Recently, I read a quote which made so much sense to me:
Choose to work with what you love,
and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.
Especially it made sense when I traveled as ‘cheese educator’ with Cheese Journeys to the French and Swiss Alps. Of course, the days were long and the nights a bit short at times, but what really mattered were all the stunning cheese experiences we had throughout our journey.
What is Cheese Journeys?
Behind the name you find American Anna Juhl. She worked many years as a nurse. One day, her life took a turn when she ‘coincidentally’ bought a cheese shop. It became the starting point for the whole family’s passion for cheese and the people making it.
Today, she organizes cheese tours for Americans and others who want to have unique and ‘behind-the-scenes’ experiences close to the producers of some of Europe’s best, artisanal cheeses.
It is rather difficult to condense 12 days of tightly packed program in a few words. That’s why you will get my Top 10 experiences. The order is not prioritized, but still my personal favourites come at the end ☺
Top 10: Savoie wine and terroir
Nursery for vines
Savoie is not particularly known for its wines, and vineyards isn’t the most common sight in this mountainous region. Typically, the rows of vines climb up the foothills of a mountain. The old glacial soil is an important part of the terroir of the wines in this area.
We visited Maison Philippe Grissard, which has been making wine for three generations and, not least, helped to give new life to rare or almost extinct vines, not just in Savoie but also throughout France and the rest of the world.
At the lake
We also visited the winery Xavier Jacqueline, where a father and two daughters grow organic and biodynamic grapes on six hectares of land spread over several areas, one in the middle of the city of Aix les Bains. In the microclimate around Lac du Bourget, the temperature never drops below the freezing point.
The family business started from scratch 35 years ago by planting vines. Today, they produce their wine in a wine cellar from 1895.
Top 9: Wine and cheese tasting in the cellar of our château
On the welcome evening, we transformed the dark cellar into a cozy French bistro, where we held the first cheese tasting of the trip. It was a welcome to the Savoie region, where we greeted the local cheeses. We got to know several of them better later in the week visiting cows and dairies. I introduced the cheeses together with Anne Laure from Savoie Touch Wine, who was responsible for the evening’s wines.
On the plate (starting ‘at 12′): Sainte Maure de Tourraine (the only non-local cheese), Persillé de Tigne, Reblochon in two ages, Tommette de Chèvre, Tome des Bauges, Beaufort and Bleu du Val d’ Aillon.
Top 8: Cow bell producer
Cowbells are closely linked with the Alps, the Jura Mountains and the other mountain regions. Because if you can’t hear the bells, how will you find your cows? We visited the Fonderie Charles Obertin – a forge that has cast bronze bells since 1834. In the shop next door they sell bells. Small bells, big bells. Old bells, new bells. For cows, for the door, for the dog, for decorations, for the key ring. Here is everything the heart desires – when it comes to bells.
Top 7: Absinthe distillery
Absinthe and other liqueurs are produced in old copper kettles and fine wooden barrels at a small distillery in Pontarlier. The green drink, which is still shrouded in mystery today, is among other ingredients made of the absinthe plant growing nearby. The aromatic plant has been used as medicine throughout the ages. In the 19th century, absinthe was a popular drink with high percentages, but ‘The Green Fairy’ also gained a reputation for leading to madness and what was worse. In 1914, the drink was banned.
In 2001, absinthe was recreated, and with a lower alcohol percentage and now legalized, you can once again buy and enjoy the green drink, which also contains green anise seeds.
Top 6: Melted cheese
It is impossible not to come across melted cheese when you are in the Alps and the Jura mountains. And it comes in many forms, generous portions and always made with local cheeses. Fondue, raclette, tartiflette, reblochonnade (raclette made from reblochon), mont d’or, manigodine (cheese with spruce belt) – there are many variations, and we tasted them all.
Top 5: Visting an affineur
Making cheese is one thing. Maturing the cheese is something else. In the Alps and the Jura mountains, cheese production takes place for a large part of the year up in the heights, and the small dairies typically produce only a few cheeses per day. In return, they entrust the further fate of the cheeses to the hands of the knowledgeable affineurs.
The affineur’s work is also a craft. Each cheese is cared for and given the optimal conditions to bring out the best taste, texture and personality.
At Paccard in the Jura Mountains, we experienced the ripening cellar, where they refine local cheeses such as reblochon, abondance, tommes and raclette.
Top 4: Coziness at our château
The setting of a cheese journey is always unique. The Alps are no exception. The first part of the trip was based at our own château.
Le Château St. Philippe was originally built as a monastery in 1032. It was literally located in the middle of a Roman road and therefore tolls could be collected from people passing by. A spring runs on/under the property and at one point powered a small mill. As in other places, the monks of the Middle Ages helped to develop local agriculture and foods, and who knows?! Perhaps cheeses were once produced at the château.
The breath of history
In recent decades, the current owners have carefully restored the château. As I walked down the long corridor, up the narrow staircase or around the chilly cellar, I wished the walls could tell what they have seen. For example, when the castle was accommodation for German troops during the Second World War.
We enjoyed the château as the beautiful setting for our workshops. Our two chefs taught chocolate tempering. My workshops were about food photography and the art of building a cheese board.
Top 3: Visit to dairy and affineur
The Jura mountains are home to the comté cheese, which is the most consumed AOP cheese in France. 1.7 million cheese wheels are produced each year in small dairies in the designated area. The dairies (small and larger) send their cheeses to an affineur, who refines the products to perfection.
We visited both a dairy and an affineur who matured comté wheels in the cellar of an old military fort. It was such a special experience which you can read about in details right here.
Top 2: Beaufort – at the top of the world
The alpine cheese Beaufort comes in various ‘qualities’ depending on which milk is used. When the cheese is produced way up in the Alps during high summer, the cheese is called ‘beaufort châlet d’alpage’.
We visited the married couple Nathalie and Jean François at the end of a dirt road high up in the mountains. Here we experienced cheese making in open copper vats, had lunch at a long table with a view of snow-capped Mont Blanc, while the cowbells tinkled softly in the distance.
This experience, too, was so special that I had to dedicate a separate blog post to it. I hope you will enjoy it.
Top 1: Cow parade
The highlight of the trip was perhaps the long-awaited cow parade. Because when the cows are taken down from the heights in early autumn, it turns into a festive event. Dressed in handsome hats and beautiful flowers, the cows are accompanied by nicely dressed people from the farm to the town. We crossed the border into Switzerland and were with them all the way. We decorated the cows, we followed them on the road, and we watched them arrive in the small town, which this day had been transformed into a giant cheese party.