The evening light was fading as we ascended the mountain up to the Burgats’ alpage home outside of Manigod. With every turn that the car made, the views got even more splendid. Darkening clouds provided a sense of atmosphere and the cool air was deliciously fresh. Pulling up to the Burgats’ farmhouse, the sun was just about to disappear and the warm, yellow glow from inside their home was a welcome sight.
Like many in this region of France, the Burgats keep two houses — one lower in the valleys for winter dwelling, and one further up for summer dwelling and pasturing of their animals. At the summer-house, the Burgats make traditional “alpage” cheeses, using the milk of animals grazed at the higher elevations.
Everyone was gathered in the kitchen and it was there that we met Guillaume and Murielle Burgat, along with their children Rémi and Andréa. The inside of the Burgats’ house was wonderfully cozy. A wooden table with a vase of beautiful wildflowers served as the centerpiece in the kitchen and an old stove off to one side somehow added to the warmth of the room even though it wasn’t on. Rémi had picked the flowers for his mother earlier that day and Murielle told me that they were among the last of the season.
One door off of the kitchen led to a small, immaculately clean cheesemaking room. Murielle, the primary cheesemaker in the family, welcomed us into this room where we were able to watch her go through the evening cheesemaking process. I was interested to learn that it is traditionally the women of the region who make the cheese while the men tend to handle the herds.
Earlier that day, the milk had been heated in a large cauldron-like container and both a starter culture and animal rennet had been added. Left to do its thing, curds had separated from the whey by the time we arrived. Murielle proceeded to take a plastic scoop and break these curds into large pieces. Then, she used a fine, harp-like instrument to break the curds down into even smaller pieces.
This accomplished, the next step in the process was to ladle the curds into the molds. Each mold was lined with cheese cloth and placed on a stainless steel table that had a drain at one end. As Murielle began pouring the curds into the molds, the whey drained off the table into a bucket.
Once all the curds were mounded over the molds, Murielle paused momentarily to give us a taste in a separate little bowl. The curds were warm, slightly spongy and sweet, not having been salted yet. Then, returning to the task at hand, she used her hands to even things out. Mold by mold, she worked her way around the table, gently pressing the curds into the molds, eventually using the cheesecloth to loosen each cheese and flip it over to reinsert it.
Once Murielle had shaped and flipped each cheese, a flat disc was placed on top, followed by a weight. The cheeses were then left to sit overnight and drain further.
I had witnessed this part of the cheesemaking process before but I think what made this time particularly unique and memorable was how it was such an extension of daily life. Previously, I had seen cheesemaking in a work-like environment but here it was very much part of the home experience, how I had always imagined cheesemaking when I read Heidi as a child or, more recently, Adam Bede. Murielle carried on conversing with her family, guests and children while making the cheese. There was also a moment or two of disciplining or comforting as the children got a little rambunctious.
After the cheesemaking was finished, Murielle’s husband, Guillaume, took us into their small cave where the tommes are matured before making their journey to a local affineur for additional aging. Then, having seen these tommes progress from curds into molds and finally to the cave, we sat around the Burgat’s kitchen table, drank some wine, chatted and sampled a wheel of their cheese with some bread. A pretty perfect evening in my book.
The Burgats make the following cheeses: Reblochon, Manigodine and Tomme de Savoie. Unfortunately, we are unable to import Reblochon to the United States due to current regulations.