freezer.

When you want to eat them, thaw them. You can have them as a salad or in a salad with some olive oil and balsamic or other vinegar. And some of the pepper juice, of course. You can also eat them on sandwiches or on toasted bread spread with cream cheese or soft fresh goat cheese. A sprinkle of salt, a grind of pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil... and a glass of wine.

25 September 2009

Late September

I've worn myself out with all those posts about making cheese in Auvergne. Now I need to take a little break. I still have photos of the town of Salers and others from Auvergne that I want to post, but later.

Walt and I have been busy doing garden and yard work for a week now. He's trimming the hedge, after earlier having cut enough firewood for our upcoming winter. We had a little rainy spell, but that ended a week ago. I can't believe it is already September 25.

Raking up leaves is hard work, but at least the weather
is conducive — it's warm and dry.

My contribution to the Great Hedge Trimming Project is the clean-up. I'm raking up and carrying wheelbarrow loads of clippings from the front of the house out to a pile in the back yard by the vegetable garden plots. One garden plot is now cleaned up for the winter — we pulled out all the corn stalks and lima bean bushes — so it will be the spot where we burn yard trimmings this fall. I hope we'll be able to burn all the hedge clippings, even though they are very green.

Out in the vineyard, the harvest is under way. There doesn't seem
to be much hurry, however, because of the dry sunny weather.

Over the past week, I've also picked and roasted half a dozen big red peppers. Now I need to peel them and get them packed into plastic containers for the freezer. We've been trying to eat out of the freezer as much as possible (lasagne, moussaka, and other good things are in there) to make room for more tomatoes (mostly as sauce) and the roasted red peppers.

Red bell peppers from the garden, for roasting

The weather is beautiful right now. It was just slightly nippy yesterday, with a dry cool breeze, but it was bright sunny and dry. Very pleasant.

The garden is still producing reds (tomatoes
and peppers) and greens (chard and collards).

People here keep talking about Indian Summer — l'été indien or l'été de la Saint-Martin — but it's too early for all that, I think. This is just fine September weather. Une belle arrière-saison. La Saint-Martin falls on November 11. We'll see if we are having warm sunny weather at that late date. If so, the expression will be appropriate.

24 September 2009

Turning tomme into Cantal

This is the fifth of five topics about cheese-making in the Cantal.
Here are links to all the topics: 1
- 2 - 3 - 4 - 5

Salers cheese, made in the area surrounding the old town of Salers — which is now the Parc des Volcans d'Auvergne — is always made with unpasteurized milk. The milk, unheated and unrefrigerated, is made into cheese twice a day, right after the twice-daily milking of the cows. It is the most authentic style of Cantal cheese, which has been made in the area since Roman times.

Cheese is a way of processing milk for long-term storage. You can make it in the summer, when the cows have an abundance of grass to graze on, and you can keep it in a cool dark place — a cellar or a cave — all winter. It will improve in texture and flavor for many months. The land in the Auvergne region was always too hilly and wet to be much used as farmland, but it was and is nearly perfect pasture land. Cheeses have always been valuable commodities in trade with other regions as well.

Une vache de la race Salers

Cantal cheese, which is mostly what you find in France outside the Auvergne region, can be made with pasteurized or unpasteurized milk, and can be made year-round, either in commercial dairies or on farms. Often dairies purchase milk for Cantal cheese from co-ops, so it comes from several different farms. Cantal is the generic form of Salers cheese, which is made seasonally on farms using raw milk from one herd of cows. That's not to say that "generic" Cantal cheese is not delicious — it is, or can be. In order to use the name, farmers and dairies must adhere to certain requirements and methods for its fabrication, too, but the rules are not as strict as for the Cantal label as for Salers label.

Evelyn took this nice picture of Cantal and Salers cheeses
at the outdoor market in the old town of Salers.

New sanitation and hygiene rules are changing the way French cheeses are made. But traditions remain, and Salers Tradition cheeses, and even just plain Salers cheeses, are proof of that. Modernization is inevitable — on n'arrête pas le progrès — you can't stop progress — but some principles and practices are time-honored. Even U.S. regulations provide that raw-milk cheeses are authorized for importation into the U.S. if they have been aged for at least 60 days. Pasteurization is a good thing, but it's not necessary or even desirable when the milk is going to become aged cheese.

Cows in a pasture near the Château de Saint-Chamant

Salers cheese is aged for a minimum of 90 days. Cheese called just "Cantal" can be sold after just 30 days. That's called Cantal Jeune, young Cantal. Between one month and three, the cheese is called Cantal Entre-Deux, or medium-aged. And beyond three months of what is called affinage, it is called Cantal Vieux — old Cantal. It can actually be aged, or dried, for much longer.

I asked Eric Lafon about affinage, which you might call "maturation" or ripening — keeping cheese at the proper temperature and humidity so that it improves with age — "finishing" it. I asked him if he aged his own cheeses or if a third party was involved. He said he sold some cheese to affineurs — specialists who ripen cheeses before putting them on the market — but mostly he does it himself. Where? He said the assocation of Salers cheese producers has bought an old de-commissioned railway tunnel in the area from the national railroad, the SNCF, and all the producers can store cheeses in there for ripening.

A couple of the Lafon family's farm-made cheeses

Before it matures, Cantal cheese is called tomme (or tome) fraîche — fresh cheese. It is bland, as Evelyn has said, because it hasn't yet been salted. It's used in cooking. Aged Cantal is for eating as it is sold, on a plateau de fromages — a cheese platter. Tomme is for melting, including in the Auvergne specialties called aligot and truffade. Both are potato dishes. You can melt aged Cantal too, and it's very good, but for the purist it's a shame to eat Cantal other than in its natural state.

Les fourmes — the forms in which Salers
and Cantal cheeses are pressed

So how does the fresh tomme become Cantal or Salers cheese? After ripening for 12 to 24 hours, the tomme is run through a grinder and mixed with salt. After a few hours the salted mixture is packed into cheesecloth-lined molds and pressed for a couple of days. Then the fat cylinders of cheese are ready for ripening in the cave or cellar. As it ages, the cheese develops a crust that gets thicker and thicker as the cheese dries out.

Eric Lafon removes a cheese from the mold
and turns it over for further pressing.

I don't know how easy it is to find Cantal in the U.S. I have the impression that French cheeses are not always kept under ideal conditions as they are shipped and stored for sale over there. Because turnover is slow, they are often too old by the time you by them, and past their prime. But if you choose carefully and have a good cheese vendor, you can find good ones. I used to buy very nice cheeses at a shop on 24th Street in San Francisco's Noe Valley.

In French terms, virtually all the cheeses you find in supermarkets in the United States are "industrial" cheeses. Very few "artisanal" cheeses, made the way Salers style cheese is made, are to be found — except imports. For information, we paid between 10 and 13 euros per kilo — 5 or 6 €/lb. — for the cheeses we bought at the farm and in the farmers' market in the old town of Salers.

A map of the part of Auvergne we spent our time in,
around Mauriac, and Salers

Click on the map to enlarge it.

One regret I had about our visit to the Conches dairy farm at Saint-Chamant was that Eric Lafon didn't have any of his butter for sale when we were there. After they curdle the milk, they separate the cream from the rest of the whey. With that cream they make butter twice a week and sell it in their store, on the premises. It had all been sold the day we were there.

The Lafon family also sells most of the cheese they make right there in their own shop. Can you imagine how much cheese they make annually? Thirty tons! That's 30,000 kilograms. That's two 40 kg cheeses a day, 365 days a year. They have 50 cows, and each cow gives as much as 10 liters of milk every day.

By the way, Eric Lafon is also the first deputy mayor of the village of Saint-Chamant.

Here are a few links to sites with information about Cantal and Salers cheese, all in French:

This is the fifth of five topics about cheese-making in the Cantal.
Here are links to all the topics: 1
- 2 - 3 - 4 - 5

23 September 2009

Making cheese morning and night

This is the fourth of five topics about cheese-making in the Cantal.
Here are links to all the topics: 1
- 2 - 3 - 4 - 5

On dairy farms that produce the cheese called Salers [sah-LEHR], two batches are made every day. The first cheese is made in the morning, after the morning milking. The second is made in the evening, after the afternoon milking. Each time, the milk from the traite is brought in and made into cheese immediately, without ever having to be refrigerated. That seems to be one of the keys to how good it is — refrigerating the milk would alter its qualities.

French A.O.C. (Appellation d'Origine Contôlée) and European A.O.P. (Appellation d'Origine Protégée) rules require that Salers be made that way. They also require that it be made only during the months when the cows spend their days out in the pastures — April 15 to November 15 — and graze exclusively on the local vegetation. Along with grasses, the pastures are also full of wild aromatic plants that flavor the cows' milk and give the cheese its unique taste. The grasses and plants the cows graze on also give the cheese (and the whey) a nice yellow color.

The curds are pressed, cut into chunks, and pressed again
several times over about an hour to remove as
much of the whey, le petit lait, as possible.

Other A.O.C. rules specify that Salers cheese can only be made in a well-defined geographical area, that being the the département du Cantal. The milk must not be pasteurized, and Salers cheese must be made on farms, not in dairies. There are about 80 dairy farms that make Salers. They and other producers also make Cantal cheese, which is only slightly different — Salers is Cantal that's made on farms and only in summer.

The whey is run through a a centrifuge to spin off the cream,
which is used
to make butter twice a week.

What the rules don't state is that the milk used for Salers cheese must come from cows of the Salers breed. Salers cows will only give milk in the presence of their calves. At milking time, the calf is brought to its mother and it begins to suckle. Then the calf is pulled away and the milking machine attached. When most of the milk has been taken, the calf is allowed to finish feeding. All that is a lot of trouble for the farmers, I think.

As a result, most of them have herds of cows of other breeds, especially Montbéliardes. Those are, I believe, the cows with splotches of brown or black on white in the pictures I posted yesterday. Montbéliardes give a lot of milk, don't need to have their calves present during the milking process, and produce milk that they say is very similar to the milk given by Salers cows.

Eric Lafon cuts the pressed curds into big chunks, turns
them over, and presses them again. You can see the
blue plastic booties on the guy in the background.

Farmers who do maintain the tradition of using milk exclusively from the red Salers cows have the right to put the appellation « Salers Tradition » on their product. Salers cheese made with milk from other breeds is called just Salers — or Salers-Salers, for some reason I have yet to figure out. It might be because the word Salers is stamped into the rind two times on the big round cheeses. There's an example on this web page. None of this is very clear to me...

The wooden tub that the milk is poured into for the curdling operation is also important in the Salers cheese-making process. It must be made of wood, and the wood is normally chestnut.

Evelyne and Eric Lafon continue cutting and rearranging the
curds for pressing. It takes an hour to press out all the whey.

One of the questions I asked when we were watching the cheese being made was about the timing of the addition of a starter cultureferments lactiques — to the milk. Eric Lafon, who with his wife, son, and brother make the cheeses at Roziers near Saint-Chamant, said there is nothing "added" to the cheese at all. The microbes that cause the fermentation are present in the wood of the tub that they use in the curdling process.

He said a laboratory in Bordeaux had confirmed that to be the case when European authorities wanted the Salers producers to use stainless steel vats instead, and then add cultures during the cheese-making process. The laboratory's conclusion was not only that the wood carried the cultures, but also that the resulting cheese is both delicious and a healthy food. So even though the facilities where the cheeses are made are modern and well equipped, the wooden vat is both traditional and essential to the process.

Here's the result, called tomme fraîche. It's cheese you can
cook with, or you can press it some more and then age it
for at least three months to get Salers cheese.

Twice a day the cows are milked and twice a day a big "drum" of Salers cheese is made, from spring to fall. At the Conches dairy farm, Eric Lafon, his brother, his wife Evelyne, and the Lafons' son all know how to milk the cows and make the cheeses. They take turns. What do they do in the wintertime? They make Cantal cheese rather than Salers.

And what are the differences? For one, the cows are fed hay rather than being free to graze on fresh grasses and other plants out in the pasture. And the A.O.C. rules for Cantal don't require that the milk be processed into cheese after each milking. The morning milk, for example, might be refrigerated and then added to the evening milk, before it's all made into cheese. Cantal cheese can also be made with pasteurized milk, and in dairies rather than on farms.

Meanwhile, spills do happen. That's why there's
a tile floor, a garden hose, and a big drain
in the middle of the room.

Eric Lafon told us that he actually follows the same process year-round, making a fat cylinder of cheese in the morning and another in the evening, after each milking, even in winter. The Conches farm has a herd of 50 Montbéliarde cows. He said he normally does the morning milking, and the day we were there he came in once the milk was curdled and took over from the man in the black shirt, who I assume is his brother. More tomorrow...

This is the fourth of five topics about cheese-making in the Cantal.
Here are links to all the topics: 1
- 2 - 3 - 4 - 5