A beautiful washed rind cheese that reflects the Auvergne region’s rich, volcanic pastures
Words: Mark Riddaway
Image: Polly Webster
I once interviewed a man whose job it was to drive blood and organs between hospitals for potentially life-saving transplants. The gravity of his cargo weighed heavily upon him as he weaved through the lunatic traffic of central London, seeking to balance the competing demands of speed and meticulous care. Driving back from France, I knew how he felt.
It had been a familiar holiday story. We’d been staying in a house in the Auvergne region of France, and on the first morning had been to the food market in the nearest small town, where a cheesemaker had set up a table piled high with St Nectaire fermier cheese—a washed rind beauty made from the unpasteurised milk of the Salers cows that feed on the region’s rich, volcanic pastures. With the deep fungal funk of its grey-blue rind playing off the nutty silk of its centre, it tasted a bit like wild mushrooms in a creamy sauce, eaten in a cellar. Or, if we’re going to be properly Gallic about it, like an illicit tryst on a pile of hay in a hot, stuffy farm building. As a cheese, it was the perfect complement to bread, wine and languor. So, of course, I impulsively bought several more to take home.
A messy ménage à trois
The only problem was that we were driving back. It was the middle of a very hot summer, and we had given ourselves a leisurely few days to make it home. And time, soft cheese and a hot car make for a messy ménage à trois. For three days, everything—our route, our timings, our personal comfort—became subservient to the needs of the cheese. To my horror, the two hotels we’d booked had no fridges in the rooms. In one, much to the misery of both my partner and the planet, I made the air conditioning as cold as possible and we slept in our clothes. In the other, there was no air con at all, so I ran a cold bath, and, using whatever came to hand, created a waterproof floating raft on which the precious cargo could sit.
About a week after making it home and gorging myself silly in a rush to finish the cheese before it died, I stumbled upon loads of St Nectaire fermier at Borough Market, at least the equal of the stuff I’d bought in France, and considerably better for having at no stage spent three days in a hot car. Yes, the vital organs made it to the hospital, but apparently the patient didn’t need them after all.