Rain Stirs Memories

A view towards the Pyrenees peaks, hidden by the mist

It is remarkably damp and rainy this month. Granted, I’m more accustomed to the 300 days of sunshine in Provence. The rare weekend of pouring rain mid-fall might come dripping through a porous roof, rendering the clay rich soil of my Avignon garden muddy and heavy, potentially harming the wine harvest. Actually as I think of it, in Provence when it did rain heavily catastrophes followed, floods, washed away homes, broken dikes. Either we had too little or too much over a short, so short period of time.

Across the road from our barn in Northport.

Yet here I am in a damp world. A world that suffered droughts this summer. Apparently the sky is doing its best to compensate. The goats’ pasture is green. Not yet lush, but green and pushing up some fall grass.

It all reminds me of the Pyrenees. So lush, so green, so damp, so muddy. Where I learned so much, but where I felt chilled to the bone more often than not.

As I work on improving my skills making tommes. As I share early samples with the restaurants here in my region, I think back to where I’ve learned and tasted and sampled such cheeses.

J, my French cheese technician, the friend of a friend of a friend who took me on and helped me learn so much. He received me in his at-times cozy, at-times chilled home atop a hill behind Orthez. There with the wood fire burning in the little stove, his purring, persistent kitten on my lap, the creaking central staircase ringing out in the otherwise quiet mornings when I went down for my first cup of tea, I asked questions, I sought knowledge, explanations, details, and I ate many a good meal, ‘bien arrosé’ as we’d say with some good wine I’d brought as a thank you.

In Provence I had colleagues and friends who could show me how to make lactic cheeses, the basic chèvre, or crottin, or pélardon. A few made tommes in the springtime when they had an excess of milk and gave me my first classes in these cheeses back in 2008. Yet their primary cheese was always the little tart rounds, fresh and aged, occasionally rolled in savory leaves, or pepper, or filled with black olive tapenade. And so this is the one I know best.

In the rainy, damp, misty setting of the Pyrenees, driving up tight and winding roads, seeing those spectacular white peaks in the distance, or overlooking a magnificent valley, the tomme is king. In this land the 3-5 kilo sheeps’ milk tomme is the best known. But a few rebels choose to work with goats, and J knows them all. With his introduction I was received daily during my visits to these cheese makers. They told me more or less how they made cheese (no one will tell you exactly). They allowed me to be alongside them as they worked, and cleaned (hot water and fresh nettles from the garden for one cheese vat), molded and washed. I saw tiny operations of 30 some goats who gave barely a litre and a half per goat, no more than 300 litres in a year, and I visited large operations with over 200 goats, mostly automated feeding and milking, with large quantities of multiple cheeses in their cellars.

I saw things not to do, as well as elements to adopt. I witnessed the frustrations of mucor (also known as “poile de chat” or cat’s hair, a gray mold that is desirable on the tomme de savoie, but is a bane to all other cheeses) invading the lactic room when a cheese maker had the bad habit of working in her tomme cellar and then trapesing back through the lactic processing room, her body no doubt covered in the spoors of her salted and rubbed cheeses. As they say, it’s far easier to bring things into a cheese room than to take them back out again.

 

The Rhythms of Fall

Fall is blasting through the trees, pouring down from the skies. And with it we are winding down our milk production and slowly integrating our new does while we send encouragement in the direction of our bucks.

With the farm and creamery still in construction, the added numbers of animals (all needing to be quarantined from our herd for 14 -21 days), the need to get the breeding underway, and the desire to de-worm and get all animals into optimum health pre-pregnancy pressing upon us, we are doing something this year that we’ll likely do differently next year. Drying off the animals during the month of October, rather than end of November.

Back in France at the farms I’ve worked and interned at, the typical schedule is to breed the does in September, dry off late November, and expect the freshenings in February/early March. This is then a 10 month milking and cheese-making schedule, with a two month break for the animals during the end of their period of gestation, and the herdsmen and cheesemakers.

This rhythm also permits the person who milks the goats to see a plump and pink vulva, perhaps oozing a bit of goo, and note that 1. she’s in heat and 2. likely to be bred pretty darn quickly by the present buck, and thus to pretty accurately calculate the future freshening dates.

Right now, we’re a bit betwixt and between. We’re following the French style of putting the bucks with the does and letting them do their thing without much intervention. Putting the does one by one in with a buck is simply not practical with the numbers we’re now dealing with. But as we’re not milking every girl every day, we’re not completely certain who’s been bred yet or not. Oh, we see who’s fluttering her tail, we see the boys make efforts to climb up on them, we observe all those wonderful mating rituals of drinking pee and sniffing butts. But, till the vet returns at the end of the month with her portable sonogram… we’re not too certain if/who/when. I must confess to crossing my fingers.

Generally, I like to be in control. I like to plan the year’s calendar, anticipate what we’ll do at what point throughout the year, note the times we’ll need extra help, when there’ll be lots of milk, etc., Letting Nature run her course is rather a humbling and frustrating thing. It’s hard to be sure….

And nor is the weather properly collaborating with us. I’ve put photos from a rare sunny day here, but more typical to this month has been rain and more rain, with one splendid day to startle and delight, before returning to rain again. Am I in the Pyrenees again? (Last April it rained 29 out of 30 days that month!) I’ve reveled in the colors of fall, and even the rank scent of our bucks. And making cheese with rich fall milk is a joy.  So though there’s not much milk, what I have is beautiful. Thus I’ve made a few more tommes (not to be sampled for a few months!), another batch of crème fraîche, a day’s worth of lactics, and one more try at some camembert (but I worry a bit about these last as the space I’m experimenting in was way cold that day!).

It’s time to put all my paperwork in order, register goats, get familiar with the DHI Dairy Herd Improvement milk testing for the spring, go back through receipts and invoices for the accountants, and have all in order as we move forward to the next TO DO list. Though personally, I’m waiting for the next beautiful day to spend time in the pasture with the goats.

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A Bit of My History

Lest there be any confusion on this point, I took last year to get up to speed to be able to run a goat farm, but I’ve been closely involved with goats for a number of years. If you’d like to go back to an earlier chapter in my life, feel free to take a look at my goat posts on my first blog: An American in Avignon : http://american-in-avignon.blogspot.com/

Living in Provence and caring both for food and the people who create it leads one into some marvelous adventures, and offered me the nearby opportunities for learning and discovering. Particularly after the world economic downturn of 2008 I chose to spend my extra “free” time learning at the shoulder of dear friends. And thus began a year of interning a day a week with one of my favorite goat cheese makers.

It was a soul-nourishing time that happened to coincide with post-divorce and a need to find deep meaning in my life over and beyond the daily routine.

I love pretty much every aspect of goats and goat cheese-making. I love the animals. I love being with them, having them nibble at my fingers, or my clothes, having them rub up against me and nuzzle me. I love their personalities, their balance of skittishness (when it comes to my dog…) and forcefulness when they wish to impose themselves and/or get to the grain trough before the others.

Being with my goat cheese makers returned me to a seasonal existence. It is part of their way of living and working to keep to the natural seasons of goats – in heat late summer to early fall, births in the late winter – all before Easter – and milk from spring through late fall. Many years I would take my children (and a few extra) to visit my friends’ farms so they could hold those newly born kids in their arms, feel their tiny beating hearts, and truly be part of the “re naissance” the re-birth of life in the spring. Their years flow through seasonal rhythms, following those of their animals, their milk cycle, and the cheeses they will make.

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When I started actually making cheese I felt at ease in the cheese-lab – always at 70F/20C, which is such a comfortable temperature winter or summer. I loved handling the curd, discovering the persnickety twists and shifts as the season evolves. I go into a meditative trance when my hand gently stirs a low-heat tomme. Continuing as I gently press down the curds post heating to form a solid mass on the bottom of my pan, and then lifting this squishy mass out, dividing it up and gently pressing it into my molds. As one teacher said to me (most suggestively), be gentle, as you would with a man… And so at least for that moment of the day, I slow down and I permit my hands to caress and most gently, ever so doucement, handle my curds.

Amongst the first cheese experiments I did at home was whey ricotta (or brousse as we called it in Provence, or Broccio in Corsican). Claudine told me how, and would send me home with large tanks of whey from her ‘caillé doux’ (somewhat like a small camembert) and I would simmer away till I’d lifted all those curds off and gotten the small but precious yield of high protein bits.

Then I found a source for raw cow’s milk nearby Arles and started making yogurt for our bed and breakfast. The occasional over-heated curd (my methods weren’t very standardized) never got tossed, it was simply drained and salted and became whatever sort of cheese it wanted to be – and generally pretty darn good.

I loved that every mistake is simply another sort of cheese. And thus they were discovered ever so long ago.

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Jump forward to today and the joy of more discoveries, more lessons learned, humility cultivated, and a lasting fascination with curds and whey.