It should be noted that the Fourme Ambert should be considered a cheese to be made by advanced cheese makers, however the history and process should provide good reading for all cheese makers and a future goal to pursue as you develop your craft.
The region of the Auvergne:
The Auvergne is probably most well known for its rugged mountainous terrain, mostly formed by extinct volcanoes, and sometimes referred to as the 'Massif Central'. It was a home to Vercingetorix, King of the Arverni tribes (hence the name) and leader of the fierce Gallic resistance against Julius Caesar.
Until modern times, it was a major barrier to transport and communication, but with today's highways it has become accessible along the valleys. However, the higher regions still maintain their remote and rugged nature.
As described in the past in one of George Sands books:
"One of the loveliest spots on earth . . . a country without roads, without guides, without any facilities for locomotion, where every discovery must be conquered at the price of danger or fatigue . . . a soil cut up with deep ravines, crossed in every way by lofty walls of lava, and furrowed by numerous torrents."
Today, industry and tourism have made few inroads here, and the people remain rural and taciturn, with an enduring sense of regional identity. Because of this, the region is known for its dairy and meats in the form of cheese and charcuterie. There's little arable land in the region, just thousands of acres of upland pasture, traditionally grazed by sheep brought up from the southern lowlands for the summer. Nowadays, cows far outnumber the sheep, some raised for beef and some still for the production of Auvergne's four great cheeses.
Fourme Ambert is a cheese produced in the eastern valleys of the Auvergne Mountains in south central France. "Fourme" is the old French word for cheese as taken from the Latin name "forma", and describes its cylindrical shape.
It appears in an unusual format, being much taller than wide. In spite of this, they usually appear in shops as thin slices cut from the tall Fourmes.
Fourme d'Ambert is made from cows milk with about 25 liters of milk required for one cheese.
The Fourmes are traditionally made from cows milk from the high pastures (called Chaumes) but today much is made in the larger modern dairies in the valleys with pasteurized milk.
Farm dairies (Fermier) had all but disappeared by early 2000, but today there are about 5 small farm producers making the traditional cheese with raw milk from their farm.
The cheese is made with medium moisture but the curds are dried out enough so that their surface is well firmed before compacting in the forms. This tends to produce tiny air spaces and channels internally to accommodate the growth of blue molds that were initially native to the area of production. The ripening time can be 3 months and longer as the mold develops. The aging and curing of the cheese character is developed by of moving the cheese through varying temperature conditions to support the internal process of the bacteria, molds and enzymes working on the fat and protein within.
The cheese can be found today labeled as Fourme Ambert or Fourme Montbrisson, depending on where they are produced as described below.
This is one of the oldest cheeses in France today as noted in the history below.
A Bit of History:
Legend says that Fourme d'Ambert was already made at the time of the Druids and the Gauls.
The documented origin of Fourme (including both those from Ambert as well as Montbrisson) was noted in the early days of feudalism in the eighth or ninth century. Irrefutable evidence demonstrates that the Fourme was known and appreciated in the ninth century. At La Chaulme, we can still find 7 well-preserved carved stone sculptures depicting the agricultural bounty found at the front door of the feudal chapel. One of these unmistakably represents the ancient Fourmes produced.
17th to 19th Century:
The term Jasserie did not exist at the time. They spoke of the 'Loges/Lodges' (Loire side) or Cabins/Cabanes (Auvergne side). The lands were called "Jats". Life of the shepherd was controlled by many things regulating them such as the use of water or the dates of breeding herds. At that time, the practice of moving to and working on the summer pasture was the responsibility of the male. The famous cheeses made during the period of summer pastures on Hautes Chaumes (High Pastures) was formerly called 'Fromages de Roche' named after the village where they were sold or bartered. Wholesalers collected the Fourmes in village centers and they then distributed Montbrison among regional merchants. These cheese are today known by two names; Fourme de Montbrison for the side of the Loire Forez mountains; Fourme d'Ambert Auvergne for the side near Ambert.
Late 19th century:
The conditions of life and work of the Haute Chaumes of the Forez mountains were difficult both in the natural environment conditions and in the day to day living of the shepherds and cheese makers.
Each Jasserie (the regional name for mountain pastures or Alpage) was the complement of a farm located lower in the valley. During the 5 months of summer pasture (Late May to Mid October), the entire herd was moved up onto the mountain meadows. This freed up the lower village farms to produce the hay needed for winter. A much needed hay during long, cold winters of this rugged region.
In this agro/pastoral mode of operation, tasks are distributed between men and women. The women (mothers and daughters) would move to the mountain pastures and make fourmes and butter. The men remained on the farm in the valley to take care of the fields.
Women working on the high pastures making cheese
20th century ... the modernization begins:
In the early twentieth century, milk collection is organized. In 1905, the first small Coop dairy was built in the valley village of Chalmazel and with horse and cart, they would pick up the milk of a few farms.
In 1928 and 1934, these were developed into more modern dairies.
Of utmost consideration though, is that this was a time of rural exodus to the larger cities where factories provided better jobs. Eventually, the herds were found only on the High Chaumes, and this was the end of producing Fourmes in Jasserie.
As for Dairy Fourme, a great boom began due to modern dairy operations.
In 1945, a first decree legalizes the first definition of the cheese to assure their continuance and uphold the quality. Modified in 1948 and again in1953 to define the method of production and ripening.
They allow three names Fourme de Montbrison , Fourme d'Ambert and Fourme de Pierre on High.
Since 1972, they have been designated as 'Fourme d'Ambert and Montbrison. "
On 22 February 2002, two new decrees granting an AOC for each fourme and they become full-fledged protected cheeses!
Variations in Style:
Dating back to the Roman occupation nearly 1,000 years ago, it is said that the Druids and the Gauls had developed the art of making this unique cheese and as might be expected some regional differences developed.
In 2002, The Fourme de Ambert was separated from the Fourme de Montbrison.
The two cheeses had common roots but through time a few notable differences can be observed:
- The Ambert tends to be a drier curd and develops a dry rind with a light white surface mold. The interior does not consolidate so much and leaves many large openings internally for the blue to grow in.
- The Montbrison tends to be developed with more moisture, developing a red/orange rind from the moisture. The rind also tends to be more tacky to the touch than dry. The higher moisture also causes the curds to compact and create smaller openings so that the interior shows blues more as streaks of blue with few large openings.
Note the differences between the two cheeses here
Ambert on the left and Montbrison on the right
A Recipe for making Fourme Ambert
|I managed to get Mark to order some of the traditional tall Fourme d' Ambert forms for me, so many of the pictures show the 7 gallon batch, but I have also made it in the 2 gallon size, which suits some of our small scale cheese makers.
The guideline below is focused on the 2 gallon batch size. For the larger size just multiply all ingredients proportionately.
Before you Begin:
You will need:
- 2 gallon of milk (Not UltraPasteurized)
- MA4002 and P.roqueforti culture
- Liquid Rennet (Animal)
- A good thermometer
- A knife to cut the curds, and a spoon or ladle to stir the curds with.
- Molds SmallMold-M3 or Stainless-6inch . If using the smaller M3 mold, you may have trouble fitting all the curds if they are too moist at molding.
- A colander and butter muslin to drain the curds
- Draining mats to allow the whey to run off from the molded curds as ripening continues.
- No cheese press or weights for consolidation of the curds because we are looking to develop an open texture.
- Calcium Chloride for any pasteurized cold stored milk
Everything needs to be clean and sanitized.
Acidifying and heating the milk:
Begin by heating the milk to 90F. You do this by placing the milk in a pot or sink of very warm water. If you do this in a pot on the stove, make sure you heat the milk slowly and stir it well as it heats.
The 2 gallon milk for this cheese should be a full fat milk because it is the butterfat that the blue mold will be working on. Also, homogenization is good for this cheese because it releases the fat from its protective surface to allow the blue better access during ripening.
This milk should be heated to 90°F. This provides a good compromise temperature between the two cultures that will be working, one being Mesophilic and the other being Thermophilic.
While the milk is heating, add 1/16 teaspoon of the blue mold to 1/4 cup cool water to begin re-hydrating the mold spores.
Once the milk has heated, add 1/4 teaspoon of MA4002 then the rehydrate blue and stir it all in well.
Then let it sit quiet to ripen for 45 to 60 minutes. The temperature can be maintained best if it sits in a water bath.
Coagulation with rennet:
Next, add 1 ml of rennet after mixing with 1/4 cup cool water
The milk now needs to sit quiet for 50-55 minutes while the culture works and the rennet coagulates the curd. You should notice that the milk begins to thicken (flocculation) in about 15 minutes but leave it to sit quiet for the full time ( Cheese Geek Alert: Flocculation time about 15 minutes but total coagulation (15x3.5) time will be 50-55 minutes from time rennet is added ).
The thermal mass of this milk should keep it warm during this period. It is OK if the temp drops a few degrees during this time, but needs to be brought back to temp after cutting the curds. Using a water bath would avoid this though.
The final curd should split cleanly and be quite firm.
Cutting curds and releasing the whey:
Once you have a firm curd, cut to 3/8 inch then rest five minutes. Only a small amount of acid will have developed at this point.
Conditioning the curds :
Now it is time to begin drying out the curds. This cheese does not require a higher cooking temperature but maintain the original start temperature throughout this process.
The following steps will be a slow and gentle stir, the objective is to retain as much internal moisture as possible but forming a good coat on the outside of the curd. This is called "Coating the Grains. "
The physical condition of the curds should be such that they remain separated until they go into the final mold. This separation will leave many small channels and opening that the blue mold will be able to grow in.
The First stirring: Begin very gently and slowly for 25 minutes. The objective is to harden the outside but yet leave as much moisture as possible without breaking the curds.
Then let rest for 5 min.
Second stirring: Begin stirring for five minutes, then remove 15% of the whey. The curds at this phase can now be stirred a bit more quickly until a good firm coat appears. This refers to a tougher skin forming on the outside while the interior remains moister. This "coating the grains" when successfully done will keep the curds from completely sticking together when molded. These small cracks and openings will be where the blue mold grows.
A good curd can be determined by the appearance :
- Rounded surfaces
- Surface is matte and no longer shiny
- When pressure is applied, the curd breaks.
Total stir time is about 40 min. but this stir can be continued for another 10 min. or so if needed. This may take some practice to determine a proper curd dryness.
Drying the Curds:
The curd now needs to be transferred to a surface for draining. They must not consolidate but be kept separate. Immediately begin hand stir to avoid consolidation. Here I have a draining table with a drain at one end. Another good option would be a large plastic dishpan with holes poked into it (I use a hot nail to do this) to allow the whey to drain off. Being creative here can help. Commercially they do this on vibrating conveyor screens.
Using your hands or a broad scoop keep the curds separated by turning them over and over until the surfaces seem dry and they tend to consolidate much less.
A certain amount of cooling and oxidation on the surface will help with this but do not overdo it because you want the curds to still consolidate over time in the mold.
At this point very little acid has developed (pH 6.2) and the curds will be going to the molds with much work to be done by the bacteria, so do not let them cool too much. Conditioning is rather subjective here so a bit of experience may be needed before you find just the right point to mold.
Essentially your curd pile should look like popcorn now.
Molding the curds:
The mold should be an open ended mold with a draining mat below (a second mat is handy for turning the mold later).
Have this already cleaned and sanitized at this point. The tall mold I show here is for the large 7 gallon batch and is the traditional mold made for the Fourme Ambert. It holds about 6-7 gallons of milk as curds.
The M3 plastic mold I mention above may have difficulties holding all of the curds if they are too moist, but will retain a higher profile than the stainless mold which has a wider dimension and result in a lower form cheese.
This is the point at which your curds need to be just the right moisture and firmness before going into the mold.
- Too much moisture and they will just consolidate into a blind cheese where blue only grows in the punch holes done later.
- Too dry and the cheese will be difficult to form a consolidated mass.
Take lots of notes on what you do and timing at this point!
Transfer the curds to the mold when you think they are ready.
For the full size traditional tall mold from 7 gallons, there is no weight needed for pressing because the curd mass will be enough weight to consolidate the curds enough.
For the M3 and stainless molds with lower curd mass from only 2 gallons, I suggest adding 4-6 lbs of weight on top of the curd to help consolidate.
At this point the curds should be kept warm and not allowed to drop below 75-80F for the next 6-8 hrs. This will keep the bacteria happy and convert the lactose.
The rate of whey running from the mold should be slow and amount to small tear drops coming from the drain holes (as shown on the left) at a moderate speed. This whey is being slowly released as the slowly acidifying curd continues to release whey.
The form should be turned over at the following intervals:
30 min, 1 hr, 2 hrs, 4 hrs, 8 hrs (or next AM) and then should be ready to be removed.
The final acid should have been reached by the next AM (pH 5.3)
Once the cheese is removed from the mold it should look quite well consolidated but with many small openings showing on the surface as in the pic to the right. This should give you an idea of the internal array of fissures and openings to accommodate the blue mold growth.
- If the curd consolidates too much it will probably become a blind cheese with mold only growing in the punch holes as I mentioned before. This is usually due to the curd being too moist when draining.
- If the curd openings are too big or the cheese resists consolidation, this is most likely due to excessive drying after the whey is removed.
You just need to find the 'sweet spot' between the two conditions above.
The unsalted cheese is then left to rest for 2-3 days at a room temp of 70-75F before salting, allowing the final fermentation to complete.
The cheese will then be ready for salting. This cheese relies on dry salting instead of brining. The tradition is 5% salt by weight but I find that 4% salt works nicely here. This is a lot of salt to some folks but it is essential to keep other molds down and allow the blue to develop.
The salt is applied to the surface over 2-3 days. I weigh the total salt out for each cheese and then sprinkle a portion (about 1/3) on the surface and spread evenly across the surface as well as top and bottom, then wait for this to form a brine and sink into the cheese, then repeat for the remaining salt in 1/3 doses.
It will extract some moisture during the salting so make sure you provide a surface for it to run off.
Dry salting differs from brining in that the salt is introduced in stages and, without the help of the normal brine, leaves a heavier concentration near the rind and protects the surface from extraneous molds for a while until the blue can set up a cover with a bit of white from natural geotrichum (sometimes added).
If the cheese does contain higher moisture, the red/orange molds will grow as in a washed rind but do not wash these. This is more common in the Montbrison style due to a bit higher moisture in their cheeses.
Once the salting is completed, the cheese should rest for several days before being moved to the cool cave (52-54F 80-85% moisture). You may also notice that the cheese will bulge a bit with higher moisture as shown in the picture here.
In about a week you should note blue mold developing in the fissures and cracks of the surface. At this time the surface should be punched with a sanitized thin metal probe at about 1 inch intervals to allow air into the cheese interior. Remember, the blue is an aerobic mold and needs air to grow.
In about 3-4 more weeks, the cheese should be developing a nice pattern of blue mold throughout the interior.
This mold now needs to have some time at cooler temperatures to allow the enzymes produced by this mold to do its magic on the proteins and butterfat and develop a typical flavor.
They will often use a tool called a trier to examine the mold development as shown below
Using a trier to determine the internal development of blue mold
Once it has been determined that the blue is developing nicely internally, the cheese can be moved to a cool room at 42F to slow the development and increase the complexity of aroma and flavor.
This months cheese resting in my cave here
and the cheese in our picnic lunch in the Auvergne between cheese maker visits
One of the perks of what I do is doing a bit of gustatory research ... in very nice places!!!.