The town of Époisses is a two hour drive from Lyon, a nice little day jaunt. You roll along country roads through thick green bucolic pasture land into Burgundy. As you enter the vicinity where this cheese is produced, you start to see herds of cows lazing majestically under trees and colonies of their reciprocal herons. We go there from time to time, basically a little town like so many you might stumble on in France, with flowers growing along main street, a local post office, and a cluster of buildings with a restaurant. You might possibly miss the sign that posts the hours that the public can visit the Berthaut fromagerie. Then again you might be on a cheese pilgrammage.
The story of this cheeses dates back to the 16th century, to the monastery which is now a private chateau, visible when the gates are open these days. Legend has it that the monks living there developed the original recipe for this cheese, and produced it solely for their own consumption. Near the end of the 18th century, when the monks left Époisses during the time when many church properties were being seized sold off in France, they left the recipe with some local townsfolk, who began producing it themselves. 30 years later, Époisses came in second, after Brie, in an international cheese competition, an event that put Époisses on the map and encouraged the proliferation of small cheese producers. The gastronome Brillat Savarin who was native to a town on the outskirts of Lyon named Époisses the king of cheeses in the beginning of the 19th century. A hundred years later, the Sydicat de defense de l’époisses estimates from public documents produced at that time that there were more than 300 small farm producers of this cheese in the valley of Époisses.
The First World War destroyed much of the local production of this cheese. Nearly all of the local menfolk were sent to the battlefield and there simply were not enough hands to continue with the cheese production. It fell to the wayside, and once the line was broken, it was difficult to resume production. With the development of other forms of agriculture and industry upon their return from the war, the production of this cheese waned to almost complete extinction during the years that followed. There is no record of cheese production at all during the years 1954 to 1956. In 1956, two farmers called upon the townspeople who carried a living memory of having produced this cheese at some time in their lives to help them. Through a collective work, these important holders of the story of their town’s rich cheesmaking past reconstructed the original recipe and two families began to produce Époisses again. Today there are four producers of this cheese, of which one is a small artisan farm operation.
Since 1991, Époisses has been protected under AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) rules. For the production of Époisses, the milk is limited to coming from three local breeds of cow, the Brune, Simmenthal, and Montéliearde. 85% of their diet must come from natural outdoor grazing in herds that include a mixture of both milking cows and young weaned cows not yet of age to produce milk. Of course the conditions of the grazing land are strictly controlled. All fertilization must be organic and the schedule following grazing is tightly controlled. In addition to natural pasture, in the seasons when their diet must be reinforced, Époisses cows are fed on a diet of 80% local dried herbs, and sweet things like washed beets cut daily for their consumption mixed with specified grains. According to AOC rules, because the flavor of the milk might be affected, the cows are prohibited from eating leeks, cabbage, colza (grown for its oil locally), celery roots, turnips, and beet greens.
The milk collected for the production of this cheese is put to use within 24 hours of the time it is collected from the cows. The producer is required to maintain separate channels for milk destined for Époisses cheese production and other milk products. There is absolutely no crossing of paths of the Époisses cheese milk and that destined for other milk products.
After heating the milk to a certain temperature (about body temperature for a cow), a special slow process of coagulation takes place lasting from 16 to 24 hours. After transferring the fragile curds by hand with the ladle method to specially made moulds, the producers then strain the curds, turning them twice before the addition of salt and the transfer of the cakes to the caves where they will be further turned and bathed for 4 weeks.
The cakes are bathed on a regular schedule before they go out into the world in a progressively stronger mix of water or brine and Marc de Bourgogne, according to the individual producer’s method, from one to three times a week, for four weeks. At the end, the bath consists of pure Marc. They keep strict records of every element of production, including a log of every time the cheeses are hand turned and bathed.
You might think that this cheese is colored artificially, from the bright orange patina. The color of the cheese comes solely from the delicate microclimate of bacteria and yeast on its surface which has been washed down over time with Marc and brine. The color progressively develops from white to a peachy gold, to the bright orange that we know when our fromager hands it to us.
Each batch is inspected and judged on a whole matrix of elements broken down into subcategories of visual aspect and flavor, by officials from the association for the protection of Époisses. If a tested cheese does not meet a minimum combined score for both appearance and flavor, the whole batch is rejected and the cheese cannot be sold under the name. Things that disqualify a cheese might be that it has developed spots, or has liquefied in such a way that an empty space has developed under the outer crust. A cheese that is missing a deep enough color is rejected. Too many holes, puffiness, excessive wrinkling, all disqualify an Époisses that is not up to snuff. Époisses that is good enough is supple, creamy and soft, and features a light core. It isn’t grainy, taste too salty or bitter, nor does it have an ammonia or sweet flavor. The flavor of an Époisses that meets standard will taste honest and fruity, with balanced milk flavors, and will be redolent of the pastoral goodness in the terroir that produced it.
Your local fromager takes the product from the producer, and ages it according to his or her training for another 5 to 8 weeks. When is the best time for Époisses? After some time here, you’ll realize that your local fromager might only offer Époisses at certain times of the year. It is at its best in the fall and winter months, starting in November and into December, because that is the cheese that comes from rich early autumn pastures. Early summer Epoisses is also very flavorful and interesting, coming from the first outdoor grazing of the spring. This cheese is a must at our Thanksgiving table and is perfect for consumption, right now.
Labels: Fall 07