In order to produce Orval cheese, a whole range of activities are put into operation, from traditional movements through to the latest technological inventions. There are three categories of cheeses : cottage cheeses; soft cheeses; compacted cheeses. This latter category can be further subdivided into cooked or non-cooked cheeses. In Orval, we produce a cheese which is of the non-cooked type, using a method established in the 19th century by the Trappist monks of Port-du-Salut (France).
The basic ingredient of the cheese is cows' milk, delivered from the farms of the Gaume region, the southern corner of Belgium in which Orval is situated. The milk is directly delivered to the cheese-factory. We are, therefore, always using a fresh, whole (unskimmed) milk. We immediately perform a control test of the delivery to verify that the milk contains no residue of antibiotics which would make it unusable.
Stage 1 : pasteurization
In the fabrication process, pasteurization is the first stage : it eliminates any remaining micro-organisms harmful to the milk.
Stage 2 : fabrication
The wholefat milk is then heated to a temperature of 33°C (92°F) and pumped to the fabrication tank, there to be coagulated. At the outset, lactic fermentation agents are added to control the acid content of the milk and to ensure the constancy of the fabrication process.
Coagulation is the transformation of the milk from its liquid state to a solid state called "coagulum" or curds. By adding rennet, a substance found in calves' stomachs, the milk quickly takes on the appearance of a solid. As the curds are hardening, the person responsible for of the fabrication has the delicate task of deciding when to introduce the cutting wires which will separate out the whey from the curds. These latter take on a granular form and will become the basic mixture for the cheese. The lactose is then removed from the curds and replaced by water. This operation is not obligatory for all the compacted non-cooked cheeses.
Stage 3 : draining-off
Having separated the curds from the serum by the cutting process, it is now necessary to drain off the serum. For cheeses with high dry-matter content, as is the case with compacted cheeses, the drainage is increased. Both curds and serum are pumped into a prepressing tank which is fitted with a perforated base-plate, thus allowing the serum to drain off freely.
Stage 4 : placing in moulds
Let us now go on to the placing in moulds. While the responsible for the fabrication proceeds with cleaning the fabrication tank, the curds, which have already been mechanically cut into sections after draining, are now transferred manually into perforated moulds. The perforations will allow the evacuation of any remaining serum in the curds The type of mould used will determine the shape of the cheese, in our case the form of a loaf. A conveyor-belt transports the filled moulds to the pressing tunnel where they are automatically arranged.
Stage 5 : pressing
The entire series of moulds is pressed in one single operation. The progressive pressure applied to the cheeses produces the compression of the granular forms so that they become a homogeneous basic mixture.
Stage 6 : removal from moulds
When the pressing process has been completed, the cheeses are taken out of the moulds and put into baskets. Each fabrication batch receives a precise identification code. This code will enable a thorough follow-up from refining to commercial distribution.
Stage 7 : salting in brine
To enhance the taste the cheeses are now salted. Salt is also an excellent conserving agent and a protection against certain micro-organisms. At Orval, we carry out this part of the process by steeping the cheeses for several hours in a brine bath.
Stage 8 : refining & washing
After the cheese has been cured, it is refined - a task essential for obtaining a quality cheese, for promoting a full and typical flavour of the cheese. The refining also improves the texture of the cheese, making it more pliable, smoother and creamier. The refining also favours the formation of the natural rind on the cheese. The cheeses are refined in a special maturing chamber where very precise control parameters condition the quality of the maturation. These parameters are, notably, ambient humidity, temperature, ventilation. Time and effort are necessary to make a good cheese ! Refining time for Orval cheese is three weeks. When the cheese is fully mature, it is dried to avoid any surface mould or dampness which would make it stick to the wrapping.
Stage 9 : wrapping, weighing, despatch
The cheese is now wrapped, weighed, and labeled. All this is done mechanically. The label bears a certain number of details : fabrication number; license number of the cheese-factory; weight; date of wrapping; "consume-by" date, which, in the case of Orval, is 75 days after the wrapping-date. The paper used is a waxed paper which is particularly permeable to water and to air. In this way, the cheese is prevented from drying out excessively and from developing too much surface dampness.
The cheese destined for the wholesale network outside the monastery is packed six per box, stored on pallets and then refrigerated for perfect freshness until despatch and sale. In the monastery shop, Orval cheese is sold by one kilo blocks; this is approximately half of the orginal "loaf" form. In food shops and supermarkets, Orval cheese is generally sold in portions.