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Food by VICE

You Don’t Need a Mountain to Make French Alpine Cheese

Reblochon is an oozy, cow’s milk cheese from Savoy in the Western Alps. But on a farm in Oxfordshire, cheesemakers Antony Curnow and David Jowett are making their own Anglicised version—and it might taste even better.

by Chloe Scott-Moncrieff
Aug 12 2016, 12:00pm

Antony Curnow could be a cow whisperer.

"They've foam mattresses over there," he says, pointing a tattooed arm to his herd's sleeping quarters. "That's the brushing section so they can get their backs scratched."

I'm in this cowpat splatted bovine "pampering" zone, next to 200 acres of undulating paddocks, because Curnow, alongside fellow cheesemaker David Jowett, has been playing the French at their own game. Here, in the heart of the Cotswolds, the pair are making Reblochon, a type of oozy, unpasteurised cow's milk cheese that hails from the Western Alps. To ensure their British version rivals the original French Alpine fromage, they need the best milk possible.

"So the cows, mainly Brown Swiss, must be happy and chilled," says Curnow.

Cheesemakers David Jowett and Antony Curnow at their farm in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire. All photos by the author.

The hard graft has paid off. Curnow and Jowett began producing their cheese, Rollright, last year on a farm near the picturesque Oxfordshire town of Chipping Norton, and have gone on to supply high-end London cheese shops including Neal's Yard Dairy and La Fromagerie.

Rollright has made it onto menus in the capital, too. The Michelin-starred Lyle's, Simon Rogan's Claridge's restaurant Fera, and Rules have all used the Anglicised Alpine fromage in dishes and cheese courses.

READ MORE: This Guy Figured Out How to Make Butter Taste More Buttery

Yet standing on Curnow and Jowett's farm today, a stone's throw from David Cameron's abode and the site of food and music festival Wilderness, it couldn't feel further from the Alps.

Jowett, putting on a natty blue cheese making cap, reflects: "We started out with the aim of making a British-style Reblochon or Vacherin, but now it's its own cheese. The only thing similar really is it's wash rind, and the pastures here are wild flowers and grass herbs on limestone, not too unlike mountain meadows."

Slicing through the curds to make Rollright, a British take on the traditional French Reblochon cheese.

Since I've arrived, Jowett has been restlessly checking the clock. Now, it's time for both him and Curnow to put on hygienic garb and we go through a door to a lab room by the barns, in which stands a huge circular vat. There, I see the cows' efforts: a pond of curds and whey wobbling like a giant panna cotta.

Cheesemaking is an day-long process but at this stage (it's around 1 PM and Jowett added the rennet a few minutes before I arrived), it's time to start "cutting."

Blue caps on, he and Curnow take turns swapping the curd knife, slicing through the vat, in harmony, instinctively. Texture is vital.

"It can't be gooey and there can't be big pieces," says Curnow.

Jowett adds: "This is exciting but the ripening is even more. We have 30 to 35 days from now to make sure this is tasting its best, then it's out the door."

The secret to their Rollright cheese, the pair insist, is in the milk but obsessiveness also plays a role. Starting at 4 or 5 AM, they often don't go home until after 10 PM and toll 110-hour weeks.

"It's a different mindset," explains Curnow, "It's wonderful to get up for this."

For Jowett, "the goal is just to make the best cheese possible."

As they cut the curds into tinier pieces, I ask the two how they met.

Cheese curds.

"I came here in 2010 to start a cheesemaking business," says Curnow, originally from Cornwall. "My parents aren't farmers but I had a friend who was one and that's how I got into it."

He was a dairy manager and, "learnt to make cheese a few years ago with [Cotswold cheesemaker] Melissa Ravenhill."

Jowett, whose Dad is a Shakespeare academic in Stratford-upon-Avon, left school at 16 to become a chef. While his friends from culinary school did stages in fancy London restaurants, he was already smitten with the lactic stuff.

"I'd fallen in love with cheese," says Jowett.

The pair attribute the success of Rollright to their mentors—world cheese authorities like Juliet Harbutt and Patricia Michelson.

As we talk, there's a sudden whoosh and the whey is released from the vat. The pair begin transferring the fresh cheese into moulds—76 in total. The atmosphere is charged. The room gets warmer and and everyone is discussing pH balance.

chipping-norton-cheese1

Rollright cheese in rind, stacked in the ripening room.

As we reach the final stage of the cheesemaking process, the cheese is put in the "ripening room," set precisely at 14 degrees Celsius and at 90 to 95 percent humidity. There are towers and towers of copper-skinned Rollrights, each one needing its rind brushed with brine every day, as well as careful turns. It's a process that takes hours.

But when I try my first bite of Rollright—in all its glossy, creamy exquisiteness—I understand what all the trouble was for. Its flavour is deeper and more buttery than the usual French Reblochon, its washed rind providing an almost Bovrilly taste.

READ MORE: This Cheesemaker Is Aging Cheddar Down a 90-Metre Coal Mine

"It has a rich savoury profile, not fruit," says Jowett.

So what is the secret to making French Alpine cheese in the British countryside?

"There's a bit of art, a bit of science and a hell of a lot of learning. I think it's an art you never master and you always continue learning, but it's one of the nicest jobs," says Curnow. "We just want to be the British go-to for this style cheese."

I suggest they may well be.

"We pinch ourselves all the time," comes the reply in unison.