Le Vacherin Mont d'Or Est Arrivee!

In Switzerland cheeses, like fruits and vegetables, have their seasons, and the season has arrived for Vacherin Mont D’Or, a traditional winter specialty of the Vaud region.

Tucked neatly into their round pine boxes, a characteristic ripple across the top of their golden-yellow crusts, Vacherin Mont D’Or cheeses can now be found in almost every shop and supermarket in this area.

Vacherin Mont D'Or is a mild but tasty cheese with a creamy, sometimes almost runny consistency. With its slightly balsamic flavor, it embodies the aura of the pine forests of the Jura mountains where it is made.

To learn more about this Vaud tradition, I went to visit “the cradle of Vacherin Mont D’Or,” the tiny village of Charbonnieres in valley of Joux. Inquiries in several lateries led me to the small shop run by the Rochat brothers. Jean-Michel and Remy Rochat are the men everyone in the Lac de Joux region insists you must get to know if you want to know about Le Vacherin. Although it was Sunday, I was fortunate to find Remy at work. During the Vacherin season, which lasts from mid-October until March, the Rochat shop is open every day from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. While catering to an almost constant stream of faithful customers, Remy told me about the history and production of the cheese.

The vacherin season lasts from mid-October until March.

Vacherin Mont d’Or is thought to have originated in the Mont d’Or region of France at the beginning of the 19th Century. When milk production declined at the end of the summer season, farmers in the French alps made smaller cheeses. They called these small cow’s milk cheeses vacherins to match the name given to small goat cheeses: chevrotins. Swiss records indicate that by 1832 Vacherin was also being produced in the Joux Valley.

The production of the cheese is divided into two phases. The first takes place at the laterie, where the milk is curdled (cailler). “With Vacherin it is the temperature makes the difference,” Remy told me. The milk is not heated to as high a temperature as for Gruyere. Once curdled, it is placed in approximately 1 ½ foot long cylinders which are perforated with holes. The petit lait (whey) is allowed to run off. When the cheese is solid, the vacherins are carefully cut into rounds.

Each vacherin is bound with a thin strip of red pine known as a sangle. The sanglage of the cheese contributes a fine taste of tanin to the finished product. The practice has even given rise to a unique vocation: that of the sangleur who, working in the forests of the Jura, lifts the special strips from felled pines.

In the final phase of production, the Vacherins are moved from the Laterie to the cave of an affineur, like the one managed by Remy's brother Jean-Michel, where they will be refined for a minimum of three weeks before they are ready to eat. Laid out on wooden planks, the cheeses must be turned each day and their surfaces brushed with salt water. Once a month has passed, the affineur cuts-off the overlapping portion of the sangle, where the ends of the wood meet, and makes a small incision backwards into the cheese. This enables the cheese to be pressed neatly into its wooden box and creates an aesthetically pleasing ripple across its golden crust.

"When buying Vacherin, you should look for La Belle Croute (the beautiful crust)," Remy says. The surface of the cheese should be yellow and supple.

"When buying Vacherin, you should look for La Belle Croute (the beautiful crust)."


How to Serve Vacherin Mont D'Or

Vacherin Mont D’Or must be kept in a cool place (5-8 degrees centigrade) and should be eaten within a few days of purchase. Like a good wine, it should be allowed to chambrer, or come to room temperature several hours before being eaten.

Cut into triangles, the cheese can be served as desert, or as a main course. The crust is not eaten. In the Lac de Joux area Vacherin is often served with small boiled potatoes, known as berbots in the local argot. At the table of cheese-maker Remy Rochat, table, it is frequently paired with roesti and green salad, and sometimes even with Tuna fish, a combination Remy claimed was delicious but a bit hard on the stomach!

Vacherin Mont D’Or can also be eaten hot, like fondue. A recipe I picked up in Coop a few years ago calls for removing the Vacherin from its wooden box and sangle, and placing it in a small casserole around the same size as the cheese. Hollow out a small cylinder in the middle of the cheese around the thickness of your thumb and fill it with a local Swiss white wine. Then place the casserole in the oven for around 20 minutes at 200 C. Together with crusty bread and a green salad this is a perfect meal for apres-ski.

Jean-Michel Rochat Charbonnières is just past Le Pont on the French side of the Lac de Joux.

The Rochat Affineur Shop also has an excellent selection of wines, and sells another Charbonnières specialty, Les Charbonnières escargots.
Open every day during Vacherin season from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
021.841.1014 Vacherin Mont D'Or is also available in most local supermarkets and cheese stores.