Intern Gabrielle Roman looks into what makes French cheeses tick for her blog series, Bon Fromage. Meant to answer any questions you might have but were afraid to ask about cheese made from the country famous for fromage, each post will focus on a specific cheese and take a deep dive into its history and production. Take the plunge and demystify the world of French cheese. If you missed it, check out last week’s post on the oft overlooked Beaufort.
Exciting news this week! We have our first cheese of Bon Fromage that is not directly named after the town or region where it was first produced. It’s only half-named after a place. When I first started writing about and researching cheese, I thought that the names of cheese would stem from all sorts of wacky histories. But the more I read, the more I’m discovering that places are the main influence for naming a cheese. So, I was thrilled to discover that Chevrotin does not derive from a place, but from the French word for goat: chèvre. But this isn’t your typical, everyday fresh goat cheese. Chevrotin is odd. It’s one of the only washed-rind goat cheeses out there, and its closest cousin is a cow’s milk cheese.
Goat cheese is a popular venture in France, and much of it is made in the Loire Valley, which is where you find Valençay and Le Chevrot. In contrast, Chevrotin is made in the Haute-Savoie region of France (just like Beaufort!) in pre-Alpine ranges like the Aravis and Bauges. This means the cheese is made at a higher altitude and the goats are fed a different diet.
So how did this goaty anomaly come to be? Chevrotin can trace its origins back to Reblochon, a cow’s milk cheese from the Aravis valley. In another exciting twist, Reblochon is also a name that has nothing to do with location! Reblochon comes from the French word reblocher, which means (more or less) “to pinch a cow’s udder again.” The practice comes from a taxpaying system in the 14th century, where farmers had to pay a fee based on how much milk their herds produced. By “pinching” the udder—essentially not fully milking the cow—farmers could pretend they were producing less milk to pay lower taxes. Then, they would go back and milk the cows again.
Chevrotin did not officially appear until the 17th century, but its production processes have its foundation in Reblochon. Because these cows and goats lived in harmony on for centuries, the precise origins of Chevrotin are blurry but point to French cheesemakers taking full advantage of their mountainsides: While cows graze just fine in the broader mountain pastures, they can be too large and unwieldy to graze the tallest peaks. Goats, in contrast, are perfectly built to handle the steep gradients and limited vegetation of higher altitudes.
Chevrotin received AOC status in 2002. It has the second smallest amount of production of all AOC cheeses, making about 70 tons a year. In contrast, consider Roquefort, which produced more than 19,000 tons in 2008. There are several reasons why Chevrotin is produced on such a small scale. The first is the area where the cheese is made, which is fairly narrow. There are only 22 producers who make official Chevrotin in France. Still, compared to the seven producers of Roquefort, that’s not a lot of output. The main point to consider is that Chevrotin is a hand-made, artisanal cheese. To meet regulations, it must be a farmstead cheese: all of the milk has to be produced by the cheesemaker and come from a single herd that is at least 80 percent Alpine goats. The official site of the cheese (link in French) emphasizes the handmade requirement, stating firmly there is no room for automation of the process.
Regulations demand that the cheese must be made from raw, unpasteurized goat’s milk that is aged for a minimum of three weeks before it is sold. This also means, like several other cheeses in this series, Chevrotin is not available in the US as it does not meet the minimum 60-day aging requirement. The cheese is pressed in the mold to get out extra moisture, given a brine bath, and regularly washed. One oddball part of the regulations process dictates that Chevrotin must age on and be packaged with spruce boards. The boards allow the cheeses to drain during the aging process and somehow help regulate humidity in the packaging. I don’t know how the boards help Chevrotin maintain the right humidity in their packaging, but I’m not about to question the wisdom of hundreds of years of production. Regardless—when you buy it, Chevrotin should come on a board.
Chevrotin is seriously tiny. Each individual cheese is the shape of a flat cylinder which must have a diameter of between 3 and 4.5 cm, or between about 1.2 and 1.7 inches, and weigh 8–12 ounces. This translates to a little more than half a pound. The size is particularly shocking when compared to wheels of Beaufort last week that weighed in at 90 pounds or more. To give you a good visual comparison of the size, imagine a Chipotle burrito. If a burrito weighs in at about 1.5 pounds, then it takes about three cylinders of Chevrotin to match your burrito. In cheese math that’s: 3 Chevrotin = 1 burrito.
The tiny size also helps explain why the production numbers are so small. When each cylinder produced is less than a pound, 70 tons of Chevrotin is roughly equal to 20,000 individual cylinders. That’s not too bad, when you think about it.
Thanks to repeated washings, the rind is a yellow-orange color and is covered in white mold. The texture of the paste is creamy and smooth, melting in the mouth. Chevrotin smells like goats and flowers. This flower smell might have some sourness to it affected by the wild herbs the goats eat in the mountains. The taste is almost sweet and somewhat goaty and nutty. The best time to eat Chevrotin is between May and October. The cheese is usually not produced during the winter when the goats are fed on a diet of largely hay, which removes the subtlety of the cheese that makes Chevrotin what it is.
No kings again this week. We’re on a bit of a lesser-known kick. I actually think that in honor of the origins of Chevrotin, which stem back to farmers and Reblochon attempting to stick it to the man, I’m going to give it anti-king points on the culture king count. Then, we’ll have to decide whether the cheese with the most anti-king points beats out the cheese with the most king points. Perhaps a cheese with negative points best embraces liberté. Be prepared for the rules to change.
culture king count:
First place: Charlemagne with 5 points (as overseer of all things goat and essentially creating France)
Second place: Napoleon Bonaparte with 3 points (Valençay, Époisses, and some serious swagger)
Third place: Charles VI with 2 points (Roquefort and Maroilles)
(Tied for) Fourth: Trajan (Beaufort), Philip II, Louis IX, Francis I with 1 point (Maroilles)
Fifth (or is it First?): Reblochon farmers with -2 points (for sticking it to the man)