9 Sep 2012

Morbier: Last of the winter milk

Cheesy jokes don't go down well in the Jura mountains. They take their fromage seriously in this picturesque part of eastern France, and for good reason. It wasn't so long ago that cheese was an essential ingredient in surviving the region's long harsh winters that would bring life to a standstill. A well-stocked larder makes all the difference when the temperature is well below 0oC outside.

Spanning the border with Switzerland in the Franche-Comté province, the Jura's most famous cheeses are arguably Comté and Vacherin, but no cheeseboard from the area is complete without a slice of Morbier – a supple ivory-coloured cheese with a distinctive line of ash running through the middle.

Named after a small town high up in the spruce-covered hills and wide valleys of the Jura, the cheese is also affectionately known as 'Comté's little brother' because it was traditionally produced by Comté farmers as a way of making the most of winter milk.

During the summer, the farmers would work with each other, combining their small herds of Montbéliarde cows to produce enough milk to make large wheels of hard Comte that could be aged for years. But when the snow began to fall the red and white pied cattle would be brought back to their individual farms to be tucked up in barns for the winter. Reduced milk yields meant Comté was out of the question, so instead the farmers would make smaller, softer cheeses to see them through the cold months.

Morning milk would be turned into a curd and sprinkled with a layer of ash from the sides of the cooking cauldron to protect it from flies and bacteria. Later the same day, evening milk was used to make a second curd, which was pressed on top of the first ash-protected layer to make Morbier.

“Morbier comes from the history, the climate and the people of Jura,” explains Marc-Antoine Ducoulombier, who works for French cheese exporter Fromi. “It's been part of people's existence in this region for over 200 years and they take their cheese very seriously.”

To read the rest of this article, which was first published in Harrods Magazine, please click here

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