Dressed in hairnets, snoods, jackets and blue shoe covers, we entered the caves and were immediately hit with the most pungent smell of ammonia that worked right through our olfactory passages and ever so slightly causing a sting to the eye.
These were the caves of Mons fromager-affineur, where they mature the cheeses made with raw milks from artisanal cheese makers from across the region (a bit like Neal’s Yard Dairy in this respect).
The maturing process allows development of the cheese flavour, texture and aroma. Not being a cheese expert, I didn’t realise that the same type of cheese can taste so different depending on the time and process in which it has been matured. These caves are particularly special because of the atmospheric conditions and humidity levels to promote rind mould growth. It was around 8 degrees in the cellars with a high level of moisture generated by the humidifiers.
Deeper into the tunnel, we passed shelves of different varieties of cheeses all indicating their specific provincial markings. Like breathing gremlin creatures there were some with furry grey and black mould balls and some with washed rinds.
Once we arrived at the end of the tunnels, we entered a warmer and less ammonic (?!) environment and enjoyed some cheese and perfectly matched wine to taste.
Our first was the region’s most famous Comte cheese made with unpasteurised cows milk, contributed to by several small farmers across the Franche-Comte region of Eastern France. Each Comte wheel requires 400litres of milk to produce and is then matured for a minimum of 6 months and up to 18 months for the Reserve de la Collonge. We tasted the latter paired with a 2005 Marc du Jura desert wine with Chardonnay – Savagnin grape. The mature Comte had fruity, apricot notes and was more crumbly than the younger comte (the younger Comte tastes similar to an Emmenthal). Having never tasted Comte before, this is now on my favourite list of cheeses.
The second cheese we tried was a Lavort from the Auvergne region, just west of Lyon. This one was made with raw sheeps milk. The interior was ivory in colour, dotted with eyes and the rind was a brownish/grey. It had an earthy flavour with sheep smells and a slight sweetness to it. This was paired with a red 2002 Chateau St. Martin de Grave from the Coteaux du Languedoc appellation.
We ended our wine and cheese tasting session around 11.30am (!) and then left the caves for the warm sunshine, boarded our minibus and headed back to the Gite. Having spent the last hour nibbling our way through a large wedge of Comte, Lavort, a basket of bread and supping through four bottles of wine, in true Brit style, we went in search for more...