The Big Cheese

In earlier times the cheese didn’t have to be big – ‘the cheese’ alone was a synonym for quality. We now use cheesy to describe anything second-rate, artificial or even smelly.

Going back to the 19th century the meaning was just the opposite. ‘Cheese’ or ‘cheesy’ is listed in John Camden Hotten’s The Slang Dictionary, 1863 as:

“Anything good, first-rate in quality, genuine, pleasant or advantageous”

The most probable source is the Persian or Hindi word chiz, meaning a thing.

The expression used to be common among Anglo-Indians, e.g., “My new Arab is the real chiz”; “These cheroots are the real chiz,” i.e. the real thing. The word may have been an Anglo-Indian importation, and it is difficult otherwise to account for it.

Once returnees from India started to use it in Britain, hearers naturally enough converted the unfamiliar foreign chiz into something more recognisable, and it became cheese.

We are well into Vacherin Mont d’Or season which began in September.

Officially known in France as Vacherin du Haut-Doubs this soft, unpasteurised cheese with a pale yellow salt-washed rind originated in the Jura mountains that cross France and Switzerland. French Vacherin, produced in the Franche-Comté region, has AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) status – similar to PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) – ensuring that anything sold under this name is made in a specific geographical area according to strictly governed traditional methods.

Vacherin Mont d’Or was born in the 1700s. In the warm spring and summer months, when the cows produced high yields, farmers created a system of collective dairies, allowing them to pool their milk and produce very large wheels of cheese indeed; the enormous Comté and Emmental. However, not only did the cows produce less milk during the winter months, bad weather often closed the perilous mountain routes to the dairies, forcing farmers to make much smaller cheeses at home to use their milk.

Montbéliarde cows

The French AOC stipulates unpasteurised milk from Montbéliarde cows bred and grazed at an altitude of at least 700 meters above sea level and fed on a diet of grass and hay. It also lays down much of the manufacturing and maturing process including the use of spruce bark to encircle the cheese, which imparts an additional flavour.

(Incidentally, the Swiss Vacherin Mont d’Or, which has a separate AOC, is not the same; one difference being that it’s made only with pasteurised milk.)

I’ve always associated fondue with 1970’s ‘cheesiness’ but had my first proper melted cheese experience earlier this year.  We were given some Vacherin Mont d’Or last Christmas and had some friends over in the New Year to share it with us.  The cheese comes in a spruce box.

To serve, the entire box (lid removed) and cheese is baked for about 10 minutes at 180C/350F.  Small slits should be made in the top crust and sprigs of rosemary or thin slivers of garlic can be inserted. The uncooked crust looks a bit like cheesecloth.

Then drizzle with some olive oil or white wine before popping it into the oven.

After baking, I prised the ‘lid’ off

and served it with some sliced crusty French bread and a California Pinot Noir.

Truly amazing.  We’re looking forward to this season’s serving!


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