The Tomme de What??

We were having a perfectly pleasant time in Stavelot, a small town in the Ardennes near Spa, and now it was time for lunch. We were looking for a few picnic supplies, and we were having some trouble. As in some other good-sized towns in these parts, there was no longer a shop in the center of town selling food. Instead of buying close to home and more often, people now drive to supermarkets, which need to be out of town where there are huge tracts of land. Now let us first say that Belgian supermarkets are generally just fine; the country is an oasis of good eating. But supermarkets crowd out the small producers of seasonal foods. They need consistency and a constant and reliable supply of the product more than anything, and anyone working so closely with nature knows you can’t promise that. So, feeling a bit down, we decided to see a few of the nearby sights before finding a restaurant.
Le vieux pont (the old bridge) seemed about our speed and we could sit and have a look at the river, maybe even stretch our legs with a jaunt up the hill on the other side. And what do you suppose was waiting for us there? Besides the dilapidated café and a hardware store, there was a small shop with beautiful produce displayed outside – stunning cauliflowers and gorgeous ripe summer fruit you could even smell. (Think about this next time you go through the produce section – how often can you really smell, say, apples?) OK, we thought, a few nectarines to take with us, maybe there’ll be a bakery in the next town. And we walked in.
Although it was tiny, this village store had an amazing concentration of good food inside. We are kind of passionate, bordering on and occasionally crossing over into the obsessive, about trying the local foods, which in Belgium can be really something. So we peeped into the dairy case to see what they might have. Besides the usual Gouda, Brie and a Camembert, this place even had a Tomme de Savoie, a wonderful, somewhat heady French cheese. Bigger cheese shops often have several in various stages of ripeness. The proprietress must have heard one of us say “Oooh, a Tomme de Savoie!” to the other, because she explained that normally she also had the Tomme de Stavelot. The Tomme de what? we asked. This guy up the hill made it, Madame continued, and he should have delivered it already today but hadn’t arrived yet. Well, we thought, if you can’t move the mountain to Mohammed, or is it the other way around…just how far, we asked, was this place?
“Oh, it’s easy – you just go uphill to the hamlet of…” and they even had a sign in front! It wasn’t more than three kilometers from us! We could walk it! You couldn’t miss it! But just in case (as has happened) we might want to buy in quantity, we took the car. Now equipped with bread, wine, sausage and fruit, and armed with what we thought were good directions to cheese (more or less “go up the hill, bear left, and you can’t miss it”) we got in and sped up the hill. There was the hamlet, there we bore left, but there we were in the middle of nowhere and that wasn’t supposed to happen. The farm and its huge sign for the famous Tomme de Stavelot, was nowhere in sight. We drove around for quite a while considering how few roads there were, but somehow we didn’t see it. Lots of old farmhouses, someone selling eggs, but no cheese. It was all very quiet. This wasn’t right. We didn’t know what to do, but we had the rest of lunch waiting for us and were actually starting to get an appetite. The hike was calling.
After the hike (spectacular) and lunch (very good but missing something), we thought we’d go back to town the other way through the little maze of this hamlet. Maybe our farm shop would simply appear, and even if it didn’t, we still had time to get some cheese at the shop, which would have had its delivery by then. And we found the farm. There must have been a shift in the space-time continuum on our first pass because this time it just appeared.
It was perfect! In the sunny green field, a few cows were happily chewing their cud, nodding hello as we drove past them down the dirt driveway. There is nothing like actually meeting the cows whose very own milk went into the fabulous cheese you are eating. Or about to eat. (And, we might add, seeing them happy and healthy too.) We parked next to the building with the sign “Fromage de Stavelot”. A few steps led up to the shop. Our mouths were watering as we ascended them. Soon this elusive cheese would be ours.
The sign on the door said Fermé.

“There must be someone here,” we whimpered, and tramped down the stairs. Peering in a few windows didn’t seem like too much of a breach of privacy, so we went to the house across the path and looked in, in vain. There was a dog barking in the open garage/barn, but no one seemed to be taking any notice. A last look into the backyard revealed a boy playing quietly by himself. “Bonjour!” we greeted him, and he smiled back. We asked if his father or mother might be at home
Un moment, s’il vous plaît.”
A thirtyish healthy-looking man emerged and said hello. We asked about possibly buying some cheese from his shop. With a pained expression on his face he explained that his wife had gone to make some deliveries and had taken all the keys, so he couldn’t get in.
So it was back to town and across the bridge to the village shop for us. The delivery had come in. You better believe we bought a piece. It was delicious. Although we can’t (yet!) identify an Alpine cheese by valley and month, even to us the Tomme de Stavelot speaks eloquently of a cool climate and some very happy cows.

Ferme du Bairsou
Rue Henumont, 3

Tél : +32(0)80/86.44.72
Fax : +32(0)80/86.44.72 The shop seems not to have regular opening hours. Best to send an e-mail or phone.
To get there, from Stavelot center, cross the river bridge and head up the hill on Chemin du Château, right on Route de Somagne, then bear left.
Put “Hénumont, Trois-Ponts, Région Wallonne, België” into Google Maps. Hénumont is a hamlet and if you get that far you should find the farm, but ask anyone you see.

Also at cheese shop on Place Verte in Spa!