When the days turn cold and darkness comes early, a man's fancy turns to thoughts of soul-warming evenings spent in front of a fire of well-cured logs of oak with a wheel of rich cheese. Happily, the season brings not only snow and ice, but one of the world's great cheeses, Vacherin Mont-d'Or.
This rich, distinct treat crafted in Switzerland near the French border—an identical version called Haute Rive is made in France—is among the rarest of cheeses. It sells only from October through March, and during those months even the best purveyors have sporadic supplies.
"Cheese connoisseurs will wait all year long to have a taste of Vacherin," says Waldemar Albrecht-Luna, fromager at Artisinal, a cheese shop and restaurant in Manhattan.
There are pasteurized versions of Vacherin, but the raw milk variety (which has to be aged 60 days to be legally imported into the United States) is more highly regarded. Its magic comes from the cows that climb the Alpine meadows of Mont-d'Or, the Golden Mountain, eating their way up the mountain, turning the soil bare. At first snow, they begin eating their way down the other side. Their first milking, with its rich fat content, goes to make Vacherin.
Vacherin is a soft cheese with a washed rind that is packed in wheels surrounded by spruce bark. Too soft to be sliced, Vacheron is best served with a spoon—simply cut into the rind and scoop out the ivory treasure inside, perhaps onto a small slice of wonderful bread, or even spooned over warm potatoes.
Beware early or late Vacherins. A wheel we found in early November was mild, bland and unimpressive. At the end of the month we sampled one at Artisinal. By contrast, it was pure, complex decadence: earthy and bold, with hints of mushrooms and truffles, backed by a steadfast creaminess that lingered on the palate for minutes and minutes after the cheese was gone. Think of it as Brie for grown-ups.
A wine expert suggested Gewürztraminer as a pairing, but we found it too sweet. A crisper white would likely work better. In the spirit of experimentation, we opted for quaffs of Armagnac, which cleansed the palate between bites, left a fresh tongue for each succeeding bite, and made a combination of rare indulgence. Savor it while you can.