The Splurgy Cheese I’m Eating All Winter Long
I am a self-professed cheese nerd. I love cheese. I hated it when I was younger — I would only eat cheese melted in a sandwich as a glorified cheese and ham toastie. Decades later, now that I have spent a good slab (no pun intended) of my life in Europe, I wholeheartedly cannot resist a good, oozy cheese.
Chevre, Gorgonzola, Bleu d’Auvergne, and France’s stinkiest cheese, Epoisse — I love you all for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But when it comes to hunkering down for the winter, there is no better fromage than Mont d’Or.
Touted as the “Holy Grail of soft cheese,” Mont d’Or can only be described as a self-gifting ready-to-eat fondue. The Swiss are the original inventors and keepers of fondue — a retro dish created many decades ago for farmers to use up old scraps of bread and cheese during the harsh winters. Fondue ultimately made its way to the United States in the ’70s. Perhaps you remember fondue parties? Or at least wish they still existed? Either way, before fondue there was Mont d’Or — a portable “pot of cheese” for times when you need gooey cheese on the fly.
Vacherin Mont d’Or comes from Switzerland’s Vaud region, a region on the border of France known for very little except the lush Jura mountains and the cheese that Swiss people run on during the winter: Mont d’Or. The French also produce Mont d’Or, but call it Mont d’Or du Haut-Doubs. Both versions of this cheese were apparently invented in the early 12th-century and to cut a long history lesson short, the cheese was produced by farmers of the region when milk was scarce during the winter months.
We all know the French and Swiss love cheese, and locals could not survive an entire season without eating fromage, so Mont d’Or was apparently created to allow farmers to use up winter milk — which is lower in yield yet considerably richer in fat.
Two well-celebrated cheeses, Comté and Gruyère, from France and Switzerland respectively, are made with lower-fat cheese during the summer, allowing for the cheese to age gracefully in the right way. Mont d’Or, on the other hand, is made from richer, creamier, fattier milk of the winter and requires very little time to mature to perfection. With the high amount of fat content in the cheese, a spruce bark is needed to hold the gooey cheese in place, which also imparts a unique, almost alpine-woodsy flavor to the cheese as it sits for at least 21 days under the careful hands of a fromage affinés (cheese keeper).
As a winter cheese, Mont d’Or has a very short season and is made from August 15 to March 15; suffice to say, locals mark their calendar come early September when cheese shops start stocking and selling their precious supply of Mont d’Or.
The French and Swiss may still argue about who created Mont d’Or first and whether the Swiss variety (pasteurized), being slightly less intense, is better than the tangy French (unpasteurized) version. But to me, they are both beauties and indulgences I enjoy during the cold winter months.
The first time I laid eyes (and nose) on this beauty was when I arrived in Switzerland a decade ago. I crashed at my friend’s house for the weekend and was welcomed with a woof of cheese smells. Although the cheese was wrapped in plastic wrap and had the spruce-bark lid still on it, the pungent aroma still filled my friend’s tiny kitchen.
The cheese is beautiful on its own — scooped out and placed delicately on a baguette or melted on potatoes, as I often have it. It can also be used to make the best toasted sandwich ever and provides a great, silky ooze to a mac and cheese. I also go as far as scooping little teaspoons of Mont d’Or and dropping it into my cheese soufflé batter before baking it in an oven until risen, golden, and puffy as a cheesy cloud of unctuousness.
Another favorite way to eat this: I prick the flesh of the cheese with a knife, stick in some garlic cloves and pour over a splash of white wine before sliding the wooden tub of cheese into a moderate oven for 25 minutes. While I wait, I cut large chunks of one-day-old bread, pour myself a glass of Pinot Blanc, and peer into the oven as my Mont d’Or bubbles away.
I have shared my love for Mont d’Or with friends in the U.S.; luckily it is available through a range of excellent cheesemongers, like Murray’s Cheese, Jasper Hill Farms (with their own variety), and Bedford Cheese. A note if you plan to bake your cheese, though: Some Mont d’Or in the U.S. come in a spruce box that’s glued together, rather than being stapled like in France and Switzerland. So if you’re going to throw it in the oven, check for glue or staples. If it’s glued, remove the spruce and put the cheese in a dish to avoid a pool of cheese in your oven. Heat some up and I guarantee your winters will never be the same.
Do you have a go-to cheese that you like to enjoy in the winter? Tell us about it in the comments below!