Friday, March 20, 2009

Fromagerie and Ferme

After lunch Saturday, Regis offered us some of 'the best cheese in the world'. I never turn down a chance for cheese - and this truly was one of the best I've ever had. Since we've moved here I've had lots and lots of yummy cheese. We play a cheese of the week game and get a new one each visit to the grocery store. The problem is, I am the only one that likes most of the new cheeses. The kids (and Andre - though he always tries new varieties) stick with a short list- parmesan, mozzarella, gouda, brie and a kind of soft garlic spread cheese (kind of like our Boursin). That's about it. (except sharp cheddar, which we all love but can't seem to find here) On the other hand, I like everything - all that was mentioned plus cheeses like Mont D'Or, cammemberts, various types of blues and blue mixes, emmanthal, abbaye cheese etc... It makes it tough though, one can only eat a bit of cheese each day and, when you are the only one eating it, new cheeses just clutter an already crowded shelf! The thing that's cool here, is that every type of cheese has about 20 varieties. Andre's co-workers were upset when they heard we try a cheese a week, since there are over 400 available, that means we'll never try them all!

So, back to the 'best' cheese. It is called Comte and is made only in the area of France we live in (i.e. Franche-Comte - OK - it's not that original but it works well as a reminder). When we all liked the cheese so much (add a new one to the list for the kids and Andre') Regis asked if we had yet visited a Fromagerie and offered to take us to one the next day. It turns out that Marie's brother is part of a cooperative that makes Comte. He is actually a dairy farmer. We got to the Fromagerie about 9:30 am the next morning. Each Fromagerie specializes in only one cheese - that means they only make Comte here. Sadly, I have mislaid my fromagerie brochure, therefore, I am working only from my memory of what I was told. I take full responsibility for any inaccuracies, please do not use this information (or anything you find on my blog, for that matter) as a source for your future fromagerie research report. I found this website to be fascinating - if you want more info: http://www.comte.com/pages.php?idMenu=43&idSsMenu=0&idPage=0&langue=2&idSite=1

So, every day (and I do mean every day, just as the cows get milked, the cheese gets made) the cheese maker (fromager) gets up super early and hops on his milk truck. He or she drives around to all the cooperating farms and collects the daily milk. All the farmers have the same kind of cows, brown and white ones, called Montbeliards, that graze on the pastures of the countryside. By 7 or so he is back at the fromagerie. Weekdays there are two fromagers who work together, but on the weekends they are on their own. Once they get there they pour the milk (I think it was about 600 L) into these gigantic vats, along with rennet (some sort of intestinal chunks, yum) and let it stir around for a while. The fromager keeps an eye on it, feeling and testing it until it is the right consistency to make the cheese. After France became part of the EU, sanitary standards were enforced across all member nations so that food could easily cross country borders. Apparantly, French dairy farmers fought hard (and successfully) to keep the right to heat the milk in traditional copper pots and to have bare hands when working with the cheese. I thought it was kind of strange - seeing this sweaty guy (it is very hot in the fromagerie) run around feeling the cheese and sticking labels on it - I did see him lick his fingers at one point to get a label on.... but you don't ever really eat the outside label, do you? Soon after we got there, Marie's brother showed up and answered all our questions about what was going on - actually Zander was the one asking most of the questions. He was absolutely fascinated by everything. Which is frustrating, since he didn't want to go at all and had to be cajoled. That's his way - slow to warm up but then intensely curious. After the milk was a good consistency it got funneled through these pipes into these giant canisters. Then, it was pressed so only the solids remained and rolled over to another rack that will continue to press out liquid for the next 12 hours or so. All the liquid that gets pressed out does not go to waste. The top is skimmed off for cream or butter and the milk is turned into powder for babies. I found it strange that the fromager was often hosing off the cheeses with water but they assured me that the water all just boils off and doesn't affect the cream or the taste of the cheese etc. After the 12 hours are up the cheeses are wrapped and transferred to a giant cave where they are aged for a minimum of 4 months and up to (if you go to the finest restaurant in Paris) 4 years. The fromager then had to clean up the entire facility so it would be ready for the next morning. He makes between 18 and 26 cheeses per day (less in winter, more in summer when the cows give more milk). We played a bit outside the building (recently added to and improved by Marie, the architect) and then went into the shop attached to the fromagerie. They let us try samples of 6 month, 8 month and 15 month Comte. It was so interesting the way that the flavor changes with age. All kinds were delicious and the kids gobbled it up. Andre' and I got a large chunk of the youngest and the oldest kinds. Also we got some soft swiss-made cheese that Regis said he enjoyed as a kid - he described it as a cross between yogurt and cheese. We tried it later but no one (except Griffin) really liked it. Maybe it needs to be prepared in a different way. Regis insisted on buying our cheese for us. I felt strange about this, but I think it is probably part of French custom. If I host, I take care of you (including ramdom purchases from fromageries). Thank you!

Afterwards, Marie's brother (I feel terrible I can't remember his name!) invited us back to see his farm. We got to go into the barn and met all his milk cows. They are in sort of open stall arrangements and can wander around in the stable. He has 40 cows, and each year they have calves. He keeps some and sells some. He can't keep much more than 40 though, or he would have to lower his standards of care for them. It seems that he knows each cow by name! We liked this one - that seemed to have curly hair. We saw several calves that were in a different section of the barn so I asked about them. They don't get to stay with mamma cow at all - the first 14 days they get to drink milk that was pumped from their mama - and then on to some other sort of nutrition. Once the weather gets warm they go out to graze. It is vital that their diet is almost entirely made up of the flowers and grasses that naturally grow in the pastures - this gives Comte cheese its unique flavor. Marie and Regis seemed repulsed a bit by the smell, covering their faces periodically (and Marc and Anne didn't even enter) but we were unaffected - must be hardened by years of being surrounded by the stench of Griffin poop. Cows have got nothing on him.
Then we spent some time running around the outbuildings. Griffin was so excited to see, not one, but two tractors. He spent a lot of time holding Marie's hand - they were very good buddies by the end of the weekend. We also got to peek in the place where all the hay and feed that Marie's brother raises and harvests for the cows is stored 6 months out of the year. Zander wanted to climb up into the hayloft - but I nixed that idea. He was a bit frustrated at the farm, since I kept forbidding him to do all the fun ideas he had (no climbing ladders, no rolling in snow without boots and snow pants, no staying outside when the rest of the family goes in, no zipping down the zipline that was hung up between 2 of the trees). Zander was really excited by the zipline. Grandpa and he have grand plans to build some kind of tree house (or elevated house, since Duckhaven has no suitable trees) and he now thinks the addition of a zipline to the house is essential. Zander says: "All you need is a pulley, some rope and a little platform to stand on. Then you just attach one end to the house and the other end to a far away tree. Then zoom!" He was finally placated when I allowed him to play in the little house they had built between some trees while the grownups chatted. Soon afterward we went inside and had 'raw' milk (straight from that morning) which we all liked (and Zander LOVED it) some Comte, some wine (which we tasted) and some sausage that Marie's brother had created and cured himself - absolutely delicious. It is quite common to see, in this neighborhood, houses with smoke houses attached to their roofs. These are called Tuye's (which sounds exactly the same, to me, as the word tuer which means, to kill. I tried to ask Marie about the difference and she seemed confused by my confusion). Anyway, if you want to get an idea of how they look, check out this site: http://www.maisons-comtoises.org/index.php?page=open-air-museum-of-ancient-houses (it is the little thing perched on the roof)

We then sat around chatting for awhile. This is the incredible view just outside their window. You can see both Switzerland and France - the Doubs forms the border. Marie's brother does not speak much English, but Regis is an able translator. He wanted to know if we were considering staying in France permanantly. The answer to that... NO! We like our adventure, but this is not home. I miss my family too much. We also talked about some of the major differences between home and France - road signs came up but most notably we discussed the school system and philosophy. They were very interested in how we allow parents more access to help out in schools and also how US schools have activities such as art, music, etc... Here in France, there is no sense of a school as a kind of community - no school plays, seasonal concerts or schoolwide celebration days like we have at home. They wondered why it was not so here in France. I wonder the same myself.

They are planning on transforming part of the farmhouse into a bed and breakfast in future years. I would highly reccomend it!

1 comment:

regis_desgroppes said...

Hello Rebecca,

Congratulations for such accurate details!

A few precisions, for purists:
- Each vat may contain up to 6000L of milk. When we visited, there was something like 4000L of milk in the second vat.
- Marie's brother name is Jean Faivre-Pierret.
- The small white pots you bought didn't contain swiss-made cheese as such. They are just called "Petits Suisses": http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Petit-suisse
- We weren't that much repulsed by the subtle scent of cowpie :)
- The word "tuyé" probably comes from an ancient celtic word meaning "roof" (old Franc-Comtois "lou toué" is translated in French as "le toit")

Regards,
The Desgroppes

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