From’ Terroir: cheese as passion and profession

11 July 2023

Some people are born into the dairy world, or realize that their destiny lies in cheesemaking from a young age.

Others, like Stéphane Calassou of From’ Terroir, discover their calling later in life.

Though Stéphane only took over the business a few years ago, it’s story is much older, dating back to 1982, when the founder, Didier Bois, first began learning how to make goat cheese. Since then, it has grown into one of France’s premier houses of affinage, with an international portfolio and a continuing search for the most natural, most expressive artisanal cheeses.

We spoke to Stéphane about his new life as an affineur, and the rare jewels of French cheesemaking which he’s bringing to Cheese 2023 in Bra.

Slow Food: Let’s start with the apostrophe in your name – a deliberate addition?

Stéphane Calassou: Exactly. A small play on words. From’ is short for fromage, the French word for cheese, but we are firm believers in the idea of terroir; the idea that artisanal products are inseparable from their place of origin, with all the factors that contribute to the final product. Terroir is classically associated with wine, but there’s an ever more complex link between cheeses and their places of origin because of the extra layer of biodiversity between the soil and the product: animals. We only deal with cheeses that reflect this link with their land, and thus, that are “from” their terroir.

“When I go to visit my producers and see the meadows where their animals graze, I like to taste the grass for myself!”

Stéphane Calassou

As an affineur with a varied offering you need to have a good understanding of several different terroirs, not just one.

And that means a lot of traveling! I’ve just come back from a trip to Corsica, where I was visiting some of my suppliers. It’s mostly goat and sheep cheeses that we find in Corsica, much like in nearby Sardinia. The beautiful thing about the situation there is that due to the climate the animals are able to live outside all year round, generally on permanent pastures. The cheese we mostly sell is called A Filetta, a sheep’s milk cheese from the south of the island which is made with a fern leaf (or filetta, in Corsican) on top. It’s made with raw milk and natural starter cultures.

Visiting my different suppliers takes up a significant amount of my time, especially considering the wide range of cheeses we age and sell: from Normandy to the Pyrenees, Italy, Switzerland and Spain. I don’t take cheeses from anyone I haven’t visited: I need to see their world for myself.

The From’ Terroir stand at Cheese 2021. You can find them in the same place this year!

How did you become an affineur? I understand it was a relatively recent development in your life.

I’ve known Didier Bois, the founder of From’ Terroir, for a long time. We’re neighbours and friends. He started making cheese back in 1982, and founded this company in 1990, dedicating himself to affinage. I had previously worked with cheese, but my main interest had been pastry. But our paths in life are not set. As Didier grew older the work-load became too much—this is a labor-intensive job—and there were a number of of potential buyers circling, making offers to buy the company. But Didier didn’t want to sell to someone he didn’t know or trust to keep the identity of From’ Terroir alive: that is, a company defined by its commitment to providing natural, raw milk cheeses at all stages of aging.

Once I agreed to buy the company from Didier, which happened in 2020 after many discussions, I began learning everything I needed to know: about all the different farmers we work with, the peculiarities of their terroirs, their animals and the meadows they graze on, the importance of raw milk, and how to treat cheeses during the aging process in our cellars. It was a decisive shift in my life, but one I’m glad I made.

Conference to present new Slow Food Presidia

Welcome New Cheese Presidia is scheduled for Saturday, September 16 at 5 p.m., and it’s an opportunity to get up close with the latest arrivals in a prestigious club of dairy products protected by Slow Food: Genazzano cheese and Fodóm cheese.

The former is a pecorino from the Prenestini hills, on the outskirts of Rome, where two agricultural companies keep a centuries-old tradition alive by producing cheese using traditional copper cauldrons. The latter is a cheese from Col di Lana in Veneto, made from the milk of grass-fed cows and cut hay on the steepest slopes of the Dolomites. Both of these Presidia were born from a collaboration with FedEx, part of a commitment to supporting small-scale businesses and the development of local networks together with Slow Food Italy.

At the conference there are also two French-speaking protagonists: the Bleu de Queyras, a blue-veined cheese made from raw cow’s milk from the pastures of the Hautes Alpes region, and the Brigue Toma, made from the milk of the brigasca sheep, a sheep breed raised in the Roja Valley. We’ll also present the Plezzana sheep, which owes its name to the Slovenian town of Plezzo but is also found in the mountainous areas of the province of Udine and the Austrian region of Carinthia. Slow Food is currently initiating the protection process for this sheep breed as part of the Presidia project.

The theme of Cheese 2023 is “The Taste of the Meadows”. What can you tell us about the biodiversity of the landscapes where your farmer-suppliers work?

There’s great variety from the North to the South of France, of course, in terms of the typical plants one finds in a meadow. I think one generally underappreciated area is the Pyrenees mountains, which, unlike the Alps, stretch between two very different ecosystems: the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. So not only do we find shifting biodiversity according to the altitude that the herders take their animals to graze, but also from the East to the West of the mountain range. And I believe this is clearly reflected in the cheeses that are produced in the region.

When I go to visit my producers and see the meadows where their animals graze, I want to make sure the animals’ diet is natural. Preferably just grass. And yes, I even like to taste the grass for myself! I want to taste the differences between the plants we find in the plains or at 1800 meters above sea level in the Pyrenees in the cheeses: and you can only appreciate those differences if you know the sensory characteristics of those plants.

What does the Cheese festival in Bra mean to you?

We all have something in common at Cheese. And it’s special, to be surrounded by other people who are working, fighting to defend a culture base on cheese made with raw milk. All the work that is being done around the world to farm animals in an ethical, sustainable manner, all the different breeds of animals these farmers safeguard. The importance of maintaining these differences… Cheese in Bra is the only place where you can see all that work being done in one place. It reinforces our efforts to keep this world of artisanal, natural cheesemaking alive.

Last question: are there any Italian cheeses you look forward to tasting in Bra?

My tastes shift, depending on the time of day, and the time of year! But I appreciate the creativity in Italian cheese. There are some wonderful blue cheeses being made in Italy that are quite unlike the ones we have in France. We have lots of different cheeses in France, perhaps a thousand different cheeses. But I think we, French cheesemakers, should be inspired by the creativity of Italian raw milk cheesemaking. I look forward to being inspired again, and discovering new cheeses, at Cheese 2023!

by Jack Coulton, [email protected]

Cheese 2023 is organized by Slow Food and the City of Bra from September 15-18. See you there! #Cheese2023

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