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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Always questioning

Photo by AprilJoyPhoto

Photo by AprilJoyPhoto

What an incredible few years this has been, and what an education! In the summer of 2011 I offered my assistance and services for perhaps a year, just enough to get a goat farm into existence and to make the first batch of cheeses. That then bloomed into 18 months (a tad more realistic) and then to over two years.

My mandate is coming to an end. I am ready to pursue new projects. But wow, looking back, I get frissons all over from all that we’ve accomplished, all that I’ve been able to contribute, and all that I now hold in me as knowledge and profound, deeply lived learning.

Back in October 2011 I was asked to design a creamery. And so, with the assistance of my colleagues I did. That original design was offered to the architects that winter, and they took it and ran with it. Throughout the design and construction process I was kept in the loop, tweaking flow, materials, equipment, and interior climate conditions. My job was to assure the organization of the cheese processing – from milking parlor onward – and convey what I was learning in France from my farmstead cheese technicians to the architects, who then communicated to the local engineering firm, who then translated this information into plans.

When I arrived on site July 2012, the ground had just been broken for the creamery’s construction. The farm had 13 goats in milk, and a dozen doe kids from that year’s kidding. We were in discussion with the Ag inspector for our future licenses, but also to be sure our buildings were in keeping with the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance and all state and federal laws concerning a dairy operation.

When not on the computer, the phone, or playing with milk, I investigated our local market(s), to see how we would fit as a new presence in the local community. Experimenting with the milk of those first goats I visited restaurants and shops, and dropped off samples. I chatted with the local chefs, interested in what they would like to see from a local goat cheese maker. Going further, I visited cheese cases, ordered cheese from colleagues by mail, and checked out labels, pricing, and styles of cheese available. I went wine tasting and checked out what was offered to nibble alongside. I ordered books and magazines and started establishing a farm library on goats, goat care, goat buildings, goat cheese, dairy, farm management, organic gardening, organic animal husbandry… etc.,

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Photo by AprilJoyPhoto

With the first herdsmen on hand, and those who’ve been hired since, I’ve discussed and taught goat care, shared techniques, preferences, and rhythms from my Provence colleagues. Adapting my knowledge from France to the US, I spent time questioning feed mills, looking at goat rations – those readily available, and those that might be custom-made. I sought out possible collaborators, questioned MOSA (the official Organic listings), and started making a list of all the possible sources for minerals, goat care needs, medical needs, equipment, etc., Coming from France, and entering a new business for all involved in our farm, building this list of vendors and resources has been an ongoing project.

We passed the winter, and entered kidding season with Claudine from Provence at our side. While our four herdsmen took turns spending the night at the farm, baby monitors by their beds, Claudine and I would be back at my house, feeding my own children and putting them to bed, and remaining on call. I believe I timed it, from the moment I got a call (be it at 2AM, 4AM or Midnight) it took Claudine and I but 7 minutes to leap out of bed, pull on snow pants over our jammies and dash over to the farm to help guide, teach and manage the kiddings.

April 2013 the creamery was given its official license to sell cheese. And so, out to the markets, out to the restaurants, over to the various shops. What joy to start getting our cheeses into the mouths and onto the tables of so many eager and pleased clients and colleagues. The spring flowed quickly into the summer, and to my second American Cheese Conference – this time as a cheese maker, not just a hopeful one. And our first award!!!

It’s been a rocket ship of a ride. So much to learn, so many hurdles to leap, our share of glitches and worries, And yet, each time something goes off or akilter, it is a chance to acquire knowledge. Each strange batch of cheese, funky curd and other is to be analyzed and picked apart. And in so doing, another step in the process is better understood.

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Photo by AprilJoyPhoto

As I look towards the future, I’m continuing to hone my craft. At this very moment I am in France studying Cheese Affinage with the Academie Opus Caseus at Mons Fromager outside of Lyon. Cave design, care for cheeses, sensory analysis, and more – skills that require years of study and use to master, skills that work alongside the cheese make to create truly good cheese — I am passionately going deeper into this world of lactic fermentation.

With a bit more time on my hands, I will return to France this winter for the months of January and February and dig back into my roots there offering culinary courses and tours with truffle hunts, making foie gras & visiting and wine-tasting at Châteauneuf-du-Pape… many of my former haunts and favored activities. If you’d like to join me or know a friend who would, the details are on my web site : Cuisineprovencale.com.

This is a work in progress… (as is much of life, n’est-ce pas?)