The disappearance and reappearance of Vacherin d'Abondance
Where to Find Vacherin d'Abondance.
I first became aware of this cheese back in the early 2000's, when we took 12 cheese makers on a tour of cheese making throughout France, and our friend Ali (who knew all things cheese in France), took us up into the Abondance valley.
I had already found the "DK French Cheese Book", and was fascinated by a pictorial essay on the last woman still making this Vacherin cheese in the valley of Abondance.
Her name was Célina Gagneux, who's family had been making this cheese in the valley for several generations, however, she was the last person who knew how to make it in the valley.
Bad news, Vacherin d'Abondance is no longer made.
Unfortunately by 2005, I had heard from a friend in France that Mme Gagneux had reached the age of 73 and was no longer making it. That season there was none left in the shops for the winter holidays. "When I was a girl, there were 30 people or more who made this Vacherin in the valley. Now they've all died or stopped".
Mme Gagneux, who was taught to make Vacherin d'Abondance by her mother-in-law 50 years ago, is resigned to taking its secrets to her grave. "My daughters don't want to do this because the work it is too hard. After me there won't be any more." Very sad news for the cheese loving world.
Mme Gagneux said, the time may have finally come to put Vacherin d'Abondance to rest. "I don't know if I will ever make any more," she said. "I made a little last winter but I don't know if I will bother again this year. I am getting old now and milking cows in the winter, morning and evening, getting up early, bringing in the wood, starting the fire, making the cheese, I don't know if I will have the energy this year. I don't know if we will keep the cows any longer. It's a pity but there it is."
The main reason, other than her years and the hard work of making this, was that in 1992, new EU hygiene directives decreed that production of cheeses had to happen in a "proper" dairy. When directives came into force in 1995, the small producers said the new requirements would put them out of business. In later years however, a relaxed clarification of the directive, showed that traditional, raw-milk cheeses made by small producers were in fact exempt.
Great news, Vacherin d'Abondance has been reborn.
However, even though good things end, as they occasionally do, the sun may rise again, like the Phoenix from the ashes.
In the past few years I have heard of a young man from the Abondance valley. His name is Samuel Girard-Despraulex, and although only 20 years old, he has become a cheese hero.
In 2014, as part of his internship in BTS Science and Food Techniques, Samuel embarked on his challenge of restoring the Vacherin cheese. By consulting with the country's living memories of recent producers, Régis and Huguette Grillet, and Célina Gagneux, he sought the knowledge he needed for this project.
Samuels milking cows are the Abondance breed, whey are distinctive by the characteristic white face and brown eye patches.
"I wanted to revive the production of the Vacherin because it is a historical cheese of the valley. My grandfather did it and it is important not to lose tradition. During my two years at BTS, I was apprenticed to the farm of Girard (where his father and cousins worked) and my project of study was to revive this cheese."
In November 2015, Samuel and his cousin, Daniel Girard, created an association around the Vacherin with fourteen farmers and support from the community of the valley of Abondance. "Our aim is to make the Vacherin known and to protect it. We also want it to be recognized by a quality label, PDO or PGI".