If you ask most people what comes to mind when they first think about France and food, more often than not you’ll probably find croissants, cheese and wine popping up in their replies. Moules-frites, fruits de mer, Cognac, truffles and patisserie also play a role in most foodies’ daydreams, but this blog-post is about cheese, and in particular, goat’s cheese. We’re not talking mass-produced here, no, we’re thinking more about those soft aromatic little cheeses that are a real speciality.
All of this started the other night when I sat opposite a French lady during dinner at a friend’s house. When the cheese course arrived she cut a small piece of the soft goat’s cheese on the proffered platter, and smiling at me she said, “A little cheese, and a glass of wine; perfection.”
I admit, if you’re not a “goat’s cheese eater” it’s hard to be enthusiastic about them. I am the first to admit that I am not a huge cheese fan (I know everyone in France loves cheese and yes the French do think I’m a little odd). But there was something about this creamy little offering that caught my attention. Unlike many other fromage de chèvre it was not strong smelling, a fact in itself which surprised me and so I felt compelled to try just a little.
Yes, there was no way round the fact it had come from a goat, but there was a softness in the taste, which in turn was full of flavour. In my mind I instantly conjured up a plate of warmed goat’s cheese with black olives and croûtes (or crostini for the Italian lovers) and knew I would have to find out more. Was I really about to be converted? There was a label on the cheese, and glancing at it I was surprised to see the cheese was not only local, but also organic. I made a mental note of the name and decided it was time for a new culinary adventure.
So it was that several days later we headed north one afternoon towards La Rochelle and the agricultural interior beyond. The sky was grey, unfortunately, but we ambled our way off the main road and down through a typical flowering May countryside. Slowing coming to halt at the end of a dusty track, we found a small wooden house and a barn or two leaning haphazardly across a farmyard. Grass and thistles were growing to waist height. There was not a goat in sight. As we got out of the car a large sheepdog came bounding towards us, followed by a dark haired man in mud splattered jeans. I braced myself for a country accent that would need triple-translating.
I needn’t have worried. The instant he opened his mouth I found I could understand everything he said. He led us in between the two sheds and out into an open barn which led into a huge 7 hectare field. Fielding introductions (it turned out he was called Cedric) and questions adroitly, he turned a corner and we all slid to a stop in a line of astonishment and instant besottedness – for there, was a collection of the most beautiful goats I have ever seen. Cedric quietly leaned to one side and grinned at our reaction, no doubt something he was well used to. The children scattered along the rail and reached out to touch, caress and cuddle the inquisitive and very friendly animals, and amongst the hubbub I noticed how clean and fresh the barn was. It turned out there were 37 nanny-goats in the space, a number which Cedric deliberately keeps low to avoid the additional paperwork and cumbersome red tape that appears when the threshold of 40 animals is reached. Missing from the barn was a male, a billy-goat, since Cedric changes them every two generations and the new man had not yet arrived to take up his duties.
Time passed swiftly amid a blur of excited children, gentle bumps of long horns, soft lips and shrieks of laughter at the rubbing brush on the back wall which the goats use to scrub the tissue off their horns.
Cedric urged us out eventually, and we crossed the dusty yard to another small door in a building on the edge of the thistles. Cracking it ajar, he motioned us all inside and Roddy and I hung back as the children disappeared into the gloom. Before we had gone a step further there were shrieks of excitement from inside and a hubbub of young voices all talking at once. Gigi’s animated face reappeared in the doorway, “There are Baby goats, hurry,” she said, and grabbing my hand she pulled me inside past the recurrent grin on Cedric’s face. The sheepdog followed us in too, obviously well acquainted with the routine.
Stopping and letting my eyes adjust to the shadows, I saw a long narrow pen with a couple of dozen small bounding creatures inside, surrounding the children and bumping them with tiny bony heads. A couple were standing upright as they leant on their new human friends, and little mouths bored and nibbled into backsides, belts, shoes, laces and loose clothing. Roddy was being mobbed by a dozen of them as he reached out with friendly hands, and before I knew what was happening Cedric had given Gigi a bottle of milk and she became the instant centre of attention. Again I was struck by how clean and fresh the barn was. It was obvious these goats were in the best of hands but my vision of eternal harmony was quickly quenched by the forthright comment of the practising farmer when Cedric explained that all the small goats were females – the males had all gone to slaughter the week before. Only one male goat can rule at any one time, it seems. As he explained though, the sale of the meat is a specialised and very essential part of the farm’s income. It is also highly sought after being of organic origin and only happens once a year when the new kids are three months old.
I realised that the animals were erasing my sensibilities and straightening up, fired off a round of questions which Cedric answered in good humour, gracefully fielding my lapses of grammar and vocabulary and it soon became apparent that he was anything but an ordinary farmer.
In a previous life, Cedric had been a director of a centre for people with learning difficulties, close by in La Rochelle. Worn out to the bone by the demands of the work, he changed careers in his 30’s and after spending some time on a huge commercial goat/cheese farm, he found himself deeply entrenched along the organic road and decided to go and make his own cheese. Ten years ago he and his wife found the 60 hectares of land they now call their own, and shutting the door on pesticides and fertilisers, had to wait three years before obtaining the necessary certification to start making and selling organic cheeses.
Cedric, his wife, and his brother-in-law do everything on the farm. The goats are milked twice a day, nine months of the year (there is no milk from November to March, unlike a big commercial cheese facility), and the land is used rotationally, much of it set aside for the growing of hay and the other crops they feed their animals with; chick-peas, maize and wheat being the three most important. Everything they grow is untouched, from the crops to the set-asides around the fields, to the plants and grasses around the buildings and the hedgerows bordering the property.
Each day a 100 or so artisanal cheeses are handmade by his wife, they are sold only on Fridays and Saturdays from their little shop on the farm and they sell out fast. He also provides 300 cheeses a week to a contract sale with AMAP, a cooperative which organises organic ‘boxes’ for weekly subscribers. As well as his cheeses, these boxes also contain eggs, vegetables and fruit from other producers. A small amount of the production run also goes to an organic shop in la Rochelle itself. There is never anything left over – no surplus and no waste. Cedric was keen to point out that his ideal was to work to live, and not live to work, and his annual production was a means of living that met his expectations. He has no wish to fill a bank account, but just a desire to fulfil a metier that he has chosen.
We left the small goats at this stage as Cedric said he had something else to show us, and as we went out a diminutive little goat was picked up and joined us. Out in the sunlight the little thing followed us along, bouncing and bumbling with the children and picking at the thistles (I knew then that nothing grown ever goes to waste). Cedric explained as we walked that the kid was a new arrival, and had come from a neighbouring village where it had been found, lost. No takers had been forthcoming to claim her and as she was habituated to humans Cedric was thinking of employing her as the farm mascot, a friendly face for the shop days when families with children often roam the farm with a picnic after their purchases.
As we headed out into the fields I became aware of a familiar sound, and soon over the tall growth of edible weeds I caught a glimpse of scurrying little pink noses and little curly tails. The children caught sight of the pigs just as I did and they were away to say hello before I could open my mouth. It turned out that Cedric also farms pigs, and his meat is much sought after by pork-lovers far and wide. Much of the French pork industry revolves around one huge co-operative, and for many it is a tasteless option, beset by all the normal ingredients of a large commercial enterprise including hormones and supplements. At Cedric’s, the pigs live their lives in the great outdoors, rolling in the finest organic mud, eating the juiciest pesticide-free plants (they turn a green field into a dustbowl in about 10 months, at which point the electric fences are moved a block down the line) and guzzling wonderful grain from an organic supplier. At any one time Cedric will have 60 pigs in various stages of growth on the go, and a waiting list of customers who want some meat. Again, I noted how everything is kept at an accountable level.
As we left the pigs for the cheese shed, I saw some beehives tucked away in the grass, and asked Cedric if they sold their honey too. He looked a little saddened by my question, and said they would love to do so, but as the neighboring farms are not organic, he cannot. Instead they use it all themselves and give some to friends!
As for the cheeses, they somehow became almost the most unimportant part of our visit, although they were certainly the tastiest. Cedric’s flock contains three breeds; the Alpine, the Saanen and the local Poitevine, and the mixture of milk is what makes his cheeses so special. We stood in the cheese shed, tasting, making notes and taking photographs. Then we left and headed for the car, keen to miss rush-hour and Cedric keen to milk.
And alas, here I have a confession to make. I had indeed made notes on the cheeses, tasted them all and recorded observations that were a bit more than “yum” and “umm,” but then in the kerfuffle of saying goodbye, ushering children to the car, holding their coats and putting my camera away, I dropped my somewhat tatty piece of paper in the middle of the small dusty yard, and I can truthfully say, before I could blink or even bend down, the small orphaned goat ate my homework. This reduced the children and Cedric to gales of laughter while Roddy went bright red with mirth and was totally unable to do anything.
As a result, without time to do it all over again, Cedric says we will have to go back and taste them once more next week, along with his pork, and his honey and I can’t argue with that!
Last but by no means least, I am very excited to have written a guest post for my blogging friend Kim at Savvy Southern Style
You can read this tomorrow, (Friday) on her website www.savvysouthernstyle.net and I urge you to go over and follow her and have some fun reading her blog if you don’t already know it. It is full of inspiration and fabulous photos. Thank you Kim x