A Personal History of Goat Cheese
The first goats. Lassie dies. Advice from Mme. Rillier.
Reinette gives birth. Farmstead cheese for sale.
“How much are they?” Donald asked as we stood in the heart of a stone barn in the hinterlands of Provence, surrounded by horned animals whose eyes were focused, unblinking, on us. Ethel, our three-year-old daughter, held my hand. The animals pushed against me, nuzzling my thighs and nibbling at the edge of my jacket. In the faint light cast by the single lightbulb suspended from the ceiling, I could see the dark mass of goats stretching toward the recesses of the barn and feel their slow but steady pressure as they pushed closer and closer. My nostrils filled with their pungent odor and the fragrance of the fresh hay on the barn floor, with the faintly damp, earthy aroma of the floor itself, and with the scent of all the animals that had preceded them in the ancient barn. The heat of their bodies intensified the smell, and although it was a cold November day, the barn was warm and cozy. Its earthy aromas were homey and comforting.
“Eh, ma foi. Its hard to decide. How many do you want? Theyre all pregnant. They were with the buck in September and October. Theyll kid in February and March.” The shepherd, a woman, leaned heavily on her cane, making her look older. She was dressed in layers of black, including black cotton stockings, the kind you see in movies set in prewar France, her only color a dark blue parka and a gold cross at her throat. A black wool scarf tied under her chin covered her hair.
We wanted to have enough goats to make a living. Our calculations, based on the University of California and USDA pamphlets wed brought with us when we moved to Provence a month before, were that a good goat would give a gallon of milk a day and a gallon would make nearly a pound of cheese. French friends had told us that we could make a living with the cheese produced from the milk of twenty to thirty goats.
“Why are you selling them?” I asked.
“Oh, Im getting too old to keep so many. I have more than thirty.” She looked around, then pointed at a large, sleek goat, russet and white. “I can sell you that one. Look at her. Shes a beauty. Reinette, the little queen, I call her. Shes a good milker, about four years old. Always has twins too.”
She moved across the barn and grabbed the goat by one horn, put her cane under her arm, and pulled back the goats lips. “Take a look. See how good her teeth are. Shes still young.”
Reinette was released with a slap on her flank and went over to another goat standing aloof from the others. This one had a shaggy, blackish brown coat and scarred black horns that swept back high over her head.
“This is Lassie. Shes la chef, but getting old like me.”
I expected the woman to cackle, but she didnt. Instead she sighed and said, “Shes getting challenged by some of the younger goats now, but shell be good for a few more years.”
Donald walked over to the goat and stroked her head. She stared at him with her yellow eyes and inky-black pupils.“What others are you selling?”
“Mmm. I could sell you Café au Lait.” She pointed to a large, cream-colored goat with short hair and an arrogant look. “You might have trouble with her. Youll need to show her whos boss. Shed like to be la chef, take Lassies place.”
As if in response, Café au Lait crossed over to Lassie and gave her a hard butt in the side. Lassie whirled and butted her back, a solid blow to the head that echoed in the barn, bone on bone. Ethel pulled closer to me, holding my hand tightly, but kept her eyes on the battling goats.
“Ça suffit! Arrête! Sâles bêtes!” the woman shouted at the goats, menacing them with her cane. Lassie faced down the larger Café au Lait and the barn settled back into quiet.
“Why doesnt Café au Lait have horns?” I asked.
“Sometimes I cut them off when theyre kids. I did hers. They looked like they were going to grow in crooked.”
She continued her sales pitch. “Café au Lait is only three years old, and last year she had triplets. Shes a good goat.” She showed us four more animals that she was willing to sell and kept up her spirited commentary on their characters and fertility patterns.
Donald and the woman agreed on a price of 350 francs each, and he made arrangements to pick up the beginning of our goat herd in two days. We all shook hands and said goodbye, then wound our way back toward the square where we had parked our car. I made sure Ethels knitted cap, a yellow-and-orange-striped one of her choosing, was tied snugly beneath her chin, then pulled up the hood on my jacket and put my gloves back on.
As we walked through the narrow ruelles, the tiny streets of the near-abandoned village, Donald quietly remarked on the ghostly feeling of the crumbling houses with their fallen roofs exposing rotted wooden beams and piles of fallen stones. Wild berry canes pushed through some of the ruins and fig trees had taken possession of others.
It was hard to imagine Esparron-de-Verdon as a thriving village, and impossible not to think of the woman and her goats living there as relics of the past, clinging to a way of life that was long gone.
Surely what we were doing was something different. After all, we had bought a farmhouse in the country, not in an abandoned village, and we were college graduates. Donald had a degree in animal husbandry from the University of California at Davis, and while we were going to make traditional French cheese, we would bring modern methods to our technique, or so we thought. I was a little scared, though. We didnt have a lot of money, and we needed to succeed.
First, we had to learn how to make cheese. Our USDA pamphlets, directed at large-scale commercial milk production and cheese making for the United States market, didnt discuss small-scale production of cheese from raw goats milk. So far, no one, including the woman who had just sold us our first goats, had been able to tell me exactly what to do other than add rennet to milk.
“Mommy, can we have chickens and rabbits too?” Ethel asked as we passed a ramshackle chicken coop made of corrugated tin and chicken wire and utilizing the three remaining walls of one of the sturdier ruins. Her favorite toys were her rubber farm animals, and she was delighted by the idea of having real animals, in addition to our dog, Tune (short for Petunia), who we had brought from California.
“Shh,” I said, “not so loud.” The silence was strong and heavy, and I sensed it was best to leave it unruptured.
I bent down toward her. “Yes, of course we can. Well feed the chickens every day and collect their eggs. And build a nice house for them.”
I wasnt so sure about rabbits. Keeping rabbits meant having to kill them for meat. I knew that on a real farm, the kind we were going to have, you couldnt just have animals as pets. I wasnt sure I was ready for that part yet. I had no farm experience, having grown up in a small Southern California beach town where surfing and sunbathing were the primary occupations. Chickens I could easily see—they had been part of my original vision when I imagined life in rural Provence, along with long, slow days of cooking, reading, writing, and sewing, with the occasional visit to Paris and trips to Italy and Spain, countries Donald and I had fallen in love with during our one-year honeymoon when we were students seven years before.
Copyright © 2007 by Georgeanne Brennan
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