Friday, October 21, 2011

The Etivaz Cooperative: L'Etivaz AOC

In the Swiss canton of Vaud, along the steep-sloped valley walls above the Saane River near Chateau d'Oex, two dozen families make cheese from May through September during the alpage, when their cows graze the mountainside on herbs and grass and flowers. The families are part of the Etivaz cooperative, 70 producers who follow traditional methods of cheesemaking: only using the milk produced during the summer, culturing the curd with whey saved from the previous day's cheesemaking, and heating the milk and curd in copper pots over an open wood fire. In 2007 I spent a week in Chateau d'Oex and met one of the cheesemakers, François Raynaud, who invited me up to his chalet, Le Rodosex (built in 1860 by his great-uncle), to learn more about the making of this mountain cheese.

Because I didn't have a car, I called a taxi to pick me up at 6:00 a.m. at my cousin's family's chalet in Chateau d'Oex so that I could get up to Le Rodosex in time to see the whole process. I didn't get there quite in time - François had already done the morning milking and was cleaning the outside milking parlor, and Mureille was unwrapping the pressed cheeses from the day before and clearing off the drainage board. Mureille laughed when I arrived, saying, "We've never had a taxi come up to the door here!"

The milk from that morning had already been mixed with the milk from the previous evening and the culture made from leftover whey and heated to approximately 90°F in a copper kettle over the wood fire, and was resting off the heat. While we were waiting for the curd to firm, Mureille and François and I drank coffee and talked about their routine during the year. In the summers, they essentially live in the chalet up on the mountain with their children - the oldest, Corentan, was already helping with the cheesemaking - and in the winter after the desalpage, when the cows come down out of the summer pastures, they move in to their home in Chateau d'Oex where the children go to school. In the winter, the cows are fed the hay grown in fields that are so steeply inclined that the hay has to be cut by hand and the bales brought down by helicopter. At least that's what François told me ... I didn't see any airborne fodder while I was there, but did see some of the lower hayfields, with the combines chugging along tilted at a dangerous 45-degree angle, so I wouldn't be surprised if it were true. Mureille showed me the jars of pickles that she makes using mushrooms from the fields around the chateau; she said that the pickled mushrooms are an excellent accompaniment to the cheese.

Once the curd was firm enough to cut, Mureille and François used a harp and clean dustpans to cut the curd into small bits, and stirred the kettle vigorously to help extract as much of the whey from the curd as possible.

Once the curd was broken down, the cauldron was put back over the fire, and the curd and whey heated to exactly 56.5°C (133.7°F). A generator-powered stirring mechanism kept the mixture moving while it was heating.

François told me about the Etivaz cooperative, and how the communal cheese caves and centralized marketing took a lot of the pressure and cost off his shoulders and guaranteed a steady income. With some of the big-ticket (and time-consuming) aspects of cheesemaking handled by the administration of the cooperative, he was able to focus on taking care of the cows and making the cheese. We got so involved in the conversation that we nearly forgot about the cheese currently being made, but luckily Corentan was watching the gauge, and called out that the milk had reached the target temperature.

François took a large clean square of cheesecloth, dipped it and his arms elbow-deep in cold water, and then with Mureille holding one end of the cloth, plunged his arms into the kettle, under the curd, scooping up half of the curd into the cloth. It took both of them to carry the heavy bag of curd over to the press. François told me that the cold-water treatment helped him not feel the heat of the whey - at least not too much. Each kettle full of curd makes two cheeses. According to the Etivaz website, François makes 3,500 cheeses each season, but I'm not quite sure where that number comes from because that's ten times the number I calculate he could make at two per day for five months. I'll have to go back and ask.

The cheese was left to drain for half an hour in the molds while Corentan and François scrubbed out the kettle and cleaned the rest of the equipment. François then flipped the cheeses over and added a label made of casein (a milk protein) to identify each cheese. He's given a set of labels at the beginning of each season, showing his producer code, the Etivaz identifier, and the sequential number of the cheese.

The cheeses are flipped and put back in the press after another hour, again at noon, and turned a final time after the evening's milking is done. By covering the press and molds, François is able to keep the cheese from drying out too quickly, and maintains an even temperature in the quick chill of the mountain nights.

In a small closet off the main room, François keeps the cheeses on wooden shelves, covered in cloth, between three and seven days before taking them to the caves at the cooperative in Etivaz. Each day, the ripening cheeses are scrubbed with salt and turned over on the shelves. While François washed the cheeses, Mureille used some of the whey she'd saved to make the culture for the next day's batch, and poured it in a thermos to sit overnight.

Although he hadn't planned on taking a batch of cheeses in to Etivaz that day, François was kind enough to go ahead of schedule so that I could see the facilities. He and Corentan loaded up a half-dozen cheeses in the truck, and we drove off past the cows along the winding mountain roads to the cooperative's headquarters.

The Etivaz cooperative was started in the 1930s to help local cheesemakers succeed by providing them a place to age and store their cheeses, something that would remove the difficulty of finding adequate space and time to tend the cheeses, and give the cheese a controlled place to ripen, which would help guarantee its quality, and therefore improve the chances of successfully marketing and selling the cheese. The original storage facility quickly proved to be too small, and it was expanded in the 1940s, again in 1974, and then in 1986 and 2005. They're in the process of building up again, and construction of the new caves should be completed next year.

Each producer brings their marked cheeses in and the workers at the caves move them to the specific sections reserved for that producer. Once the cheeses are in the caves, François doesn't have to worry about them any more; the cooperative is in charge of the brining, aging, marketing, selling, and distribution.

There is a special section set aside for particulary good cheeses, as identified by the cooperative's affineurs, to age an additional six months at a lower humidity. These cheeses are designed to be shaved thin, where the moister, younger cheeses are eaten in larger blocks or used for cooking.

The facility is so large, and holds so many cheeses, that they use robots to turn and brine the cheeses. This machine rolls along the aisles, using a mini-forklift to carefully grab each cheese, dunk it in a saline solution, and flip it over before placing it back on the shelf. The shelves are made of spruce boards that have been left rough-hewn, not planed smooth.

In 1999, Etivaz gained AOC designation (appellation d'origine contrôlée), and is now one of ten Swiss AOC cheeses, along with Gruyère, Tête de Moine, and Sbrinz. No one in the Portland area carries this cheese, though Katie at Pastaworks said they used to several years ago. I'll just have to go back to the high green fields of the Vaud, and get some straight from the source.

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