One of the few cheese-serving tools is the cheese curler, a device that thinly slices the wheel into delicate, edible cheese flowers. This is where Tête de Moine comes in, the classic fromage for this device.
The name means monk’s head and derives from the original brotherhood that has churned out this food for more than 800 years. You can get this delicacy from only one place, Bellelay, and it’s one of the few Swiss cheeses to be cloaked with a protected designation of origin label. That means each wheel you try will have benefited from the fresh herbs and greens that cows grazing in the Swiss Jura Mountains have eaten, as well as the spruce boards used to age the cheese for three months.
As for flavor, a pungent yet dainty earthiness exudes from each bite, as if the cheese flower grew in a garden nearby. With a subtle minerality and saliva-inducing acidity, it’s a great accompaniment to just about anything.
The first recorded mention of the “Bellelay Cheese” is in a letter, dated 16 August 1570, from the then Abbot of Bellelay Abbey to the Prince-Bishop of Basel. The letter mentions “dryssig belleley Kess” (thirty belleley cheeses), which the Abbot had supplied.
Bellelay cheese got another name towards the end of the 18th century: “Tête de Moine”. The first mention in the archives of the Department of Mont-Terrible – the area had been annexed by the French and converted to a “département” – dates from around 1793-1799. It is a print entitled: “Tableau du maximum des objects de première nécessité” (“A comprehensive list of the primary necessities”).
“Tête de Moine” as a proper term has been used since about 1790, but the cheese has a much longer history.
The monastery of Bellelay was established in 1136 and confirmed by Pope Innozenz II six years later. As early as 1192, or one century before the beginnings of the Swiss Confederation, the monks of the monastery Bellelay were first mentioned in connection with cheese. At that time they paid the annual rent on various properties with cheese made in their abbey. Time and again documents from subsequent centuries mention the use of the valuable cheese as a means of payment.
But we were talking of the cheese curler, weren’t we?
Ok, let’s be sharp like a Swiss knife then…!!!
Nicolas Crevoisier, a precision engineer from Lajoux in the Canton of Jura, used to pare Tête de Moine AOP with a knife like his father and grandfather. He tried substituting the old, time-consuming method requiring certain skills by a faster and niftier system. After several trials he finally came up with the Girolle®. Running a spike through the cheese did the trick and makes paring perfect rosettes as easy as anything.
In 1981 the Girolle® was patented (yes, they are Swiss…). Production began in the year after and Mr Crevoisier’s company, Metafil AG, was able to get through the economic crises of those years without having to dismiss any of his employees. In 1986 he even received the innovation prize of the Canton of Jura. Since the «Girolle®» was first launched 2.5 million items have been sold.
Source : Alain Portner et alii, Der Tête de Moine, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Editions d’En Haut, 1992.
Ladies and Gentlemen: “Cheese curler served”