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The art of the affineur

The art of the affineur

There were times on my journey down to meet Bernard Antony in the far south of Alsace, when I wondered if the effort was worthwhile. Not least when the sat nav sent us down a single track road in the middle of a forest. Or when we arrived, after several redirections, outside what seemed to be an ordinary village house. Could this possibly be the base of France’s best known affineur, cheese supplier to such world famous chefs as Alain Ducasse and Pierre Gagnaire. It could and it was.

The tardis-like building houses not only one of the finest cheese shops I’ve ever seen but the most sophisticated temperature-controlled cave, a wine store and a tiny wood-panelled 10 seater restaurant in which M. Antony and his son Jean-Francois conduct what must be the ultimate cheese and wine tasting, their crmonie de fromages.

Bernard Antony started his career some 30 years ago running a mobile epicerie selling a modest selection of cheeses which gradually expanded under the encouragement of a local matre fromager Francois Schmittlin who lent him the money to develop his business. The turning point occurred in 1982 when he met France’s then most famous affineur Pierre Androut who encouraged him to set up a ‘ käs-kaller ' or cheese cellar in his home region of the Sundgau on the very southern tip of Alsace and mature his own cheeses.

His skill was first recognised by Alain Ducasse who bought his cheeses for his restaurants. Other high profile chefs such as Pierre Gagnaire, Alain Passard and Alain Senderens followed suit with Antony shrewdly deciding he would only do business with the best. He tells the story of a potential customer who rang up asking if he would supply her restaurant. He expressed little interest. “We have two Michelin rosettes and 18 in Gault Millau” she urged. “Then we can talk” said Antony. “Well, I wouldn’t have come to you if I thought you were going to supply the bistrot down the road” she said loftily.

The six course cérémonie de fromages he lays on is a phenomenal tour de force, a chance to sample the very best regional cheeses that France has to offer. It kicks off in style while our palates are still fresh with what is considered his signature cheese, a four year old Comté served alongside its two year counterpart, an equally stellar three year old Vieux Gruyère d’alpage de Suisse and a two year old Beaufort d’alpage made with autumn milk, all paired with a superbly rich Pessac Léognan, Domaine de Chevalier 1990 from his personal cellar.

Five more tasting plates follow, 22 cheeses in total. A selection of goats’ and sheeps’ cheeses, subtle, delicate and not remotely ‘goaty’ served with a 20 year old Zind Humbrecht riesling (see wine box below). An unctuous pool of Perail de Brebis, so runny it had to be spooned from the dish.

A selection of cows cheeses, mostly washed rind including a brilliant Morbier (and I never thought I’d say those words in the same breath) that the Antonys have made especially for them by the Fromagerie de Mont d’Or. They were accompanied by the new season’s pommes de terre de Noirmoutier served on coarse seasalt with some sublime butter from Beillevaire in Machecoul in the Loire to slather over them (a great serving suggestion). The succeeding courses featured a spectacular Brie de Meaux in which you could easily detect the mushroom flavours so often associated but rarely experienced with this cheese and a perfect farmhouse Munster - well, of course, we were in Alsace.

What was remarkable about these cheeses was how pure they tasted without any of the funky flavours that usually accompany artisan cheese. It was hard to get a definitive explanation for that out of Bernard Antony other than the small scale of his operation and the fact that, like his mentor Pierre Androuet, he doesn’t advocate eating the rinds. But I suspect the answer lies in the temperature at which they were served (cool room temperature) and the meticulous care and attention that is lavished on the cheeses by his son Jean-Francois who trained for two years as a cheesemaker.

The actual cave where the cheeses were kept was also colder than others I’ve encountered although different cheeses are matured at different temperatures: most at 6 °C, the washed rind cheeses in a more humid room at 10 °C. At the side is a lab where samples are analysed. Despite its rustic exterior this is a high tech operation.

In fact what the Antonys very cleverly do is to get their 50-odd suppliers to mature the cheeses then pick the best and hold them. In that sense they are less affineurs than cheese selectors or eleveurs as they describe themselves. “We don’t receive very young cheeses otherwise we can’t tell how good they are” says Jean-Franois. “We don’t let bad cheeses into our cave. Of the 10,000-odd wheels of Comt that are available for example I will pick out 100-150 with the help of the chefs de cave or affineurs. They keep us the best. Our suppliers understand what we’re looking for and that we have some very demanding customers.”

Almost all the cheeses they handle are made from raw milk though a few such as Bleu d’Auvergne, Livarot and Mimolette are only available heat treated or pasteurized. “Unpasteurised cheese is more alive and expresses its terroir better” says Jean-Franois “but we have found some really good pasteurized cheeses. He and his father are staunch defenders of the AOC system which they describe as the ‘terroir of cheese’ and have lobbied the French senate about the loss of rural ‘savoir-faire’ and the industrial practices that have created a uniformity among French cheeses. “The word ‘terroir’ is ominipresent in the media but the reality is that it’s in the process of disappearing” says Bernard.

A final story well illustrates the circles in which the Antonys move. A group of wealthy New Yorkers at a charity dinner were asked if they wanted a selection of Bernard Antony’s cheeses or a bottle of Petrus in their goody bag. They all chose the cheese. Antony’s moment of triumph - and it’s to his credit that he tells the story against himself - was punctured when one said airily “Well we all have Petrus in our cellars.” But I suspect they would have chosen the cheese anyway.

Bernard Antony’s shop and tasting room is at 5 rue de la Montagne, 68480 Vieux-Ferrette. Tel 03 89 40 42 22. To arrange a similar tasting log on to their website. The cérémonie des fromages, which takes place on Thursday to Saturday evenings and needs to be booked in advance costs 52€ without wine and 100€ with wine. In London you can enjoy the Antony’s cheeses at The Greenhouse, The Capital, Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester, Sketch and Hlne Darroze’s new restaurant at at the Connaught.

This article first appeared in the September 2008 issue of Decanter.

Bernard Antony’s cheese and wine pairings
Bernard Antony is just as interested in wine as he is in cheese and has shrewdly established himself as an ambassador for his local Alsace region. That may be one reason why he says he prefers white wine with cheese but he also came up with some impressive combinations with a couple of reds (no mean feat with this quality of cheese) The pairings below were the stand-out combinations of the tasting.

  • Domaine de Chevalier Blanc Pessac-Leognan 1990 with two and four year old Comté
  • Zind Humbrecht Riesling Clos St Urbain, Rangen de Thann 1988 with a Valençay de Touraine
  • Hugel Pinot Noir 1990 with a Pérail de Brebis
  • Albert Mann Pinot Noir Grand H 2006 with Abbaye de Tamié (a washed rind cheese made by Cistercian monks)
  • La Fleur de Boüard Lalande de Pomerol 2003 with Brie de Meaux
  • Domaine Weinbach Gewurztraminer Cuvée Laurence 2000 with Munster

 

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