Name: Vacherin du Haut-Doubs
Producer: Various (Franche-Comte, France)
Milk: Raw/Pasteurized Cow
Age: 1-2 months
I have a great reverence for seasonal cheeses. Whether it be a summertime Constant Bliss, an early fall Vermont Shepherd, or, in this week's case, a winter Vacherin du Haut-Doubs (otherwise known as Vacherin Mont d'Or). There's something to be said for a cheese whose availability is so limited and peak so self-evident. It reminds me that cheese is not just a simple food product, like its frequent companion, crackers. Cheese is the result of a process that started with an animal and a field of green. In this case, the animal is a cow and the field is in the mountains of Franche-Comte.
If there is a cheese that fits the phrase lush and unctuous better, I don't know of it. Once it reaches room temperature, Vacherin du Haut-Doubs simply gushes from its rind in a river of fromage fit only for a spoon (the traditional and, quite honestly, easiest way, to eat it). In fact, prior to being placed in its trademark round box, Vacherin is encircled with spruce bark, to help maintain its shape during travel. The bark imparts a definitive woodsy flavor into the cheese, which is additionally marked by a mild briny aftertaste.
On the downside, you have Vacherin du Haut-Doubs, in part, to blame for the current raw milk scare in the United States. An outbreak of listeriosis was traced back to this cheese back in 1983. Though it turned out to be the Swiss version (oh, what difference a trip across the mountaintop makes), both versions were banned from import into the United States. Ironically, pasteurized cheeses are not immune to infection from listeria, since they can be contaminated after the pasteurization process.
You can still occasionally find this cheese at well-stocked cheese shops during the winter months, but at inflated rates. For the most budget conscious, I would suggest checking out the pasteurized Edel de Cleron. I have tasted them side-by-side and though the Edel is not quite as fatty, it is much easier to obtain and an excellent facsimile.
For all its austere nature, Vacherin is an easy party cheese. Wait for it to get to room temperature, use a sharp knife to cut the "lid" off and, viola, it's like having an instant fondue party!
Murray's Cheese has a thermalized (milk which has been heated for a longer time at a lower temperature than pasteurization) Swiss version for $39.99/ea. iGourmet sells the previously mentioned Edel de Cleron for $12.99 each, though it is a smaller wheel. Suprisingly, our friends at Artisanal do not seem to have any version available on their website. For those that frequent their shop, I'd give them a call at a later date to check up.