Cheese Pilgrammage: Thônes
Driving up towards Bourg-en-Bresse and then hanging a left at Nantua, we cruise by the small roads into the Savoie region and visit with friends in Thônes, about 20 minutes outside of Annecy.
Our first stop in town is to the co-op, where they sell the cheeses from surrounding producers including all locally produced Reblochon, Raclette, Abondance, Beaufort, Tommes of various sizes and kinds, and one of the rare pressed goat milk tommes called the Chevrotin. We find their cheeses on display in their shop where the cave is built right into the rock with cheese stacked on old wood shelving in a controlled environment, the shelves visible through glass walls.
What is a Tomme de Savoie? This cheese is not standardized by AOC because there are so many hundreds of producers each with their own methods, although it is certified as coming from the Savoie region with its own special mark. The Tomme is the Alpine mountain cheese that has the longest history of any of the uncooked Savoie cheeses, historically made from small quantities by the milk farmers with their leftover milk. The cheese for the Tomme is coming from the milk of the Tarine and Abondance (see photo above) cows that dot the countryside of the region.
Nowadays in any grocery store in France, you can get some really forgettable industrial tommes with catchy names implying they come from Savoie. More often than not, they come from big city suburban factories that make absolutely no distinction in the origin, i.e. the cows, that produce the milk that gives way to these cheeses. Lowest price wins, don't care what they're fed, when and how, and the cheese, well, not so interesting.
On the other hand, when you are in the Savoie and happen upon the really good stuff that's been properly made and handled and aged in the right caves, you will be doing yourself a great favor to note the name and place of the producer, ask questions, and appreciate it. You will find that the best examples of this cheese can really be outstanding. A return visit will work its way into your itinerary the next time you pass through the town where you had it the last time - simple. Little by little you will locate the best cheeses and little by little you will be able to tell the difference, and judge.
At the co-op in Thônes, the local farmers have several novel variations on the Tomme theme on offer, one of which I fell in love with, the Tomme au Fenouil. The fennel grains (Anise seeds?) impart such a beautiful flavor and this also adds some interest to the cheese plate. This is one kind of cheese I would eat in thick slabs on bread all day long if I could.