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

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.