Spring Nibbles

Spring is here, sort of. This being Michigan, a common vision is a pile by the door of muck boots (or wellies), clogs, sneakers and flip flops. I’m never quite sure what to wear when I get up till I sample the chilly (or warm) air with my nose barometer (rather pointy and apt in this capacity). It is a given, that mornings are friskier than mid-day. Or, normally this is so. So I pull on my goat jeans (a might sprinkled in a day or two’s milk and dust), a long sleeved shirt and a couple sweaters – with the option of removing layers as needed. The rare morning calls for a hat and scarf, such as today, May 15th!!!

Yes, there was snow on the ground when I got up. SNOW! Then it sleeted tiny white pellets, a sprinkle of rain, and now the sun is shining gloriously. In France we would call it une journée de giboulée IMG_1004

But back to the goats. The mini-herd is currently comprised of five adult females and their nine offspring, five doelings and four bucklings. The last will be heading off to friends soon to be nourished through to fall, and then to fill their freezer. The kids came in two batches, one cluster in early April – predominantly does – and the second cluster three weeks later, on a full moon, 24 hours after an atmospheric shift to cooler, misty weather – predominantly bucks. As my dear Isabelle told me so many years ago now, generally by the end of a kidding season, you’ve nearly even numbers of girls to boys. And so it is.

Since early May the short goat walks have become long days on pasture. The pasture isn’t particularly lush or rich here – in fact a good chunk of it is on sandy land where clearly the past owners scraped up the top soil and sold it off. But there is sufficient greenery to put out two strands of flexible electric fencing, and keep them there for 6-7 hours, nourishing them enough to lower hay costs. They are moved daily.

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DSC_0167.JPGDSC_0184.JPGMoms are the best teachers for what is edible, as well as a naturally curious and sampling nature. Water is now a drinking option as well, though mother’s milk when within reach is often sought.

DSC_0158.JPGTime permitting, after a day on green grasses, a walk through the woods is in order, exploring what tempts. In this, the spring season, that list includes: young maple leaves, young beach leaves (and the smaller leafy treeish bush beneath it – reminds me of huckleberry leaves, though far taller), and ground cover plants including this one, Dutchman’s breeches. IMG_0983

IMG_1022IMG_1018There’s another single waxy green leaf they nip at in passing, pushing up through the ground beneath the firs, in the same spots where later in the summer there’ll be a lush crop of poison ivy. IMG_1013

They are avoiding these spottled trout lilies and in general the trillium blossoms (though a kid will nip a white flower or two with no ill effects). Wild leeks are only barely poking their heads up, they may or may not go for them.IMG_136720080420TrilliumTrees_730x5835645194348_f63fec694c

With freshening season now safely behind us, as well as high winter and the hard labor of barn-cleanout (3 days, 27 man hours), these once docile does are now lithe and powerful, determined and focused. They know where the grain is stored, they are most adept at slipping between legs and pushing out into the aisle when we enter to refill water buckets, etc., Winter was strenuous only in the refilling and carrying of water buckets. Spring is physical in a completely different way.

In their current temporary digs the physical systems are lacking, eg. no specific post-milking area; a make-shift kids’ pen of old pallets that requires daily tweaking.

It is time to start weaning the kids from their mothers, or at least separate them at night so a decent quantity of milk can be collected in the morning. But without the requisite structural elements, success is still a wistful concept. Amused as I am to find them happily with their moms in the morning, I sigh when I remember the care with which we’d locked them in the night before. I’m in one of those moments where I know what is needed, but must be patient with what is there.

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.

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?

Discovering Obsalim – a Method for observing and healing ruminants.

If you’d like to learn about my time in Avignon, my truffle market and truffle hunting adventures and more, please take a look at my other blog An American in Avignon. It was glorious to be back in France, and my truffle and foie gras courses went wonderfully. On this blog, I’ll return to my goat and cheese focus.

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When I was investigating goat herding and cheese-making years ago, I’d heard about Obsalim, a method for diagnosing various symptoms in ruminants that could be read visually, and linked to their feed. I was fascinated by this method and wanted to learn more. So, having contacted the web site and sought out the English version of the method (promised in translation for the past few years, though not yet in evidence). I wrote to the person who developed this methodology, Dr. Bruno Giboudeau, a veterinarian who’s been practicing for over 30 years. Dually trained in traditional & homeopathic veterinarian medicine, he resides in the Jura, land of Comté cheeses. In between projects as I’ve been, I thought that translating his book and method and assisting in its diffusion in the United States might be a great interim activity. I’ve done a number of translations, and, I rather do understand the subject 🙂

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Dr. Bruno got back to me when I was in France and let me know that most of his book is translated, but he’s in search of an editing house in the US and/or English speaking world to publish the English edition. We decided to meet at my house so we could discuss this possibility. In anticipation of his visit, I read his book cover to cover (which focuses on cows), and studied up on his deck of cards for goats. In fact, his system is far more than a methodology between two covers. It has been translated into a computer program, and into a very easy to use set of playing cards, one for each of the three primary ruminants: cows, goats and sheep. At this time, the cards are available in English, but not the book.

Dr. Bruno is interested in not only having his book edited and published in the US, but also training up herdsmen, dairy men and veterinarians to put his methods into their hands. To help me see how this might be done, we spent the day together visiting first a cow dairy (where I get my raw cow milk when in France) and then a goat dairy.

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Alongside the expert I observed the patterns of hair growth on the cows, the quantity and color of the deposits in the corner of their eyes, their shiny and damp noses, the consistency of the patties, that they were quite skinny & boney, the quality of the hay they were eating and the general look of the herd as a whole. We were also drawn to a couple of the cows who had severely overgrown hooves that were pointing forward akin to Moroccan slippers, rather than growing straight.

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We then took out the set of cards for cows and went through the different symptoms, pulling out those that fit that day’s observations. We added up the numbers on the bottom (a series of coefficients that are linked to protein intake and assimilation, energy intake and assimilation, & fiber intake and assimilation). When we had done this, Dr. Bruno looked at the numbers, observed that the condition the cows were in indicated that something had changed in the diet 3 weeks ago, and that there was an insufficient intake of protein at the root of their shiny noses and inconsistent hair patterns. We spoke with the Jean-Michel, the farmer and he concurred that as of 3 weeks ago he’d begun taking the cows back out onto pasture, but to a pasture that was a goodly walk away from the farm. Many had recently calved and were coming into what should have been a heavy milking period. But according to the farmer, the milk quantity wasn’t great. So what triggered their current physical state? Well, they were eating fresh spring grass, expending too much energy to get to the pasture block. And, looking at the hay they were eating, we could observe very straight and long stalks with barely developed leaves & flower buds – rich in chlorophyll and energy, but not in protein. Dr. Bruno and the farmer discussed the quality of the feed grain (from a bag, sold and delivered by a local ag salesman), the quality of the hay, and the fact that the long walk the cows took every morning and evening at this time in their milking cycle was melting the flesh off them. He suggested the farmer might compensate by upping the feed intake to compensate for the need for higher protein intake, and perhaps switch the cows to a closer pasture.

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The cows were calm and at peace otherwise. How can you judge this? well, they were eating steadily and quietly, and we were there for over 15 minutes before we observed one of them poop. When studying ruminants, you study their poop, or les bouses as we say in France. Texture, color, flecks of straw, length of the fibrous strands, and more. – Had they been stressed, we would have observed many of them relieving themselves while in the barn and on the stands. After waiting a bit longer we finally observed 4 different cows poop.  It was relatively fluid, but not watery. Dr. Bruno collected samples and put them through a strainer, we were able to observe that in fact, the cows were quite ably digesting their hay. The fluid texture was not something to worry about that day, as it was linked to their being back on pasture, and their systems adapting to the high humidity in the spring grasses after being on dry hay all winter.

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I watched while Dr. Bruno inspected the over grown hooves, discussed how the farmer might manage them, and why those particular cows had developed these. A goat person myself, I find the sheer size, weight and muddiness of cows impressive and daunting.

So, I was far more in my element when we went off to visit Nathalie outside of Paradou, at the foot of the Alpilles. I was only just meeting Nathalie. As so many of the goat people I’ve been friends with over the years have retired, I actually had to search around for someone to visit. And so I came upon Nathalie, a joyous women of Swiss descent, who clearly adores her goats and who shared with me her views and beliefs concerning goat behavior. Dr. Bruno expanded on a number of elements.

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Nathalie has a mixed herd of goats with horns – some of which were truly large. As is the way with goats, she with the greatest age and the longest horns is the queen of the herd. All differ to her. She knows the length of her horns, as do her fellow goats, who carefully leave her the space she demands. Nathalie had recently cut some horizontal slits in the walls of her barn to permit gentle air movement. She was also anticipating the births of all her primary does. She discussed goat hierarchies, redesigning her barn to take this into consideration. She leaves her bucks with her does through the spring, and all fall and winter. Removing them only in the early summer when the does began to go into heat. This permits her to care more easily for the whole herd through the winter and helps calm the herd (a bit of testosterone apparently has this effect) and prevent fights amongst the does.DSC_0058

So, there I was with my veterinarian, looking for symptoms to diagnose, but these goats were all in such good health that there was little to see beyond sleek coats, bright eyes, long smooth horns, and calm dispositions. The poops were firm little black berries as they should be, no stray bits of undigested hay in them. Nathalie said in passing, when you’ve such happy goats, the milk goes up and is better quality. Far more effective than giving them more barley

.DSC_0059So much to think about. We exchanged emails and promised to keep in touch. Then off home to digest all this information and this very full day.

When Flipping Cheese

This is a blog post from December 2009 — back when I was interning in France — It feels like a long long time ago!

From a one-day in the mold (or half for some cheesemakers) to the 10 day aged in the aging room. The visual and tactile evolution of goat cheese rounds.

Flipping soft cheese is an art, a skill to be acquired, mastered, practiced, repeated ad infinitum. It is zen-meditation inspiring. You are manipulating lovely textures, ever so gently, back into the mold or out onto the drying racks. In the spring time, the action can go on for hours. Now, two weeks before the end of season, it is relatively brief. Two days’ worth of cheese is flipped in simply a little under an hour. That soft and breakable one day cheese is now in my fingers, now in its mold, ready to continue releasing its whey and turning into a firm little round. And the two day olds are ready to be flipped out and put in the drying room. Those in the drying room are switched to the aging room, and those in the aging room… age.

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I did get to be with Isabelle a bit this past Thursday. Yet again on the chemo. Her liver is suffering, but has built back up to a certain level of tolerance after her three week chemo-hiatus. English class was cancelled, and I was looking forward to a more graciously slow-moving meal of sea bream, dorade, and sauteed veggies together in her and Paul Pierre’s company, when school called to tell me Leo was sick. Ah well, I passed over the vegetable making to Isabelle, gave her the ritual three kisses, and headed out the door.

The afternoon finished quite peacefully with my boy and I watching Ivanhoe on the computer. A gift really. With children who are almost never sick, quiet time together just has to be accepted out of the blue when the universe so chooses.

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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The most sensual of cheeses

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Making cheese is sensual. No doubt that’s why I’ve fallen in love with this ancient craft. All my senses are needed and used as I follow the rhythms of a cheese make. Though you may find recipes with careful and precise instructions to follow, the best cheese makers know that there is no one recipe for cheese: There is knowledge and experience, awareness of daily and seasonal shifts in milk quality, and the ability to adjust, trouble-shoot, and adapt. Rather than follow a set of absolutes, the cheese maker is attuned to each cheese’s temperature(s), texture(s), and timing.

Take Camembert, perhaps the king of sensuality (if not the king of cheeses, the crown of which belongs — depending on the person in question — to Roquefort or Cantal). We start this cheese at a deliciously warm temperature, and to hold and nurture this warmth, we bring the room up to a toasty 80F.

The milk comes gushing out of the pasteurizer (yes, this being the United States, we pasteurize), warm and sweet. We add tart and acidic whey from our lactic cheese-make of the day before, and either yogurt or thermophile cultures, along with the surface cultures to develop that classic white rind.

And then we wait. This is the period called “maturation”. The milk is acidifying, slowly or quickly, and cooling to our ideal temperature to add the rennet. This is a delicate moment that must be attended to. If it cools too quickly, it won’t acidify correctly and we’ll have problems. If it stays too hot it could acidify too fast and we’ll lose control of the cheese make. Stringy and over-acidified curd could be the result, which then leads to inconsistent cheese sizing, and difficult ladling and, well, not what you want.

So I check the pH and I check the temperature, and, having made this cheese many, many times now, I work off my experience and take a coffee break, check in on the caves, clean up the lactic processing room, and of course scrub down and rinse the pasteurizing vat. Camembert takes time. More time than hard cheeses, less time than lactic. It has its laws that we must follow.

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Patience and care pay off. The milk acidifies perfectly and at the perfect temperature we add the rennet.

Rennet is the naturally produced enzyme which breaks down milk. We obtain it from baby ruminants before they are weaned from drinking milk (think calves, kid, lambs).

I love the tale that Mario Battali told in one of his articles (which one?) on the origins of cheese. The hypothesis is that a long, long time ago a hunter roasted a whole young ruminant (kid, faun? lamb?) and discovered a lovely gelled milk product in the intestines. In fact, when I met Mario the other day he described a classic Italian peasant dish called (????) that serves up inch long pieces of lamb (or kid) intestines filled with curdled milk (quite similar to ricotta) and simmered in sauce like small ravioli. He promised that we might make this dish together one day (can I hold him to that promise? Wouldn’t that be grand!).

Add the rennet. Wait. Check for the Floculation point. Pay attention. Calculate. Wait. Observe. Get ready. Cut. Move around. Cut. Remove whey. Wait. Cut. Move around. Remove Whey. Wait. Check for texture. Observe. Ready? Ladle. Wait. Flip. Wait. Flip. Go home to rest and come back the next day. Flip. Salt. Wait. Flip. Salt. Wait. Observe. Is the rind beginning? Is it beginning to look a bit fuzzy? Time for the caves. Do I wrap them before or after they head to the caves? Hmmmm.

Camembert belongs to the family of “pâtes molles” – soft paste, or more prosaically, runny cheese. As I’ve learned, many factors contribute to that uniquely gooey texture of a ripened camembert. And slowly, I’m gaining the skills to manage and predict this most wonderful behavior that comes from the gentle breakdown of the proteins and fat in the cheese encouraged by that most white of rinds.

To help make these decisions we test the milk solids before cheese make – protein and fat content – are they high? Are they consistent with the past few weeks? What is the ratio of one to the other? Colleagues who’ve been making cheese for decades simply taste the milk, feel it in their fingers and on their tongue, and they just know. Their senses speak to them, but they are also aided by their knowledge of the seasons and the pastures their herds feast upon. All contribute to milk quality. I am learning the variations of milk quality and how they coincide with time on pasture, rainy days, post-kidding wearies and more.

I never expected to make camemberts when I first made goat cheese in Provence. When you tell a French friend that you’re interested in goats, this is the last cheese that will come to mind. And frequently I’ve encountered doubtful and surprised friends and colleagues. Truly? a goat camembert? Yes, gooey and delicate. Reminiscent, if also very different from its French cousin. Time to make some of my favorite multi-grain bread to go with it.

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What Cheese to Make?

IMG_2515In a world where one country can propose over 246 different kinds of cheese (as spoketh De Gaulle), how does one decide what cheeses to make? There are multiple options and few limitations in today’s world, but all those different cheeses came about due to quite clear and delineated limitations.

Why are the alpine cheeses made so large and so dense? How glorious to enjoy those aged, nutty flavors and crumbly, crystal filled textures.

And what about tender fresh chèvre? How did they come about?

Creamy and decadent camembert, brie and vacherin, or stinky meunster and époisses.

Natural gray rinds, or sticky orange ones?

If I were to work in France I would make the cheese of the region, whatever it would be, as there simply wouldn’t be much of a market for someone who bucks the local trends. A teacher of mine tried to make camembert style cheese in the Pyrenees, and found he could barely make a living. Colleagues in Provence make some hard cheeses from their goat milk in early spring, when there’s an abundance of milk, and the tourist season has yet to take off. But as soon as the market picks up, they’re making their classic little pélardons and crottins.

As an American cheese maker, there’s not much local cheese tradition to fall back on. There’s a definite local preference for hard cheeses; cheddar and gouda being the best known and most frequently appreciated. But, I don’t think I’m here to make what is familiar, or rather not necessarily.

Thus, how to choose? Well, you could say, as I’m working with goat milk, that limits my options. Yes, the best known goat cheese is the fresh, creamy and slightly acidic white cheese, great for spreading, blending, baking. But in fact, goat milk can be used for any cheese (practically) that you can make with cow’s milk. The fat globules are smaller and more fragile in goat milk, so not every recipe will be as successful, and the handling of the milk is of the utmost importance. But, that said, you can always try, taste the results, and then decide.

So back to decisions and options. The French break down the cheese world in a few standard categories:

les lactiques – these are your creamy fresh cheeses that have a somewhat ‘yogurty’ bite, easily spread on your toast – crottins, pélardons, cabécous, St Félicien, St Marcellin, St. André triple cream. These cheeses are generally eaten young, even just a couple of days old. They are fragile, don’t travel well, have a short shelf life, but have a high yield for the cheese maker, and thus as long as there’s a market nearby, it’s a great style to make. Anyone who’s visited Provence markets and noted the abundance of fresh little chèvres crottins or pélardons can see the proof of this. All the local goat cheese makers work with these styles. It keeps their lives simple, keeps their yield at its highest (the only thing higher is yogurt), and permits them to work consistently and to earn steadily throughout the season and the years. One of the extra boons to this style is that if it is aged dry and hard (which is possible), it can keep for a very long time and still be enjoyed.

les pâtes molles – this is the soft cheese family that includes the bloomy rinds: brie, camembert, as well as the washed rinds: reblochon, époisses, meunster.  This is a fragile and short shelf life cheese. It takes generally 3-4 weeks to mature, and once at its peak, should find a home and a cheese plate relatively quickly. Whereas an aged lactic cheese above can be grated on salads, or brought on a hike  – an old soft bloomy or washed rind cheese goes terribly ammoniac and over-runny. Once past peak, a camembert’s life is short and over. But consider the home of the Brie: the department Seine et Marne which makes up a portion of the Ile de France, best known for its lovely city, Paris, home of kings, beloved of kings, and proximity to the wealth of Champagne. Brie has been made and eaten by an abundance of high dignitaries for centuries. It travels across oceans today, but traditionally, it didn’t need to travel far to be consumed, and to enrich its makers. And, if you’ve ever spent time in these regions, you’ll note the high rain fall, the dark and damp winters, the effects of river valleys. High humidity, damp and cold but not freezing temperatures… sounds like a perfect cave to me.

les pâtes préssées non-cuites – these are pressed cheeses that are not heated particularly high during cheese make (generally under 40C or 100F) including the tommes des Pyrénées, morbier, raclette, tomme de Savoie. These cheeses have a longer shelf life than the pâtes molles, upwards of 3-6 months. They are often washed rind, occasionally natural rind. They are soft but not runny, easily and cleanly cut with a knife, but great for melting over a baked potato. Their yield is lower than the lactics (5:1) and the pâtes molles (7:1), at an average of 10:1. These cheeses are generally made in manageable sizes – 2-5 kilos, 5-15lbs. A great family cheese, ideal for transporting mid-length distances. Not usually found over 6 months old, but occasional batches can be tasted  – some bite back, some are fantastic.

les pâtes préssées cuites – these are the cheeses that are brought to a high temperature, the curd cut as small as possible (rice grains), and pressed with heavy weights. Imagine where they came and come from : the high hills of summer, a shepherd or more surrounded by his cows, taking advantage of the wonderful grazing areas, but far far away from town, market, family. Living in the alps, summers are short, winters are long. Milk is abundant and lower in fat when the grass is green. Thus, this cheese evolved to use up a lot of milk, put it into as compact a shape as possible, made to age for upwards of a year, and so cover the food needs of the family throughout the harsh winters. 35 gallons of milk will yield 20 lbs of cheese. 130 litres for under 10 kilos. Which may lose 15% its weight over the months of aging. A yield ratio of approximately 13:1. It is a glorious cheese. Delicious, designed to last a long long while, salty and crumbly, dense and nourishing.

And so, what do I make here? In this land with a great summer filled with outdoor markets, awesome restaurants, a short spring, stunning fall, and very cold and (for this poor girl from Provence) overly long winter? Well, in the spring, I start with tommes of the Pâte préssée non-cuite variety – smaller tommes designed to ripen for the summer market. Then I get busy on fresh for the local restaurants and specialty markets – fresh in tubs, fresh in delicate forms such as crottins, logs and pélardons. And then I begin my pâte molle, the camembert. I start small with this cheese, careful of its short shelf life, and desirous of finding a home for every cheese I make. I know that the local market will pick up in May and June when the weather improves. It will take off like a rocket when the Fourth of July arrives. Thus, the camembert being one of my most popular cheeses, I’ll adjust my cheese makes to have enough (I hope) for our summer visitors.

Late summer, I’ll start making tommes again, most likely of the pâte préssées cuites variety in larger sizes that will age over the fall and be ready for Christmas. The fall milk will be likewise managed into large rounds that can age through the winter, and perhaps even to next summer.

No doubt, this being the United States, where it seems anything is possible, the above cheese-make calendar will evolve and adapt. The challenges will always be there, and I’m looking forward to making the best possible cheeses I can.