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 are 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 soft and spoony Époisses.
Pronouncing Beaufort is easy. Don’t think “beautiful” when looking at its beginning but instead pick up your “bow” and arrows (like Katniss uses) and rather than making it all the way through “fort” stop short just before the end. The result: “bow-for.” Nothing too tricky there.
Beaufort is a French Alpine cheese, which means it should be famous, but it’s often overshadowed by its better known cousins Gruyère and Comté. Alpine cheeses are renowned the world over and share similar characteristics: They are made in the mountains (clearly) and the wheels are enormous (often topping 100 pounds). Alpine cheeses are typically washed in brine but aged much longer than their softer counterparts (think four months as opposed to four weeks). Beaufort, though, deserves some special recognition. It is distinct from its cheese cousins in that it is highly distinguished but sadly ignored by a lot of American cheese lovers. Today, we’ll rectify that.
Not to anyone’s great surprise, it’s unclear exactly when the production of Beaufort began. The history of Beaufort-like cheeses stretches back thousands of years—Pliny the Younger (61–112 CE) is said to have reported on the existence of a kind of Beaufort to the court of Emperor Trajan (those Romans really dig their cheese). In more recent centuries, Beaufort cheese hails from the commune of Beaufort in the Haute-Savoie region of southeastern France. Since Beaufort cheese couldn’t technically exist until the commune had adopted the name, whichdates back to the 12th century but only became “Saint Maxime de Beaufort” in the 13th, we’ll mark the 1200s as the launch of the earliest official Beaufort.
According to Julie Harbutt, author of The World Cheese Book, production could have started in earnest in the 14th and 15th centuries. “The local church and landowners of the Savoie-Beaufortian region in the French Alps instigated a widespread program to remove much of the woodlands to create mountain pastures,” she explains. “These pastures—as colorful and spectacular as a Monet painting—are unploughed and unfenced and contain… thousands of different species of wild herbs, meadow flowers, and grasses,” making for some great cow fodder, better cow’s milk, and some damn fine cheese.
But what does this mean for our timeline? I suggest a choose-your-own-origin approach to this one. Pick Rome and Pliny the Younger, the 13th century and the name change, or the 14th and 15th centuries and the woodland removal. All options are legit.
Speaking of options, there are actually three types of Beaufort: Beaufort, Beaufort d’Ete (Summer Beaufort), and Beaufort d’Alpage (Alpine Beaufort).
Beaufort d’Alpage is typically regarded as the highest quality and the one you should go out of your way to try. Beaufort gained AOC status in 1968, so you can bet that there are regulations galore on the exact production methods this cheese must follow. First, all cheeses must be made up in the Alps—typically produced at little farms called chalets. The cow’s milk must be 80 percent Tarantaise (an ancient mountain breed), with the rest a variable mixture of Tarantaise and Abondance. In addition to breed specifications, Beaufort d’Alpage must be sourced from a single herd of cows. This can be a tall order, as it takes 45 cows and 130 gallons of milk to make one wheel of Beaufort! Other regulations dictate that the cheese must be made from unpasteurized milk and that the cows have to graze in mountain pastures at an altitude of at least 1,500 meters, or 4,921 feet.
The cows’ diet transfers to the taste of the cheese, which has notes of herbs and grasses from the pastures. Because each batch of Beaufort is made from one herd of cows, the taste of the cheese can even change subtly depending on which herd’s cheese you’re tasting. The strongest flavors in Beaufort are meaty, caramel, and buttery thanks to the whole milk used in production.
Production is exacting. The milk is heated and the resulting curd is cut into small pieces before being reheated, a process that expels whey but retains some moisture. The curds are scooped out of the vat with a cloth and then placed in beechwood hoops. These hoops act as a sort of girdle on the wheel of cheese, so that when it is pressed under up to a ton of pressure, its sides are concave. One origin story tells of farmers who needed to lash their wheels of cheese tightly to their donkeys to transport it down the mountain, and the concave edge from the hoops perfectly held the rope in place.
Wheels are also turned, salted, and washed with a mixture known as “morge.” This morge concoction is a mixture of brine, old cheese scrapings, and whey. There’s no way to pinpoint an exact bacteria that affects the cheese more than another because morge contains at least 480 species. Whoa.
Beaufort is firm, thanks to the ridiculous amount of pressure exerted on it during production, in addition to being rich and creamy. Like other Alpine cheeses, it also melts excellently and is easy to make into a fondue or feature in a grilled cheese sandwich. Or you can just cut it up and pair it with a nice drink! Those herb and flower notes make it best to pair with fruitier wines.
No kings to report that love Beaufort this week, but I’m going to add Trajan to the list for expanding the Roman Empire and discovering new cheeses along the way. Don’t worry, though! Our friend Brillat-Savarin is back this week: Although he deemed Époisses the king of cheeses, he also thought that Beaufort deserved the title “king of Gruyères.” That alone has got to make it worth a taste.
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)