Ten years ago, in a small hotel, in a small town called Le Mont-Dore in the Auvergne I stopped for the night en-route to the Alps. After my long drive I just wanted a meal and then bed. The food was decent, the elderly waiter attentive. Clearing my plate he asked if I would like any cheese. I don’t suffer ‘cheese-dreams’, so said “yes”, little knowing that the memory would haunt me for the next decade.
A long lost cheese
He brought a selection. In the centre was a small volcano, its pale lovely crust covered in a dusting of ash. How extraordinary! (…but perhaps not, as the Auvergne is dotted with dormant volcanoes).
Intrigued, I cut a slice. An eruption of pleasure filled my mouth. I smiled. The waiter smiled, “Vous aimez ça?” Oh, yes, I like it very much. Intensely creamy, slightly pungent; I closed my eyes in ecstasy as the flavour held me. Finally, I asked the name, and promptly forgot it. That was BIG MISTAKE, and one that was to haunt me for the next ten years. If only I’d written it down. If only my memory was not like a perforated plastic bag. If only…
But for then I went to bed a happy man, savouring the aftertaste of my little slice of delectation. Somehow, as I slept, the volcanic remembrance embedded itself in my subconscious, to surface intermittently and worry at me like the equivalent of a snatch of a song.
I knew I loved THAT cheese, and I wanted more. But how to get it? An early start meant no chance to enquire in the town. Time passed.
I would gaze wistfully in fromargeries hoping for a glimpse of my lost love. I trawled the internet, always looking. On a visit to Paris, enquiries in the best cheese shops yielded only shrugs.
On the trail of a cheese dream
Nine years later, I bumped into the lovely Corinne from Auvergne Rhône-Alps Tourism, in London, and told her of my plight. “Leave it with me. When I get home I will make some enquiries” she said.
Two weeks later this email arrived ‘I tried to find a pyramid-shape and covered in ash, made in Auvergne. I found one last Saturday, it is a raw milk goat cheese, come from the region of Courpière, not far away from Clermont-Ferrand. The name of the cheese is Le mont de Courtesserre”.
Three months later I found myself en-route to Clermont-Ferrand and a date with my cheese-destiny. I booked lunch at La Fromagerie Nivesse where Corinne had spotted my cheese. I hurried past the queue of hungry customers to look at the vast counters of cheeses, trying to spot ‘her’. I felt overwhelmed by the dozens and dozens of products, but, there in the corner was my ‘Long-Lost Love Cheese’. There was no mistaking the soft angle, the delicate pale crust, outlined by darker dustings of ash, and the creamy skin.
Now to taste! Before us was a plate of charcuterie, fruit, bread, and a selection of six local cheeses. I only had eyes for one. I gently slid a slice onto a piece of bread, and, oh! The first eruption of pleasure at the creamy inside overwhelmed me. Then the velvety sensation of the crust dusted with a complex bite of ash followed. Everything I’d remembered came flooding back. A mouthful of wine, and then another slice. The emotion of the moment I had waited ten long years for held me. I savoured it to the full.
The cheese with no name
I decided to go and find the farmer who makes this incredible cheese at La Côte Courtesserre. Forty minutes east of Clermont, the GPS got me to the general vicinity, but I couldn’t find it. So I did the commonsense thing and explored every lane, every track, every by-way, until eventually I spotted a field with a flock of goats. This must be it! Sure enough a hand-painted sign announced ‘Fromage de Chèvre fermier. J-B Navaron’.
Farmer Jean-Baptiste peered thought the window of his tiny dairy as I pulled up. Thirty five-ish, smiling, I’d interrupted his cheese-making. He explained he’d taken over his parent’s farm about some years back and had around a hundred and twenty she-goats and few billys. Out of sight was a small herd of cows. It was an idyllic spot, cresting a gentle hill, the Chaîne des Puys dormant volcano range the backdrop. It was clearly not chance that my cheese mimicked the shape and exact angle of the slope of these giants. I asked Jean-Baptiste about his day. “I get up at six-thirty and milk the goats and cows”, he smiled. “On your own?” I asked. “Just me. I do it for love. For passion. Every single day. My last holiday was three years ago. Then I go to a Farmer’s Market or take my cheeses to shops like La Fromagerie Nivesse. Back in the afternoon to make more, around sixty a week” He produces four goat, two cow, and one mixed types. Mine didn’t really have a name, he explained, “Customers give their own name”.
We crossed the track, negotiated an electric fence, and he called to his goats. They flew down from the hilltop to surround us, a joyful, nuzzling, inquisitive bunch, sleekly-coated and happy. I’d reached the pure source of my lovely cheese, a contented farmer, with his contented animals.
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Michael Cranmer is an award-winning freelance travel writer and photographer. He spends most of the winter up mountains writing about, his primary passion – skiing – but also manages to sample less strenuous outings.