The cheese caves at Mons Fromages
After a successful first month working with the affinage experts at Mons I thought I’d better explain the layout of Mons and each of the caves here, and what they do. To start, there is a huge refrigerated receiving area where the cheeses arrive every day to be processed. Everything arrives here, from huge mountain wheels to small little apériti cheeses, no bigger than a thimble. Some of the cheeses arrive with a fully formed rind (having aged a bit in local conditions to pick up local flavours, according to some appellation regulations), whilst others come barely a day old. They are then processed and sent to the correct room.
Those with delicate fresh skins are gently handled and transferred to the drying room (with a higher temperature and lower humidity), where they will harden and form rinds to ensure even maturing. Their mould growth is patted down (a mere rub is a fatal mistake which can remove the beginnings of a rind). From here each individual cheese is inspected, turned, touched, squeezed and pinched everyday until the nod is given and it can be given the chance to graduate to its appropriate ageing cave.
Hervé has four such caves as well as an old railway tunnel. This old bricked up tunnel provides ideal humidity and temperature beneath the ground for cheese, becoming a haven for it – over 90 tonnes of cheese are stored here (you’d feta believe it! – sorry). All of these cheeses must be turned (by hand) every week, as well as examining, scrubbing, brushing, wiping, washing, turning, wrapping, rewrapping each cheese according to it’s needs. But that’s not all of it! There are the other caves, holding even more cheese – you can tell its France!
The caves vary in humidity, temperature, air flow and atmosphere to match the needs of the individual cheeses, and maximise their flavour and texture. With natural earth and stone floors, and a natural spring nearby (they have no need to regulate the humidity due to this natural source of water), the cheeses look at home here – the giant mountain wheels inhabit one cave resting on sagging spruce boards (here for two years or more), another holds the petite goats cheeses, with the rustic rinded Tommes residing in a third. All the other cheese facilities I have visited seem so purpose built compared with this idyllic cheese haven and the taste of the cheeses here confirms Hervé and his family’s skill.
Each day the cheese is checked and moved according to their level of affinage. Hervé says “It’s crucial to find the peak age for each individual cheese: they’re living products and react differently every time”. Watching him work makes it seem a simple art, tasting and checking each cheese, but greater scratching away of the surface reveals the great depth of knowledge required: cheese-production methods, cave dynamics, animal health, breed and husbandry, grazing pastures, the seasons, microbiology, the differences in look, taste and smell of cheese, as well as changing consumer trends in each country he sells in. Hopefully I will be able to at least glean a bit of this knowledge in the next few months to take back to Britain.
Read more about the cheese caves here with the importance of bacteria and spruce boards…. or see Andy’s tale from day one: Mons Fromages – an apprenticeship in cheese ageing.
Also if you are interested in a truly traditional French cheese do look at: Meet the producer: Salers de Buron Traditional, an ancient way of making cheese.