Reblochon: A taste of the French Alps

We gaze at the rows and rows of cheese moulds, just filled from the morning’s milking. How long does it take Madame Missillier to pour all these? “Bofff…,” Monsieur Missillier exhales and raises his eyebrows, “15, 20 minutes at most,” he says, and shrugs in that dismissive French way, as if the Herculean task is nothing. That’s what happens, I think (wondering whether I’d manage to complete a single row in that time), when you do a job twice a day, every day, 365 days of the year, with no holiday. That’s the reality of local jobs for local people.

We’re on holiday, of course. We’re in Haute-Savoie, high in the Aravis valley. The farms here teeter on the edge of Switzerland; in summer, roaming with the cows in their mountain pastures, you can peer over the Aravis peaks at Lake Geneva. When the snow falls, the pretty villages of La Clusaz, Le Grand-Bornand, Manigod and St Jean de Sixt fill with skiers, mostly French, who are drawn to the 200km of pistes and laid-back ambience of the valley. But in the spring, and again in early autumn, the cowbells ring out not for ski races but for their intended purpose. This is Reblochon country.

Reblochon, Monsieur Missillier tells us, was one of the first cheeses to receive the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), that certification that symbolises staunch French defence of local produce. Thus sparkling wine produced outside the Champagne region is not champagne, and the soft, fresh, delicate-tasting cheese that is Reblochon comes only from the eastern slopes of the Haute-Savoie – plus one small adjacent valley in Savoie. And nearly two-thirds of it is produced here, in the Aravis Massif.

Monsieur Missillier talks to us directly, almost urgently, but he speaks through a translator. Who has the time to learn English when there are cows to be milked twice a day, and six weeks’ worth of cheese to be turned and rinsed and moved up a rack in the sharp-smelling cellar?

We stand there in the cool in a fug of off-milk as Monsieur Missillier describes the process. The milk must be used directly after milking; it is unpasturised and aged on boards of spruce. Having come here rather begrudgingly, I’m surprised at how engaging it is. Farm tours are listed like an afterthought at the foot of tourist office pamphlets and websites, and until now I’d always associated them with primary school; something to keep the kids happy on a rainy day. I’d forgotten, though, just how good primary school trips could be: that window of wonder into another world.

This has been the Missilliers’ world for three generations, Monsieur Missillier continues, but Reblochon in this valley goes back to the 13th century. Reblocher is a single verb to describe the repinching of a cow’s udder. Milk was taken as a form of land tax, so the canny farmers left their cows still dripping. Milking was resumed once the collectors had visited, and the resulting fat-enriched second serving used to make cheese for the farmers’ own consumption.

We step out into the brightness of the farmyard, the earthy scent of manure and early spring a pleasure after the sharp stillness of the cave. We meet the cows – local, of course. AOC regulations state that they must be one of just three alpine breeds: Abondance, Montbéliarde or Tarine. Now, as the snow starts its yearly ebb, they are getting ready to make the transition from barn to village pastures.

In the barn, explains Monsieur Missillier, they must eat hay only from local fields. When the snow in the village melts, the farmers move them into the fields. And then in the summer – that is when the Reblochon is best, he beams. The cows look bored, as cows do, but then the exciting part of their year is yet to come.

The transhumance is the moving of the cattle to the high alpages, the mountain meadows. This is when the cow bells come out, giant bits of metal strung around bovine necks. It’s like keeping track of a cat, only on a larger scale.

On go the bells and the garlands of flowers, and up go the cows, along with the farmers. With more than 60 Reblochon farms in this valley, there’s a lot of clanging in the streets. For a week in May and again in October, local life is celebrated with traditional foods, and dances, and gossip. This is not neatly packaged heritage; it’s making light of the yearly grind. Life then goes on, but at a higher altitude. The cows are milked twice a day, the Reblochon poured and turned; it’s just that the summer farms are a day’s walk up valley. Or a truck drive, these days, if the distance is too far to cover comfortably by foot. “Although you know so-and-so?” says Monsieur Missillier to the translator, “he still walks and they live practically in Annecy.”

Were this a primary school trip, it would be time for packed lunch. Fortunately, Monsieur Missillier produces plates of Reblochon and its regional cousin, Tomme, along with bottles of crisp Savoyard white. Then we’re ushered back into our own worlds. At the farm, spring is just round the corner, and there’s milking to be done.

Traveller’s Guide

STAYING THERE

Les Fermes de Pierre & Anna (00 33 4 50 51 54 99; fermes-pierre-anna.com) is a traditional Reblochon farm now converted into a B&B chalet in the pretty village of Le Grand-Bornand. For thematic consistency, stay in the room named Les S’nailles (the Cowbells), and sleep beneath a hay trough. Two room apartments also available. Doubles from ¤80; breakfast ¤10.

VISITING THERE

Farm visits booked through Le Grand-Bornand tourist office (legrandbornand.com) cost € ¤4 for adults, €¤2.30 for children. The village also throws a Fête de l’Alpage in August (2 August in 2009). Annecy celebrates the transhumance on the second Saturday in October with a Savoyard festival, the Descente des Alpages.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Office de Tourisme du Grand-Bornand, Place de l’église, Le Grand-Bornand (00 33 4 50 02 78 00; legrandbornand.com).

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - Franchised Main Dealer

    £30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

    Recruitment Genius: Group Sales Manager - Field Based

    £21000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Guru Careers: Email Marketing Specialist

    £26 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Email Marketing Specialist is needed to join...

    Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

    Day In a Page

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links