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


  1. That is amazing! I love knowing all of these details! Thanks :))


  2. Great, informative post Ken?
    Do you think you can tell a big difference between Cantal and Salers cheese? Do they have specialties made with Cantal or Salers in the area? Aligot is big in Aveyron; I was wondering if you ate any in le Cantal? It is particularly delicious in winter. (They serve it in summer for the tourists.)

  3. Sorry I didn't mean to put a question mark after the "great, informative post Ken."

  4. Merci Ken for all these very interesting details.

    Now, I know how to differentiate the cheeses from that region.

  5. Nadege, the Salers cheese tasted milder than the Cantal to me. They were both excellent though.

    I got to taste the milky mixture of to-be-cheese from the presser and it was bland. I think we used unripe Salers cheese to make truffade which is a like aligot. Truffade is so good!

  6. Sorry I am back again because this is so fascinating. 4 years ago, in Aveyron, I went to visit a "buron" in Aveyron, to see how "Tomme" was being made (my brother in law went to school with the gentleman who made the cheese). They had to stop making it the "old fashion way" because of strict new Europeen rules. I guess the Cantal and Salers cheese are made of pasteurized milk? (or could there be pasteurized and unpasteurized versions?). I visited the blog of "Chez Loulou". Jennifer and I like unpasteurized cheese better. I never thought of this, but really it makes so much sense to have the cows graze on
    "organic" pastures... Now, I am wondering how American cheese is made. What do the cows eat? hay, grass...? What kind of cows are they using...?
    Thank you Ken for raising all those questions! Could goat cheese be next?

  7. So interesting to see all of the stages of the cheese making. Thanks for sharing it all!


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