Beaufort from the top of the world

I worked as ‘cheese educator’ on an Alpine Cheese Journey – and this beaufort experience was without doubt one of the highlights.

But before we get to the cheese, the two moments below helped set the scene:

Scene 1:

The moon shines down from the dark morning sky onto the courtyard in front of our château. I realize that here is a group of people who have defied their body’s need for sleep and set an alarm clock. Why? Because we’re about to experience beaufort coming into the world in an alpine hut in the heights.

Scene 2:

Every time the minivan enters a curve, Anna from Cheese Journeys honks the horn to warn downhill drivers. Meanwhile I keep a close eye on the pictures sent by our scout Teresa Kaufmann in WhatsApp, trying to find them outside the minivan: a wooden sign, a small group of houses, etc.

Asphalt turns into a dirt road and the darkness is suddenly replaced by the sun. We pass the tree line – and finally we arrive at Chalet Bellachat.

Three times Beaufort AOP

Since 1968, beaufort has carried the AOP label, which guarantees its protection of origin. All beaufort cheeses are classified into three qualities depending on the milk and place of production:

  • If the cheese is simply called ‘beaufort’, it is made between November and May, when the cows are in the barn down in the valley. At this time of year, they mainly eat hay, which makes this type of beaufort the mildest of the three.
  • Beaufort Été means ‘summer beaufort’ and is made with milk from cows grazing outside (typically between June 1 and October 31). This type of beaufort is more yellow and fruity in flavor due to the 130 or so plant species per square meter that the cows munch through in the mountain pastures.
  • Beaufort Chalet d’Alpage – or ‘alpine chalet beaufort’ – represents the smallest part of the beaufort cheese wheels. The milk for this comes from cows grazing in the high altitudes, above 1,500 meters (around 5,000 ft). In addition, cheeses must be made twice a day with milk from the farm’s own herd using traditional methods.

It was this last type of cheese, the Alpage variety, which was made at Alpage Bellachat.

Alpage Bellachat

Nathalie and Jean François greet us on this September day, just before the end of the season. Their day also starts early, as the first milking is at 4:15 am (the last at 5:15 pm). The cows recognize voices and come to the mobile milking machine themselves to be milked.

Jean François and his brother took over this alpage (alpine hut) 18 years ago. Their parents had a small farm further down at an altitude of 1300 meters (4,260 ft), below the border of the ‘alpage’ area.

Today, the couple has 90 cows of the breeds Tarine and Abondance, the two breeds of cows that may be used for beaufort cheese.

Two tough mountain ladies

The two permitted breeds are perfect for alpine areas.

One is the tarine (or tarentaise, as it’s also known). It is a hardy caramel-colored cow. The other is the Abondance, known for its mahogany red coat with white markings. Often they have ‘lunettes’ or spectacles, as the color around the eyes is called.

Both cows are also not allowed to produce more than 5,000 liters (1,320 gallons) of milk per year per cow. This is less than most other milking cows.

The drought that Southern Europe has experienced in recent years is also felt at Alpage Bellachat. The lack of precipitation leads to a shortage of grass. Last year they got a dispensation to start feeding hay earlier than usual.

The cows graze in shifts between two areas around the dairy farm. This ensures that the grass comes back. Jean François tells us that you have to maintain the ‘alpage’ by grazing, otherwise the pastures will be taken over by blueberries and other plants.

Inside the dairy

In the small dairy, a large open copper vat greets us. It holds 400 liters (105 gallons) of milk, which makes a 40 kg (88 lb) cheese.

The curdled milk is cut into cheese grains and then stirred to separate more whey. The cheese grains must be quite small in order to become a hard cheese. The vat is heated with gas and the copper conducts the heat around in a balanced way that slowly brings the milk up to 55°C/131°F while stirring. This also helps to get the whey out of the cheese grains.

The cheese maker showed us how to know when the cheese is sufficiently acidified: You can form a small ball of the curd and easily dissolve it back into cheese grains.

When it’s time to get the curd out of the vat, the cheese maker leans over the vat with a net in his hands. Hanging there, he stems his feet against the back wall and in one swift motion, he catches all the cheese curd in his net.

Using a hook, a string and a rail in the ceiling, the curd filled net is transported to a wooden mold, where it is pressed for 24 hours.

The whey is used to make fresh cheese (fromage frais).

Magic in the cheese cellar

A bit down the sloping gravel road is the cheese cellar. Here, the new cheeses are first left with salt on the surface for 24 hours to form a rind. They they spend another 24 hours in a concentrated brine. The cheeses then ripen for about 10 days and are regularly rubbed on the surface. You always start with the oldest cheeses, as this way the good bacteria are spread to the youngest cheeses.

The beauforts are then transported down the valley to an affineur, who further ripens the cheeses under more controlled conditions. To be a genuine beaufort cheese, it must be aged for a minimum of five months in the Beaufort area.

The connection between skiing and cheese

Many cheesemakers in the area double job as ski instructors in the winter while the cows are stabled down in the valley. So does Jean François, who is a cross-country ski instructor in the winter time.

Lunch with a view of Mont Blanc

After the visit to the dairy and cheese cellar, we quickly set up a long table with tablecloths and served our lunch. Jean François brought some beaufort cheeses with different ages to the table.

Beaufort. A view of snow covered Mont Blanc. The soft sound of cowbells in the distance.

It doesn’t get any better than this!

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