A Tale of Two Tommes: Tomme de l’Estaing and Moringhello di Bufala
"Tomme" is a word you’ll often see in your local cheese case, frequently followed by the name of their region or town of origin. At larger cheese shops, there can sometimes be a dizzying array of Tommes, sometimes similar in appearance, at least to the naked eye. Just for fun, I went back to my 365 Cheese Challenge list from 2011 to see how many Tommes were on there, and came up with: Tomme Brulee, Tomme de Bosquet de Chevre, Tomme de Fontenay, Tomme de Jura, Tomme de Reblochon, Tomme de Savoie, Tomme de Vieux Saulnois, Tomme Fermiere d’Alsace, Tomme Maison, Tomme Rabelais, Tommes Vaudoise — and that’s not counting tomme-style cheeses that are put out under non-tomme-specific names.
So what is a Tomme? Historically speaking, the term refers to a mountain cheese, made using a simple recipe with minimal cultures added, heated to low temperature, roughly in the 85-98 range, and then transfered to molds and unpressed or lightly pressed, sometimes just by hand, or by weights — often simply balanced on top of the molds, rather than under precisely measured pressure systems — and then allowed to develop a natural rind. The wheels were traditionally molded in baskets, although in modern cheesemaking it is more likely made in plastic molds with a raised basket pattern on the surface, to mimic the effect of a basket. Tommes are often lightly washed, especially in their early development, to encourage the growth of cultures on the rind, but not often enough to constitute a true washed rind, although some tommes have a more frequent washing schedule than others, depending on the rind desired. As they age they often-times take on a stony, dusty outer appearance, with a crumbly, gray rind with a profusion of different molds, yeasts and bacterias mingling on the surface depending on the local biota.
Subtle variations in recipes, cutting times, pressing weights, temperature, washing and aging environments result in a rainbow of distinctive personality traits, so don’t make the mistake of thinking that if you’ve tasted one Tomme you’ve tasted them all. Indeed, although there is a “tomme appearance” that is common, there are also many tommes that come in different formats and rinds, depending on the cheesemakers approach.
Although France is most frequently associated with Tommes (that certainly is illustrated by my 365 list), almost all cheesemaking cultures have their version of this style of cheese. In Italy you’ll sometimes see Toma’s, and in America today many of the new generation of cheesemakers have Tomme style cheeses in their caves. They are made with all types of milk, or with mixed milk; some, like Savoie, were traditionally made from the lower-fat milk left over from the butter-making process. It is in many ways an all-purpose, simple cheese, in terms of the technical make process at least, although this is not to imply that great tomme is easy to produce.
All of which brings us to the two cheeses on the slate today: Moringhello di Bufala and Tomme de l’Estaing; both “Tommes”, and yet hailing, respectively, from Italy and France, and made from Water Buffalo Milk and Sheep’s Milk, similar in some respects and distinctly divergent in others.
On the left, Tomme de l’Estaing (sometimes labeled as “d’Estaing” or “l’Estaing”) comes from the commune of Estaing in the Aveyron department of southern France, in the Midi-Pyrénées mountains. A pasteurized sheep’s milk cheese, the rind has a cross-hatch basket weave pattern on it and is stony gray and speckled with multi-hued dark spots and patches of yellow mold, with a band of darker rind just beneath the surface. The rind crumbles beneath the fingers, and if you were to set it down hard on the counter it would leave a dusty gray ring around the cheese. The paste is firm and dense, softening as it warms without oozing, and has multiple large oblong eyes.
The aroma, as with many Tommes, is redolent of caves, musty, earth, and with a gamey quality from the sheep’s milk and just a bit of barnyard. Biting into the smooth, soft, slightly springy paste, the flavors up front are tangy and nutty, buttery and slightly sour, with notes of wet straw, lanolin and vegetal qualities. The rind can be eaten, but does not impart much to the overall experience, mostly elevating the musty, earthy qualities.
Purchased at Bedford Cheese Shop.
The second Tomme, Moringhello di Bufala, is a more unusual beast. Made by the Gritti brothers, Bruno and Alfio, at Caseifico Quattro Portoni in Lombardy, Italy — most recently in the news for their Blu di Bufala’s 2nd place finish at the World Cheese Awards; this is another one of their buffalo-milk inventions. During the make, the Gritti’s place the wheels of Moringhello in a hot corner of the cheese plant for the night, which drops the pH (raises the acidity) faster, thereby producing a chalkier paste with a more complex flavor profile.
While the l’Estaing is shorter, wider and somewhat more irregular in shape, the Moringhello is a tidy little cylinder, slightly wider in the center, with concentric rings from the basket etched into its surface. The natural rind is stony gray with darker speckles, and generous with the release of dusty droppings when handled. Aged 2-4 months, the paste is semi-firm tending towards firm, dryer and flaky.
The aroma is musty, slightly milky-sour and grassy. The flavor is much milder than the l’Estaing, minerally, tangy, sweet and nutty, with a distinctive richness and mouthfeel in the finish, imparted by the buffalo milk.
Purchased at Murray’s.
If you haven’t delved much into the world of Tommes, now is a good time! I find that some people are turned off by the appearance and the earthiness of this cheese — admittedly, they can occasionally have a flavor that can only be described as “cave wall” and look like a rock that was plucked from said cave — but there is a tremendous variety and complexity in the world of Tommes that is well worth exploring.
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