The French Cheesemongers of Mons Fromagerie
By Jana Soeldner Danger
Many food historians call the exact origins of cheese making a mystery, speculating the culinary art started some 10,000 years ago when man first domesticated milk-producing mammals. And it’s thought that cheese was discovered accidentally – perhaps when someone added acidic fruit juice to milk and noticed the curdling effect; or that the separation of curds and whey was observed in the practice of storing milk in pouches made of animal stomachs. What they do know for certain is that by the time Julius Caesar ruled the Roman Empire, cheese making proved commonplace in Europe and the Middle East.
However, you may find it interesting that cheeses considered household names today – like Parmesan, Swiss, Cheddar and Gouda, for example – are, relatively speaking, somewhat new to the cheese scene, having hit culinary documentation just a few hundred years ago.
Meet the Mons
The process of making and aging fine cheeses and getting them to market is a complex one that requires talent, skill and patience. The Mons family has been doing it for decades in the French city of Roanne. Brothers Hervé and Laurent Mons are among the rare commercial cheesemongers left in the world who control their cheeses in all stages, including production, aging and marketing. Since its beginnings in the 1960s, the Mons Fromagerie has grown into an international company that distributes its products in 25 countries around the globe, offering top quality cheeses you can find in some of the best restaurants and shops in the world. In 2002, the Mons Fromagerie received well-deserved recognition when it was named Cheesemonger of the Year by the Pudio gastronomy guide.
In 1964, Hervé and Laurent’s father, Hubert, decided to quit his job with a milk cooperative and try selling cheeses in small markets in and around Roanne. He began by scouring the French countryside in a small van in search of the products he needed.
“My dad found farmers and cheesemakers by asking locals at coffee shops, or the mailman,” said Hervé, who began working with his father when he was 9. “Sourcing the cheeses was one of his great skills. He would often take me with him to see the farmers and producers and to buy the cheese, and I loved meeting the people we were working with.”
The night before going to market, it was Hervé’s job to clean and fill the cream buckets and prepare grated Gruyère bags. Market days themselves were long and exhausting. “We had to wake up at 4:30 in the morning, so I usually slept in the truck on the way,” he recalled. “The atmosphere at the market was nice, though; there were kids from other stands, and although we worked hard, we also had fun.”
Eventually, Hervé started going to the markets by himself, and also sold cheeses in the small villages surrounding Roanne. His customers grew to trust him completely. “Selling door to door was a great experience,” he said. “Those are my best memories. The clients were not always available at the beginning, but after two years, they would hide the keys to their houses for me and leave me notes on their tables with their orders and their wallets to pay for them.”
When Hervé was 17, he became an apprentice to some of the best cheesemongers in Paris. “I started by cleaning, organizing and aging the cheeses, and cutting and preparing the orders,” he said. “It was only after doing these tasks for a year that we could start selling. It was rigorous work; everything had to be perfect, from the quality of the aging and the presentation of our booth to the outfits we wore.”
Ready for Change
When Hervé returned to the family business after his stint in Paris, he was ready to try new things. “I had lots of ideas,” he said. One of the first things he did was to open the family’s first ever cheese shop. “It was stressful, because I didn’t have much money,” he recalled. “And my dad was a bit on the fence about the project, because he had only worked in markets.”
Adding to the risk: It was the first shop of its kind in a provincial area. “Shops that offered more than 200 kinds of cheese existed only in places like Paris and Milan,” Hervé said. “And even though Roanne had a great gastronomic culture, it wasn’t Paris!”
But the shop was a success, and others followed. At about the same time, the company constructed maturing cellars where cheeses could be prepared for aging, and then stored in caves that maintained ideal temperature and humidity.
“It was essential for the company to have good caves, because we had decided to source young cheeses from farmstead producers, and we needed the space to store and age them in perfect conditions,” Hervé said.
Hervé’s younger brother Laurent joined the company during the 1990s. Then in 2001, the brothers opened the Opus Caseus Concept training center for aspiring cheesemongers. “The creation of Opus Caseus Concept was a necessity for our craft, because cheesemongers were disappearing,” Hervé said. “The supermarkets and distribution system in France had hurt a lot of small retailers.”
Maturing is a vital part of the cheese-making process, and it is carefully controlled at Mons Fromagerie. “Aging a cheese requires a lot of attention because it is a living product made from milk that evolves with fermentation,” Hervé explained. “Cheese results from two transformations: The first is from milk into curds; the second is from curds into cheese. Aging allows the cheese to develop its rind, which will protect the inside in the same way our skin protects us.”
The maturing process also allows the cheese to develop flavors, texture and aroma. “Maturing results from a complex alchemy between atmosphere, place and time,” Hervé said. “When we are maturing a cheese, we are rearing it, leading it toward its second life. It requires delicate and appropriate care in relation to the family and region the cheese belongs to; wood, straw, stone, and soil are our allies. They help us maintain the atmospheres of our cellars. This living world has a very fragile balance and requires constant vigilance.”
Hervé loves a wide variety of cheeses. But if he could have just one cheese for the rest of his life, what would it be? “It would be Salers
de Buron,” he said. “It was my first mountain cheese discovery, and nothing has changed in its making.”