Cheesemaker Hervé Mons has always honored the seasons in his work. In 2023, Food for Change is exploring the importance and legacy of cheese and this master affineur, one of Slow Food’s first supporters, spoke with us about the future of good cheese from his fromagerie in France’s Loire département.
Could you describe your career path?
Hervé Mons: I studied at the École Nationale de l’Industrie Laitière [the French National Dairy Industry School] and worked around France for four years at various farms and creameries. My childhood friend Michel Troisgros–the owner and chef of Troisgros, a three-Michelin-star hotel and restaurant over in Roanne, and a Relais & Châteaux member–was the one who gave me the chance to meet some of the world’s great gourmet chefs. In 2000, I was awarded the title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France [a prestigious title that recognizes individuals’ contribution to preserving French heritage], then in 2008, my brother Laurent and I turned an old 600-foot-long railway tunnel into a cheese cave. Since then, we’ve opened our own dairy, acquired herds of native cows–a vanishing breed that produced a milk we really liked–and founded our small craft cheese factory in Hautes-Chaumes in northwestern France, where we make Fourme de Montbrison AOP.
Hervé and Laurent Mons - © Mario Delgado
The flavor of Fourme de Montbrison, and any other artisan-produced cheese, really depends on its terroir, doesn’t it?
HM: A terroir is dependent on both its soil and its sky. It’s determined by altitude, rainfall, temperature, aspects, exposure, sunshine. We think much the same way as our winegrowing friends. I wouldn’t go so far as to say we break it down into parcels of land–but we come pretty close! This means everything depends on the farmers and where they take their herds based on the grass and sunshine. This is especially true for smaller grazing animals, like sheep and goats. Depending on where the beasts have grazed on a given day, we get a different milk.
© Studio d'URFE
What makes cheeses seasonal?
HM: The first and most important ingredient for making cheese is the grass growing in the pastures. And we’re seeing a trend toward restoring natural cycles, honoring lactation periods the way they did in the old days, with an abundance of milk in springtime and after the birthing season (unlike more ‘industrial’ manufacturers, who usually practice insemination and milk production all year round). When we work seasonally, we’re in tune with the climate and the agricultural world. We have to be transparent with our customers and explain why they’re not going to be getting our cheeses at a given time. This year, 2023, is a good year, as we’re probably going to have excellent hay–we had rain and sun at the right time, the hay is already in. This means we’ll certainly have very good milk in the fall and early the following season.
© Mario Delgado
What is the cheesemaking process?
HM: There are two stages in the life of a cheese: the stage between the milk and the curd, then the stage between the curd and the cheese. The first belongs to the producer; the second is the realm of the affineur or refiner. This is the exact moment when the texture, aromas and rind develop. But to be truly effective, an affineur must thoroughly understand both stages.
© Erick Bonnier
What constitutes good aging?
HM: Affinage or cheese-refining means to mature it, ripen it, let it age. Everything matters here: humidity, air flow, temperature. Depending on a terroir’s signature methods, cheeses are placed on straw, wood, stone, or earth. They stay in the cave for a few days or a few months, being turned, brushed, tapped. It’s a delicate, high-wire process, working with a living substance that can be imperiled by a mere grain of sand (or salt). So the environment must be flawless.
© Mario Delgado
Should cheese lovers choose raw milk cheese whenever possible?
HM: Actually, my only advice is that you ask to taste a cheese before buying it. You should never buy a cheese based on appearance alone, because nothing is more misleading to the eye than a cheese. The best cheeses are often not the handsomest! So have fun tasting and testing. Raw milk cheeses might have more marked characteristics, but there are still many different pasteurized and thermized cheeses [where milk is first heated to lower temperatures than pasteurization] to enjoy, and a good thermized cheese will always be better than a mediocre raw-milk cheese.
© Mario Delgado
Have you noticed a change in our cheese-eating habits?
HM: In the recent past, it seemed like restaurants were leaving cheese by the wayside. Chefs were more focused on creativity and were neglecting cheese to some extent, because it’s a product they don’t make themselves. But I sense that the cheese board is finding its way back into the spotlight these days. Customer demand is on the rise–taste-savvy people want to treat themselves to foods they can’t easily find elsewhere.