IT takes a lot of detail to create a work of art. Artisanal cheese is no exception. The French have a self-proclaimed copyright on two of the world’s most fussy products—wine and cheese. The cheese revolution began in Europe, specifically France, around the 18th century.
The Encyclopedia of Diderot and d’Alembert notes: “Cheese Rocquefort is unquestionably the first cheese of Europe: that of Brie, one of Sassenage the Marolles, not inferior in any way to the best cheeses from foreign countries; the mountains of Lorraine, Franche-Comte and neighbouring regions, mimics that of Gruyere; Auvergne cheese is as good as the best cheese of Holland.”
Rigotte Condrieu, on the slopes of the Massif du Pilat, southwest of Lyon in the Rhône-Alpes, is considered one of the greatest cheeses in the world. In Pilat, since the 19th century, cheese is made by generations of villagers with a dedication that is almost druidic in ritual.
The raw milk for the soft goat cheese comes from 10,000 Alpine and Saanen goats that are bred only in the region. The lives of the animals are governed by strict discipline that would fit a Chinese commune: everything is predetermined, what goes into their feed, the feeding area, the space of their pens (1.5 sq m), their exercise space (3 sq m) and the maximum quantity of milk a farmer can collect each year—7,000 litres per hectare of forage area. The goats are allowed to graze outside only for three weeks a year—that too only off organically fertilised pastures. Farmers believe that the goat’s state of mind is important for the quality of the cheese—land is harvested in a manner that does not distress the animals. Filtration begins using the first two draughts from each collection. The milk is sometimes heated macroscopically at temperatures between 18°C and 25 °C to cleanse the milk of impurities. The raw milk is then matured for 24 hours. It is left to ripen for 10 days to get creamy curd. The curd is moulded and cast with infinite care, each portion scooped ladle by ladle to preserve its structure.
A day later, the 3 cm by 6 cm block of cheese, weighing about 30 gm is drained and taken from its mould. Once removed, each cake is salted once or twice on both sides.
These are then further dried at a temperature between 15°C and 20°C. For a further eight days, the cheese is left to cure and mature at first at 10°C and then 16°C at humidity levels above 80 per cent. Affinage—the aging of the cheese or the refining process—comes last. It takes another three weeks before the Rigotte Condrieu is ready to reach the connoisseur’s market. The cheese from Massif du Pilat is special because it is still crafted using a traditional process perfected centuries ago. It is forbidden for the cheese to be matured in modern temperature-controlled conditions. As with all classic French craft, centuries-old knowledge and traditions guide the precise timing, temperature and humidity levels of the production of each cake of Rigotte Condrieu.
On January 13 2009, Rigotte Condrieu became the 45th French cheese to be awarded the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) classification by the
Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité. The French can be whimsical—AOC is classification for French wines, but the first-ever AOC award was bestowed on a cheese. In 1925, the French parliament voted to confer AOC classification on Roquefort. French cheese historically has been favoured by kings and nobles: the emperor Charlemagne loved his Roquefort while Napoleon I was particular about Saint Nectaire.
Artisanal cheeses like Rigotte Condrieu will not be found in supermarkets dressed in plastic sheets: natural rinds, wax or soft strips of bark from trees grown in the region form the cover. The end results are different for each cheese, Brie de Meaux is creamy and soft-ripened; Roqueforts are marbled with streaks of blue; Saint Nectaire cheese comes in solid wheels of washed-rind. Cheeses from even different family farms within the same region posses unique characteristics. France produces close to 2,000 tonnes a year, making it one of the world’s top producers.