So every day when milking the goats, I wondered how the milk would turn into cheese. Louise is the cheese-master (cheese-mistress?); every few days there were times when in the middle of a meal she would need to run up to la fromagerie to deal with the cheese. It turns out it’s a time-sensitive process. After getting to know her a bit I gathered the courage to ask if I could come watch her make the cheese. Before she could respond, the reaction of Gundula and Maëva gave me the impression that few were allowed to enter the fromagerie. Louise didn’t say yes, but she didn’t say no either.
Well, I must have passed some sort of test because the next day we made a plan for when I could come watch. I was so curious because just as with everything else I’d witnessed on the farm, I realized I’d been benefiting from the deliciousness that is cheese, gorging on it in countless sinful dishes of mac n cheese, dips into fondue, numerous grilled cheese sandwiches, and more my entire life, without really knowing how it comes to be.
So, allow me to show you how goat cheese is made!
During la traite, the milk is pumped into the room next door through a big vat, up a pipe, and into another big vat that lives in the fromagerie (cheese-making room). This room is completely sterile – I had to wear those shoe covers that surgeons wear! It’s starkly different from the rest of the farm.
If the milk is coming directly from the goats, it will be around 35°C and needs to cool down for a few hours. If it’s been sitting all night (she doesn’t make cheese every day so sometimes this happens) then it needs to be warmed up. After it has reached the right temperature, she adds some sort of acid or mineral or something (didn’t quite catch the word, and as I’m clearly never going to be a journalist I didn’t write anything down at the time or clarify later) to help something happen in the process…Then the machine is turned on and a whisk-like attachment moves around in the milk which has thickened because of the mystery thing that was added. This separates the curds (les caillés) from the whey (le petit lait). Like the nursery rhyme!
First the curds, which have a jello-like consistency, stay on the top surface and little designs from the blades appear. Gradually the whey comes out and it begins resembling a big pot of soup with chunks in it. Then it looks entirely liquid as the curds become even tinier. This process takes about 30 minutes (hence Louise having to dash off at the correct moment).
Then approximately 20% of the whey is drained into a separate vat below the fromagerie. They feed some of it to the pigs and sometimes they sell it to a local woman who makes soap out of it. The remaining curds and whey are mixed again to ensure there are no lumps too large. The curds become so small that the mixture looks like a big thing of really wet cottage cheese. Appetizing…
The next step is the molding process. She uses her hands to scoop up some curds into a mold. The molds are in a circle shape, with an outer solid plastic piece and an inner mesh sieve piece that fits right inside, and a lid that goes on top. Out of this batch she made 3 huge ones (the diameter of my forearm?), maybe 15 medium ones (the diameter of my hand?), and a few small ones. The molds are lined up and stacked neatly on a metal counter, then pressed down with a weight. They are left there for a few hours to drain off as much whey as possible. (No pictures of this because my camera died.)
After they’ve been pressed on both sides, they are bathed in a salt solution for 24-48 hours, depending on the size. Then they are covered in some dirt-looking stuff (again, fabulous journalistic ability here) and left on racks in the cave to dry. The oldest ones she had were 1.5 years old!
Two days a week, Louise or Maëva drive over to nearby Limoges to sell cheese and milk at the farmer’s market. One of the days I went with to help/see the town. It was fun to be on the seller’s side of the market for a change. It was a simple process, but I was slightly intimidated vending products to French people. I relied on my cashier instincts from my high school job at Beauty Center and felt totally comfortable behind the table – who knew that job would ever have come in handy?
The other vendors at the market were very interested to meet an American girl and very curious to know what I am doing in France. A beekeeper “assigned” me this question to answer and gave me a few minutes to gather my thoughts: What is the difference between the US and France? I couldn’t decide whether I was more amused or more annoyed – it’s not that simple and I am just one person! But, I gave him an intelligent and thoughtful answer based on my own experiences. He listened, we discussed, and then he proclaimed my statements to be “student-level and undeveloped.” I was a bit perturbed by his dismissal of my ideas, but promptly changed my mind when he asked me if Miami was in California! I guess it’s not only Americans who are less-than-stellar in geography. In all seriousness, I don’t blame him because the US is a huge country and it’s not even his own.
Anyways, it was so cool to see cheese being made, from goat to market (/my belly – the ladies gifted me with a HUGE bag of cheeses to take back to Paris with me). If you have the opportunity to do the same, I highly recommend it!