Photo: edseloh, Flickr
The cheese makes lasting impressions. "I remember the woodsy flavor and the taste of mushrooms the first time I tried the cheese," recalls Jason Bond, chef at Boston's Beacon Hill Bistro. Bond, who was introduced to the cheese 10 years ago when a chef friend brought it back in his suitcase from France, explained, "We purchase a large format Vacherin Mont D'Or for our New Year's Eve menu, and whatever we have left over, we'll put onto the regular menu."
To create its specific look and taste, the production of Vacherin Mont d'Or adheres to a tradition that goes back as far as the 18th century. Like Champagne, Vacherin Mont d'Or's name is protected by an AOC label, ensuring the cheese is produced according to rigorous specifications, including an altitude of at least 2,297 feet.
Limiting production to the months from October to April serves a distinct role in the process. While winter milk is used to produce soft cheeses, such as Vacherin, the milk coming from cows grazing on summer pasture is customarily used to produce large Alpine cheeses, such as Comté and Gruyère. "Customers are excited to try Vacherin Mont d'Or precisely because it's only available now and because it's so hard to find," says Bond.
Vacherin Mont d'Or's creamy texture -- reminiscent of Reblochon or Brie, but with a thicker consistency -- can be attributed to the cows' diet of straw and fodder. During the aging process, which lasts at least a month, the cheese is brushed with a brine solution that gives the cheese its pungent barnyard smell. Its most distinguishing flavor (that of pine trees) comes from the spruce bark wrapped around the cheese's exterior. The scent of the woods evokes the warmth of a fireplace in the dead of winter, transporting the senses back to the cheese's rustic origins in the snow-covered foothills of the Alps.
Like those firm Alpine cheeses, Vacherin Mont d'Or is also delicious served as a fondue. Baking it in the oven brings out the richness of the cheese and makes it ideal for serving over potatoes in the style of a typical cheese gratin. Check out the Vacherin Mont d'Or Web site for baking instructions.
Since Vacherin Mont d'Or is a fresh delicate cheese, it's also very fragile, spoils easily, and, as such, cannot easily be found in the U.S. However, there is a less artisanal version called Vacherin Du Jura that is available only during winter at stores nationwide, like Whole Foods Market. Despite it lacking that extra tang present in Mont d'Or, Vacherin du Jura will definitely suffice, because, like the original, it has the same intriguing look and similar taste.
But if you're seeking the real deal, you can order Vacherin Mont d'Or online from Murray's for $28.99 per piece. or at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, Mass. Wherever you find your cheese, be sure to refrigerate it as soon as possible, since it tends to ripen quickly. For ideal serving, take it out of the refrigerator an hour before you plan on serving it.