Vacherin d'Abondance Cheese Making Recipe
It's history can be traced back to the 1400s. Today the only real Vacherin d'Abondance is made from a single producer in the valley. In 2005 production had ceased, until 2015 when a young man took it upon himself to bring this wonderful cheese back to life.
This special cheese is traditionally ready in the winter season and ripens to almost a spoonable consistency. It is contained only by a strip of bark from the local alpine forest.
- 2 Gallons of Milk (Not UltraPasteurized)
- 1/16 tsp MA4002 Culture
- 1/16 tsp GEO17 Geotrichum Candidum
- 1 tsp Single Strength Liquid Rennet
- Calcium Chloride (for pasteurized milk)
- Good Thermometer
- Mini Measuring Spoons
- Ladle to Transfer Curds
- Butter Muslin
- 3-4 one gallon bowls or basins
- E25 Spruce Cambium Strips
- Vacherin d'Abondance Info
- Q & A
A Recipe for Making Vacherin d'Abondance Cheese
Making of the curd and draining does not present much of a challenge other than getting the absolutely best and freshest milk you can find. However, The more difficult part is the aging of this cheese. It requires daily attention and turning to get to the finish line. Too moist and it will show a different surface development that can go very wrong but too dry and the enzymes have a hard time doing what they need to do. Final ripeness depends on an even transformation of the cheese.
Acidify & Heat Milk
Begin by heating the milk to 86-90F (higher temp for higher fat milk). You do this by placing the milk in a pot or sink of very warm water. If you do this in a pot on the stove make sure you heat the milk slowly and stir it well as it heats
Place the spruce strips into warm water to allow them to rehydrate during the next few hours until needed. This will make them very supple and easy to wrap around the cheese.
Once the milk is at temperature the cultures can be added. Both MA4002 and Geo are added at this time.
The MA4002 is the culture that best represents the basic culture mix traditionally found in raw milk (although not quite as complex a community). It consists of both a Mesophilic component similar to MA011 or C101 and a Thermophilic component similar to TA061 or C201. The amount of culture added for this cheese is quite low for a long slow acidification which has always been typical for this cheese.
To prevent the powder from caking and sinking in clumps sprinkle the powder over the surface of the milk and then allow about 2 minutes for the powder to re-hydrate before stirring it in well.
The milk now needs to be kept at this target temperature until it is time to ladle the curds. Hold the milk with culture quiet for the next 90 minutes to allow the culture to begin doing its work. It will be very slow initially but will soon kick into its more rapid rate of converting lactose to lactic acid.
While you are waiting, use the time to sanitize the bowls and cloth for draining.
Coagulate with Rennet
Add about 1ml of single strength liquid rennet. Yes, this is a very small amount of rennet for this amount of milk and will emphasize the mixed lactic/enzymatic character of the final cheese.
The milk now needs to sit quiet for 45-60 minutes while the culture works and the rennet coagulates the curd . The thermal mass of this milk should keep it warm during this period. It is OK if the temp drops a few degrees during this time. You should notice the milk beginning to thicken (flocculation) at about 20-25 minutes. Allow the coagulation to continue until you can test a firm curd for ladling (look for a proper break)
Thansfer the Curds
Once you can test for a firm curd spread your draining cloths over each bowl and begin to transfer the curds. Slice a thin section from the curd mass and place into each cloth in a round robin fashion until all of the curds have been removed from the pot.
Tie Corners of Cloth
After transfering the curds, the four corners of the cloth should be knotted to tighten the curd. Leave the curd mass in the whey that collects for about 1/2 hour and then untie the cloth and retighten into a more consolidated package. Drain off excess whey each time. The curd should begin cooling down to about 65-75F room temperature.
Wrap with Spruce
After about 2 hours the spruce strips are used to encircle the draining curd and its cloth and restrain its form as it drains (traditionally they would notch the spruce but using an elastic band works best these days).
The total draining time should take about 8 hours and the cloth and spruce strip should be retightened and whey drained about every hour. During all of this time the cultures are still working and the cheese continues to develop its lactic character.
Move to Cheese Cave
Once the curds have drained well the cloth can be carefully removed, the spruce retightened and ready to be carefully moved to the cave (they will be very tender at this point)
The aging space should be about 52F and of good moisture 85-90% (used covered plastic boxes if you have trouble with this).
The cheese is still undergoing its lactic activity and moisture will continue to weep from the cheese while the cheese cools. Placing some drain cloth under the cheese, now and when it's aging, will absorb this moisture and act to buffer the needed moisture for the cheeses (will wick the moisture away from the cheese but keep the surrounding air higher in moisture).
Salting & Aging
The next morning the cheese can be salted at about 2% of salt to cheese weight. Apply this salt over 2 days. Salt one side at a time.
Following this the cheese needs to be attended to daily. Turning it on a daily basis is essential.
The first thing you will notice is that the surface becomes greasy or slimy, caused by natural yeast in the surroundings. This sets the stage for the Geotrichum community which will tend to dry the surface and form the characteristic white film seen in some of the pictures here. The development of this surface community produces the enzymes which will gradually ripen the cheese causing the rather solid curd like structure of the new cheese to develop into a soft custard like paste of the fully ripened cheese. The cambium layer on the outside will contribute a rather aromatic character of smoked meat and piney resin.
What is Vacherin d'Abondance?
The name as its pronounced, "Vasherin Aa-Bon-Danz", simply means "the cows milk cheese from the french valley of Abondance."
It's a pretty plain name for a very special cheese that is made in small quantities, after the cows come down off the high summer pastures and into the barns in the valley for the cold months ahead
A very special cheese that will be ready for the winter season. It's a cheese that ripens to an almost a spoon-able consistency, contained only by a strip of bark from the local alpine forest.
Made since the 1400s, the production of Vacherin Abondance had been reduced to a single producer in the valley. By 2005 it had ceased to be produced, until 2015, when a young man took it upon himself to bring it back.
The disappearance and reappearance of Vacherin d'Abondance
Where to Find Vacherin d'Abondance. I first became aware of this cheese back in the early 2000's, when we took 12 cheese makers on a tour of cheese making throughout France, and our friend Ali (who knew all things cheese in France), took us up into the Abondance valley.
I had already found the "DK French Cheese Book", and was fascinated by a pictorial essay on the last woman still making this Vacherin cheese in the valley of Abondance.
Her name was Célina Gagneux, who's family had been making this cheese in the valley for several generations, however, she was the last person who knew how to make it in the valley.
Bad news, Vacherin d'Abondance is no longer made. Unfortunately by 2005, I had heard from a friend in France that Mme Gagneux had reached the age of 73 and was no longer making it. That season there was none left in the shops for the winter holidays. "When I was a girl, there were 30 people or more who made this Vacherin in the valley. Now they've all died or stopped". Mme Gagneux, who was taught to make Vacherin d'Abondance by her mother-in-law 50 years ago, is resigned to taking its secrets to her grave. "My daughters don't want to do this because the work it is too hard. After me there won't be any more." Very sad news for the cheese loving world.
Mme Gagneux said, the time may have finally come to put Vacherin d'Abondance to rest. "I don't know if I will ever make any more," she said. "I made a little last winter but I don't know if I will bother again this year. I am getting old now and milking cows in the winter, morning and evening, getting up early, bringing in the wood, starting the fire, making the cheese, I don't know if I will have the energy this year. I don't know if we will keep the cows any longer. It's a pity but there it is."
The main reason, other than her years and the hard work of making this, was that in 1992, new EU hygiene directives decreed that production of cheeses had to happen in a "proper" dairy. When directives came into force in 1995, the small producers said the new requirements would put them out of business. In later years however, a relaxed clarification of the directive, showed that traditional, raw-milk cheeses made by small producers were in fact exempt.
Great news, Vacherin d'Abondance has been reborn. However, even though good things end, as they occasionally do, the sun may rise again, like the Phoenix from the ashes.
In the past few years I have heard of a young man from the Abondance valley. His name is Samuel Girard-Despraulex, and although only 20 years old, he has become a cheese hero.
In 2014, as part of his internship in BTS Science and Food Techniques, Samuel embarked on his challenge of restoring the Vacherin cheese. By consulting with the country's living memories of recent producers, Régis and Huguette Grillet, and Célina Gagneux, he sought the knowledge he needed for this project.
Samuels milking cows are the Abondance breed, whey are distinctive by the characteristic white face and brown eye patches.
"I wanted to revive the production of the Vacherin because it is a historical cheese of the valley. My grandfather did it and it is important not to lose tradition. During my two years at BTS, I was apprenticed to the farm of Girard (where his father and cousins worked) and my project of study was to revive this cheese."
In November 2015, Samuel and his cousin, Daniel Girard, created an association around the Vacherin with fourteen farmers and support from the community of the valley of Abondance. "Our aim is to make the Vacherin known and to protect it. We also want it to be recognized by a quality label, PDO or PGI".
How Vacherin d'Abondance is Made
The process was mainly pure oral tradition, from valley to valley, from the Middle Ages (first traces in 1270 in the Valle d'Aosta).
Tucked into an Alpine valley close to the Swiss border, the French village of Abondance appears to have come straight from a postcard: steep-roofed chalets, a 12th-century abbey and a proud epicurean heritage.
In this part of the Alps, Vacherin was traditionally made only in the winter from November to March, when the cows - the beautiful, local Abondance breed, with rich, brown-red bodies and white faces - were kept conveniently in their sheds on the farm. In the summer, the animals are in the pastures high on the mountains.
This photo shows a herd of Abondance that I photographed, being taken back up to the summer pastures in the mountains of Savoie. Note the hefty bulk of these critters and the way traffic stops for them ... no honking of horns or screaming involved. Note the joy on the owners face as they move along the highway. Folks often get out of their vehicles and walk along with the herd ... Its their tradition and they show pride in it.
Just try running the herd down the main highway here and see what happens.
The cheese begins with milk going into the vat with traditionally no heating (temperature as it comes from the cows). Originally there was no culture added to the milk, only what was provided from the cows. Enough rennet was added to provide a curd within an hour or two. When ready it is ladled (not cut) into a draining cloth spread over a basin to collect the whey. Here it sits for another day as the culture works and whey is released. Periodically the cloth is tightened to consolidate the developing cheese. At this point the cheese is very soft and tender and to keep its shape needs to be restrained. For this a band made from the inner layer of local spruce bark (Epicea) is used to confine the spreading cheese into its final form. The cheese is next moved into a cellar where it is salted and put on wooden shelves to age for 20 days, during which time it's turned and washed every day with brine.
The cheese can be aged longer and when fully ripe the top is cut away and the creamy cheese can be scooped out with a spoon like a heavy fondue.
The final cheese is between 5-6" and a height of 1.5-2". Its weight varies from 3/4-1 pound. The characteristic of the Vacherin d'Abondance is to be molded with the help of spruce bark and this is what gives it the characteristic taste and aroma.
The ripened cheese has many cousins such as the Vacherin Mont d'Or to the north of Lake Geneva (Lac Leman) but because of the traditions of the valley of Abondance, the Vacherin d' Abondance was always the more sought after one.
I reviewed the spruce strips used in this recipe last year, and I am finally writing about the cheese. It was such an intriguing process, and I am grateful that I decided to go for it. I think this is one of those recipes that doesn't take as much time and effort as it may first appear to. But, you end up with a product that looks and tastes like you worked very, very hard. It is a wonderfully aromatic and creamy cheese with a relatively short aging period (compared to some of the others). So, you get to enjoy the fruits of your labor a little bit sooner. This cheese is great with fresh, homemade bread, but I also use it for pasta. It creates a nice sauce without needing thickeners/emulsifiers. I use a large flour sack towel to wrap & drain the curds, as well as a basket-type mold. To keep my cloth from staining (a little short-cut), I attach the spruce strips after removing the curds from the cloth and basket.