Fourme d’Ambert: The wonder of Fromage – unveiling one French cheese at a time
Once upon a time, according to Aurélien Vorger, director of the Groupement d’employeurs des AOP Persillés in France’s formerly volcanic Auvergne region, fourme was another word for cheese.
Fourme comes from Latin, he explains, which comes from the Greek for ‘to form.’ But bit by bit, we got the word fourme, then fourmage, which became fromage in modern French.
A fourme, then, is merely the word for a local cheese, often named, he asserts, not for where it was made, but for the nearest market, where it was sold. But these days, Fourme d’Ambert is far more than the cheese sold in the market town of Ambert.
Characterized by its unique cylindrical shape, Fourme d’Ambert is one of the oldest cheeses in France, with roots dating back to pre-Roman Gaul, according to the official AOP board for the cheese. It boasts a semi-soft texture and mild blue veining. A popular cheese for cooking, it melts nicely into sauces or onto toast.
It’s also a cheese that, until recently, saw its artisanal nature threatened by its very popularity. Indeed, according to producer Antoine de Boismenu, until 2000, industrial production was the only name of this game – a fact that is thankfully becoming less and less true with each passing day.
The Return of Artisanal Fourme
After nearly 15 years in Paris, De Boismenu abandoned the French capital in 2006 to fulfill a childhood dream of working the land.
I spent my childhood vacations on a farm. And it seemed obvious to me that that was what I would do later on.he explains.
That said, he recalls, reality soon beckoned, and the young De Boismenu, who was not raised by farmers, instead attended law school. He nevertheless retained an agricultural dimension to his career, working notably for the National Center for Young Farmers (CNJA) and the National Federation for the establishment of rural businesses (SAFER). He even wrote a book about the protection of rural landscapes in the early aughts. But it wasn’t until 2006 that he abandoned his urban life for good, setting up shop with his brother Louis at his farm in Valcivières back in 2007.
“I had done everything I wanted to do in Paris,” he says. “It was time, at the end of the day, to have another life.”
Soon after, their sister Diane joined them, as well as a new pair of associates, Nicolas and Aurélie Vialatte. Louis has since left the project, and today, the four divide everything from administrative tasks to cheesemaking.
In their natural aging cellar, their fourme takes full advantage of the flora of other cheeses the group produces – mainly tomme de montagne, which De Boismenu characterizes as being similar to Saint-Nectaire. They also, of course, have the animals to look after, 35 Salers and 20 Abondance cows – the former from the local region, the latter an Alpine cow more at home on the Swiss border. Fourme d’Ambert production, after all, does not require that farmers use a particular breed – only, De Boismenu explains, that they be “born and raised in the area.”
It’s a flexibility that isn’t necessarily shared by stricter AOPs – and it’s not the only flexibility that has led the cheese to become more industrialized than most. Given the market for export, much of the AOP Fourme d’Ambert produced in the region is made with pasteurized milk, and the vast majority is still made by industrial – rather than artisanal – producers.
“Until 2000, the Fourme d’Ambert AOP was exclusively industrial,” explains De Boismenu. “At the end of the day, the fermier secteur is fairly young.”
But just because these artisanal producers are new doesn’t mean they aren’t worth keeping an eye on.
“It’s a dynamic branch,” explains De Boismenu, noting that small farms like his are “still working with specifications that were built and adapted to industrial production. But it’s evolving.”
Indeed, it’s a trend that’s taking place throughout France, with small producers challenging the rules of their AOPs, often in order to revert to older traditions. As a result, De Boismenu notes, many French appellations are “trying to tighten their specifications.”
“We won’t be spared,” he says, “and fortunately!”
For now, however, of the 5,500 tons of Fourme d’Ambert produced each year, only 150 are farm-produced; there are currently nine fermier producers, though De Boismenu notes that, given new projects on the rise, this number will only grow.
Vorger echoes this optimism for the dynamism of the AOP.
Raw milk has been growing in the past few years, but a few years ago, there was none left at all.he adds.
And this, he says, is as true for Fourme d’Ambert as it is for its lesser-known cousin, Fourme de Montbrison.
Two Cheeses Divided by a Mountain
If you’ve never heard of Fourme de Montbrison, you’re not alone. Indeed, while Fourme d’Ambert is fairly present on supermarket shelves and even in cheese shops abroad, Fourme de Montbrison is little-known outside of its region – a fact Vorger attributes in part to the strong communication strategy of the cheese AOPs of Auvergne; Montbrison, made in the Loire, falls outside of its jurisdiction.
“Fourme d’Ambert has benefitted a lot from the presence and the diffusion of Auvergne cheeses elsewhere,” says Vorger. “This allowed it to be offered all over France – and even abroad – very early on. But Fourme de Montbrison has remained chiefly in the Loire. And only now is it starting to come out of its region.”
Nevertheless, asserts Vorger, the cheeses “are two sisters” – both cylindrical, both blue-veined – that are nevertheless marked by the mountain dividing them.
“People didn’t have the same tastes, on each side of the mountain,” asserts Vorger, noting that while the cheese started as the same recipe – and was even controlled by the same AOP until 2002 – the “the differences in taste translated, today, into two sets of specifications.”
The main differences between the cheeses stem from the fact that on the Auvergne side of the mountain, people liked a bluer cheese; on the Forez side, meanwhile, they had less of a taste for it. Today, Montbrison isn’t just less blue than Ambert; it’s also firmer, thanks in large part to a technical difference whereby Montbrison is salted when the curds are added to the cylindrical molds, while Ambert is seasoned after, by rubbing salt into the outside. Montbrison is also aged on pine wood, which conveys specific bacteria to the cheese that give it an orange crust, as opposed to the greyer crust sought after for Ambert.
“I’d say Fourme de Montbrison is better for gratins,” says Vorger. “And Fourme d’Ambert is very interesting for sauces, or to melt into a risotto, for example.”
The Perfect Fourme d’Ambert
The universe of blue cheeses, Vorger asserts, is “very heterogeneous,” varying not only between producers and along seasonal lines but also from day to day, minute to minute.
“The first cheese of a batch is different from the last cheese of the same batch,” he says. “The bottom of the cheese is different from the top of the cheese.”
The role of the AOP, he says, is not to encourage homogeneity, but rather to give “broad guidelines in terms of shape, flavor, and texture.”
“At the end of the day,” he says, “we’re not here to make all fourmes look the same. That would be dramatic.”
Each producer, then, has a certain cheese he or she is looking for when manipulating base ingredients. For De Boismenu, that’s above all something that’s “very creamy.”
“That’s what seems the most important, to me,” he says.
As compared to industrial iterations, De Boismenu’s cheeses tend to be a bit yellower in color, due to the lack of homogenization in the fermier sector, and their crusts tend to be greyer, rather than the white found on industrial iterations. His, he says, “correspond pretty well to the official specifications, so a grey crust with white and blue spots,” a description echoed by Vorger, who notes that an ideal Fourme d’Ambert will sport a rough, rugged exterior the color of dark stone.
Once sliced into its characteristic rounds, Fourme d’Ambert should reveal a creamy, ivory color and a uniquely soft, unctuous texture that veers almost towards chewiness.
“That’s a real characteristic, of fourme,” asserts Vorger. “Its height – which is very unique in the category of blue cheese, or indeed cheeses in general, conveys a texture with structure.”
Above all, Fourme d’Ambert should boast a mild blue bitterness – mild being the operative word. As compared to something bold and punchy like Roquefort, fourme will never be too salty nor too assertive – and for Vorger, that’s a good thing.
“Sometimes, a strong flavor can lead to one or two flavors blocking the tastebuds, so you don’t taste anything else,” he says. “That mildness allows it to reveal a lot of things that power can sometimes hide.”
The Fourme d’Ambert sold by Paris-based fromager-affineur Laurent Dubois has a bark far worse than its bite. Dubois was one of the first to earn a Meilleur Ouvrier de France distinction for his trade. His Fourme d’Ambert stands out thanks to its long aging – twelve additional weeks –, which renders it buttery and soft in texture and lends it a sweet-and-savory flavor with almost aniseed aromas.
“In aging it,” he asserts, “you really find a beautiful harmony between the flavor and the texture.”
He sources his cheese, not from a small fermier producer, but rather from Laqueuille, a large, industrial company. It’s a decision, Dubois says, that he made after finding that many smaller producers opted to craft cheeses that were firmer and drier than what he was looking for.
“That’s nice too,” he says, “but a buttery, creamy fourme like the kind that we want… I haven’t really found that yet.”
The cheese from Laqueuille may be pasteurized, then, but according to Dubois, the company nevertheless boasts a savoir-faire and deep respect for the appellation.
“So yes, they pasteurize. They don’t work with raw milk,” says Dubois. “But fittingly, we can add value and flavor and interest to this cheese, just in aging it a little bit longer.”
It’s a choice that, he says, has helped to give fourme a bit more identity among French people who think of it first and foremost as a cooking cheese.
“People don’t often come asking for Fourme d’Ambert,” he says. “We’re the ones who say to them: ‘Try this blue cheese. It’ll be a bit different than what you’re used to.’”
How Do You Eat Your Fourme d’Ambert?
When it comes to pairing Fourme d’Ambert, Vorger recommends white wine or low-acid reds from Burgundy, the Loire Valley, or Auvergne to complement the “powerful” cheese. He even suggests brown and amber ales, with their nutty, cereal notes, or floral IPA.
He also suggests sweet-and-savory pairings, something Dubois echoes.
“It’s a cheese that goes well with sugar,” says Dubois, suggesting a pear gelée or a juicy fresh fruit as an accompaniment. Even a glass of port or another sweet or fortified wine can go nicely, a suggestion echoed by De Boismenu.
“I like a slightly sweeter red, like a Maury,” he says. “I think that’s ideal. Or honestly, even grape juice.”
“Often,” he continues, “people talk about pairing Maury and chocolate. Well I say, ‘Why not try Maury, chocolate, and Fourme d’Ambert!’”
Have you tasted Fourme d’Ambert? Do you only use it for cooking? Please share your experiences and preferences in the comments below.
1. Aurélien Vorger via Auvergnat.com © Leah Webermann
2-3. Fourme Ambert – Jasserie et les vaches © Pierre SOISSON
4. Antoine de Boismenu © S Placie
5. Antoine de Boismenu producteur de fourme d’Ambert fermiere AOP, dans sa cave de la ferme des Supeyres
6 – 7 Fourme d’Ambert © Ludovic Combe
8. Fourme d’Ambert et Pain © Sabine Alphonsine
9-10 Laurent Dubois Paris Maubert © Christophe Flemin via Vivant.eco
11. Fourme d’Ambert © Christophe Flemin
12. Tranche Fourme sur pain © Ludovic Combe
‘The wonder of Fromage – unveiling one French cheese at a time’ by Emily Monaco