Cheese lovers argue that the nuances of their beloved product are as subtle and varied as wine. So what makes a great cheesemaker? FIONA BECKETT ventures into the domain of a master affineur

There were times on my journey 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 singletrack 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 turned out to house not only one of the finest cheese shops I’ve ever seen, but the most sophisticated temperature-controlled cellar, a wine store and a tiny, woodpanelled restaurant in which Antony and his son Jean-François conduct what must be the ultimate cheese and wine tasting – their cérémonie de fromages. Bernard Antony started his career 30 years ago, selling a modest selection of cheeses. The turning point came in 1982, when he met France’s then most famous affineur Pierre Androuët, who encouraged him to set up a cheese cellar and mature his own cheese in his home region of the Sundgau at the very south of Alsace. His skill was first recognised by Ducasse, who bought his cheeses for his restaurants. Other high-profile chefs 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 bistro down the road,’ the restaurateur replied loftily.

Age concern

The six-course cérémonie des 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 fouryear- old Comté served alongside its twoyear- old counterpart, an equally stellar three-year-old Vieux Gruyère d’Alpage de Suisse (pictured right) and a two-year-old Beaufort d’Alpage made with autumn milk, all paired with a superbly rich 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 opposite); an unctuous

pool of Pérail 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 du Mont d’Or. They were

accompanied by the new season’s pommes de terre de Noirmoutier served on coarse sea salt with some sublime butter from Bordier in St Malo 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. What was remarkable about these cheeses was how pure they tasted, with none of the funky flavours that usually accompany artisan cheese. It was hard to get a definitive explanation for that out of Antony, other than the small scale of his operation and the fact that, like Androuët, he doesn’t advocate eating the rinds. But I suspect the answer lies in the temperature they were served at (cool room temperature) and the meticulous care lavished on the cheeses by his son Jean-François, who

trained for two years as a cheesemaker. The cellar where the cheeses are kept

was colder than others I’ve encountered, although different cheeses are matured at different temperatures: most at 6°C. At the side is a laboratory where samples are analysed. Despite its rustic exterior, this is a high-tech operation.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 éléveurs, or cheese selectors. ‘We don’t receive very young cheeses,otherwise we can’t tell how good they are,’ says Jean-François. ‘We don’t let bad cheeses into our cave. Of the 10,000- odd wheels of Comté available, I will pick out 100 to 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 pasteurised. ‘Unpasteurised cheese is more alive and expresses its terroir better,’ says Jean-François, ‘but we have found some really good pasteurised cheeses.’ He and his father are staunch defenders of the AC 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 the Antonys move in. A group of wealthy New Yorkers at a charity dinner were asked if they wanted a selection of Antony’s cheeses or a bottle of Pétrus in their goody bag. They all chose the cheese. Alas Anthony’s moment of triumph was punctured when one said airily: ‘Well, we all have Pétrus in our cellars.’ But I suspect they would have chosen the cheese anyway.

Written by Fiona beckett