A Gratin of Cheese and Potatoes from the Aravis Massif
Once again, we are in the French Alps. The Aravis massif is an impressive chain of mountains situated between Annecy and the elegant ski resort of Megeve. Forming part of the eastern border of the departemant of Haute Savoie this is part of the area where reblochon cheese is produced from the rich second milking of Abondance, Montbeliard and Tarine cows.
Reblochon de Savoie (AOC) is a semi soft, washed rind, creamy cow’s raw milk cheese that is eaten young between 4-8 weeks. It comes in 130 to 450 gram flat round forms that sit on a disc of sprucewood which help regulate the humidity of the cheese.
Reblochon Fermier is identified by a green stamp on the bottom which indicates this cheese is made in small quantities on farms or in mountain chalets. Reblochon Fruitière is made in regional fruitière (dairies, often cooperatives) and this version bears a red stamp. The best Reblochon are produced in the summer when the cows are moved to the high pastures or alpage to graze on their splendid diet of mountain grasses. This means fall is the time to sample the ripe cheese.
Rumor has it that reblochon was born in the 13th Century Haute Savoy when landowners levied a milk tax. Tax collectors were known to arrive during the milking, so in order to avoid a hefty tax payment, farmers would stop milking before the udders were completely empty. After the tax men left the cows would be milked again and this rich milk would be used to make reblochon. “Reblochaient” in the local dialect means “remilking”
Some recipes for Péla call for smoked bacon (lardons fumé) instead of plain (lardons or pancetta) and in fact I prefer the dish with a hint of smoke, but it is a personal preference. Some call for it to go into the oven once the cheese is added; others ask that it be cooked on the stovetop. Often there is an addition of wine, cream or crème fraiche. However it is made, Pela makes a rich, hearty meal and is typically served as a main course along side a simple green salad and some local charcuterie.
If you can’t find reblochon, you can try using other semi soft washed rind cheeses or ask your cheese monger for a suitable substitute. Given the renaissance of artisan cheese making in North America in recent years you are liable to discover a wonderful semi soft washed rind cheese made by an artisan near you.
Reblochon is also a fine cheese to eat on its own and it will transport you to its magnificent mountain pastures best if stored in the bottom of the refrigerator and brought to room temperature at least 2 hours before serving. Try it with a dry white Chignin Bergeron from the Haute Savoie, served slightly chilled (around 10 degrees.)
1 kg. potatoes, peeled and cut in ½ inch cubes.
100 grams (3 ounces) diced smoked lardons fume, pancetta or bacon
1 small onion or 4 shallots, minced
½ cup fresh cream or crème fraiche
1 reblochon cheese weighing approximately 454 grams (1lb)
Salt to taste
Preheat the oven to 350 F (175 C)
Cut the disc of reblochon into 2 discs of equal size. Parboil the potatoes in a large pot of salted water for 10 minutes then drain under cold running water. Meanwhile heat the sauté pan over low to moderate heat and add the bacon. Cook gently until the bacon begins to give off its fat then add the onion and cook it until it becomes transparent. Add the potatoes and stir them to coat in the pork fat before adding the cream.
Add the cream and bring to a simmer before transferring the mixture to a gratin dish. Top with the two discs of reblochon, crust side up. Cover with foil and then bake for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and turn on the broiler. Broil for about 10 minutes or until you have a golden bubbly crust.
If you go: If you are going to the Haute Savoie to try this dish make sure to do your research. I’ve been eating Péla (or Tartiflette) in this region for a long time and it very easy to find everywhere, from simple cafés to michelin starred establishments. With just a few simple mountain ingredients this is a stand out dish if properly prepared using the best local potatoes, lardons and reblochon. However, poorly executed it can be a disappointment that sits heavily in the stomach. The ingredients can taste stale, like they’ve been precooked and left too long in cold storage. In restaurants this is often necessary, it means the dish can come together quickly once it is ordered. So look for a busy place that specializes in local cheese dishes and happy customers.