Learning About Époisses de Bourgogne on a Burgundy Bike Tour

Munster cheese
Munster cheese
Researching for our new Burgundy bike tour, I was excited to discover a company that makes Époisses de Bourgogne cheese – and allows visitors! It’s very difficult to visit a cheesemaker, because of the hygiene regulations surrounding them. We visit a Camembert (and Livarot) maker in Normandy, and a Munster visitor centre in Alsace, but it’s a rare thing.

Époisses in Chateauneuf
Époisses in Chateauneuf
Some regions have a special cheese which has become part of local culture – Camembert in Normandy and Munster in Alsace are good examples. Normans will happily ruin any dish by adding camembert and sticking ‘Normand’ in the name. Likewise, I reckon Munster is served at every single restaurant in Alsace – but at least it’s Munster, rather than camembert! It isn’t true in Dordogne, for example, or Bordeaux, or Provence. But it IS very much true in Burgundy, and the cheese in question is Époisses. So it will be a terrific coup if we’re able to visit an Époisses maker on a new Burgundy tour.

And if we turn up in the morning, we’ll be able to see the cheese being made!

Gaugry fromagerie, near Gevrey Chambertin
Gaugry fromagerie, near Gevrey Chambertin
This is Fromagerie Gaugry, and how about this for a review? “Let’s keep it simple, the cheese from Fromagerie Gaugry will blow your mind. This place sells the best cheese in the world.” Wowser! I want to go – and that’s a sentiment that I know Jerold Frakes* would share, because, as any fule kno, époisses is France’s greatest cheese.

Cheese plays a big part in France’s view of itself. Charles de Gaulle once lamented “No one can bring together a country that has 365 kinds of cheese”. I’ve never been a big fan of de Gaulle, so it comes as no surprise to learn that he couldn’t count very well – the Paris Insider’s Guide suggests there are 1,000 different cheeses in France!

Unlike President de Gaulle, the Paris Insider have ranked their Top 10. You can read about the Cheese Charts in more detail here, but here’s their Top 10:

Paris Insider’s Top 10 French Cheeses

1. Camembert
2. Brie de Meaux
3. Roquefort
4. Reblochon
5. Munster
6. Pont l’Évêque
7. Époisses de Bourgogne
8. Comté
9. Emmenthal
10. Abondance

That’s just wrong, isn’t it? Camembert and Brie in the top 2 places? Obvious nonsense, although I am tempted to explore Brie de Meaux a bit further. Here’s the correct Top 3:

The Official (ie The Chain Gang) Top 3 French Cheeses

1. Époisses
2. Comté
3. Roquefort

Let me tell you a little bit about Époisses.

Firstly, it smells! It really smells – the appellation website calls its aroma ‘penetrating’.

Nearly all (non-goats) cheese is based on coagulating milk using rennet from the stomachs of calves. Not so Époisse! Or nearly not so. Époisse is coagulated using mostly lactic acid (and a little bit of rennet, so it’s still no good for vegetarians).

Cheese is basically a process where specific bacteria are allowed to work on coagulated milk, where the process is controlled and slowed using salt, so that cheese is created and matured, rather than a mouldy mush. The breed of cow or
sheep, the bacteria that are ambient, and the temperature that the milk is heated to, these all determine what type of cheese you get.

A simmental cow from Simmental France
A simmental cow from Simmental France

For example, if you take milk from a Vosgienne cow (Alsace), take it to your fromagerie full of Brevibacterium Linens bacteria, and accidentally heat the milk to 44 C instead of 34, you’ll still get cheese – but not Munster. (Regional cheeses from pasteurised milk? I’m glad you asked – heated to 65 degrees, then cooled very quickly to the required temperature.) Likewise, if you get the bacteria right, the milk right and you don’t mess-up the heating, but you don’t wipe the cheese with salt, you won’t get cheese, you’ll just get milk that’s gone-off! You need it all, and it’s the combinations that determine which cheese. Something in the following makes Époisses special – I just don’t know which bit (-see * below.)

Époisse is a soft, washed-rind cheese that should be orange-coloured. This colouring is natural, caused by the bacteria on the skin of the cheese during the maturing process – in fact any kind of food colouring is forbidden.

Époisses uses milk from the Brune, the Montbéliarde and the French Simmental cows. The milk is coagulated using mostly lactic acid, and a little bit of rennet – this in itself makes Époisses a bit special. Still bad news for the calves, but not for quite so many of them.

The milk is heated to just 30 degrees C, put in moulds after 48 hours, and salted. Throughout the maturing process (6 weeks) the rind is washed regularly with water and Marc de Bourgogne (think brandy). Eh voila, Époisses! There’s much more detail if you click this link.

Époisses cheese, photo by traaf from Brest
Époisses cheese, photo by traaf from Brest
Époisses actually died out, attributed to the loss of manpower in Burgundy farms during two World Wars. It was resurrected by two people, Robert and Simone Berthau, and it’s been a spectacular success. Their dairy is still going strong with the next generation of family. The biggest is the Gaugry Dairy near Gevrey Chambertin

And with a bit of luck, we’ll be going to see Époisses cheese being made. and tasting ‘the best cheese in the world’.

*Jerold Frakes is a regular Chain Ganger, from Buffalo, New York. Believe it or not, he has actually made Époisses in Buffalo. On all cheese-related matters, if Jerold contradicts me, he’s right! I look forward to receiving a corrected ‘Even More Official’ Top 3.

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