The Fourme d'Ambert cheese: Introduction
The name Fourme comes from the old Occitan French word transformed from the word 'fourmaige' into fourme, from the latin 'forme.' The Fourme d'Ambert cheese is cylindrical in shape with a diameter of 11cm, a height of 22cm and a weight of 1.5kg. The maturing process of the Fourme d'Ambert cheese lasts for around 2 months in a humid cheese cellar where it undergoes brushings.
Exterior appearance of the Fourme d'Ambert cheese: rind is grey, speckled with yellow and orange marks.
Odour of the Fourme d'Ambert cheese: rather pronounced odour of the cheese cellar
Texture of the Fourme d'Ambert cheese: firm, without suppleness
Taste of the Fourme d'Ambert cheese: pronounced, fruity flavour.
History of the Fourme d'Ambert cheese.
The Fourme d'Ambert cheese has been fabricated in a certain way in the region of Haut-Forez since the Middle-Ages, where an agro-pastoral system was in place and remained until just after the Second World War. However, legends state that at the time of the Gauls, druids practicing their cult in Monts du Forez knew of the cheese. Also, according to Mr Maze, Director of the Pasteur Institute, the Fourme d'Ambert cheese was already in existence at the time of the Averni, a Gaillic tribe living in Auvergne, before the conquest by Cesar.
Since the 8th Century, the different legends all attest that the Fourme d'Ambert cheese was in existence and was consumed. The heritage of this cheese can be still be seen today. For example,the 'tithe' stones (sized for the regional products of the period; ham, eggs, sausages, fourme cheeses) situated at the church of Chaulme (Puy-de-Dôme) are living proof of the existence of the Fourme d'Ambert cheese. The Fourme d'Ambert cheese has even served as a currency in the 18th Century, to pay for the rent of the cabins where the cheese was made. During the time of mountain summer pasture, from June to October, the women and the children lived in the cabins where the cheese was made whilst the men were out in the fields. At the bginning of the century, facing the decline of the farm production of the cheese on the mountain summer pasture of Forez, the dairies moved to the mounts of Forez, notably the eastern side. In 1950, there were around 15 dairies which collected their milk in, at times, a very small perimeter. It was also at this time that producers began to appear outside of the mounts of Forez. Firstly to the West of the Puy-de-Dôme (Laqueuille and Rochefort Montagne) then in Cantal (Murat) and then in the valley of the Dore (Thiers- Puy-de-Dôme). Finally, in the 1950s, producers appeared in Saint-Flour (Cantal) and Balbigny (Plaine de la Loire).
The 'jasseries' (cabins in the mountains where the cheese is produced)- the origins of the Fourme d'Ambert cheese.
The 'Jasseries' were constructed as a collection of buildings where people kept their animals, made cheese and lived. These are the traditional dwellings in the mounts of the Haut-Forez, the original birthplace of the Fourme d'Ambert. Sheltered from the wind, the jasseries are situated in the surrounding area of the mountains, next to the edge of the forests and the water sources. The jasseries comprise of a hayloft, stable, and living area where the cheese was also made. The stable and living area were seperated by a wooden partition; the cows slept on a wooden floor. The hayloft was on a higher level, just under the roof.
The bovine herd of 4 to 7 cows, often the Ferrandaises breed, were brought inside each night. After the morning milking, the cowpats were thrown into the central path and gotten rid of using the water of a local resevoir, the Serve. At the exit of the stable, a canal system meant that the cowpats could be re-distributed onto the land below. This enriched the ground, and the land became known as 'fumade' or 'fumées' meaning it gave off fumes. The grass which grows is reaped and makes a hay of excellent quality. The jasseries were built on a slope so that the water would run down the slope and the cowpats were diposited onto the land beneath. At dawn, the cattle were let outside onto the land to graze. The areas where the cows graze were reaped often, even the moor land was harvested to make hay for eating or to make a bed for them. The people moved to higher ground in the summer in order for the cows to pasture. Those close to the village, once their cows had been put out onto the pasture, turned their attention to stocking up food for the winter. The eternal worry of the peasant farmer is that there is a balance between the needs of the herd and the food reserves.Agricultural work and cattle rearing relied on the sharing out of tasks between men and women. The exploitation of the milk was led by the father and he was helped by his sons to work the land. The work involved in the rearing of the cattle and the fabrication of the Fourme d’Ambert cheese is part of the work of the women. The mother and one of the daughters or daughters-in-law lived on the mountain, and the men climbed the mountain regularly to carry out the agricultural tasks around the jasserie and bring news from ground level.
The word ‘fourme’ has ancient roots, it comes from the Greek ‘phormos’, then from the latin ‘forma’ or ‘formaticus’ which is translated as ‘forme,’ in the way that cheese (fromage in French) is ‘formed.’ In old French ‘forme’ meant ‘a recipient which contains curds’ in other words the result of the mixture of milk and rennet. Several medieval words were formed from the old French ‘forme’: ‘formage,’ ‘fourmage’ and ‘fourme,’ but these became obsolete.Between the Middle-Ages and today, the semantics of the word have evolved, becoming ‘fromage’ in the modern French. ‘Fourme’ disappeared in favour of the word ‘fromage’ except in the Massif Central where the word ‘fourme’ is still used. This is why a large number of cheeses from Auvergne are called ‘fourme de…’ Cantal or Fourme de Cantal ; Fourme de Rochefort Montagne, etc. The meaning of the word ‘fourme’ has evolved, it signified a container, a utensil used in the fabrication of cheese, then little by little ‘fourme’ became to mean a cheese and then a cheese originating from a certain geographical area. Today, the word ‘fourme’ is protected, not just any old cheese can be called ‘fourme!’ The term ‘fourme’ is not just limited to the Fourme d’Ambert AOC, in fact, it can only be used for the cheeses produced in Auvergne.
AOC and the conditions for the fabrication of the Fourme d'Ambert cheese
The Fourme d’Ambert cheese has modified its specifications four times since it obtained its AOC status in 1972, with the most recent modification being on the 22nd February 2002. For the production of the milk for the Fourme d’Ambert cheese, the AOC specifications state:
- In relation to the grass eaten by the animals: “grass should be the basis of the dairy cow’s diet.
- The conditions of the pasture: “it is obligatory for the cows to be put out to pasture…”
- The origin of the forage fed to the dairy cows: “All the forage meant for the diet of the dairy cows must come from the geographical area of designation.”
- The composition of the cereals distributed to the dairy cows: “the cereals distributed to the dairy cows must be part of the list approved by the ODG (Organisation de defence et de gestion).
After being curdled, the milk gives birth to the Fourme d’Ambert cheese, which is presented in its original form : shaped as a cylinder with a height of 19cm and a thickness of 13cm. The salting is done at the end of the draining, after two or three days of drying, the fourmes are pricked in order for the mould to grow. In the cool, humid cheese cellar, the fourmes are matured slowly and the delicately blue veined interior develops all of its aromas. The Fourme d’Ambert is ready to be enjoyed after it has been matured for at least 28 days. The specifications state not only the practices (the fact it should not be pressed, type of salting etc…) but also the conditions (duration, temperature etc…) in which the cheese must be matured. The fabrication of the Fourme d’Ambert cheese takes place in 7 steps:
The collection of the milk
Before fabricating the AOC Fourme d’Ambert cheese, the, milk must be collected from the AOC farms. The collector goes from farm to farm the and collects the milk every two days, the milk is the outcome of the work done by the producers of the AOC milk.
The preperation of the milk
The milk arrives at the cheese-makers, here is where the long fabrication of the AOC Fourme d’Ambert cheese begins. Before being transformed into cheese, the milk must be prepared. The micro-organisms in the milk work through the night to transform the milk into cheese.
The time in the vat
The time that the milk spends in the vat is the essential moment where the quality of the cheese is decided. The milk is put into the vat and heated to 32°C, a fermenting agent, Penicillin Roqueforti is added as well as lactic bacteria (which will form the blue) and rennet to curdle the milk. The curdled milk is cut (it is the master cheese-maker who decides when the curds should be cut) then it is stirred for more than an hour to help the separation of the grains of cheese and the whey. Whilst being stirred, it forms a fine skin (the ‘cap’) which protects the tender heart of the grain.
Whilst being cast, little caverns form between the grains, thanks to the firmness of the ‘cap’ which stops the grains from sticking together completely. The moulds are placed in a warmer room and they are turned several times during 24 hours to enhance the draining. The cheeses then form their definitive shape and weigh 2.2kg.
Once drained, the cheeses are salted by hand with fine salt, or they are immersed in brine for several hours. They are then put in a ventilated room for two days to rest the cheese.
(at least 4 days after the production of the cheese)
To develop, the blue needs space and oxygen. This is why the cheeses are pricked with large needles, in order to create air holes. The blue has the necessary air for development in the small caverns which were produced at the heart of the cheese.
The maturing process
The cheese must be matured for at least 28 days for it to develop its softness and fragrance. The rind will form bit by bit, thanks to the development of a white bloom which is regularly scraped. After a few days, the blue starts to appear and the interior begins to mature.