Seasonal and costly but a splurge you won’t regret, the cheese pictured at right is luscious beyond words. I’d like to call it Vacherin Mont d’Or but I can’t. The official name is Petit Vaccarinus, which sounds like a condition that requires antibiotics. But aficionados will recognize it as a Vacherin twin, identical to that sought-after Swiss cow’s milk cheese in almost every way that matters.
Even the importer, Caroline Hostettler of Quality Cheese, struggled to articulate a difference, although it likely has to do with milk treatment. (Bear with me; this gets complicated.) Until the early 1980s, Vacherin Mont d’Or was a raw-milk product. But a deadly listeria outbreak traced to the cheese forced producers to tighten their procedures to win back public confidence. Today Vacherin Mont d’Or AOC (appellation d’origine controlée) must be made with thermized (heat-treated) milk. Thermization stops short of pasteurization, but thermized milk is no longer raw.
“Thermized milk can get very close to pasteurized or stay very close to raw,” Hostettler wrote me in an e-mail. “The factors are how high the cheesemaker raises the temperature and for how long.” The Swiss affineur who makes Petit Vaccarinus for Hostettler also makes Vacherin Mont d’Or, presumably with milk that he treats more gently. It would be fascinating to taste the two side by side, but we will have to go to Switzerland for that. Vacherin Mont d’Or is unlikely to make it past our border inspectors.
After the curds are molded and drained, Petit Vaccarinus is lightly pressed. As soon as the cheese is firm enough to unmold, it is wrapped with a flexible strip of spruce bark, then brined for a couple of hours. During its cellar aging—roughly four weeks—it is frequently turned and washed with water or salt water. Finally, the cheese is nestled in a spruce box slightly smaller in diameter than the wheel, which gives the surface its signature ripple.
A ripe Petit Vaccarinus will have a rind the color of flesh or pale salmon and a wavy appearance. The box will be covered with plastic film so you can’t probe the cheese, but it should look dry on top, not slimy, with perhaps a fine dusting of white mold. “White spots, black spots, gray spots…they’re all okay,” says Hostettler. “And this, for some people, is really hard to understand.”
For the first image above, I removed the outside box to reveal the bark ring. But that wasn’t easy—the box is stapled—and Hostettler doesn’t recommend it. It’s perfectly fine to serve the cheese straight from the box—traditionally, with a spoon. Just plunge right through the crust and scoop up a gooey taste. If you find the flavor of the rind too strong, you can peel it back like the lid on a tin can and just consume the interior.
Petit Vaccarinus has a captivating aroma of roasted peanuts, damp wood, forest floor and mushrooms. The spruce fragrance permeates the paste and is especially pronounced near the edge. The salting is perfect and the texture divine. It’s as supple and spreadable as frosting but not soupy. Bread is a must, although the Swiss also serve it with boiled potatoes.
And here’s another traditional way to present it, according to Hostettler: Leave the cheese in its box but pierce the surface in several places with a knife. Drizzle with kirsch or other brandy. Wrap the box loosely with aluminum foil and place in a 425°F oven until the cheese is hot, perhaps 8 minutes. Serve from the box, with bread or boiled potatoes.
Petit Vaccarinus is made only from September through April, but the best supply is around holiday time. Click here for a partial list of retailers who should have it. A rich and spicy white wine, like Alsatian Pinot Gris or Gewurztraminer, is one possible accompaniment. Or try a fruity, tart wild ale, like Russian River Supplication.