Contrary to the commonly accepted thinking, the Epoisses cheese can be made outside the village of Epoisses, like here for the Fromagerie des Marronniers which is located in Origny, 50 km from its birth place. The namesake cheese was originally born thanks to Cistercian monks who designed the recipe in the 16th century, afterwards this washed rind cheese was made in countless farms of this region, most of the time by women, the region being the area around Epoisses in northern Burgundy. Before the revolution, it even became one of the favorite cheeses found at the court in Versailles. The Epoisses cheese had probably its apogy in the 19th century, even peaking in the early 20th before WW1. After then, as the women had to replace the fallen husbands and sons to work in the farm, they had less time to spend for cheese making. Later, another major blow was the setting up of compulsory norms for the cheese-making rooms and buildings.
The Chatillonnais region where this Epoisses cheese farm is located is a little-known part of Burgundy, it is divided between the plateau part with lots of agriculture and the valley side through which the still-very-small river Seine flows (pictured on right close to the cheese facility at Aisey-sur-Seine) and where you have lots of woods and pastures (video). Otherwise the Epoisses cheese appellation area covers 2/3 of the Côte d'Or département plus 3 cantons in the Yonne département and 2 in the Haute Marne. This means there could be more cheese farms or dairies making this cheese.
Origny is a small village at some distance from the main road. When you arrive at the edge of the village there are a couple of nice medieval towers on the left, these are remains from a 14th-century castle (more pics on this page).
Before the norms and the technology changed the cheese landscape in France, it was probably very common to fall upon particularly-stinking époisses, especially in the area of Epoisses where local farmers kept making their cheese along the original recipe using raw milk without airconditioning or sterile rooms. You will be surprised to learn that today only 4 époisses producers remain : 3 industrial cheese dairies using pasteurized milk (including Berthaut who revived this traditional cheese in 1956), and one cheese farm using its own raw milk, the Fromagerie des Marronniers which we're visiting in this story.
The issue of the milk from which cheese is made provides an opportunity for an interesting digression.
Raw-milk cheese versus pasteurized-milk cheese, this is a well-known debate and to make things more complicated (I'm speaking of cheese in general, not époisses), new techniques have been blurring the divide between the two, for example the thermisation where milk is heated to a safe point while still stopping short of reaching the pateurization gap, and the cheese made from thiis type of milk will need additional fermenting agents afterwards. The cheese maker using thermisation can still legally say he makes his cheese from raw milk but it isn't really raw anymore. Read this resourceful page (in English) by Madeleine Vedel on raw milk cheese where I took the following excerpt :
Not all cheeses in France are made with raw milk. There is a relatively new production method that lies between raw milk and pasteurized called thermisation, in which the milk is heated to a temperature just below that which kills the enzyme phosphatase. On a label, the cheese-maker can still call this “raw milk,” but in fact it is relatively (if not completely) dead milk that requires the addition of fermenting agents. This method is used for certain soft-centered cow’s milk cheeses, and Christian Fleury, my local cheese-maker from the village of Noves, has told me that it was in these cheeses that occurred an outbreak of Lysteria contamination in recent years.
In some way, we find here a similar debate than the one between uncorrected wines and conventional wine, except that for the cheese the industrial producers hide their motives for using pasteurized milk behind the pretended health issue, even though the facts prove that you get more deaths and health problems with industrial/pateurized/thermisized-milk cheese than with traditional/raw-milk cheese. The real motive like for the commercial wineries is of course to get a steady, predictable production line and high yields through the (apparent) control of all the parameters. At some point when you're eyeing mass production and product stability, pasteurization is the convenient option, but at the expense of taste and occasionally of safety.
Pic on left : a "civilized" (firm and well-behaved) type of Epoisse (found of the official website of the Epoisses appellation)
In the experimental cheese cellars of the INRA some raw-milk cheeses are artificially contaminated with the pathogenic Listeria. While studying the reaction of the cheese microflora to the arrival of this nasty bacterium, researchers have made a startling discovery : some raw milk cheeses have the means to defend themselves against the Listeria. "A [raw-milk] cheese is a populated microbial community that produces molecules to inhibit pathogenic outsiders. The more different individuals in the community, the more molecules to defend the cheese. In a raw milk cheese, listeria will have to face an army," says Marie-Christine Montel.
You can read an excerpt from the research on this INRA press release (in French) which sounds like a fervent praise of the healthy qualities of raw-milk cheese and raw milk in general.
This was an introduction to this raw-milk issue, but I learnt during this visit that other factors play a pivotal role : the quality of the raw milk and first of all, the type of feed given the cows. Another striking similarity to the real wine, with which everything really starts in the vineyard...
pic on left : a lovingly-running (and already pleasantly stinking) raw-milk Epoisses, pictured at home. I gulped this first slice with delight...
When they started their business, they had first to have the whole herd with the right breeds allowed for époisses, and turn the side buildings as cheese labs along the norms and so on. They produced their first cheeses in 2002 and they have grown ever since. The fact that they're the only ones making raw-milk Epoisses made it easier for them to sell their production.
On the picture above you can see Caroline Bartkowiez on left with a staff busy filling the moulds.
To rewind to the first stage, these containers had been first filled, in the morning, with the fresh milk which is still warm from the cow's udder, then they add their yeast and molds to get a cottage cheese (fromage blanc in French) in the afternoon. Then in the second stage they add the rennet (présure in French) and fill wide buckets with the mix, which will coagulate. B. asks about the cheese makers in the past who didn't add yeast, Alain says that they would reseed with the previous day's serum, the curd. They would each day keep some curd as a starter for the next day's cheese. After the coagulation stage that lasts until the following morning, they fill the moulds that have all these holes around (pictured on left) to let the milk drip until the next day. Then after turning them upside down twice they take the cheese out of the moulds and spray some salt on them, they let them 24 hours at about 23 ° C. After that they begin to cool them down and dry them in a special room with ventilation for 48 hours. After that the cheeses are brought into the maturation room for about a month, and they call this room the cellar (cave in French), another similarity with winemaking. In this stabilized-temperature room they'll be washed by hand every 2 or 3 days with Marc de Bourgogne. Actually it is a mix of water, salt and marc (at least 10 % of marc) which is a strong alcohol (I'd say 45 % to 50 % strong).
Pic on right : an old wooden butter churn, Alain showing old metal mould that were used in the past. Each cheese gets a total of 8 or 10 washings with the Marc mix.
The maturation room looks full but it's emptying fast as they have to fulfil the orders for Christmas and the New Year festivities. Winter is certainly the high season for Epoisses, with a big production concentrated on a 3-week period. They don't have a shortage of milk as they just have to sell less milk to dairies, the problem is more on the limitations related to the size of the cheese lab, the drying room and the maturation room.
You need lots of milk to make an époisses (like for any cheese I guess) : 2 liters for a 250 gr portion. So considering that they make 12 tons of cheese every year, they use 48 tons of milk for the process, and they sell the rest of the milk.
None of these époisses cheeses made in this farm can be found in a supermarket, they sell only to cheese shops and wholesalers supplying cheese shops. It's a policy and anyway the production is not big enough to satisfy a supermarket chain. They don't even have enough cheese to satisfy the cheese shops.
The smaller Ch'tit Bourguignon (sort of means "small Burgundian") on the left isn't sold under the name of époisses because it doesn't meet the size and weight requirements (it weighs 180 gr instead of 250 gr), but otherwise it's been made like an époisses, through at least one month maturation and washed with marc de Bourgogne (the Burgundy spirit). The Ch'ti de Bourgogne costs only 3 €, a very good deal indeed.
They sell about 10 % of their production to visitors (I'd eat époisses every day if I lived around here), but more in summer than in winter, the roads being slippery here (we had a few scares on the way while driving on small roads, and it wasn't yet the deep winter).
They don't export directly but cheese refiners (affineurs) or cheese shops do export some of their cheese. Anyway if you find a raw-milk époisses abroad labelled as fromage fermier it can only come from this cheese farm. A few years ago they had sold cheese directly to a Japanese buyer who had visited the farm but since then this buyer has certainly found a more convenient way to import their cheese through a wholesaler. The export process is quite complicated for dairy products, you have to make a demand for each shipping and it's better to leave this job to specialized wholesalers/exporters.
In a specialized cheese shop (Beillevaire - mouse-over the cheeses to see their price) I found the époisses from the Fromagerie des Marronniers. There wasn't mention of the farm on the label but resellers and refiners are allowed not to display the exact orignin as long as the appellation status is right. As it was an époisses fermier made wit raw milk, it just can't come from another place. They sold it at 10,72 € there. I found another cheese shop where this raw-milk époisses sold for 13,5 €, or more than 4 times the original wholesale price (I guess the shops pay 3 € apiece at the farm), not a bad business indeed...
In comparison I found a couple of pasteurized Epoisses in a Super-U supermarket in that area of Burgundy (Alise Sainte Reine) : the one under the U-stores brand was at 5,5 €, the one by the dairy Germain at 5,35 € and the one by Berthaut at 6,54 € (all three sized 250 gr and made from pasteurized milk). You can't find the raw-milk époisses of Fromagerie des Marronniers in any supermarket. There was also super-sized époisses (by the dairy Berthaut) weighing 800 gr to 900 gr with prices starting at 18 € apiece.
I also checked at the famed Grande Epicerie of the department store Le Bon Marché in Paris, which is supposed to be a mecca for good food, and they didn't even have a raw-milk époisses there, but only a pasteurized one from the dairy Berthaut, and they sold it for 11,20 €. To make things worse, the word Epoisses was misspelled on the small sign near the cheese, without the s at the end. Times are not what they used to be in the épiceries chics...
The Fromagerie des Marronniers is the only cheese farm making Epoisses from its own cows and using raw milk (the other dairies buy milk to third parties), thus it can write the words fromage fermier (means farm cheese) on the label of its Epoisses. Only cheese makers using the milk of their own animals can label as fromage fermier.
They have two cattle breeds here for their milk cows, the Montbéliarde (named I guess from the eastern city of Montbéliard) and the Brune des Alpes, a breed originated in Switzerland and imported in Burgundy in the 18th century. There's another breed that can be used for Epoisses, the Simmental which also comes originally from Switzerland.
The reason these 3 breeds are a condition for Epoisses is because they have exceptional qualities for this type of cheese : Epoisses is not pressed unlike other cheeses, it needs to go through a long dripping stage, and only milks with certain protein structures can allow a long, efficient dripping for cheese making.
The farm has now 65 milk cows in production, plus young calves, heifers and bulls, for a total of 150 animals, quite a big number of cows to take care of.
They also had a specialist check the electrical environment in the stables because the cows are very sensitive to electrical waves and making a few changes makes a big difference for the quietness of the cows and the milk quality. Read this page (intended for farmers) in French on the issue.
In fact they had noticed that the cows were very reluctant to climb one of the two ramps leading to the milking unit (not pictured on this story), they all preferred the other one and the staff couldn't figure out why. The technician who visited the stabble for that matter immedially noticed that there was a machine touching the wall in the next room along this ramp, he asked them to move away this electricity-powered machine and instantly the cows felt the change and had no objection to take this ramp. They couldn't see this machine on the other side of the wall but somehow they were disturbed by its electric or magnetic waves.
They looked into these magnetic and electrical infuences in 2006 and it definitely was a plus. This is an empirical technique which is not learnt in the cheese schools, by the way.
You may know that nowadays many farmers use silage to feed their cows, especially in winter when there's no producing pastures. The problem is, silage is a fermented feed which can bring problems in the food chain. It has a long record of yielding milk that is more prone to toxins and the resulting milk has also a decreased nutritive value, and these shortcomings end up in the final product. The high pH in silage helps develop pathogenic microbes, among them listeriosis.
These pathogens are not only bad for the milk and the cheese, but also for the cows and the end consumer. We often simplify the issue between raw milk and pasteurized milk, but here again the picture is blurred with the use of silage, as the raw milk obtained through silage feeding has less healthy components. Consumers may ignore the silage parameter and buy a given raw-milk cheese without knowing he's been a bit cheated about it.
Alain told us that for example when the silage feed was introduced in the 60s' or 70s' it gave a hard blow to the Emmental cheese production because with the long élevage time of the Emmental the spores of butytric acid bacteria brought lots of problems and contamination in the cheese processing plants, that's why raw milk isn't used anymore for emmental (but again, it's not raw milk by itself which was the troublemaker, bur silage feed).
I am pretty sure that if all cheeses were made from raw milk (including not thermisized) obtained without silage, you'd get the safest dairy products you can dream of (and much more tasty). But for that you'd need to work on a more artisan way, and you'd pay a bit more than what you pay for cheese in the supermarkets.
The solar heater system is keeping this hay warm from the bottom of the large hay reserve, so that it doesn't rot and dries properly indoors. The built-in crane on the picture above can grab stacks of hay and drop them in the stable on the left. You access the hay storage by climbing a steep ladder, and it is I guess out of reach for rodents.
The farm has both active pastures for the cows and hay fields from where reserves have been made in advance for the winter or the dry months of summer. This is more hard work and investment (they converted corn fields into hay fields or pastures) than relying on the silage feed but this way they're self sufficient and more important, they provide a safe and healthy food to their cows, which translates into tastier cheese and no pathognen threat.
Here again, I can't but notice the silmilarity between winemaking and cheese making. We all know that for wineries also, taking care of the source product, I mean the vineyards, by not spraying nefarious chemicals or fertilizers, helps make sure you get grapes and juices that will make a much better job for your wine. Here also when you take shortcuts (silage is so much easy) you ultimately pay it through other problems further down on the process.
Asked why they're the only to make raw-milk époisses, Alain says that actually one of the other three producers of époisses (they're not cheese farms but dairy industries), the Fromagerie Gaugry, also makes occasionally raw-milk Epoisses for a part of their production. The problem for a dairy is that they collect the milk in different farms and that they don't have full control on the way the cattle is fed.
Asked if they have more cheese production in certain times of the year because of lower or higher milk production by the cows, Alain says that they can decide how much cheese they want to make because they don't transform all their milk in cheese, they always sell part of the milk to dairies. The good side is that they have a shoch-absorber margin of maneuver and even if cows make less milk in certain seasons they will always have enough of it for their planned production. They just reduce the amount of milk they sell outside to be sure to keep the volume they need.
Now you have also a French/European thing here for the milk production, the quotas, a quota for allowed production volume being given to every farm as a limit on what they can commercialize directly. Very complicated like usual, all the trade is regulated by limits and other requirements, but the milk quotas are to be discontinued in 2015.
Asked if he sells milk if someone wants to buy some for home consuption, he says yes, but he adds that there is a French paradox, most people are used to buy their milk in Tetrapack in the supermarket and they don't look for the real thing even if it is close from home. Asked about the fat in his milk, he says that it is at 44 gr per liter while in the supermarket the full-cream milk has only 36 gr per liter.
At the end of the visit I asked Mathilde (pic on top) where she studied the art of cheese making, she said in Poligny in the Jura, at Enilbio. The cursus includes part-time training in cheese farms or dairies. This cheese school makes different cheeses, like Comté, Morbier, Grimont, Saint Savin, Le Pénitent, but also faisselle (curd), organic yogurts, raclette and butter churn.
Now for the wine pairing, there's an important issue which brings a variable, it's the ripeness of the cheese, you'll not choose the same wine for the same cheese at different maturations, and in my mind the range narrows considerably for the ripest (read stinkiest) version of époisses...
B. ended up opening one of her Chenin wines, L'Opera des Vins, Lumière de Silex No 3 a table wine from 2003 and made by Jean Pierre Robinot, which she purchased when we visited Jean-Pierre and his magic cellars in the Loir region. This Chenin went through a 20-month élevage plus one month in bottles. It cost 18 € back then in 2005.
One important thing before you raise the glass to your lips, please wipe your mouth with a napkin because the stinky cheese left on your lips after you gulped voluptuously your full spoon of époisses will make your appreciation of the wine more difficult. The cheese was like it looks on the picture, deliciously strong, its silky cream coating the mouth and the throat, you'd almost forget about the wine to be frank.
Let's have wine anyway : the chenin from Jean-Pierre Robinot makes a very beautiful job here, it is powerful enough not to be dwarfed by the running cheese (you must have fully swallowed the cheese first though, and salivated a bit to get the coating less invasive), and believe me, you don't only enjoy its texture but also its ripe aromas that will gradually cover the ones of the cheese.
Another advice if you don't eat the époisses at once : make sure to keep it in its wooden box and possibly tilted firmly on its side (like on the pic on right), so that the cream inside the rind doesn't run outside (wrap it too, it's better). In autumn and winter you'd be even wise to keep it outside the window, where it's cold enough bot not too much, and where it's stinkiness will not contaminate the rest of your food. Beware of birds who could love it.
The époisses is among the cheeses you easily get hooked to, and it is only because of its relatively-high price that you end up moderating your appetite. Its raw milk version is certainly more tasty and I also like to believe that all these microbes (it has lots more than the pasteurized version) do an irreplaceable job for our body's alchemy.