People have apparently lived on the Aubrac Plateau since time immemorial —at least by the Neolithic Age, it would seem—and the earliest trace of herds grazing in the gradually cleared spaces dates back to the second century BC.
Pliny the Elder tells us that the production of what later became known as Laguiole cheese dates back to High Antiquity. Fourth-century texts, in particular by Gregory of Tours, attest to the production on the Aubrac Plateau of fourmes, which Laguiole was still being called in the early 20th century. But it was the monks of the Aubrac Dômerie who noticeably altered the landscape and established new practices. They turned heaths and forests into summer pastures, selected the breed that would become Aubrac, developed Laguiole cheese production and invented aligot.
Establishment of the Dômerie
After coming within a hair's breadth of losing his life on the Aubrac Plateau, Adalard d'Eyne, the Count of Flanders' wine master, made a vow to found a place where pilgrims could find shelter from the land's perils: brigands and harsh climate. Around 1120 he founded the Aubrac Dômerie, a monastery-hospital: monks cleared the forest and built the monastery. Goats, sheep and cows grazed in the new pastures, rich with a wide variety of plants. The Dômerie, standing at the crossroads of two major pilgrimage routes—one from Aurillac to Saint-Gilles-du-Gard, the other from Le Puy-en-Velay to Santiago de Compostela—received support from the seigneurial order, thereby coming into ownership of 18,000 hectares.
An agro-pastoral system
Half the land was around the monastery, the other half in more welcoming places (the Aubrac foothills, Lot Valley and the Comtal plateau). The monks set up an agro-pastoral system based on the complementary nature between valley and mountain. Valley farms grew grain, which was then brought up to Aubrac, while during the summer the cows lived—and the monks made cheese—in the "mountains" (pastures around the Dômerie). Thus originated summer mountain pasturing and its corollary, transhumance. Records dating back to as early as the 12th century show that 8,000-head herds, sometimes coming from very far away, summered in the plateau's rich green pastures. The system allowed the monks to be self-sufficient, growing grain in the lowlands and tending to their grazing cows in the mountains during the summer. Grain, milk, cheese, meat and sausage—made from pigs fed on whey—provided them with food every day of the year.
Laguiole, a cheese that ages well
Monks on the plateau developed and codified the production of the cheese that became Laguiole. They cleared land yielded lush pastures, irresistible to the cows and perfect for producing the best milk—and, therefore, the finest cheese. Living conditions on the plateau influenced the production process, helping to make Laguiole a cheese that keeps well. The cows spend just four-and-a-months in the highlands (from 25 May, Saint Urban's Day, to 13 October, Saint Géraud's Day). During that time it was necessary to make a cheese that would last so that people, including pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela, could nourish themselves with a quality product year round. By the late 14th-century Aubrac had become the hub of a huge milk, cheese and beef production area. The mule-drivers who brought wine, fruit and salt up from the south of France travelled back down to the Languedoc plains with cheese, which was packed in straw that cushioned them from bumps and protected them from bad weather. This two-way trading system extended the reach of Laguiole cheese.
A legendary dish: aligot
The monks made a sort of bread-and-cheese-based soup to feed travellers who showed up at the monastery gate asking for "something" (aliquid in Latin) to eat. Aliquid became aliquot and then aligot in the Occitan language. In the 19th century potatoes replaced bread, resulting in the dish as we know it today. There's always "something "to eat on the Aubrac Plateau—preferably aligot!
THE TIME OF THE BURONS
The 18th-20th centuries
The French Revolution swept the monks away but bourgeois landowners kept the system going. The ancestral practice of summer pasturing in the mountains survived. But somebody had to replace the monks who had lived on the plateau and made the cheese. Mazucs, branch-covered huts hewn into the hillside where the cheese was kept in summer, became burons when they got slate roofs, stone walls and more comfortable, though still rudimentary, interiors..
Thus developed the "mountains", summer pastures organised around a buron, where cows were milked and Laguiole cheese was made (since the decline of the burons in the 1970s the term has been kept to mean "summer pasture", without any connection to the hut).
Each spring the buronniers and their livestock would travel upland to live in solitude for several months, spending the day with their animals and the evening making cheese around the fireplace. There were usually four men to a buron: the cantalès, who made the cheese; pastre, who milked the cows; bédelier, who watched over the calves; and roul, an apprentice.
The huts were simple and functional. The front room, which had a fireplace, was used as a kitchen, dining room, dormitory and place to make cheese. The half-buried back room served as a cheese cellar and bédélat or védelet, a place to house sick cows and calves that one or two buronniers could also use as sleeping quarters.
As the production of Laguiole cheese, whose reputation had spread far and wide, become more profitable than that of meat, herd owners built more and more burons. Aubrac's cheese turned the region into a thriving area with the village of Laguiole as its hub.
By the early 20th century 1,200 buronniers were making 700 tonnes of cheese in 300 burons. In 1897 cheesemakers founded the Laguiole Agricultural and Cheese Association. In 1940 it became the Association to Defend and Perfect Laguiole Cheese with its own label of guarantee.
A special ageing process: the transhumance of cheese
Laguiole's cheesemakers figured out how to further extend their product's lifespan with cheese transhumance.
They would make the rounds in the burons before grouping the fourmes, or moulded cheese, together in Laguiole, 1,000 m above sea level, during the summer. In late October they would sort them and bring the ones likeliest to age to Aubrac, elevation 1,300 m, 300 metres higher, where the air is cooler. The cheese would spend the winter there, stored in Aubrac Monastery, where the temperature was always steady at between 0 and 2 °C, extending its longevity by stopping the ageing process, making Laguiole an "in-between" cheese available in spring and summer for the southern market before other pressed uncooked cheeses arrived from the Massif Central that were consumed only in autumn.
Every April Laguiole ploughed the snow to clear the roads and bring down cheese that had spent the winter 1,300 metres above sea level.
THE MOUNTAIN'S REVIVAL
After the decline…
Despite steadily rising quality and demand, cheese production and the number of burons began falling in the early 20th century. After wartime hardships, economic constraints, declining consumption due to a dwindling population and the difficulty of recruiting buronniers—men were more reluctant to live alone for months in harsh conditions than their forerunners had been —nearly did in Laguiole production. Many burons closed. To make matters worse, labour became more expensive and workers left the countryside for Paris. By the late 1950s just 55 burons were still in activity, making 25 tonnes of cheese.
… a new burst of energy
In 1960 a group of young farmers set up the Jeune Montagne cooperative to revive cheese production. The enterprise allows small farmers to make a profit by helping them establish themselves, update their equipment and replenish their livestock.
Today Jeune Montagne collects nearly all the milk produced in the region. It is the main producer of Laguiole cheese. Two farm producers also make AOP Laguiole cheese. Production is back up to 700 tonnes a year, the same as in the early 20th century. As soon as Jeune Montagne started in 1960, its goal was to give the region a new lease of life while remaining faithful to traditions. The state-of-the-art production facilities are different but the steps of the traditional cheese-making process remain the same.
In 1961 the Laguiole Cheese Association obtained the appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) and was delegated to monitor the quality of Laguiole cheese, crowning the efforts of the new cooperative and the producers' association. Laguiole was saved and with it Aubrac was back on the road to development.