A Tale of flavor in Two Acts
Tome de Bordeaux cheesemaking begins in one region of France and finishes in another
Julien Maillaud is a contented farmer. He’s 29 years old, the master of a herd of 180 gamboling, spirited Saanen goats in the Charente-Poitou region of France near the city of Niort. His barn is so clean, neatly tended, and well decorated that the goats might feel as if they were guests at a bed-and-breakfast, with Mr. Maillaud their gentle host. The animals eat only the best alfalfa, have lots of light, space, and air, and get pats on the head and kisses on the nose. Surveying this loving care on a recent visit, I think, “What creature could ask for more?”
Twice a day, 66 goats at a time rush into a pristine milking room on one side of Maillaud’s barn, tempted by a rich offering of barley and flakes of corn. They munch to their hearts’ content while the farmer, calm as a Zen master, attaches the milking machine to their teats. Their “work” finished within 20 minutes, the goats return to the barn to play while another group gets in place. The whole milking process takes Maillaud about an hour and a half. As I watch this dairy ritual, I think how appropriate it is that the fruit of Maillaud’s labor will end up as a luscious round of herb-infused cheese, aged in fifteenth-century cellars beneath the city of Bordeaux, and proudly called Tome de Bordeaux.
Making It So
Tome de Bordeaux was created a dozen years ago by Jean and Pascale d’Alos. Their surname, which they gave to the fromagerie, or cheese shop, they opened in Bordeaux in 1983, resonates throughout France, as they are considered among the aristocracy of cheese affineurs, or agers. “Our passion is cheese, and our goal when we opened Jean d’Alos was to mature cheese,” says Mme. d’Alos, who, with her husband, retired from the shop more than a year ago to help cheese-makers in the Pyrénées. “We needed stone cellars,” she adds, “and we found them in Bordeaux.” Over the years they created several cheeses; Tome de Bordeaux was one of their last.
“We based it on Poustagnac, a traditional sheep’s milk cheese seasoned with piment d’Espelette,” explains Mme. d’Alos, referring to a smallish, slightly spicy cheese. “But we wanted to create something bigger that would age for a long time, and we wanted to create a cheese that had a link to the city.” The result is the Tome de Bordeaux. Seasoned with spices as well as herbs, it weighs between 10 and 12 pounds and is at its best after aging in the shop’s stone cellars for about two months.
Just a year ago, Clarence Grosdidier bought the Jean d’Alos cheese shop and caves. His passion—like that of Jean and Pascale d’Alos—has no limits. Nor do his goals. “I want to help young farmers stay on the farm,” Grosdidier remarks. “I want them to keep producing cheeses, and to create new ones. I want my clients to have the best possible cheeses.” The list of aspirations goes on, but chief among his plans and desires is to honor the Tome de Bordeaux.
“We make only 500 a year, each of which is individually aged,” he says. “This is a cheese with a story, a link to people and place.”
Unlike most of the cheeses in the elegant Jean d’Alos shop, the Tome de Bordeaux is made with pasteurized goat’s milk. While the d’Alos and Grosdidier are devotees of raw milk cheeses, they insist that pasteurized milk is appropriate for this cheese and doesn’t detract from its quality. “The Tome de Bordeaux has that perfect balance of goat’s milk and herb seasoning,” says Grosdidier. “It ages into a cheese that is tender and richly flavored.” Mme. d’Alos agrees, “It’s a cheese that has seduced many people.”
From Wobble to Wheels
While Jean and Pascale are the originators of Tome de Bordeaux and Grosdidier is its new keeper, the cheese’s story begins where all good cheese stories begin—on the farm with Maillaud and his healthy goats. Their fresh milk is pumped directly into a refrigerated holding tank, and every other day it is collected by a small regional dairy, the Union Latière de la Venise Verte (ULVV), which was started in 1891.
The dairy now operates in a vintage building from the 1950s. It is bright white with a red tile roof, and surrounded by a halo of lactic aroma. Until recently the cooperative’s cheesemaker lived upstairs in a large, airy apartment; that space now serves as an office. The whole place has a quaint air, which belies its state-of-the-art laboratory, or “atelier.”
When Maillaud’s goat milk arrives at the dairy in the early evening, it is blended with goat milk from 13 other small, local farms. It then goes into the atelier, where it is pasteurized, cooled, and refrigerated. At five a.m. the next morning the milk is reheated, and rennet is added to create curds. By early afternoon those curds are drained, pressed, and ready to put into cheese molds.
Before I go inside the creamery, I suit up in a white jacket, white shoe socks, and a white bonnet so that every item of clothing is covered and no hair is left to stray. To step into the atelier is to enter an antiseptic world, where all is steam and milk.
I arrive at a crucial, early-afternoon moment: the milk has been transformed into curds and the whey by-product has drained off and been sent to another atelier, where it will be dried and used to make baby food. What’s left in the huge, rectangular steel vat that takes up most of the room is a level giant mass of wobbly curd.
The wobble is misleading, however. The curd is cut into big blocks that weigh more than ten pounds each. Two sinewy dairy workers heft the blocks from the vat one at a time, transferring them into waiting round metal molds that are lined with rustic cotton and linen cloths. Throughout this process, the blocks hold together, firmer than they look.
The blocks are cut by eye, so each is a slightly different size. It’s up to the dairy workers to even out the curds in the molds so the resulting cheeses will be uniform. At least that’s the idea. “The cheeses are never uniform,” Pierre Marty, director of production, admits with a laugh. “You can see this work is done by eye, and you can see that not all the molds are filled exactly the same. These men are artisans; we don’t really expect perfect uniformity.”
The molds are filled and tightened, with the cloths carefully tucked around the cheese curds, and each is carried to a metal shelf where it will sit for three to four hours—the time it takes to develop a certain acidity and firmness. Then the molds are upended and the cloths removed. The “curd” aspect is gone; in its place is a round of young cheese.
The rounds go directly into brine, where they stay for about 30 hours. “We turn them regularly so they’re evenly salted,” Marty explains. From the brine they go to an aging cellar, where they are washed daily with an annatto-tinted brine and flipped every other day. This not only seasons the Tome de Bordeaux but also allows it to firm up enough to be safely transported.
The goat’s milk cheeses are bright white, in stark contrast to the buttery yellow of cow’s milk cheeses. The two types sit together in the chilly aging cellar, distinguished by brightly colored tags and varying shapes and sizes. Each is treated differently, according to the desired results of the buyer. Some cheeses spend their entire lives here at the dairy before being sent to market. For the Tome de Bordeaux, however, only the very first part of its destiny lies here.
Dipped, Dressed, and Doted On
At eight weeks the rounds are transported to the aging cellars of Jean d’Alos, about an hour and a half away. They are welcomed like family and transported by hand down a steep, narrow stairway to the chilly, fifteenth-century aging cellars. Like a finishing school for cheese, the cellars are where Tome de Bordeaux’s character is established.
Before these cheeses find their home on the birch shelves in the vaulted aging cellars, they need seasoning. Two of Grosdidier’s employees, Sarah and Anais, take care of this, and the process is painstaking. It involves dipping each of the 10- to 12-pound cheeses in water and then holding it for a minute or two while it drains. A fragrant dried herb mixture that includes rosemary, thyme, savory, fennel, and oregano is pressed into the slightly soft cheese. “We have to do it now,” Grosdidier explains. “The cheese is soft and the water helps it accept the herbs. Later on, they would not stick.” Once the rounds are completely green with herbs, a handful each of juniper berries and white, black, and pink peppercorns is dropped in small pools on top. A mound of bird’s-eye peppers and a generous sprinkling of paprika finish the seasoning. Voilà!—the goat cheese has become Tome de Bordeaux.
The herb-and-spice-covered cheeses are carefully set on shelves in the aging cellar, not too close to each other, but not too far apart either. They are tended daily. If they’re too dry they’re wrapped in a plastic film. If they get too damp the film is removed. The tomes are turned and shifted and otherwise manipulated to ensure they age to perfection. Because the clientele in Bordeaux likes younger cheeses, wheels of Tome de Bordeaux are put in the shop after three months. Those destined for export are aged several months longer, because Grosdidier finds his export clients prefer a more intensely flavored cheese.
Dressed in an affineur’s apron, Grosdidier surveys his collection of Tome de Bordeaux. He chooses one and carries it upstairs to the shop, where he takes a core sample. He tastes it gingerly, intently. A smile spreads across his face.
“Creamy and delicious . . . you can taste the balance of herbs and the goat’s milk,” he says with a satisfied smile. “I taste the Tome de Bordeaux often. It’s the toughest part of my job!”
Written by Susan Hermann Loomis Photography by Francis Hammond