Jul 11, 2018

The Big Cheese: La Grosse Tomme


This is a story of big cheeses, not just one but five: two big cheeses that are actually cheeses, and three big cheeses that are "merely" generals, presidents, and founding fathers. And they're all related and tied in to this time of year, July, which is the month both France and the United States celebrate their revolutions.

Washington and Lafayette at Valley Forge, by John Ward Dunsmore
image from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Washington_and_Lafayette_at_Valley_Forge.jpg

You've heard of the famous Frenchman who came to help the American revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette. But did you know he was just 19 when he came to America's aid? That he had no experience before working his way to the top and became a celebrated American Revolutionary War Hero? And that he was, at one point, rewarded with a lot of cheese?

George Washington and Marquis Lafayette at Valley Forge, after Alonzo Chappel wall art 
image from: https://www.greatbigcanvas.com/view/george-washington-and-marquis-lafayette-at-valley-forge-after-alonzo-chappel,2165972/?gclid=CjwKCAjwjZjZBRAZEiwAPeLSK4pm-TsvwFo26uaWsofurjcBxVHtwaAyAr_GYkx6nt-GJgxmvS3MthoCth0QAvD_BwE

I'll try to keep it brief, but his name alone -- Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette -- makes that difficult. After working his way up through the American revolutionary ranks, he ended up a close friend to several of the new country's big cheeses: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson. After helping out the Americans, he returned to France and was also a key figure in the French revolutions of both 1789 and 1830. I can't imagine there are many people who figure prominently in three separate revolutions on two separate continents and for this, he is sometimes called "The Hero of the Two Worlds."

It's not just me that loves the guy. In the 1837 book called Mémoires, Corréspondances et Manuscrits du Général Lafayette (p. 435), this quote (my translation) shows the big cheese being honored by...a big cheese:

"Deeply affected with the recognition of such an important service, the residents of Nantucket recently assembled, voted, and resolved that each one  would give the milk from his cow during a 24-hour period; that the entire volume would be converted into a cheese weighing 500lb (around 225kg) that would be sent to M. Marquis de Lafayette as a small, but very sincere, token of the truth of the affection and recognition of the inhabitants of Nantucket."

When Lafayette died in 1834, he was buried in Picpus Cemetery in Paris, covered with soil brought from Bunker Hill in Massachusetts in honor of his service there. In 2002, he was granted honorary citizenship by the United States Congress.

Washington and Lafayette at the Battle of Brandywine, by Junius Brutus Stearns
image from: https://www.handmadepiece.com/washington-and-lafayette-at-the-battle-of-brandywine-handmade-oil-painting-reproduction-on-canvas-by-artist-junius-brutus-stearns.html?gclid=CjwKCAjwjZjZBRAZEiwAPeLSKxT6WyMKTB9aPP1iXCBEDw2fUpTFs-j-loxXmDDB3K63JqmJwZy3mRoCqw8QAvD_BwE

This portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette painted in 1790 by Joseph Boze hangs in the parlor of Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson: 

image from: https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/marquis-de-lafayette-painting

Thomas Jefferson, a big cheese in his own right, has his own big cheese story, which can be found in the children's book A Big Cheese for the White House: The True Tale of a Tremendous Cheddar. Evidently, the people of Cheshire, Massachusetts learned that the then-President was eating cheddar made in Norton, Connecticut. The nerve! So the good citizens of Cheshire made a 1235lb (approximately 560kg) wheel of cheddar and shipped it to the President, who declared it the best he'd ever tasted. But I'm hoping he didn't eat it all himself.

I've spoken about the French and American revolutions before, and the link between the two, but never before has such a great volume of cheese been involved.

THE CHEESE: La Grosse Tomme (de Reinach)

La Grosse Tomme means, quite simply "The Big Cheese" or "The Big Cheese Wheel." To be honest, La Grosse Tomme is not simply one kind of cheese, and you will find Grosses Tommes made of sheeps' milk, goats' milk, cows' milk, and combinations thereof. You'll find Grosses Tommes that come from all over the country and that are a wide variety of sizes, though usually at least several kilograms to make them grosses (large).

Due to the size, as you can imagine, La Grosse Tomme, is nearly always a hard cheese, though that hasn't stopped people from trying for record-breaking Grosse Tommes of soft cheese as well,including the current record-holder, a 748kg (approximately 1,645lb) vat 'o soft cheese in Isère in 2016. To me, it's less of a tomme and more of a yogurty soup, dished out in small cups for people to slurp. But if they want to call it a Grosse Tomme, who am I to reign in their enthusiasm?

photo from: https://www.ledauphine.com/isere-nord/2016/08/27/comice-agricole-le-record-du-monde-de-la-plus-grosse-tomme-fraiche-battu-hier

But most often, when you see a cheese labeled La Grosse Tomme, it is a version of a Tomme de Savoie. Such is the case with the Grosse Tomme de Reinach, a larger variation of the traditional Tomme de Savoie made at Reinach, in La Motte-Servolex, which is a village in the department of Savoie, in the region of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes. When I say big, I mean the wheels weigh up to 8kg, which is almost 18lbs. It's the weight of two bowling balls, at once, but edible.

Reinach is not just a cheese-maker but also a training center for agriculture and cheese production. They use the milk from their own herd of Tarine (the breed of cow), and age it in their own mountain cellars. It's a classic cheese, and they make it with raw milk, although a "Grosse Tomme" from another place could just as well be pasteurized.

Big does change the taste and texture of the cheese just a little bit. It means the cheese must be aged longer, to dry and solidify thoroughly. La Grosse Tomme de Reinach is aged at least 2-3 months, which is fairly young for a big cheese, but still old enough that it has time to develop a certain sweet nuttiness.

The crust -- which is a gorgeous impressionist painting of red, white, gray, yellow, green, and brown molds -- is technically edible, though so thick and tough that even most French people and serious cheese lovers wouldn't eat it. I've tasted the crust for you in the interest of thorough reporting, and I will tell you that it's chewy. And dry. The rest of the cheese, however, is melt-in-the-mouth creamy and really quite delicious.


I'm am so pleased that I have the Big Cheese, La Grosse Tomme, still available as a cheese to accompany the story about the big cheese, Lafayette. I am even more pleased now that I've learned about the big cheeses that both Lafayette and Jefferson received as gifts from grateful citizens. Really, could there be any better way to show love, admiration, and appreciation than a thousand-pound cheese? 


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