This tall cylindrical beauty hails from the Aubrac plateau of south-central France, a high-elevation grazing area blooming with rough pasture that's never cut. There, amidst the volcanic landscape of the Auvergne, Laguiole and Salers breed cows graze outside during hot, stormy summers before descending back to home farms during cold, snowy winters, as they have for millennia.
Locals say that Cantal cheese is equally ancient, with references to the style dating back thousands of years. In 1980 that long history was acknowledged as hundreds of the cheese's producers banded together to protect its name and traditional recipe with a Protected Designation of Origin. Today "Fermier" versions of Cantal are still made on small farms and at high altitudes during summer months, while village diaries and commercial plants also produce wheels year round.
For traditional production of Cantal, rennet is added and to the milk, and it's heated to 90ºF with coagulation taking place approximately one hour later. The curd is then cut and the whey removed before being wrapped in a cloth (it is still a large slab at this point, known as a tome) and pressed multiple times to expel more whey. After pressing, the tome is allowed to rest for eight hours at between 54-59ºF before being passed through a curd mill that breaks the curd into small pieces. Salt is added and mixed in and then it is left overnight before being transferred into cloth-lined molds for pressing.
After unmolding, cheeses are moved to aging caves and matured for a minimum of 30 days, but more usually between two and six months, at a temperature of 50ºF and humidity of 90 percent. Finished cheeses have an aluminum plaque applied to the rind that denotes the department (regional) and laiterie (creamery) numbers, the day of its production, and a code that denotes the size of the wheel: CA for the 35-40kg cheese, CP for the 20-22 kg Petit Cantal and CT for the 8-10 kg Cantalet. Cantal is sold at three ages: young (up to 3 months), regular (3-6 months), and aged (over 6 months).
The texture of Cantal is semi-firm, moist and slightly crumbly with a natural rind mottled with brown, grey and rust colored molds. In terms of flavor, Cantal is not particularly pronounced or assertive, but it develops wonderfully complex and blended subtle notes of butter and milk, citrus, caramel and nuts with a very long and pleasant finish.
Good red wine pairings include beaujolais cru and cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir or merlot from California. For whites, try a white Bordeaux, although Cantal works with a wide range of white table wines.