There is great confusion over what this soft-cheese is called.
The cheese has been made since the early 1800s in an area of Europe just to the north of Lausanne, Switzerland and to the west of Neufchâtel, Switzerland. The border in that area went back and forth between France and Switzerland over the years, and ended with the border putting some of the area in France, some in Switzerland. Makers of Vacherin Mont d’Or Cheese, oblivious to the shifting border (though probably not oblivious to various armies marching through their cow pastures) kept on making Vacherin Mont d’Or no matter what countries the tax collectors said their cheesemaking shed was now in.
Eh bien, donc — the cheese ended up being made in both countries. One major difference evolved, which is that the French made theirs from raw milk, while the canny Swiss, no doubt foreseeing the lucrative North American export market, made theirs from pasteurized.
Long after the border wars were history, another war started, this time over the cheese itself: who had the right, the Swiss or the French, to call it Vacherin Mont d’Or? Switzerland won the right in the 1970s, and so today the real, true Vacherin Mont d’Or comes from Switzerland. The French would have to call theirs Vacherin du Haut-Doubs (the Haub-Doubs being a plateau on the French side of Mont d’Or.) That wasn’t the end of it, though. The French have a habit of ignoring any ruling that doesn’t go their way, and they didn’t agree with this one. Official French government documents will still refer to it as Vacherin Mont d’Or / Vacherin du Haut-Doubs in their first paragraph, as a nod to law, but then proceed to call it simply Vacherin Mont d’Or.
At any rate, officially at least, if the cheese is made in Switzerland, it is called Vacherin Mont d’Or, and if it’s made across the border in France, it is called Vacherin du Haut-Doubs.
Aside from the raw (French) vs pasteurized (Swiss) milk difference, both cheeses have everything else in common. They are both made from cow’s milk. The curds are put into cloth-lined moulds to give the cheeses a wheel shape. Three sizes are made: a large one meant for stores to cut for customers which is about 12 inches (30 cm) across; a middle-size one about 6 inches (16 cm) across; and a small one meant to be purchased whole, about 4 1/2 inches (12 cm) across. All sizes are about 1 1/2 inches (4 cm) thick.
Once out of the mould, the cheese’s circumference is encased in a strip of bleached, sanitized spruce. These wood bands prop up the rind to help it contain the cheese inside, as well as diffusing a slightly resiny taste into the cheese. The cheese is then washed in salt water, and let mature for at least 3 weeks at a temperature below 57 F (14 C.) During its maturing time, the wheels of cheese are turned, and brushed with salt water. The salt water brine not only adds to the cheese’s flavour, it helps the cheese keep better. As the cheese matures, it gets very runny inside — gloopy, in fact, if you were to use unsophisticated words.
When finished, the crust will be light beige or golden, and faintly show the marks of the cloth, sometimes with a powdery white mould on it. The fat content of the cheese is between 45 and 50%. For sale, the cheese is often packed in wooden boxes, especially the smaller ones.
The cheese in France has protected “Designation of Origin” (called “AOC” in France) status. In France, the cheese must be produced at an altitude of at least 700 metres, between le Saut du Doubs in the North and the mouth of the Doubs in the South. The protected area takes in the cantons of Mouthe, Morteau, Pontarlier, and parts of the cantons of Levier, Maîche, du Russey and de Montbenoît. The exacting regulations, which go on and on, are particularly amusing when it hits you that the French are ignoring other regulations in the first place in even referring to their cheese as le Vacherin Mont d’Or.
In this area of France, Franche-Comté, the French also copy two other Swiss cheeses: they make a version of Gruyère, which they call Le Comté, and a version of Emmenthal, which they call Emmenthal grand cru. Heaven help the Swiss if they ever try to copy anything made in France.
Vacherin Mont d’Or is more sweet tasting than Vacherin Fribourgeois.
It is illegal to import the French version into North America as it is made from unpasteurized milk. The Swiss version, despite being pasteurized, has also been banned from import into the US since 1983, owing to a batch that was contaminated with listeria.
The cheese is made between 15 August and 31 March each year. The first ones of the year will start appearing at the stores at the start of November; the last ones will disappear from the stores by the start of May. Select ones whose consistency inside seems to “ripple” when you press on the rind.
To eat the cheese, set outside of fridge at room temperature for at least an hour first. Run a knife along the top crust and peel it back. Eat the insides with a spoon. If there is any left, put the crust back on. Generally, people don’t eat the crust, though some people do enjoy it. The cheese can also be used for cooking and in fondues.
Keep refrigerated; use within a few days of bringing it home.
Earliest written record of this cheese is a letter to Parmentier, advising him to eat it with potatoes.
Literature & Lore
“Vacherin” in French means “from a cow”.