Saint Nectaire Info

Saint Nectaire From the Auvergne of France

This month my cheese will not be just a great tasty cheese, but a cheese with a great story and a long history.

I have always believed that the food we eat, and its history and people that make it, cannot be forgotten. They can not be separated from each other.

Saint Nectaire Cheese is a "fromage à pâte pressée non cuite" or to us Anglos, an uncooked pressed cheese. But a much bigger story follows.

It has been produced since the 1600’s and was christened “Saint Nectaire” by King Louis XIV

Saint Nectaire is one of the three great cheeses coming from the Auvergne of South Central France. The 3 cheese are :

  • Salar, a large cheese weighing 80-90lb with some process similarities to cheddar, but quite different.
  • Blue d'Auvergne, a remarkable blue similar to Roquefort, but made with cows milk, and milder.
  • Saint Nectaire, a low form tomme style that has been made for centuries on local farms in the region. I have already done a guideline on our website for the Blue d'Auvergne and I will be doing the Salars in the guidelines at some point.

For centuries, the cheese had been made on the farm in small productions, usually by the farmers wife and daughters. A true Artisan cheese, but that is just what they did in those days.

During the 1960s and 70s, Saint Nectaire began to show a troubled future as larger cooperatives began producing it, and gradually, pasteurization led to a lesser public favor as sales began to decline.

The good news is that the community realized the issue of losing this heritage product and, with help from the French government, made changes to help the small family producers successfully continue making the traditional raw milk and farm produced cheese, of which I saw many. The larger Cooperatives are still pasteurizing but at least consumers have a choice now. It was very heartening to see this and I am sure that Patrick Rance would have been pleased to see one of his favorite cheeses back in top form again.

This cheese would be a cheese for those that have some experience, but I encourage the rest to at least follow through the process I have written and the story behind the cheese.

Learn About Saint Nectaire Cheese

It was very interesting to find that this cheese process for making the Saint Nectaire came after some influence by the dutch cheese makers that visited the area a century or two ago.

You may definitely note some very Gouda like steps in reading, but there is a lot more to this cheese than that to differentiate the two. In fact, there is no comparison in the final cheese flavor and texture.

The cheese itself is a small, fla,t wheel shape of about 10-12 inches, and only about 1.5-2 inches in height. It has a semi-firm body that begins to slump out of its rind when brought to room temperature.

Its surface can vary considerably, from the russets and golds of a washed rind, to a velvety blue grey from a moist cellar. The diversity shows the variations of the farms on which they were produced.

This cheese has a lot of unique variations in process to limit the acid development and finish with a moist and sweeter flavor plus a very soft texture. It begins with a smaller culture addition than usual, plus a washed curd (1/3 whey removed and replaced with warm water) to remove some of the lactose heavy whey and slow the fermentation.

When they have ripened in the cellar, the cheese discloses a rather green herbal, earthy and fresh mushroomy/cellar aroma. When brought to room temperature and cut, the interior soon sags a bit showing a creamy paste (but never runny) just tempting you to try it. The flavor shows off the richness of the local milk and a deep clean flavor of earth and a slight cellar mustiness, much like that of fresh picked mushrooms but with a wild edge to it.

The cheese is produced in the Mountainous region of the Auvergne, also referred to as the Massif Central, a rugged land of Peaks and Plateaus comprising several dormant volcanic peaks. The Auvergne is one of my favorite places in Europe. It is a rugged region that primarily was all about agriculture, and mostly dairy and meat at that. Today, it is becoming known for its skiing, cycling, and walking as well. It is just a beautiful and quiet place.

In the Auvergne today, much of the cheese is still made on small farms , where villages are surrounded by the beautiful pastures. The herds are kept in barns right in the village but still have direct access to these high plateau pastures.

This rich volcanic ground feeds lush meadows where cows graze during the warm season and produce one of the finest milks. The herds are of 'Salers' breed of cows that feed on the rich, volcanic pastures of the mountainous Auvergne. The soil, wild grass and rich, raw milk all contribute to the cheese's complex taste.

My Interest in Saint Nectaire

My interest in this cheese began many years ago while reading the book "French Cheese" by Patrick Rance (Yes, not the first time I have mentioned this fabulous out of print book). Rance was a rather knowledgeable cheese monger (seller) with his prestigious shop outside of London, when he decided to retire and hand his shop over to his son. He moved to the south of France and spent the rest of his life visiting cheese makers throughout France and documenting the state of traditional cheese in France. He published this book in 1986 and it has become a snapshot of traditional cheese making. His book contained the important history of the Saint Nectaire cheese, but he ended with a rather grim forecast of its future, because he had noted a decline in quality in this cheese as it appeared in his shop. His visits showed larger cooperatives with lesser quality milks and using pasteurization, rather than the historical use of raw milk. The cheese began its slide from Glory

One of my goals in visiting the Auvergne was to see for myself what had transpired in the last 30 to 40 years since he wrote of this cheese.

I had managed to talk with Sister Noella Marcelina, AKA the 'Cheese Nun', who had done much of her research in the Saint Nectaire region about the Auvergne and the Saint Nectaire cheese before heading over there. Sister Noella also had been (and still is I think) very much a part of making Saint Nectaire at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Connecticut. She had done much of her doctoral work in France on the region, the cheese, and the Geotrichum molds that grew on the cheese from the aging cave surfaces.

What I found was a much brighter picture of the cheese and its future in France. I visited many small farms and saw a rather dynamic production that had not changed much since centuries past. The process was much the same as it had been in years past but only the equipment had been upgraded. I now saw it included hydraulic presses, modern milking machines, vats that had mechanical stirring and gas fired but the process in these small cheese rooms was very similar to what it had been decades and perhaps centuries ago. The dug caves near the farm were less used these days but some still were used.

What I saw and tasted was truly a good sign and I am sure Patrick Rance would have been encouraged to see this change for the better today.