Each region in France can be remembered by a cheese. In the Savoie area, around Bourg Saint Maurice, the Beaufort plays this role.
Since 1968, the Beaufort has the AOP (Appelation d’Origine Protégée), reinforcing a way to ensure its uniqueness. In order to be called Beaufort, the cheese must be produced in the mountain areas of the Savoie department, in the Beaufortain/Val d’Arly, Tarentaise and Maurienne valleys, the cows need to be fed either from grazing (summer) or from hay. Cows are either the Tarentaise or the Abondance type and the milk production is limited at 5000kg per cow and per year.
Three types of Beaufort: Beaufort, made from November till May, the cows are then hay fed providing a specific light braun color. Beaufort été, made from June 1st till October 31th when the cows spend their time grazing in the alpine meadows, the taste of the cheese is slightly different. Beaufort Chalet d’Alpage, a very little production as needed to be produced following traditional methods, twice a day in a hut above 1500m and with the milk from only one herd.
The origins of these cheeses can be traced in the 17th century, when monks and villagers started having cows in various mountain areas around the Isère valley. The ‘grovire’ a gruyère type of cheese is produced, its reputation grows outside of the mountains regions and during the French revolution, lots of it is sent to Paris to feed the population. Since WWII, the production is modernized till present day. In 2016, 5340 tons have been produced.
During summer, farmers in the meadows prepare from 3:00am till 5:00am the first milking session which can take up to 2 hours for a 100-150 herd. Maintaining the milking machine, the access to the meadows, moving the machine every 3 days, then a second milking session is done mid afternoon. Being right in the nature makes the job very weather dependent (sudden snow fall, summer storms...) so adaptation and resilience is key. In the valley, the hay season is going full blast as soon the grass is ready. The natural challenges to dry, cut and the slopes can make the harvest last up to two months.
Starting fall, herds are back in the valley and at the first snow falls they begin their winter time in stables. For lots of farmers, winter is equivalent to juggling with their herds early morning and late afternoon while working as a ski instructor, mechanics or ski patroller during the day.
The Beaufort is a very labor intensive cheese but the choices made by the producers to follow as much as possible this natural circle is paying off. Tasting it in various recipes will transport you in these alpine meadows and you’ll just have to close your eyes to start hearing the cows bell getting closer as your hike brings you closer and closer to a herd in the meadows.
Moving from France twenty some years ago, I became a Frenchman outside of France carrying in his baggages a bit of French culture spiced up by new discoveries.