Friday, March 8, 2013

Our local Beaufort cheese wins a medal!

Beaufort cheese has won a silver medal at the Paris 'Concours Generale d'Agriculture' (a bit like the now defunct British Royal agricultural show) . Actually, the cheese won gold medals at the last two concours, but for obscure reasons gold wasn't awarded this year.

Beaufort: 400 ltrs of milk = 40kg cheese
Apart from being delicious to eat and having a wonderful smell, the success (and even the existence) of Beaufort is linked inextricably with the development of the skiing industry in Savoie, and in particular in our valley, the Haute Tarentaise.  It really is our 'local' cheese, as it's made here in Bourg St Maurice, and elsewhere in Savoie.

Cheese making in the Alps was born from the necessity to conserve the nutritional qualities of abundant summer milk in order to survive the long hungry month of winters. In the middle ages various monastic orders descended on Savoie with the aim of improving the lot of the starving peasants, and introduced major improvements in the management of cattle and the terrain on which they grazed. Thousands of acres of mountainside were cleared of  undergrowth and scrub to create large, communal pastures.

The system of 'alpage' began, where cattle were grazed progressively higher and higher up the mountains as the snow melted and the summer arrived. By October, and the end of the '100 days of alpage' the cows could be up at 2000 meters, before they were ceremoniously herded back to the valley villages on the festival of 'La Demontagne', all of which still goes on today.

Trifolium - vital to the cow's diet
The cattle's owners travelled with them, having constructed rustic 'chalets' at different altitudes in which they could live while guarding and milking the cows, and in which they made cheese from the wonderful fresh milk drawn from happy cows feeding on the 250 species of plants found in the alpine pastures. Centuries later it was these chalets (unused by their owners in the winter) that were rented by the English alpinists in the 1930s as bases for their early skiing exploits.

The name 'Beaufort' started to be used for the cheese, which is technically a kind of gruyere but without the holes, in the 19th century, as a great deal was produced on the massif de Beaufortain (the range of mountains which you look at across the valley from Les Arcs).  Production grew to over 10,000 tons a year, and in 1939 a co-operative was formed to store, distribute and market the cheese more widely. However, the ravages of the war, subsequent economic decline and mass exodus from the Alps to the cities led to a rapid decline in this kind of agriculture and by 1960 only 500 tons a year were being made.

After the war France needed electricity more than cheese, and the various huge hydro-electric projects across Savoie (I've written about the Tignes-Malgovert scheme in an earlier blog...) brought people and money back into the valley, at least for a decade or so, until these schemes were finished and the money and people departed. Many local communes, including Bourg St Maurice, looked to the burgeoning winter sports industry for salvation, encouraged by the governments heavily-funded Plan Neige of 1964. Once again, money and people with an appetite for local produce started to flow back in, and a group of farmers in the Tarentaise got together to form a new Beaufort co-operative. The cheese received its 'Appelation Controlée' status in 1964, and production and quality have increased ever since.

Daily turning and washing
Beaufort is quite complicated to make - it takes 400 litres of milk (only from Tarine or Abondance cows) to make a 40kg cheese. The milk is heated in large copper pans until it separates, then drained, cooled and pressed into circular beechwood moulds. During the maturing stage the cheese is turned daily and brushed with salt water to create its distinctive hard orange casing which keeps the flavour in as it develops for up to 12 months in the 'cave d'affinage'. Labour intensive, so it's one of France's most expensive cheeses, although the Savoie milk producers protest that they are among France's worst paid dairy farmers.
Tarine cow

The production cycle of Beaufort fits well with the 'seasonality' of the skiing industry: the cattle keep the pastures nice and short so that when they become pistes in the winter the early snow holds well (long grass crushed under the weight of snow can be a significant avalanche risk at low altitudes).

The summer grade of the cheese (Beaufort d'été), the best, is perfect for winter fondues, and the cattle over-wintering in the valley sheds and barns mostly feed their milk to their calves, reducing the manpower needed for milking, etc.and freeing up labour for winter resort-related employment. And of course, the massive influx of winter tourists provide a wealthy and willing market for Beaufort and other local cheeses.

Many people criticise the environmental impact of the winter sports industry, often with some justification. But  Savoie is not just a landscape, it's also a community with it's proud  traditions, expertise and customs that are worth keeping alive. There's no doubt that without the ski business Beaufort cheese, and many other good Savoyard things, would no longer exist. So make sure you eat some today, and tell your friends. It really is wonderful stuff!

You can visit the Bourg St Maurice dairy co-operative any Friday morning for a guided tour and see Beaufort being made. See for details.

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