Truffles, Foie Gras and a Week of Decadence in Provence

Winter is on the horizon. Not to fear. This has a special meaning to me:

– a break from making cheese &

– a trip back to my home in Avignon.

While there, I’ll be offering a course on Truffle hunting, Preparing your own Duck Confit and Foie Gras, and Exploring the decadent joys of Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines and great Chocolates in my former (and on-going) role as a cooking teacher and culinary tour guide in Provence.

With chef Erick Vedel at my side to guide us through the varied preparations – think foie gras mi-cuit, smoked magret de canard, duck-fat fried potatoes, truffle risotto, truffle omelettes, and truffled home-made pasta…..,

One week of glorious winter foodie decadence in Provence,

January 24-January 31

Early morning truffle markets, Provençal language murmurring softly as the transactions flow from seller to buyer. Anywhere from 250Euros a kilo up to 800Euros a kilo depending on demand, quality and quantity. What will this season bring? Luckily for those who accompany me late winter is the best time for black truffles.

A little known fact is that Christmas and New Year’s are times when truffle prices are pushed way up for the festive holiday diners, but in fact, the truffles are rarely at their best. The knowledgeable gourmet awaits late winter, when the air is still chilly, but the sun is out, the ground a tad firm but not soaked with early spring rains. It is the moment the truffles come into their peak flavor, and often, the prices have lowered due to less demand.

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I can still take a few more people with me. Our favorite local B&B in Avignon, run by lovely Béatrice still has room as does my touring vehicle and kitchen. The Euro to US Dollar rate has been favorable to the Dollar this year, so I’ve been able to lower the price per person to: $2975 all inclusive, or a special 10% discount for 2 who travel together: $5355.

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So, come farce your fresh fowl with truffles. Take the grater, and the chunky truffle and shave as much as you like over your lightly poached eggs with still warm brioche on your plate. This is your time to indulge!

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We’ll join our master truffler as he heads through a grove of twisted black oak trees, following an eager and excited dog seeking out that elusive yet potent scent. A happy yelp, quick digging with his strong front paws, and out comes a black nugget of flavor. The potent aroma of the truffle invades the dirt surrounding it, and wafts up to you standing close by.

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To accompany our feasts and travails we’ll taste some of the great wines of the Southern Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Vacquéyras… We’ll spend a morning at multiple wineries savoring a vertical tasting of these grenache heavy blends. Strawberry jam? Russian leather? smooth and fruity? spicy and dense? chewy tannins? a touch of barnyard? herby Garrigue notes? These and more may come to you as we swirl, sniff, and swoosh in our mouths. And as I’m driving, just enjoy. No need to spit.

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And to enliven conversation and share our feasts I’ll invite some of my favorite artisans to join us at the table.

Oh it’s going to be a wonderful and special week. And likely the last time for a good long while that I’ll be able to offer these tours. Once I start my next creamery, I’ll not be able to get back to Provence for more than a couple weeks here and there. So, if you’re tempted (and I hope you are!) this is the time to book your tickets (during the least expensive period of the year) and come !!! Looking forward to hearing from you: Winter Truffle Tour 2016

Many Little Steps to an Award

IMG_9009So many moments of learning, creativity and serendipity come into the creation of a cheese.

Take the Idyll Gris, aka Grand Gris, aka Layered Ash Cake as an example. FYI the version with Provence Style Black Olive Tapenade  won 3rd place in the All Milks Flavor Added category at the American Cheese Society 2014 annual conference awards in Sacramento, CA. This is a big field — think of all the flavored Goudas out there! – so we are super proud and beaming at this honor.IMG_1587

In its first incarnation it was a large lactic cheese made on a whim and aged with a creamy white rind. At that time, beautiful and runny and delicious as it was, I offered it to a favorite local chef for his restaurant, (Chef Myles at Trattoria Stella here in Traverse City) and we baptized it the Grand Blanc.

Along the way, Hélène Tormo advised me on how to work with our molds (designed for hard cheese) when using lactic curd, so that the curd drained properly and smoothly.

I then started experimenting with ash, and took this relatively short but large and runny cheese the next step, aging it to a silvery perfection. Thus, the Grand Gris.

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Many in the cheese world have seen the lovely Humboldt Fog from Cypress Groves – a lactic goat cheese with a perfect black line of ash in its middle. I chose to do something similar, but in a very artisanal, imperfect and artsy way. The result was a lovely bright white curd with a silvery, gray rind, and a dramatic bleeding black center – unevenly spread across the middle.

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I made one or so of these cheeses every two weeks, and they became a regular item on the chef’s cheese menu. Occasionally I would experiment with how I handled the curd, how large/high I made the cheese. It ages completely differently depending on size and depth. So this was fun for the palate.

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And then I got to thinking of possible variations on this theme. Back when I lived in Provence my children’s father would make a marvelous black olive tapenade. This became a house staple, somewhat like mustard or ketchup in another’s house.

Isabelle Laguitton, my much adored early “all things goat” mentor, used to make a number of little stuffed cheeses for restaurants, and one in particular she would stuff with tapenade. She did it very carefully, smoothing the rind so that nothing spilled out, and the rind grew over the cut edge, hiding the evidence of the hidden savory layer inside. She told me that these two flavors (tart lactic goat cheese and black olive tapenade) went so well together as they are both fermented, and something happens when you marry them, they meld into an elegant unit, each supporting the other, but neither dominating.

Happily, my fellow culinary spirit Rose Hollander makes superb tapenade.

Hence, the next and final step was clearly before me – putting a layer of tapenade rather than a simple layer of ash between my two layers of lactic cheese. The first one went out to restaurants – and rather surprised Chef Myles as he’d been expecting our classic Black and White version. (In those early experimenting days, I didn’t always label each lovely silvery round). The response was positive and encouraging. Onward.

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Thus, last fall, as I mulled with my assistant Melissa over which cheeses we would submit to American Cheese Society competition, I kept coming back to this combination, and the elegant presentation of the layer cake. Yes, many others have done something that had a similar presentation (another colleague had won an award a preceding year for a layer of paprika through the middle, quite lovely). But after all, how many ways can you incorporate outside flavors into a cheese? It’s either mixed in, or on the surface rind, or in the middle.

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In this photo you see the 3 variations we’ve been making this year: Sundried Tomato Pesto, Wild Leek Pesto and Black Olive Tapenade. Together with Melissa, I worked towards this goal – making this cheese weekly, in double and triple batches so that we’d have a perfect one, perfectly ripened to send off for the competition. I wrapped this fragile round carefully and lovingly, sent it off, and… the night of the awards I received that glorious text “we’ve won! 3rd Place for Idyll Gris! And a photo of the ribbon. Yeah!!!

So Much to Tell — Thank you Claudine

So much to write about. I’ve really let time get away. But then can’t I deny I’ve been hugely busy. Babies have been born, more aptly called kids. Enormous bellies and distended udders have released over 25 pounds of flesh and bone and a gallon of colostrum. Imagine carrying all that! We could nearly hear those joints creaking.

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Today’s total is 37, but there are more to come. Still four does to kid of the 28 who were bred.

But for two who’d been bred before we purchased them, our does seemed to carefully time the arrivals of their little ones to the appearance of Claudine Espigue, my very dear and supremely competent and generous goat cheese maker from Provence. For many who visited me in my last incarnation as a tour guide of culinary and wine delights in Provence, you may remember her and her wonderful cheeses. Well, she has just sold her herd and retired, in time to be able to make the trip across the Atlantic to assist and coach us as our does kidded.

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Somehow, amidst all the confusion of the fall breeding season, we were able to collect our gestation estimates and get her here all the way from St Martin de Crau just at the right time. I picked her up at the TC airport at 11pm on Sunday night and Monday at 5AM we received our first of a dozen calls to come that a kid was on his way. In fact that first one went quite well. A doe of two years birthed two beautiful bucks (one I very much want to keep for future breeding). Image

Over the next week and a few that Claudine was at my side we were called in at 3AM, midnight, 9:30pm, 7AM, noon… from our beds, from a friend’s house, from the creamery (where we’d begun to play with milk and whey). Each of our team got a chance to work with Claudine by their side. We had a few very difficult births, a couple even had sad endings (two still born boys). Yet having the experience of a life-time and the calm presence and great humor of Claudine alongside us  transformed those moments from terrifying to profound learning.

With the help of some dear friends who invited us over, her time here was not only work – Claudine is now quite convinced that Michigan harbors some superb cooks, fantastic local cuisine, beautiful homes and pretty darn good wines. She’s discovered the joys of Muck boots, walking atop an iced over beach, jeep rides along a snowy bluff, and daily snow storms. Her cooking lit up my home and warmed our tummies. Where did she get all that energy to cook when I was perpetually pooped from all those short nights?

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It is now two weeks since she returned to a far warmer corner of this world (and far greener, no doubt she’s eating asparagus and strawberries as I write this!). From fifteen kids at her departure the number has more than doubled. Each member of the team has had his or her moment of glory and we’ve a pen full of the most beautiful kids as proof.

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With the kids comes milking the does. And with the milk of the does comes making cheese. And with the kids comes the need to feed them on a punctual and regular basis. And with all this comes lots of things to keep clean, be they swept, shoveled, power-washed or scrubbed. And with that making of cheese comes cleaning molds and pasteurizing and washing and turning and flipping and tweaking all those wonderful cheese caves we’ve put in our creamery. Image

Thank you Claudine for helping me inaugurate our creamery with your cheese skills and flavors. And thank you to so many for this very very full and fruitful kidding season. It is our first with our full herd together, our new team in place, and our building pretty much ready to roll. Onward and upward.

What do they eat?

One of the great joys of spending time with farm animals is to simply observe them. There are many enumerations of  the herdsman working intently as he/she leans on a fence post at the edge of a field.

IMG_0472Observing is one of those passive/active activities that has led to discoveries and knowledge forever after in the history of man. We use such marvelous adjectives as “astute” with “observation,” and “careful, thoughtful, patient.” Putting myself into this role gives me a chance to be present, out of my head, into a universe of basic and complex weaving.

In my Waldorf Teachers’ training we gave a Western philosopher, writer, scientist, humanist’s name to this way of looking at the world. Goethe. In his treatises on color, sight and plants he offered up tremendous learning through observation without judgement, prejudice or anticipation.

And so, when I walk with goats in the woods and pasture, I observe. It is fall. What are they eating? When? What do they prefer? Where do they roam if I stand still?

IMG_0508Heading out from the barn in the morning, when the dew is still on the grass, we go to the woods first. Hungrily they nip at the lower Beech leaves, the Sugar Maple saplings along the ground, and the packets of Oak leaves, recently dropped from the majestic trunks beside us, brought down by the weight of the acorns and the West wind blowing through. Beech is preferred to Maple. Oak is sought out and leads them further from my side.

IMG_0470And then, as we move further into the woods, we come across a long needled fir (Douglas?) and they gobble up the needles, the tender branch points, and stay there for as long as I permit, reveling in the resinous virtues of the pine. Intellectually, I remember that pine has antibiotic properties, and what else? I will seek further into the vitamins, minerals, and more that these different plants carry at this time of year. I imagine the cooling of the weather is also bringing out sugary flavors, as it does in our root vegetables.

Heading closer to the pasture, we come across thickets of golden rod, already gone to fluffy seed heads. They nibble the yellowing leaves, standing there at ease reaching for these plants that are just below head height.

Grass and low growing plants are not desirable in the morning hours. They don’t like the dew. They avoid eating wet plants in general. And you’ll never have an easier time getting them back to the barn than on a rainy day! Fair weather friends they are.

IMG_0516For those who dislike the invasive Autumn Olive, goats are your ideal pet. They will nibble leaves, tender shoots, and completely strip a tree in minutes. I find these on the edge between woods and orchard, along the dirt roads, by a friend’s tennis court.

I’d been told that they’d eat Poison Ivy. And yes, I’ve seen them nibble it a bit. But either it’s not a favorite, or they prefer it young and tender in the spring. In any case, they’re not making much of a dent on the lush growths of it that I bring them to, preferring the leaves of the nearby beech, fir and maple.

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