“This is a little corner of Paradise” says the old lady throwing her arms wide and indicating at the window of her farmhouse in the mountains of Haute Savoie, not far from Annecy.
We are sitting in her kitchen on a July afternoon and it is unseasonably cloudy – a rarity for this month she assures me.
I had started to hike to this little farm on the magical Plateau Beauregard, in the valley of Thônes with my friend Gaëlle, but she, a local, decided we should drive when a shower of rain threatened to drench us. Normally in summer, it’s a stunningly beautiful area to walk, with fields of meadow flowers and cows, their metal bells chiming and creating an orchestra of sound, a magical wind chime effect. The gentle walk to the Ferme de Lorette at the top takes about 45 minutes, past pretty chalets with stunning views over the surrounding mountains, their summer greenery forming a palette of colour that makes you stop and stare at the intense beauty of this place where the air is sweet and pure and the world feels tranquil.
The Ferme de Lorette Haute Savoie
The farm de Lorette is very famous for its fromage. The family Bibollet live here and have been making the local cheeses Reblochon and Tomme since 1919. They have a café and shop with an outdoor terrace from which the sight of the gorgeous scenery is breath-taking. The day I visited, the dull weather had kept visitors away, Gaëlle and I were the only ones there.
A young woman came out of the house opposite the café and seeing we were alone asked if we would like a warming drink as by now it was raining and a slight chill was settling, high at the top of this mountain. We followed her into the farm kitchen where an old lady sat by a wood fire over which washing hung, a light steam hissed from shorts and T shirts, the previous days having been sunny and hot. Copper pans gleamed on a traditional dresser. Through the window, the mountains looked like a particularly lush and verdant painting, a large cage with several canaries was cheeping away.
The cheese that’s made with a secret ingredient – passion
Alexia Bibollet, at 89 years young, is the head of the family, she has a permanent smile and a twinkle in her eyes. The young woman who invited us in, is Rafaëlle her granddaughter. Beckoning us to sit and make ourselves comfortable in their home she made us hot chocolate with freshly pulled milk from her cows. It was delicious and for the first time that day I was happy the sun had gone in.
“Would you like to see how we make the cheese” asked Rafaelle, and grandmère added “then come back and try some!”
I certainly didn’t have to be asked twice, this farm is very well-known for its delicious cheeses and we traipsed out across the wet courtyard and into a barn. They make the cheese by hand – grandmother and granddaughter, together with several family members.
“I try to make my grandmother slow down” Rafaelle confided “but she won’t”.
The family’s 75 cows had already been milked by the time I got there, it takes 2 litres of milk to make a small Reblochon, 5 litres for a large “Rond”.
In the cheese room, the curds from fresh cows milk are poured into moulds to drain and Rafaelle pats them lovingly, this is Reblochon in the making and passion is certainly an ingredient. Within minutes the drained milk forms a round shape that wobbles like a jelly but holds together. The cheeses to be, are put into boxes to be carried into a chilled room ready to be turned and sent to a cave to be matured for three weeks. They are stamped with a green label of authenticity and unique farm number 420. The cheese makers do this twice a day, 7 days a week. “Every day, Christmas Day too” says Rafaelle when I asked if she gets at least that special day off.
In the summer the cows go higher up the mountain for the fresh pastures and cool air. They’re accompanied by locals and it’s a festive atmosphere, a transhumance, like a carnival of cows and humans. The animals are moved lower down where it’s warmer in the winter, again accompanied by festivities, to feed on the hay that the family also grow.
The seasonal cheeses taste different says Rafaelle because what the cows eat is different according to the seasons. She told me that she learned to make cheese when she was very young “as soon as I was old enough to respect the rules”. A typical day for these hard working cheese makers starts at 5.00 am and ends at 6.30 pm, they are usually ready to sleep by 8.00. It’s hard work, but grandmère and Rafaelle say they love what they do.
There are 135 farms making Reblochon here in the Thones area of Haute Savoie. The cheese has AOC status, this is the only place in the world where it can be made and called Reblochon. Here at the Farm de Lorette, they’ve been making it since 1919.
A taste of heaven in the mountains of Haute Savoie
We returned to the cosy kitchen and a plate of three cheeses was placed before us, I savoured a wedge of the nutty, slightly unctuous Reblochon and grandmère urged me to try a little red wine with it. Rafelle and I clinked glasses. The cheese was delicious, the kitchen warm and friendly, the cows in the field outside wandered about, their bells ringing like a fairy tale orchestra.
A beam of sunlight burst through the clouds and through the window I could see it light up a distant village on the mountain opposite – the colours jewel like.
“We live a simple life” said grandmère “we are not modern”, as she offered me a knife to cut the rind off a piece of Tomme de Beauregard, but I’d already nibbled inside the wedge avoiding the rind “you look like a beaver” she laughed.
I couldn’t help asking how at almost 90 years old, she looks so young and keeps so fit.
“The cheese” she said looking serious and then she laughed. “That and respect. Respect for the food you eat, respect for how you live your life… And good morals, you must have good morals.”
She told me she had 11 children and making cheese has been her life. I told her my neighbour is almost the same age and looks wonderful and is healthy as a donkey. “She says it is because she always starts the day with a slice of pork belly and a glass of cider”. Grandmère looked astonished, her eyebrows lifted into her snowy hair, “perhaps” she said, in a way that makes me think she doesn’t believe a word of it, her granddaughter grinned.
I’d known these people for such a short while but they welcomed me like a friend, made me feel at home, fed and watered me, praised my not brilliant French. It is a very special place, representative of the ethos of the mountain people and, as for the cheese – it is sublime, especially when you taste it in its’ natural surroundings.