Landing in Geneva, our first day began auspiciously with 65°F blue skies and a new convertible (our reserved sedan was unavailable) to drive us west into the Jura. Tripp (domestic cheese buyer for our Cambridge shop), and Sarah (Tripp’s counterpart at the South End), and I marveled at the snow-capped mountains in the eastern distance and how the yellow brilliance of patched rapeseed fields rested calmly in their spaces. The three of us were in France to visit with cheesemakers and food producers, checking in with old friends and making new ones. Climbing up into the hills, we arrived at our first destination, Fromageries Marcel Petite at Fort St. Antoine.
Yanich, our guide for the afternoon, greeted us shortly after we walked through the massive wooden doors, effectively entering into a hillside. Gifted with a warm smile and easy humor, he spoke authoritatively and proudly of the history of Fort St. Antoine and the pedigree of the Comté aged within it. Soon we met with Claude Querry, the Fort’s Master Taster (Chef du Cave). For a cheesemonger who has been a long-time admirer of Comté, tasting with M. Querry is a high honor. His direct and assertive manner seems appropriate in what was once a military fort. Walking briskly, he would pull a wheel – from among the hundreds in any particular line of sight – and rest it, half off the shelf, at his waist.
Rubbing the wheels of cheese in a circular manner with the palm of his hand and hammering at different points with the blunt, handle-side of his trier (cheese iron), M. Querry examined them for what are considered defective internal fissures and for overall wheel health as only a master can. Many wheels did not make the test for tasting. When he found one to his liking, he would gently insert the trier, turn and remove a long cone of cheese (often referred to as a “plug”) to sample both for aroma and taste. He moved us from wheels of five months in age (fresh lactic flavors, with warm acidity and mild animal notes), to those of seven, to nine, to twelve, the textures becoming firmer, crystallized and flavors caramelizing, becoming savory, sweeter and concentrated. When we selected our oldest wheel, which Sarah particularly liked, he carved “FORMAGGIO KITCHEN–SARAH” along the rind. After coffee and a discussion to determine the wheels we would purchase, we left the Fort to blue skies and the serene landscape of the eastern Jura. We hit the road again and made our way south and west towards the towering Pyrenees mountains of France’s southern border.
As distinctive Basque script began decorating shopfronts and Ossau-Iraty Trail signs became regular sightings, it was clear we were not far from Fromagerie Pardou, from whom we source Ardi Gasna (“sheep cheese”, in Basque), along with traditional goat and cow tommes. Christian Pardou, the third generation in a family line of Ossau affineurs, greeted us warmly and promptly took us down into his caves. The family’s facility is like Fort St. Antoine in that it is also a reclaimed and repurposed space. Once a vast train tunnel that cut through the side of a mountain, Christian’s grandfather filled the unused tunnel with the local cheese. Closed off at both ends, the temperature and humidity provides an ideal climate for affinage. Tasting with Christian was a pleasure. Whenever his English and our French was limited or hit a stumbling point, we had a laugh and decided that we would simply communicate through “la langue du fromage.” His passion for the region, for the animals and raw milk were impactful.
We had perhaps our best meal the evening after visiting Pardou. On our drive, we noticed the ducks seemed aplenty, munching away in the fields. Between the three of us, we ate duck four ways at a charming, rustic restaurant (the only one in town) where a woman tended to the small scattering of diners and her husband worked the kitchen. It was a dinner I’ll never forget.
The following day was chock-full with much-anticipated visits. Our first stop was Les Bergers du Haut-Béarn, from whom we source traditional raw milk Pyrénées tommes. Marie-José, who oversees the caves, gave us a tour of her (very) small facility and she and Sarah settled into a vibrant Spanish. Her son-in-law was washing the goat wheels and he flashed us a big smile. It was a joy to taste her goat tomme, fresh from the cave. Marie-José’s forward and honest demeanor is so disarming and kind, a very special person. When we told her of our fondness for her cheeses, she became visibly emotional. It was extremely difficult to say that we could not stay for lunch, when she asked us to join her. “Next time, for sure,” we promised.
Everywhere in Espelette, France’s most famous pepper village, long strings of Piment d’Espelette hang from seemingly every roof and awning in town. After we made a quick stop to see Ferme Fagaldia, our favorite producer of traditional Piment d’Espelette, we sat with some Basque cider in the sun-filled town center.
Continuing on our Ardi Gasna trek, our next stop was Ekiola, the husband and wife affinage team of Désiré and Kati Loyatho. Their sheep milk tommes are simply extraordinary and are always raved about at our counters. After taking the tour of their make room and caves, we sat down to an impromptu meal of some new cheeses that Désiré has been experimenting with: a sheep milk cheese made in the Reblochon style and a fresh sheep cheese that he referred to as ricotta-like, both made from raw milk. Right as Désiré opened a bottle of Canadian maple syrup to douse the ricotta – an unexpected, but ultimately very fortuitous thing! – Kati arrived with bottle of Irouleguy. We filled up on these rare, wonderful tastes and talked cheese and traveling for as long as we could.
That afternoon we met with Sebastien Fagoaga, at Hotel Arraya, in the beautiful hillside town of Sare. Arraya’s confitures and butter cookies are without equal. M. Fagoaga brought us Armagnac while we sat in the Hotel’s lovely garden and then purchased a few cerises Gateaux Basques for the road at the Hotel’s street stand.
We crossed over the spectacular mountains into Spain and spent our last evening strolling through the stone streets of San Sebastián after watching a burning pink sunset fall over the city’s grand horse-shoe harbor. We talked about everything we had seen and all the inspiring people we met. Many laughs, fish tapas plates and bottles of Txakoli later, we had to catch our flight home from Toulouse in the morning. A very special trip had run its course. We were ready to arrive home to Boston and New York to bring the best of the Jura and Pyrénées to our customers.
Andrew Clark is the General Manager of Formaggio Kitchen New York and a guitarist looking to start an ambient-country band.