Distant Cheeses, Local Farmers: French Alpine Cheeses and Robinson Farm
In this blog series our intrepid intern Molly will find and interview American cheesemakers attempting to re-create traditional European cheeses. Learn about the difficulties as well as the benefits of this type of cheese making, as well as how terroir and the idea of a cheese tied to a location so distant changes when that cheese is made in a new location. Also, each week you’ll have a chance to win an issue of culture: the word on cheese. The winner of last week's prize was Michele!
Nestled in the rolling hills of Central Massachusetts, there's a farm with a giant red barn in picture-perfect New England style. Like many of the big red barns we see around here, it's housed cows for hundreds of years, and it stands as a symbol of the deep local history of dairy farming. But a look around inside, and there are some surprises--including an aging cave filled to the brim with French Alpine-style cheeses. Welcome to Robinson Farm, an organic, grass-fed dairy farm, where the best of local and European dairying traditions are combined into a truly successful--and delicious--operation.
Let's begin by learning a bit about Alpine cheeses. These cheeses have deep local roots in Europe, where they've been shaped by the mountains. They share the influence of transhumance, the practice of moving animals to high altitudes during the summer and lower in valleys during the winter—a routine that has allowed mountain communities to adapt to the harsh change of seasons while taking advantage of the lush, high-altitude grasslands that the Alps are famous for.
Since the 4th century BCE, the transhumant lifestyle has more or less gone as follows: families keep a small herd of cows during the winter seasons, during which they feed on hay crops that have been saved from the summer. During the summer, the cows are moved up to high grasslands, where they graze together under the care of a few workers hired by the community to herd, milk, and often make cheese.
The pooling of herds during the summer and the resulting large, centralized supply of milk—plus the need to store cheese in big quantities through the winter months—has led to the characteristic large wheel-shaped rounds. Cheese in a large wheel has a higher surface area-to-volume ratio, meaning more water can evaporate, leading to a more durable food with a longer shelf life. Practicing transhumance also means that during summer the cows are eating fresh grass, herbs and wildflowers, as opposed to winter fodder.
In the Alps, where giant mountains have isolated villages and regions from one another, where microclimates vary greatly from valley to valley and south-facing side to north-facing side, it's no surprise that local cheeses are considered absolutely unique. Since you can actually taste the local flora when eating a local cheese, it's hard to argue. As a result, many Alpine cheeses have gained legal protection; it's a way for those who still practice transhumance and let cows graze freely to distinguish themselves from industrial cheesemakers who don't, and a way for the particularities of cheese within a region to be defined.
Abondance is one example of a protected Alpine cheese. Originally from the town of Abondance in Haute-Savoie, the cheese is made with mostly Abondance-breed cows that have been bred for over 15 centuries to adapt to the local mountain environment. There are two protected designations (in France and in the E.U.) for this cheese: Abondance and Abondance de Savoie. Both protections guarantee the animal husbandry (breed of cow), the feed that the cows can consume, and the cheesemaking process using raw milk and traditional equipment (such as a hand-slicer to cut curds, a mould with concave sides, spruce planks on which to age the wheels, and a cauldron made of copper—a local material).
Abondance Valley, Abondance Cheese. Photo credit: Frédérique Voisin-Demery
Another example of an Alpine cheese is Comté, also a raw-milk Alpine cheese. This one, originally from the Franche-Comté region of eastern France, is usually aged from 12 to 18 months, and comes in huge wheels of 50 kg (110 lbs). It was one of the first cheeses to gain AOC protection in 1958, and it now has the highest production of all French AOC cheeses. Like with Abondance, laws stipulate that the milk must come from the local breed of cattle. It's worth noting, too, that each cow is required to have a hectare of grazing land, and fresh, natural feed that hasn't been given any commercial fertilizer. Milk is also required to be fresh from the cows, and the cheese is traditionally only made during summer months.
Comté Alpine Terroir, Comté Cheese. Photo credit: cristophe delaere
Because these two cheeses are so deeply intertwined with their local culture and Alpine environment, I can only imagine the challenge presented in trying to make them in the lower-altitudes of the rolling hills of Central Massachusetts. But Robinson Farm is smack in the middle of adapting both Abondance and Comté recipes to this local terroir.
Driving up to Robinson Farm in Hardwick is perhaps a little different than driving up to a French Alp, but the scene is no less bucolic. The big red barn is nestled amongst rolling Central Massachusetts hills and farmlands that have been supporting cattle for centuries. In fact, the dairy farm has been in Raymond Robinson's family for four generations, and while his descendants often made cheese for for their own families' consumption, Ray and his wife Pamela are the first to build a retail cheesemaking operation. Like many of their peers, they were drawn to cheesemaking later in life as a way to scale up the value of their milk and create a unique product that they could sell directly to consumers.
Photo credit: Molly McDonough
When I visited Robinson farm last week, I was struck by Pam and Raymond's energy and knack for innovation. While many other small farms have gone under, they've instead adapted by increasing the quality of their product. First, they decreased their herd size to enable all their animals to graze freely, and shifted from a conventional to an organic dairy. Then, to make something truly unique and special from their organic milk, they embarked on a several-year-long foray into cheesemaking. They earned certificates at the Vermont Institute of Artisan Cheesemaking, and slowly progressed from experimenting in their kitchen and laundry room to remodeling their barn into a full-scale cheesemaking and aging operation. They regaled me with tales of finding an old cheesemaking vat in the back of a field and adapting an old cider press to press their early cheese wheels. I'm always impressed with these kinds of innovative stories from cheesemakers who have started from scratch—especially when I can walk through their facility now and try their cheese, seeing (and tasting) how far they've come.
When Pam and Raymond began thinking of ideas for their business, they wanted a way to set themselves apart. They knew they'd want to make aged cheeses, in order to take advantage of their raw milk (by law, raw milk cheeses must age at least 60 days). As for the type of cheese, "we purposely did not want to make a cheddar," says Pam, "we didn't feel like we could compete with a cheddar—there's too many cheddars." Pursuing a more niche speciality, they decided to take advantage of their name, Robinson, to make a Swiss cheese, calling it "Robinson Family Swiss." And their foray into European-style cheeses had officially begun.
They now make six different cheeses, including several inspired by cheeses of the French Alps. Their version of Abondance, called 'A Barndance', is another brilliant play-on-words. "I don't think we're allowed to call it Abondance," says Pam, referring to the legal restrictions governing the traditional French cheese, "but I'm not sure we'd even want to. I like A Barndance." And as it turns out, so do some of the most respected cheese judges in the country; A Barndance was a 2012 American Cheese Society Winner. Another winner, their Prescott cheese, is modeled after a French Comté. It won a gold medal at the New England Regional Cheese Competition in 2012.
Both cheeses are made in big rounds and aged 8-12 months on wooden planks, like their European counterparts. But when starting out, Raymond says, it was difficult to find the right equipment, things like big molds for making big Alpine-style wheels; those he had to order specially from the Netherlands, by way of Canada. Indeed, his bulging rounds of A Barndance lack the concave sides characteristic of a traditional French Abondance. He's not sure why there aren't more equipment dealers around here selling non-industrial farmstead cheesemaking equipment from other parts of Europe, like France, but he's made it work.
Indeed, the shape of the Robinsons' molds seems far less important than the content of their milk and cheese. It's here, in the small scale of their operation, in the philosophy governing their seasonal rhythms, that old-world traditions come into play. "Our immersion into the cheese world has given us a great respect for the older European cheesemaking traditions," says Pam. "We try to incorporate them as a fundamental base of our cheesemaking philosophy, along with the seasonal rhythms of the grass & cows on the farm." Indeed, the Robinsons seem to have successfully borrowed from the best of European traditions: that of a farm where cows graze freely on natural grass, and farmstead cheese is made from fresh, raw milk, rendering a product that is reflective of its place. At the same time, they've shown the ability to successfully innovate when starting from scratch in a different environment- a quality that's more particular to American cheesemaking.
According to Pam, "these cheeses don't taste the same as a traditional Comté, or a traditional Abondance…there's variations in the notes and flavors of cheese based on the terroir of the land where it's made- that's the wonderful nature of farmstead cheese." She and Ray never expected that their cheeses would be just like the Alpine ones—and after adapting their original recipes to the particularities of their own farm they've certainly come into their own. Take it from me: they're delicious.
While the Robinsons don't have an Alp to bring their cows to in the summer, they do have their rolling, grassy hills, and seasonal changes come into play here as well. Learning to adjust recipes with the change of the seasons, the evolving genetics of their mixed herd, and the new ideas they hope to explore, Raymond and Pam continue along on their cheesemaking journey. It's bringing them a heightened awareness of the Central Massachusetts terroir. Okay, "Central Massachusetts Terroir" is not a term I've used many times, but with such delicious local cheeses coming from these rolling hills and making their way into markets and restaurants throughout the region, we might start hearing it more often.
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