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.
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.