I’m heading off to help a friend trim back hooves on their goats tomorrow. Once you’ve a skill in your hands, it must be used. Thus, reprinting this old post from my past life in Provence seems apt. Six years ago in September 2009 – another time, another place, but always, my faithful dog Filou by my side.
I ran a bit late this morning — somehow, cleaning up breakfast after the kids, kneading the bread for a second rising, and?? brushing my teeth? just took more time than they should have. Thus I wasn’t out the door till a full 30 minutes after my kids were off to school with the neighbors. But, with minimal traffic, I was at the farm within 45-50 minutes. Filou on the passenger seat, we drove through the morning mist. We, along with our fellow drivers, had our night-lights on, the fog was so thick. For the first time in three months we’d had a serious rain storm. All night long the rain had come down — happily rather gently. The local farmers, vintners included, are relieved and pleased. So here I was driving along on this cold and misty morning. Where had summer gone?
Ah, summer went south. Once I’d crossed the Alpilles from St. Rémy de Provence to the Vallée des Baux I was greeted by sunlight. Rather akin to passing from Germany to Italy in the summer. One second to the next I was out of the mist and into bright sunlight with shadows from the trees lining the road rolling away before me in a pattern of strips of varying density.
At the farm Aurelie was clipping hooves. While the goats were held still by their manger, and the young intern (then me) worked the milking pumps, she carefully went at the over-grown hoof nails. She explained and showed me the patterns, textures and colors of the goat hooves. I didn’t take a hand to the clippers, but I was able to get at least a visual understanding of the operation. Aurelie regularly goes through the herd — never all at one go — to keep their hooves healthy and groomed. I remember cleaning horses’ hooves when I was a kid; there are similarities, but where with the larger animal you have a hook to clean out the cavities, the goats’ hooves are not concave, nor do they have metal shoes, simply horn-like nails that grow and curve under, potentially digging into the more tender pink area. Aurelie has a sure hand, and went at the task with ease and familiarity. I could see, though, that this is the one part of a goat’s body that is relatively filthy; clipping only the over-grown nails could be a bit difficult. As when I clip and trim Filou’s claws, I just might nick a goat too closely, earning a kick (where Filou might try to nip me). I’ll watch for awhile more before attempting this.
Back in the laboratory all the milk went through the filters and into the containers. I went right to work flipping the two day-old cheeses, and made another attempt at flipping the one day-old ones back into their molds. I haven’t truly got the hang of it yet. I’ll photograph Aurelie in detail next week. At this moment I’ve a way of doing it that sort of works, but where I might dent the cheeses slightly on a side. Ideally, I barely touch them, tipping them out onto the tips of my fingers, using my thumb to flip them, and place them back into the mold nicely, upside down. However, more often than not, they land on their side, get mushed, I tap and shift them, tip them back out and try again. The end result is not particularly aesthetic, to put it the least. Aurelie has the patience of a saint. But, I would very much like to get these gestures down and into my hands/fingers. Isabelle says I simply need to sacrifice perhaps 3 or 4 cheeses and work at it all morning till it comes. There’s a way to do it, and my approximate style isn’t it.
As I flipped out the two day-olds, I felt that they were every weight and height under the sun. And I remembered Isabelle and Paul Pierre emphasizing that with time and experience you learn to judge the density of the curd and make consistent cheeses. Goat cheeses are sold by the piece, not by weight. As such, if she’s charging 1E40 per cheese, on some she is losing money, and on others, clients are being jipped. Not good. This is truly part of the art. Making cheese that is pleasant to eat is not too difficult. But making cheeses that are consistently of the same size, texture, salinity… this is where the master shows himself. Practice, tasting, keeping track, taking notes, being attentive. And yes, having the goal of achieving these standards.
One of the benefits of having a cave d’affinage to age your cheeses — at 10C, a good 6 degrees above refrigerator temperature — is that it allows you to offer multiple possibilties to your clients. Aurelie set herself to preparing a few of these in attractive trays for a friend’s wedding. From fresh to five weeks’ aged, rolled in savory, filled with a mixture of mustard grains, hot pepper flakes, ground peppers and whey, filled with tapenade… Even though you fill the fresh cheeses (i.e. 4-5 day old) by preference, once filled, they can continue to age and evolve, and depending on what you’ve put in them, their flavors will evolve differently. Aurelie showed me the trick of smoothing the side of the cheese once she put the two halves back together. In a couple days, a crust will form and no one will be the wiser that she’d filled this cheese (though we did put a dab of the filling on top of it to mark it), and they’d marvel and the seeming impossibility of it. That whey moistens the ground mixture contributes to the evolving ferments. Tapenade is also made from a fermented product — salt-cured olives — provoking a different evolution; and even the crumbled savory leaves will give their touch to the cheese. To that end, we tasted a forgotten experiment: fresh cheeses that had been rolled in savory and left in the cave d’affinage for over two months. They looked rather scary, but they were soft and oozing a lovely creamy interior…hmmmm??? Wow! They had a sharpness, a bite, and intensity, and they were wonderful. Made from raw milk, kept at 10 degrees, the natural yeast and bacteria were slightly altered by the savory, producing a marvelous end product. Nice experiment, and no, it didn’t kill us. Good bacteria is a good thing.
As I came out of the lab, Paul Pierre was just beginning to ready lunch for himself and Isabelle, but also for a cousin, Isabelle’s 90 year old mother, Marie, their daughter, Fred, her companion, and Shabi, their 8 month old son. It was a large family affair. Gratefully, I was included, and as such, immediately got to work on the crust for the tarte tatin that Isabelle had begun. Once this was done, I cleaned the salad, chopped some tomatoes, made the dressing, and in general, tried to be helpful. My only contribution this week was the pear compote I’d made the night before with all the kids — something better adapted to Shabi’s diet than to the adults. But that was fine by me and them. But another loaf of my no-salt multi-grain bread would be appreciated for next Thursday.
The meal was lively and nourishing, ending of course with a cheese course. Have you ever seen an 8 month old teething on hard goat cheese? Now, this would be hard to imagine in a country where we aren’t allowed to work with raw milk, and thus 5 weeks’ aged could only be found on a black market… or as contraband. But imagine, the strength of flavor, the snapping density, the hard interior that melts in contact with the gnawing gums. And, he loved it! Toss out those vache qui rit, those plastic little Baby Bells, and got forbid Cheesewiz! Real cheese, correctly aged, for real kids. And you can’t beat it as a source of calcium and easily digested protein.