An ancient Alpine cheese from Mons Cheesemongers
“It is like cantal,” Max muses, slicing expertly through the hefty, mottled wheel of cheese towering between us at Mons Cheesemongers, “but it is, well, kind of funkier. It comes from some strange cows.” Thus starts my initiation to salers de buron.
It’s quite the cheese, stretching back hundreds, even thousands of years, to when Romans passed through the Auvergne. “It’s said they took the recipes of the cantal and salers to England—so they could be the forefathers of cheddar,” Max says. “There are strong similarities.” Yet it’s in the differences between them that salers comes into its own.
It starts life on a mountaintop. Each spring, Marcel Taillé takes his herd of 65 cows to his small stone cottage in the Alpine meadows, known as a buron. For the next six months, this chalet will serve as his dwelling, dairy, and maturing room.
The cows will feast on wild flowers and grasses—the bedrock of all great cheeses—while Marcel milks them: a long, slow process, Max points out, because this herd of cows—unique to Auvergne and known, surprisingly enough, as salers—is a truly ancient breed.
“Modern cows are bred to have huge udders and be easy to milk,” he says. “The salers’ udders have evolved to be higher up their bodies, to reduce chaffing and infection. What’s more, they only produce milk in the presence of their sucking calf.”
To get round this, Marcel and his two milkmen must adopt an elaborate and bizarre set up when it comes to milking time, which happens every morning at 4am. “The calves are rounded into a square pen, then three at a time will be released to their mothers—one per milkman.
“Once they stop feeding, the calves are tethered to their mother’s front leg so they can’t feed but are still present, then salt is thrown on their back which the mum licks away.”
If it sounds mad, it is in a way, but there’s method in it. The cows’ act of licking the salt off their calves’ backs maintains the connection between them, soothing the calf and keeping the mother’s milk flowing, allowing them to be milked with ease.
Once collected, the milk from each cow is transferred to a bigger barrel, which is brought right into the field with the cows. “The microbial cultures which kick off the cheese-making process are actually in the wood of the barrel, which has only ever been washed with whey to remove bad bacteria. It’s a really old school, artisan way of making cheese.”
The result is remarkable. Forget your so-called ‘farmhouse’ cheddar from the supermarket: this is real cheese, aged for 12 months in Marcel’s Alpine chalet. Moreover, being from unpasteurised milk produced by wild, grass-grazing cows, you can quite literally taste the ‘farmhouse’ from whence it came.
“All the funky good stuff, all the microbiology is in that cheese,” Max grins. “It makes a demon Welsh rarebit”—but it is also, he goes on to say as he wraps up our slice carefully, delicious on its own.
That’s how we have it: greedily, straight out the waxed paper, an Utobeer in one hand and a piece of cheese in the other. It is, as predicted, a heady mix of salt, summer grass, with a crumbly yet creamy texture and, like the head butt of a hungry calf, an undeniable sense of pure farm.