Literature nerds may chuckle softly to themselves at the title question, “what in consternation is a Tomme?”
Even the Oxford Companion to Cheese starts its explanation of the name with a reference to words: “The name most likely derived from the Greek word tomos or the Latin tomus, meaning a cut, slice, or section of a book. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ‘tome’ as a large or weighty book.”[i]
But this is a cheese blog, so what’s the relation?
There are a great many cheeses in the average cheese case that fall into comfortable categories everyone knows: Cheddar, Brie, Swiss, Gouda, Blue. And then there are a collection of cheeses in less widely recognized categories, such as washed-rind, Grana-style, and brine-cured. But that isn’t every cheese, because you still have, among others, geotrichum-ripened, cooked unpressed, and Tommes.
As the Oxford Companion to Cheese’s definition goes on to show, “Tomme” is a catch-all term for a group of cheeses that look vaguely alike and are made in a similar way. They are often named after the place they come from, and can be vastly different in flavor and texture.
According to the ol’ cheese encyclopedia, “the use of this term [Tomme] in describing a cheese most likely came from someone asking for a large slice or piece of cheese, but later the term was applied to the entire wheel.”[ii]
Cool. So what in the heck is your cheesemonger talking about when you ask him, “what kind of cheese is that?” and he says, “it’s a Tomme”?
It was first explained to me as the shape of the cheese: a flattened cylinder or drum-like wheel. It can be made with any type of milk. They are frequently farmstead cheeses, and are often made during the summer months when the animals are feeding on pasture grasses.
Perhaps the most famous Tomme of all is Tomme de Savoie (pronounced toe-mm duh sah-vwah), a flat disk of a cheese made in the French Alps. Tomme de Savoie is made with skimmed cow’s milk (good for all those low-fat diets!) and is considered a “pressed” cheese.[iii] A pressed cheese is one that has pressure applied to the young wheel during the cheesemaking process; that pressure pushes out extra moisture and helps fuse the cheese curds together.[iv]
To the untrained eye, Tomme de Savoie can look a little sketchy. It has a thick, dusty gray rind that is sometimes mottled with white patches and brightly colored splotches (i.e., Chrysosporium sulfureum![v]). The paste within ranges from nearly ivory to straw gold, depending on the time of year it was made and what the cows were eating.
I find that the rind smells mildly minerally and earthy, and that the paste within smells lactic and a little earthy, too. The texture is fudgy and smooth, springing between your teeth as you chew. It has a creamy flavor, milky with just a touch of earthiness, and a brothy, slightly salty finish. I always forget just how good Tomme de Savoie can be.
But there are plenty of other Tommes out there: Tomme Crayeuse, Tomme de Fédou, Tomme de Grosse-Île, Tomme de Chèvre, Tomme aux Herbes, and Tomme de Brebis Corse. In Italian, Tomme is “Toma,” so you may also see Toma Piemontese.
There are loads of American Tommes. Pt. Reyes Toma, Capriole Goat Cheese Old Kentucky Tomme, Twig Farm Goat Tomme, Juniper Grove Cheese Tumalo Tomme, Pholia Farm Elk Mountain Tomme, Chimacum Valley Chimatomme, and Sweet Grass Dairy Thomasville Tomme are all easy-to-spot examples with names containing the word “Tomme.”
But then there are the ones not called “Tomme,” like Sweet Grass Dairy’s Griffin. Griffin starts out as Thomasville Tomme, but they wash the curds with Gate City Brewing’s Terminus Porter. It straight-up tastes like you are eating a glass of beer; such a delight!
There have been rare occasions when customers have come into my shop looking for a Tomme with no idea what they really wanted, and I showed them Tomme de Savoie, Griffin, and Pt. Reyes TomaRashi, as well as Cascadia Creamery Sleeping Beauty and Cloud Cap, Cherry Valley Dairy Coho, Fantello Filomena, Cowgirl Creamery Hop Along, Ossau Iraty, and Ahuntz Ederra (my newest favorite cheese). I have even referred to Garrotxa and Uplands Cheese Pleasant Ridge Reserve as Tommes, in relation at least to their shapes.
Going back to the Oxford Companion to Cheese for some final tips on what a Tomme really is, the encyclopedia confirms that the cheese’s shape is one of three key similarities among these diverse cheeses. The other two are the size of the wheel and its natural rind: “[Tommes] are bigger and rounder than they are thick. They can range from 6-40 inches (15-100 centimeters) around and are typically 3-4 inches (7-10 centimeters) thick. Grayish natural rinds tend to be a common characteristic as well, but this rind color is not as consistent a characteristic as the size and shape.”[vi]
So any grayish-colored (or not!), flat cylinder of a cheese could theoretically be a Tomme, right? Searching the internet for different types of Tommes available in American cheese shops, I found some websites that even called Comté and Gruyére Tommes—despite their more frequent categorization as Swiss or Alpine-style cheeses.
We probably have to draw the line somewhere, or else just about everything becomes a Tomme. But I’ll leave the decision-making to the cheesemakers. Let’s just come away from this with an understanding that Tomme can refer to the shape of the cheese (a flattened cylinder), that sometimes they have a dusty gray rind, sometimes they are pressed into wheels in mountain chalets—and most importantly, that they are delicious and you should not be afraid to try them.
As far as I’m concerned, the moral of this story is that cheeses that don’t fit neatly into a box (e.g., “Cheddar,” “Swiss,” or “Brie”) are just as worthy of your taste buds. Next time you are at the cheese counter, take a chance on a Tomme. You might just find your new favorite cheese!
[i] Gaddis, Tim. “Tomme.” Oxford Companion to Cheese. Ed. Catherine Donnelly. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 716.
[iv] Kindstedt, Paul. “Pressed cheeses.” Oxford Companion to Cheese. 589.
[vi] Gaddis, 716.