In Love with Vacherin
Cheese lovers wooed by this winter-Time treat
For cheese lovers, romance is waiting in the case. A truly memorable wedge can be a tasty treat for two, more savory than sweet and so very sensuous. During the love-struck yet wintry month of February, an exceptional cheese — perfect for Valentine’s Day — is delivered to cheese shops around the world.
Enter Vacherin (vash-er-in). Originating in the Alpine regions of France and Switzerland, the cross-border phenomenon boasts two versions: Vacherin Mont d’Or is the pasteurized style from the Swiss side of the Jura Mountains; from France, Vacherin du Haut-Doubs is similar but made using raw milk.
The milk comes from the same herds that graze Alpine pastures in spring and summer, making milk for the aged Alpine cheeses like Gruyère and Comté. In the fall and winter, when cows descend from mountain pastures and are eating hay, milk is used to make these smaller format winter cheeses.
Soft and yielding under its pale, fuzzy rind, Vacherin’s most distinctive feature is the spruce encircling it like a belt, which flavors the cheese with a faint, woodsy essence. Inside the earthy package, the paste, when fully ripe, will be nearly molten, like fondue. Sound sensuous enough?
These cheeses are not timid wallflowers, but big, meaty and yeasty, smelling faintly — or not so faintly — of the farm. In fact, you may smell the funk of Vacherin even before finding it in the case.
Until about a decade ago, these cheeses were the sole domain of European artisans who carried on the traditions over the centuries. As tastes have matured on this side of the Atlantic, a few pioneering producers have created distinctly American versions.
The first to tackle the style was Wisconsin cheesemaker Andy Hatch of Uplands Cheese in Dodgeville. Famous for producing the Alpine-style Pleasant Ridge Reserve — perhaps the most decorated of all American cheeses — his Vacherin-style Rush Creek was introduced in 2010.
“Cheeses like Pleasant Ridge, Beaufort and Gruyère are made to allow the inherent flavor complexity of the grass-fed milk to come to its full expression,” Hatch explained.
“Most soft-ripened cheeses aren’t aged long enough to tap into the milk’s native complexity,” he continued. “Cheeses like Rush Creek or Vacherin Mont d’Or rely more on cheesemaking and ripening techniques, more assertive cultures and rind treatments. The milk is more a canvas onto which flavor can be created, instead of looking at the milk itself as the primary source of flavor.”
Rush Creek has grown in reputation and demand. When Hatch decided to take a hiatus from producing it in 2014, due to uncertainty in FDA regulatory changes for raw milk cheese, customers were devastated, as were other raw-milk cheesemakers.
“The hiatus was a preemptive caution in the face of uncertain regulatory standards,” Hatch said. “We have no problem meeting today’s standards, but had no confidence those standards would be the same in six weeks or six months.”
In 2015, the cheese returned to great fanfare, though its future is far from certain.
“Reception to the 2015 Rush Creek was fantastic and beyond anything I thought possible for an American cheese,” he said. “It has always had special meaning to people, I think because it’s a rare indulgence, like the pricey smoked salmon that you buy once a year for Christmas dinner.
“If we’re prevented from making Rush Creek someday, it’ll be a great loss for us but also for a lot of customers,” Hatch continued. “I’m not sure how to gauge the likelihood of that happening, but we felt compelled this past fall to enjoy at least one more season, for the celebration of the cheese itself and also to prove that these cheeses can be made safely.”
While the reverberations of the regulatory climate continue to rumble, cheesemakers and mongers are hopeful they will continue to offer these seasonal superstars for many years to come.
Debbie Harris, cheese buyer for Portland-based New Seasons, says their small allocation of Rush Creek Reserve was sold out “in about 2 seconds.” If you can get your hands on one of these cheeses, don’t wait. Blink and it will be gone.
While we hopefully await the 2016 release of Rush Creek, you can still sample other delicious Vacherin-style cheeses. Jasper Hill Creamery makes the outstanding Winnimere and Harbison, which are more readily available this year.