Consulting, Advising, Learning

IMG_0047 A tangle of gorgeous spring blossoms catch my eye as I go out for my evening walk/run in a warm, slightly humid, and ever so lovely place. I’m a world away from the cold, snowy North. And also a world away from my two sons and my four-footed house pets. I’m ‘down South’ with a colleague, to consult and advise throughout this spring.

As I structure the abundance of cheese and goat knowledge I’ve absorbed over the years, a phrase that I’ve read and heard scrolls through my thoughts. So I looked it up (it and many variants) on Google recently,

“They can take everything from you, but they can never take what you’ve learned, they can’t take the experiences you’ve gained from living your life. Those are yours forever.”

In its original iteration, it was written by a survivor of the Holocaust and quotes extraordinary advice from his mother. But many many people have adopted this wise thought stressing the profound importance and value of education and knowledge. And, being in a position of looking forward towards new projects, the depths and riches of what I own inside myself, the power of all that I’ve collected in living a many layered and challenging life is reassuring indeed.

At this moment, I am tapping into my years of research, questioning and questing — my knowledge. And I am doing this to fulfill my role as a consultant, here to share, teach and advise a colleague.

On this exquisite spring day I’m headed to the creamery. The lab coat I wear when ladling makes it all but impossible to not feel the tenderness of my freshly sun-burned arms, a tactile reminder of my  afternoon of plunking copper boluses down the throats (and avoiding some pretty darned sharp back teeth!) of a number of this farm’s pastured herd of goats. Most of the does have freshened and there are about 80 does milking twice daily. In another two weeks we should have the full herd on the stands – including the two mothers photographed below who kidded out on pasture this morning.

IMG_0055My son Leo and I road-tripped down here to arrive on April 1st (he’s since gone back to Michigan for high school). Our descent was timed for the first cheese makes. And, now that the creamery is up and running, the first priority is to get the fresh soft cheeses out to the eagerly awaiting clients, something my colleague already does very beautifully.

As I observe and question, I see where I might suggest techniques to lower the quantity of expensive freeze-dried cultures used here. It would also be possible to adjust the measuring tools for the cheese makes and offer methods to tweak and refine.  I move slowly, not hastily. In my role as consultant, observing and listening is vitally important, equally on a level with advising.

I’m here at a key moment. They’re building a wonderful new aging structure with two large caves, due to be done soon. At which point we will gear up the development and refinement (some great experiments have already been done) of hard cheeses and blues. I look forward to assisting in the balancing and adjusting of the cave atmospheres, sharing my hard-earned knowledge and experience. Caves are complex to master — my colleagues around the world will agree — and I am here to shorten the learning curve. But, mastery is a too powerful word. I would be more apt to say dance, or collaboration. The best caves live and breath and the cheese maker learns to work with his/her caves; how best to encourage & facilitate the good, and limit the bad.

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Much lies before us, and day by day, I take notes & make lists, and see where my knowledge can be of use.

My kids’ dad used to say that his quest in life was to share his knowledge and discoveries. It is a privilege to learn & to integrate the complexities of an art such as cheese making (or in his case Provençale Cuisine).

And in sharing and teaching, I solidify my own knowledge while offering it up to an esteemed colleague.

We all win.

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Day 1 making cheese (2009)

Memories of my first day milking and learning how to make cheese with Aurelie back in St Martin de Crau in Provence, back in 2009:

I arrived early this morning to be able to spend a bit of time with Isabelle and Paul Pierre and their family before joining Aurelie (their former intern, now the resident goat-cheese maker) for the morning milking, la traite. Isabelle has just finished five days of chemo, and is clearly exhausted and much affected by this most recent round of treatments. I’d thought she was on more paliative care now, but, I suppose it is difficult for an oncologist to not wish to do the utmost with his arsenal at hand. I hope she’ll be better when I visit next week. Her weariness is deeply visible in her eyes, and in the hesitancy with which she approaches breakfast: coffee or chocolate, bread or no, jam, and which flavor. In each case her husband encourages, suggests, does for. He waits a bit, but sees that if she’s not nudged towards a choice, she’ll simply shut down and stop. She’s mentally in and out, almost mini-naps with her eyes open. As she puts it her head is dans la pâté.

And yet amidst this moment of sickness and family intimacy, I’ve been welcomed to share, to learn, to participate. I tell little stories, but keep them short. I’m attentive to her level of energy, and seek a smile or two, but go no further. It is more aptly a time for quiet and simply being together.

When the sound of Aurelie’s arrival reaches the kitchen, I clean my coffee cup and walk the short trip from the kitchen to the barn to watch and most importantly, to do. Aurelie is relaxed with me, at ease and pleased that I’m eager to get in and mettre mes mains à la pâte” as we say here (“get your hands dirty” is the closest equivalent in English). I’ve watched so many times, but had never laid my hands upon the milking machines, nor the teats aka mammary glands aka breasts, called mammelles here.

The first gesture of the morning is to prepare the small mangers with yummy feed. Today it is organic corn, but normally, there is a blend of soaked corn and soaked and sprouted barley. ¾ of a coffee tin is put into each manger. Then the goats are allowed to come up to feed. They are all waiting, in their pecking order. As with many animals there is a world of hierarchy amongst the goats. The first goes up the ramp, all the way to the furthest manger (the only one open to her) and puts her head down to eat, triggering the mechanism that locks her in. The next follows suit, and the next, etc.,

The next movement is to do a quick squirt of each teat to remove the premier jet, putting it into a bowl that the dogs will enjoy. Then, the clean and prepped milking suction cups (jetters) are attached to the teats. There is space for 12 goats at a time to feed, and 4 sets of suction cups. To each her turn. Aurelie massages the warm, firm teats to help the goats with let-down. The younger goats often release their milk slowly, whereas some of the older seemed to have double the milk. Teats come in all shapes and sizes, but those of these goats were all-in-all pretty easy to place into the cups. I had memories (doesn’t every mother?) of massaging my painfully full breasts to send milk flowing into Jonas’ mouth when he was a newborn – he was a particularly bad nurser. In any case, touching and handling these goat teats felt normal and quite pleasant. Beyond helping in the milking, the goat cheese maker/shepherd also does this to better know his/her goats, with all their individual quirks. For instance, spotting a cyst requires knowing what the normal teat felt like before the cyst appeared. It is good to learn to distinguish the firmness that is a sign of full milk ducts, or simply lumpy bumps, or something to worry about etc.,

Aurelie is using the system and structure designed by Paul Pierre and Isabelle when they set up their business here twenty two years’ ago. With their design and architectural backgrounds, Isabelle and Paul Pierre were creative and original, yet observant of known-methods. The plumbing, the flow from barn to milking station to barn, a system for soaking and subsequently straining the barley. This all takes place in the barn.

The fresh milk is then transferred to the dairy on a small trolley where it is put through a strainer into 15 litre bins. These are placed on shelves made of 1 ½ in PVC (rows of 2). Into the full bins of fresh goats’ milk — that she did not cool down — Aurelie puts an eye dropper of rennit (6-7 drops per litre), and a ladel-full of whey from an earlier batch.

The dairy is kept at 20C (68F) and the now treated milk will sit for three days and ferment gently till the curdle is nicely taken. When ‘ready’ the curdle will be a solid mass amidst a clear liquid, with a fuzzy white skim on the surface.

My next job is to remove day-old cheeses from their molds and place them on stainless steel racks – as neatly as I can, leaving a minimum of thumb prints, rubbing off a minimum of cheese, and–as my skill-level permits–place them in neatly staggered rows. I did my best,… and gratefully, Aurelie is a very patient teacher.

While I was handling these more solid of cheeses, Aurelie was flipping out and returning to the molds the far softer and more humid cheeses from the evening before. (Goats are most often milked twice daily, and so the cheese-making can occur twice daily).

I moved my firmer cheeses to the de-humidifying room, and the molds to their large baskets to be first doused in a bath of acide de soude, and then into the dishwasher. We then hosed down and cleaned off the two meter by one meter stainless, pitched, draining trays upon which we put the cheese molds. These drain directly into open plumbing, and down the drain. In some farms, the whey and small milk solids collected in this manner are fed to pigs – a source of protein-rich liquid for their feed. Yet another example of the intelligence and non-waste possible on small, multi-animal family farms. However here, there are no pigs, and thus the whey is treated as gray water, dispersed through the septic system.

Once our sliding trays are cleaned (there are 6, but this being August, we’re nearly at the end of the season, and are using only 4), we set up the cleaned molds (those that have chilled) in rows of 5 x 6. Upon these we place the stainless curd distributor that permits the filling of many molds at once. Aurelie takes a large quart/litre sized cup and uses it to ladle the curd from the bin into the molds. However first, she has gently poured out and brushed off the excess whey and the white fuzz (the natural Geo – surface mold that grows in her make room) atop. Her cheeses will be milder in flavor if she does not include this. With a squeegee, we finish filling through the grid – filling the molds to nearly over-flow. A couple minutes’ wait is required as the curd descends, the whey already escaping through the holes of the molds, and then we transfer the grid to the next batch of 30 molds. And so on.

This morning, August 23, we milked 36 goats and made 130 cheeses with the three-day-old curd. We filled three 15 litre bins fully, and a fourth perhaps 7/8 or 5/6 full of fresh milk. Yesterday’s milk, alongside (but distinctly placed apart) the milk from the day before yesterday are quietly fermenting away.

Immediately after the milking we cleaned and rinsed the suction cups and tubes (with a specially designed flushing/cleaning machine to which we hooked them up in the kitchen), followed by the molds, bins, etc., A last gesture is to spray down and squeegee the terra cotta tile floor. Aurelie has prepared her containers of cheese that she distributes Monday in weekly crates of fresh, local produce organized by a local AMAP (farmers’ coop).

There were three of us, and two hours later, we’re free to be off to other projects. Not so bad, eh?

Learning & seeking is a way of life for a cheesemaker.

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Learning to make cheese. Learning to make good cheese. Learning to make good cheese on purpose, consciously and with clear awareness of the many variables that affect it. Learning to make cheese when your primary ingredient (milk) changes as frequently as the weather, the seasons, the cycle of life, the mood of the goat, the changing grasses in the pasture. Oh yes, and learning to care for said cheese once it exists, and bring it to the peak of its potential.

When you choose to be a cheesemaker, you choose to accept life as an onion. As you begin, you see the outer layer. You peel it. You master it. But oh, there’s more. And so you attack the second layer with a great feeling of forward motion. But, hm, there’s more. Another layer appears beneath, perhaps more opaque, a bit thicker. Ah, you think, I’m getting to the depth of the matter, now I’ll truly be a good cheese maker. And then… there’s more.

For every aspect of cheese making that I learn, I discover that much more remains to be mastered. For every color added to my palette, I discover that there are nuances and variations that I must learn to see, manage, and use to my advantage.

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For the past two weeks I’ve been at the Academie Opus Caseus based in a small town outside of Lyon, in the Auvergne region of France, the home of Mons Fromagerie, where the brothers Hervé (a Meilleur Ouvrier de France in cheese mongering) and Laurent (his equally brilliant and energetic younger brother) Mons have teamed up with the talented and energetic American Susan Sturman to establish programs for cheese professionals to learn the basics of cheese affinage, cheese monger skills, sales, and cheese basics.

I’ve come to be inspired. I’ve come to learn, and I’ve come to work hard (says she as her biceps scream from handling, brushing, washing and replacing a few hundred 4 kilo rounds of Brebis Pyrenée and Ossau-Iraty cheeses). Our days have been spent absorbing basic principals, learning protocols, tasting cheeses, working alongside the many professionals who are swirling about here in a most focused and intent manner (the image of a bee hive comes to mind). And as we do this, the conversations and instruction invariably bring up the exceptions. And the need to observe and be ready to tweak. And the fact that no matter the protocol, if your senses tell you something is off, you must respond (preferably before it’s too late).

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Cheese must be managed regularly. Cheese responds to every variation of temperature, humidity, air flow, and available micro-flora in the atmosphere. So, how to encourage what you want for, in and from your cheeses?

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Apparently, here in the center of cheese affinage mastery, it took over three years to get their new caves just right. Ahhh, but how reassuring this fact is to an apprentice of life and cheese. Humility and humor, hard work and human frailty. Yes, they all go hand in hand in the world of cheese. Do your best, pay attention, do better tomorrow. Be consistent, be present. Repeat.

The high points of these past two weeks have been many: a group tasting of three our cheeses and a good number of cheeses from past students and colleagues brought by my two course mates. I just purred watching Laurent and Susan taste my offerings alongside my colleagues, and judge them good, well made, without notable flaws, and, for two, products that would easily find a place on a French cheese plate. I was not alone. Our teachers and guides were impressed by the creativity and skill in their Australian alumnae, and with the exquisite farmstead goat cheese brought over from England.

 

Many in France have seen the documentary “La Guerre des Fromages qui Puent” – The War of the Stinky Cheeses – put out on Télé 2 in France spring 2012. In it, the message is quite unsubtly conveyed that the French public is becoming more accustomed to industrially made pasteurized milk cheeses, while the artisan cheese movement is taking off in the US, and with great results. What might have been true twenty years ago (that French cheeses were the best in the world, with none to compare) is shifting. Artisan cheeses are being made in the US, Canada, the British Isles and Australia by passionate and skilled cheese makers, and yes, many of us have learned from our French colleagues. It is not international espionage, though there is the occasional comment to that effect. It is nonetheless an exportation of French savoir-faire to willing and eager learners, myself amongst them.

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The three of us in the course this session have come as we are excited about what is possible in the world of cheese in our respective countries. My Australian colleague has visions of developing a cheese affinage business and store front in Brisbane to show case the many great artisan cheeses being produced in her country. My English colleague is brimming with ideas for working with restaurants, designing cheese appreciation courses, and working alongside a treasure in the English Artisan cheese world.

I do believe we’re in the right place at the right time. And this layer of the onion is simmering gorgeously in locally made cultured butter, richly yellow, aromatic, and tempting us forward.

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