Produced in the Haute-Savoie region of France—an area highly regarded for superior pasture during the summer months—Beaufort is one of the most famous Alpine cheeses, a massive wheel that clocks in at an impressive 80 to 130 pounds.
References to its production date back over 2,000 years, to before the Roman occupation of France. Government legislation finally caught up in 1976 when Beaufort was granted AOC (name protected) status—now, it's protected with an EU-wide PDO. Three versions of Beaufort are produced: Beaufort, Beaufort d'Eté (summer Beaufort) and Beaufort d'Alpage, which is made in high-mountain huts during summer.
Milk for production comes from a multitude of small farms. The majority is sourced from Tarantaise cows, an ancient mountain breed, with the remainder coming from the Abondance breed. It takes the milk of approximately 45 cows and two milkings to make just one wheel.
To produce Beaufort, makers heat milk to between 89 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit before adding traditional animal rennet and letting it coagulate over 30 minutes. The curd is cut into wheat-size grains, which are slowly stirred for 10 to 15 minutes before being "scalded," reheated again to a temperature not exceeding 133 degrees Fahrenheit. (This process expels more whey from the curds but leaves enough moisture so that they don't dry out.) The curds are then scooped out of the vat using a large cloth, and placed in a beechwood hoop or mold. The hoops have a distinctly concave side that gives Beaufort its unusual shape.
Cheeses are pressed for 20 hours under enormous pressure—up to one ton—and turned several times during the first 24 hours. After unmolding, the wheels are transferrd to a cool "cave" and stored for another 24 hours before being submerged in brine for a day. Thereafter, cheeses are turned and hand-salted on one side every morning and rubbed every afternoon while being stored on spruce shelves.
This process continues for one to two months, and when the rind is deemed satisfactory, the routine changes to twice weekly turning, and an application of mixed salt and a substance called "morge." Morge is a mixture of brine, old cheese scrapings,and whey, and is known to contain at least 480 species of bacteria. This process develops the characteristic russet-colored rind of Beaufort.
Wheels of Beaufort are matured for at least six months. During this time, flavors of the cheese concentrate and develop, becoming extremely deep and complex - especially with cheeses made from summer milk.
The rind of Beaufort is a reddish-brown color and slightly sticky. Aromas are mildly pungent and pleasantly barnyardy. Flavors are savory, herbaceous, and fruity with notes of butter, grass, and salt underpinned by a granular sweetness.
Pair it with wine: think Champagne, riesling, gamay, or tannat.