The path to cheese perfection in France’s Auvergne region began thousands of years ago, when 80 now-dormant volcanoes were carpeting the countryside with lava and ash. Today, the volcanic soil supports fertile pastures. Dairy cows graze on wild grasses and flowers during spring and summer, and wheels of Saint-Nectaire cheese ripen year-round in underground caves dug into the volcanic hillsides.
Saint-Nectaire—meaning nectary after its aroma—is one of five cheeses that can only be made in the Avergne region, according to France’s Appellation d’Origine Protégée regulations. That way, the customer knows that a wheel of the soft cheese with the AOP label comes from one of 69 towns in the region, and was made with authentic methods. The cheese ages for months on rye mats, ripening at an ideal temperature, pressure and humidity. Some cheesemakers use artificial cellars to achieve the perfect conditions, but nothing beats the real thing.
The region’s natural cellars— some in use since the 1400s—have done the trick for centuries. One cheesemaker, Sébastien Guillaume, ages young wheels of cheese in cellars made in the 19th century, reports Atlas Obscura’s Emily Monaco.
“When the cellar is empty, we don’t go in on Friday morning with a hose and wash and disinfect everything,” Guillaume tells Atlas Obscura. “And that’s what happens in artificial cellars. And then you have to add everything back artificially. We’re lucky enough to not have to do that.”
Environmental microbes are key to the ripening process. They break down the large fat and protein molecules in the young cheese, leaving behind the smaller parts that give each cheese its distinct smell and flavor.
“We’ve been aging Saint-Nectaire in our cellars since 1924, so in the air, there’s flora that’s indispensable,” explains Guillaume. Different natural cellars each have a heritage community of microbes, so each cellar’s cheese is different from the next.
Saint-Nectaire is a very popular cheese, and the region produces over 14,000 tons every year. Demand is so high almost 700 blocks of it were stolen last year—and the black market for cheese is growing, French news website The Local reported in 2018.
But thieves aren’t the only threat to traditional Saint-Nectaire production. Food safety regulations don’t mesh well with never-cleaned volcanic cave walls. The only caves approved for aging Saint-Nectaire have been in use for generations because regulations leave room for ancestral traditions. Uninherited cellars, however, sit empty.
“We inherited our cellar,” cheesemaker Caroline Borrell tells Atlas Obscura. “But once a cellar stops being used … we’re not allowed to use it anymore. You can’t take an abandoned cellar and put it back into use.”
Marie-Paule Chazal, director of the Saint-Nectaire Joint-Trade Association, explains that artificial cellars, made from semi-buried bricks and kept at the right conditions with technology, can still produce very good cheese, but natural cellars are part of the region’s charm.
Some fear that European food safety authorities may not appreciate the historical practices, though. As Chazal tells Atlas Obscura, “Soon, all of this heritage may well disappear.”