You know it is autumn when your cheese shop bulks up on Alpine-style cheeses.
The summer’s proliferation of fresh cheeses and backpacker-ready goudas has been shrunk to a minimum. Meanwhile, Gruyère mountain grows in the “Swiss cheese” side of the case.
It is as sure a thing as the leaves changing colors or pumpkin spice-flavored foods: Suddenly, everything we eat must be covered in melted cheese.
We’ve been through a good number of Alpine cheeses and ooey-gooey melters on this blog—Emmental Français, Gruyère, Comté, and Raclette. And while there are a number of others worthy of your palate and your plate, today we are focusing on the littlest mountain cheese: Tête de Moine.
Tête de Moine, which is made from whole, raw, cow’s milk, has AOP status and is made by only a handful of dairies in Switzerland—in the Canton of Jura (Porrentruy, Franches-Montagnes) and in the Jura mountains in the Canton of Bern (Moutier, Courtelary). The cheese is sometimes also called “Fromage de Bellelay” after the abbey where it was created (more on that soon).
The little guy usually weighs less than two pounds, is between four and five inches tall, and is shaped like a perfect cylinder. Tête de Moine is aged for at least two-and-a-half to four months.
His name, Tête de Moine, literally means “head of the monk” or “monk’s head.”
How do you say it? Teht-duh-mwaaaahn. Listen:
Why the weird name? So glad you asked.
First off, Tête de Moine is one of Switzerland’s oldest cheeses. It was first made at the Bellelay Abbey in the Jura mountains during the 12th Century—by monks. The cheese was originally intended only to be enjoyed by bishops, but that tradition eventually went by the wayside and now we can all eat Tête de Moine.
But it’s not just called “monk’s head” because of who was making and eating the cheese. No, Tête de Moine begins to resemble a monk’s tonsured (bald on top) head as you shave it.
The cheese is shaved horizontally into delicate slices or rosettes, exposing a bright yellow paste encased in a pinky-brown or orange washed rind. So, it kinda looks like a head that’s bald just on top.
Back in the day Tête de Moine would have just been shaved with a knife or a planer of some sort. But now, it is shaved with a handy little tool called a Girolle or a Girouette, which was invented for the purpose in the early 1980s.
Girolle means “to grate” or “to shave” in this instance, but it is also the French word for Chanterelle mushrooms—just an FYI for you. Similarly, Girouette is also the word for “weathervane” in French. If you have to discuss this tool in French, refer to it as a “Girouette pour fromage” or a “Girolle á fromage.” Repeat after me:
So how does it work?
Essentially, you place the cheese on a spike in the center of a round platter, and then you attach a handle to the spike that has a blade facing down. You rotate the handle around the cheese in a circle, and as it goes the blade shaves the cheese in a circular motion. Watch:
Shaving the cheese this way creates delicate, beautiful rosettes, but the most important effect is actually on the scent and flavor of the cheese. Shaving it allows more air to touch the cheese, which means this funky little guy (it is a washed-rind cheese, after all) really lights up your olfactory sensors and you can more fully smell it and taste it.
It’s worth noting here that cheese guru Steven Jenkins claims that Tête de Moine is easily the strongest of all Swiss-style cheeses (Cheese Primer, 282). Since I was able to get my famously finicky boyfriend to ignore the cheese’s pungent odor and eat it melted on potatoes, I will say that the cheese’s bite is not nearly so strong as its bark.
Tête de Moine is certainly a stinky cheese. Its smell is sharp, funky, and strong. When you get beneath the orange/pink/light brown rind, the yellow paste tastes nutty and fruity—like any good Alpine-style cheese—beefy and meaty—in true washed-rind fashion—and is both sweet and salty.
You don’t have to shave the cheese, but that’s definitely the most satisfying, attractive, and impressive way to serve it. I’ve seen it for sale by the whole wheel, already shaved, or in slices. (If it’s going to be cut into slices, it should be cut horizontally, rather than vertically, because not everyone is going to buy a chunk and eat it without shaving it.)
Rosettes of Tête de Moine can be eaten plain on your cheese board, or they can be treated like Raclette: melted over potatoes, with cured meats and raw or pickled vegetables. You can also serve it melted—or not—on crostini with salami and sliced apples or pears. The possibilities are endless.
This beautiful little stinker is in good company as cheeses go. Gruyère, Vacherin Mont d’Or, and Tête de Moine together make up the holy trinity of cheeses from the Swiss Jura.
And if you’re looking for a comparison, Tête de Moine is most similar to Gruyère, Appenzeller, and Abondance—although those three cheeses will be milder (and larger!) than tiny Tête de Moine.
There is also a French version of the monk’s head cheese, named Girollin, which Steven Jenkins calls “an unabashed knockoff of Tête de Moine” (Cheese Primer, 282). Well, then.
So, whether you shave it, melt it, eat it by the wedge, or shave it and melt it, I hope you will join me in adding Tête de Moine to the roster of mandatory cold-weather cheeses.