Jan 15, 2014

Just Like Your Field Trips: Beaufort d'Alpage


When I was in grade school, we went on field trips to the local historical reenactment village, one day each year. Once, we went to a pizza place owned by a classmate's father and were allowed to make our own pizzas. That is the extent of the field trips I remember. Gigi, meanwhile, is away for a week with her classmates in Valloire, France for the ultimate field trip -- a week of skiing in the Alps.
 above photos taken by chaperones on the ski trip

It's not that she goes to some fancy school, mind you; it's a French tradition, starting as young as even 1st or 2nd grade, to have elaborate overnight, and often week-long, field trips. These are called "Classes Vertes" (literally "Green Classes"). When it's skiing, sometimes it's called "Classes de Neige" ("Snow Classes"). Sometimes we see groups of kids from the country touring Paris; it may not be very vertes, but there seems to be no other name for it. Of course, budget cuts have taken their toll here, as everywhere, and it's no longer a given that kids will be doing their Classes Vertes, and that's true for both public and private schools.

But lucky Gigi, she has a trip this year. If she doesn't look excited, it's only because she's a little dubious about the "cool" level of her new backpack, till she arrives at the train station and discovers that it fits right in. The trip is optional and costs about 500€ ($650), but that includes transportation from Paris, lodging for the week (rooming with three of her best friends), all food, full gear rental, lessons for six hours each day (three in the morning and three in the afternoon), and special evening activities including a school dance. Seriously, I once spread sauce and cheese on a crust and called it a field trip; that would be called a Classe Oregano, I guess.

THE CHEESE: Beaufort d'Alpage

Drool, drool, slobber, slobber. Yum. This hard, raw cow's milk cheese is crumbly, creamy, sweet, nutty, salty, and tangy. It's all the things you love about a great aged cheddar, Parmigiano Reggiano, Gruyère, and a Comté rolled into one. Kids love it, grown-ups love it. Anybody who is lactose-tolerant loves it. When it's on the cheese platter with fancier, rarer, more elusive, expensive, and elite gourmet cheeses, it's still the one that gets finished first. I want to stop buying Comté and Beaufort d'Alpage in order to try new cheeses, but every once in a while, I just have to cave in and get one.

The word Alpage means that this cheese is manufactured in the Alps, at altitude, with cows that summer in the mountains and graze on seasonal grasses in the fresh air before descending to lower lands for the winter. Think Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music, if Julie Andrews were a cow.

Full disclosure: those cows (possibly the happiest in the world? Just look at the setting!) are over the Swiss border. But their French cousins -- who are burgundy-colored Beaufort breed cows -- share a similar view.

You can taste hints of flowers and grasses in the cheese based on their grazing. Happy cows, happy cheese.

The difference in the colors between cheeses is not just lighting, but also aging. The cheese starts out whiter, after a "short" affinage of about 5-6 months. Then it gets more golden as it ages, up to as long as a 18 months, even a couple years. The flavor gets tangier and fuller as it ages, too, but interestingly it becomes less salty as the other flavors (honey, nuts, flowers, grasses) intensify. I actually prefer a fairly aged cheese, though of course this is completely a matter of personal taste.


Gigi is currently in the heart of Beaufort d'Alpage territory, skiing in the French Alps from which this cheese gets its name. If I know my daughter, she is probably using her pocket money on candy and souvenir T-shirts, but if I were there, I'd buy some of this cheese.


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