Literally speaking, tomme is French for "wheel of cheese." Unsurprisingly, this not-so-descriptive term is used to refer to a wide array of cheeses, many of which are of medium size and weight and made in the mountains of the Haute-Savoie in France. Across the border, the Italians make a related cheese that has a similar name: toma. But can we get any more specific? Do tommes share any unique qualities that separate them from other varieties?
The story goes that tommes are the cheeses made by alpine cow herders during the winter, when milk is more scarce and the nutrient concentrations in the milk markedly different. These are the same folks who make such famous alpine cheeses as Comté and Beaufort—rugged, elastic cheeses that are fabricated in huge wheels durable enough to sustain the long journeys on horseback down the mountains and into towns and cities.
Tommes were meant more as a farmstead treat, perhaps something the family would share together instead of selling at market. As such they are smaller than their summertime cousins, they are aged for a shorter duration (4-6 months versus 6-10 months) and their interior is more creamy and fragile. The rinds are more "rustic" too, sporting furry grey, blue, and even yellow molds—essentially whatever molds and yeasts might be native to the area. Tommes tend to be tangy and grassy in flavor with a texture that can range from chalky to unctuous.
Some of the more famous examples are Tomme de Savoie, pictured above, Tomme Crayeuse, and the Italian Toma. I recently had one called Tomme de la Chataigneraie, a wonderful goat's milk cheese from the Auvergne. What makes this one special is that the goats are allowed to forage in chestnut groves, giving the cheese a distinctive nutty taste. The cheese is also aged on chestnut leaves, which leave a yellow tint to the rind that makes this cheese beautiful to look at as well as to eat.