Seeking the best cheese in France, ends up in the French Alps, where welcoming farmers, homemade hooch, and memorable meals await.
My friend Andy guns the car skyward toward the sound of cowbells. We don’t need the blank screen of the GPS to confirm that we are floating through unmapped space in the bright, milky light of early morning. Somewhere below lie the carved wooden houses of the Alpine village of Manigod; stretching out around us in all directions, the crystalline peaks and deep glacier beds and shaggy, flower-filled high pastures of the Haute-Savoie.
Like many a spiritual traveler before us, we have covered great distances and ascended perilous peaks to seek wisdom from a guru on a mountaintop. In our case, we’ve come to ask about cheese.
Specifically, we are here to learn the secrets of Reblochon, that pliable, bulgy disk of buttery pleasantness encased within an orange-tinted, velvety pelt. I’d recruited Andy for this mission because he is a tirelessly upbeat traveling companion, because he enjoys his cheese as much as anyone I know, and, crucially, because of his proven willingness to gain 10 pounds in a week in the name of research.
An eating trip through Savoie is not recommended for sufferers of vertigo, the mountain-switchback-averse, the half-timbered-chalet-phobic, the lactose-intolerant, or the weak of heart. (Looking back, it was probably a bad omen that the password we were issued for the Wi-Fi at our hotel was “Mayonnaise.”)
Reblochon we chose because it is a noble cheese, slightly nutty (as nobles tend to be) and very much at home on the kind of well-appointed cheese plate that arrives on a silver Christofle rolling cart, presented alongside funky rounds of Époisses and stately blue towers of Stilton and all the other celebrated, boldfaced names of the cheese world. And it is produced, according to ancient and unchanging principles, solely upon these neighboring peaks and valleys as it has been since the 13th century. It is justly famous, its celebrity protected by the French government with AOC status to deter identity theft and defeat second-class impostors. Yet it is a cheese equally at ease delicately portioned by a white-gloved waiter or cut into thick wedges with a folding knife at a picnic table on the breezy side of a mountain by the fat-fingered farmer who produced it.
As good as a well-curated cheese course can be, it’s much better to leave the sterile confines of the fancy restaurant and to trace the stuff back to its source on the mountaintops of Savoie, at the eastern reaches of the French Alps. Because here’s the thing about cheese: it’s never just about the cheese. In some contexts, it’s a byword for indulgence, decadence, excess. Want to make something a little naughty? Melt some cheese on it! In the mannered theater of haute cuisine, the arrival of the cheese course signals a civilized plateau between savory and sweet. The more obscure and expensively curated the bounties of the cheese cart, the more we’re flattered and impressed by our own good taste.
The real allure of this pilgrimage isn’t necessarily that the cheese tastes better at its origin (though it always does). And it’s not just the chance to taste farmstead cheeses that are nearly impossible to find outside the immediate region: a young, tart Reblochon sold around here as Tomme Blanche; Persillé de Tignes, which dates to the eighth century and is said to have been the favorite cheese of Charlemagne, King of the Franks.
The point of driving all the way up here to these high pastures is, in part, the pleasure of the drive itself, the journey to that particular intersection of agriculture and culture that is cheese. The history of Reblochon is the story of the ingenuity and survival of a sturdy breed of mountain folk. In the 13th century, cattle-dependent Savoyards were taxed based on the amount of milk they extracted from their herds. They developed a system of cheating the tax man by under-milking and then, when the coast was clear, secretly milking the cows a second time. This illicit second milking yielded a creamier product that they turned into a cheese, the name of which is derived from, depending on the version of the story you want to believe, either the local patois for stealing or re-milking.
The best Reblochons come from small family-run operations like the one owned by Jean-Pierre Veyrat, whose kin have been making Reblochon fermier (small-production, farmer-made) and sturdy Tommes de Savoie and rustic goat-milk Persillé de Manigod on these slopes above Manigod for as long as anyone can remember.
“We’ve always been here,” Veyrat says, surveying his vertical, manure-filled domain. The cables of a ski lift cross the property. He wears white rubber boots, blue shorts, and an electric-orange T-shirt that bulges at his midsection like a particularly overripe Reblochon. In a silent film you could instantly pick him out as a Frenchman: ruddy, stout, with a mouse-gray mustache that sits atop a wry wrinkle of a smile and a pair of highly animated mustache-like eyebrows to match. He looks, in other words, precisely how you would want your cheese maker/guru at the top of the Alps to look.
“Did you know that our cows eat four hundred and fifty different types of flowers here on the alpage?” Veyrat asks. We did not. He goes on to name most of them, I think. (Céline, our patient interpreter, is not that patient).
For centuries, independent, family-owned producers like the Veyrats have fed their herds in the summer months on mountain meadows like this one and then, when snow threatens, descended with them down to the valleys below. It’s easy to imagine a benevolent God putting the final touches on the design of this part of world. To the standard template of the Alps—fields of green thick with wildflowers; white-dusted ridges sparkling in the distance; air as clean and cold as a drink from a mountain stream—He’d add only one note: more cowbell!
The sound track of the Savoie is the steady, mesmerizing ringing of the old clanky clarines, the traditional bells around the necks of every Abondance and Tarine breed in the field. “Cows without bells here,” Veyrat declares, “would be like a meal without wine.”
If Veyrat were going to hire me as an apprentice Reblochon producer, what preparation would I need?
“First you need good milk and you need boots!” the wise man decrees, unimpressed with my city shoes. “And you need to own a watch and be always on time! After that, tout est la technique….”
Whenever you travel to view the source of something you love—when you climb the mountain looking for enlightenment—there’s bound to be the recognition that you’re not really going to get the whole picture by just poking your head around to see how the proverbial sausage is made. This is the moment when your host’s mind wanders to one of the hundred little details that contribute to crafting the thing in question, specifics he’d have trouble picking out and explaining because he’s known them his whole life. This is the moment when it’s best to sit down and eat.
“Would you like to try some cheese?” Veyrat asks hopefully, when he’s run out of things to show us.
We are joined at the outdoor table by his wife, Françoise, a couple of jovial Belgian cheesemongers on a buying holiday, a curious orange tabby cat, and one of the family’s two border collies taking a break from chasing cows. Four or five rounds of cheeses are cut into quarters and distributed around the table. A half-pound brick of the farm’s own butter is presented and we spread some of it on bread and eat the rest hand-to-mouth as though it were a particularly creamy cheese. What had started as a semi-fruitful lesson in the mechanics of dairy production was becoming a raucous marathon of cheese consumption and mutually mangled small talk. I don’t remember what the magic word is, but someone hits upon the idea of asking Veyrat if he happens to, just maybe, keep some little stash of homemade digestif for his family’s private use. “Of course!” he bellows, as though he’s been accused of not being a robust enough man of the land to be sitting on a sizable cellar of mountain moonshine. Rising to meet the challenge, he and his white boots disappear into the cottage for a moment, quickly returning with a half-dozen liters of hundred-proof home brew in recycled lemonade bottles. There is one flavored with prune, another of génépi (a little yellow-flowered mountain herb that only grows at high altitude), and a piney green tonic that looks like it contains a whole preserved baby Christmas tree. Veyrat feeds us spoonfuls of his wife’s homemade raspberry confiture doused liberally with the spirits. It is nearly, but not quite, 9 a.m.
The cheese on the table is gone now, nothing left but the nibbled rinds of the Tommes. We are in the process of depleting another bottle from the family’s stash (this one flavored with pommes, like a weaponized grade of Calvados, or medicinal Rubbing Calvados) when we hear the weak beep-beep of a car horn through the steady cacophony of clanging cowbells. A small, cherry-red Fiat Panda comes bumping up the rockfall that passes for a road. Veyrat waves happily and announces the arrival of “Le Taureau à Pneu!” The Bull on Wheels, the Veyrats explain, is the warm nickname of their friend behind the wheel: monsieur l’inséminateur.
A convivial man in an olive-green jumpsuit with a windblown mess of white hair, the Bull on Wheels pops open his hatchback to reveal the nitrogen-cooled tanks containing his special delivery. Pulling on a single, elegantly long latex glove, the kind Audrey Hepburn might wear to perform surgery, he announces he is ready for business and invites the whole merry breakfast gang to tag along. For reasons unclear to any of us, we follow him into the barn and, still holding our glasses of apple hooch, watch this routine but sobering and oddly solemn event. We’d come to see how this aerial patch of land was farmed and the culture of a great cheese preserved, and this is it. The Bull returns to his wheels, and the cow, looking a bit alarmed but without so much as a glance back, returns to her spot on the grazing slopes. It was time for the crew to be heading down the mountain. I’m pretty sure none of us will ever look at a creamy round of Reblochon quite the same way again.
The cheeses of Savoie are born in the bracing troposphere of Alpine pastures but they mature in the damp, dark cellars of the towns below. Annecy is the capital of the Haute-Savoie. It’s a lovely, affluent resort town, a 45-minute drive south of Geneva on the northwestern shore of the placid and astonishingly blue Lake Annecy. I don’t mean astonishingly as a synonym for “really quite blue.” I mean you take one look at the deep, radiant aquamarine of the water, and the gently rising slopes of the mountains on the other side of the lake that seem to have taken on a reflective blueness all their own, and the spotless azure sky, and the whole world seems to be seen through a kind of blue filter and you are, honestly, astonished.
Annecy is also home to the area’s finest affineurs, the masters also of the cheese cave. More than a cheesemonger, the affineur operates a kind of underground finishing school for Reblochons fermiers and chalky, speckled-skinned Tommes and wide yellow wheels of Beaufort, aging each according to its needs and particular character until it reaches the precise moment of market readiness. The farmer-producer is red-cheeked, rough-skinned; a hearty conjurer of the natural affinity between Savoie cow and flowery grass. The affineur is suave, worldly; part cheese-whisperer, part technician and salesman. Jacques Dubouloz’s family has been in the business since 1950. He’s a lean, athletic 58 though he looks like he’s 28. “Merci, it’s the cheese,” he says when asked his secret. And so to the fondue fountain of youth we go.
After an exhaustive tasting session at his shop on the outskirts of Annecy, we drive to town with Dubouloz for a lunch of morel fondue and farçon, an ancient and endangered Savoyard peasant-fortifying thing made of grated potatoes, prunes, smoked lard, ham, and walnuts that is something like a cross between fruitcake and meat loaf. Dubouloz gives us a tour of his cheese caves, which are located, like a spy’s lair, below an unassuming shed in the back of his parents’ house. The cool air tickles the nose, the whole atmosphere of these subterranean chambers charged by the abundant complex, thriving molds. It smells wonderful.
Outside, his mother is drying homemade pâte de fruits made from wild myrtilles in the afternoon sun. Dubouloz’s father wakes from a nap and asks if, just maybe, we’d like to try some of the digestifs he’s concocted. And so our afternoon with Dubouloz concludes as our morning with Veyrat had, with a long and spirited tasting session of various homemade elixirs. One particularly pungent example incorporated precisely 40 stems of a mountain herb that only grows at such heights, ladled out of a clay urn that, as Andy says, “looks as if it had been left behind by the Romans.”
Between meeting farmers on the alpage and their affineur brethren below, Andy and I settle into a daily habit of getting lost in one mountain village after the other and consuming as much cheese as we can and a bracing amount of hobbyist-produced alcohol. One thing we notice on our daily drives (after suitable sobering-up time) is a bumper sticker you don’t notice anywhere else, one that expresses the true religion of the area: in tartiflette we trust. The dish in question is an object of blunt caloric force, an infinitely rich assemblage of potato and thick batons of bacon bound by butter, sweet onions, and deep rivers of the thickest cream and buried under a half-inch of melted Reblochon. Trust is a poignantly apt term as it applies here, since anyone attempting to finish a tartiflette is trusting his constitution and good luck that he’ll survive. And you need to trust that the tartiflette maker takes time and care in its preparation and employs the vrai fermier Reblochon and not some cheaper substitute from a collective dairy, as so many of the tourist-tailored restaurants do.
One evening we drive south from Annecy, around the lake, and then up to a high peak called Col de la Forclaz near the tiny hamlet of Montmin. Out beyond the side of the road, hang gliders are circling the valley at eye level. From a terrace table at Chalet La Pricaz you can look down over nearly the entire length of Lake Annecy. We narrowly beat sunset and as we settle in to an aperitif and the requisite plate of local ham, the light goes all purply orange, the long lake making its S-curve below as far as we can see, the surrounding mountains looking velvety and lush. With darkness comes the cold, and we retreat inside to a room lit low and warm with pale wood furniture and red plaid fabric on the walls. The tartiflette fills a round, low, metal dish. Neither of us can really imagine eating such a thing at this point in the trip. A small accompanying salad is enclosed in a sealed jar—as if the greenery were a foreign element that needed to be quarantined. There is, too, for good measure, a little more of the local ham. Warily we cut in and begin to eat. Hot, Reblochony, soul-envelopingly rich but miraculously not leaden—this is, as near as I can imagine, the ideal tartiflette. It does not sink you like a rock, it soars like a hang glider. This is a tartiflette you can trust.
On our last afternoon, we make our way up to Ferme Auberge des Corbassières, a cheese maker and restaurant in a great old rustic wood hut built against a slopy green pasture. Outside, flowerpots hang from the eaves, a bright covering of pink, blue, and purple against the brown wood. A hand-carved sign reads alt 1500m. Picnic tables are set with the miniature ovens you use to make the house speciality, Reblochonnade, a kind of baconless, DIY, deconstructed tartiflette. You melt slices of Reblochon to the bubbling molten gooeyness of your liking and then pour the cheese over boiled potatoes. Something about the activity of melting it makes the cheese go down quickly, and soon they are bringing the second half of a disk of Reblochon and then that’s gone, too.
Once again, the GPS shows us floating in space and the little rental car bumps and scrapes over steep, rocky terrain. And once again, we sit in the bright sun, admiring the deep green of surrounding hills and ingesting more of the bounty of its beautiful dairy products than we have room for.
Then a familiar beep-beep, and the sight of a modded-out red Fiat Panda bouncing into view. The Bull on Wheels is making his rounds. He waves, and we wave back enthusiastically. We have a friend in the Savoie. We’ve become part of the local scene. We don’t even notice the cowbells anymore.