WWOOFing in Jumilhac-le-Grand, France

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Yup, I’m that weird girl who felt the need to go back to a goat farm in a very small town in France.

My first wwoofing experience was so unexpectedly eye-opening that instead of taking the risk and trying a new farm, I went back to the same one. I made a connection with the people and animals at this farm so I wanted to return. It was cool to come back and see what had and hadn’t changed since about a year and a half ago, and to increase my knowledge of the organic lifestyle. If one of the main goals of wwoofing is to inspire people to incorporate organic and sustainable activities into their daily lives, then they have succeeded. I am planning to try to grow some tomatoes and herbs on my terrasse next spring/summer, and I want to make an effort to eat more seasonally.

That's me leading Olek the horse and Génoise and Éra the cows

That’s me leading Olek the horse and Génoise and Éra the cows

As a non-vegetarian and a non-pet owner (although I want my own cat so bad), I am not the most animal-obsessed person in my life. I really enjoy being around animals though – being more familiar with the farm this time around allowed me to pay attention and form little bonds with individuals goats and other animals. There was a 2-month old baby boy goat who was allowed to stay with the 100 or so lady goats. We quickly became “friends” during la traite, since he would come up to me and want to be pet, and try to eat my clothes. So adorable! I had to be reminded several times that he would grow up to be a huge goat and no, I could not take him back to Paris with me. Sadface.

He has no name yet but it's the year of J names

He has no name yet but it’s the year of J names

As part of the work team of the farm for the week, I witnessed the highs and lows of life on the farm. One day, most of the goats escaped from a field with normal grass to a neighboring one that held a different type of grain, not to be consumed at this time of year by the goats. The following day, they had horrible diarrhea – it was pretty disgusting. Gundula, Louise, and Maëva handled most of the dirty work, but I did help a bit with la traite and was terrified that they would poop on me (one of them did on Gundula!). The daily cleaning of la chèvrerie took much longer that day since we needed to put a ton more hay and straw down to absorb it all. More importantly, the reaction to the grains that caused them to get sick is potentially fatal, and can also have effects on the goats’ milk production. Luckily, they healed the next day, but it was a smelly reminder of the perils of farming. Just like that, all the “tools” needed to produce one’s product could perish.

bio

bio

On to less stinky subjects…it was a good choice to come in the height of summer. I ate fresh, organic, local tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, and onions in some form every single day. The mirabelle plum trees were perfectly ripe, and Maëva taught me to shake the branches to make the ripest fruit fall. She hadn’t even been tending super well to her garden since she has been so busy, but there were still mint leaves to be plucked up as an all-natural breath freshener, and other herbs and veggies that we could “harvest” and use at our whim. Over at the farm, I made a salad one day using a big head of lettuce that I picked out of the garden. We went blackberry picking and managed to grab a whole kilo, enough to make 5 small jars of jam. I’ve already finished one! I could go on and on, but basically, gardens are awesome and I’m wondering why the hell I live in Paris?! Hopefully I can live somewhere with garden space at some point in my life.

Organic vegetables at the Sunday market in Jumilhac-le-Grand

Organic vegetables at the small but mighty Sunday market in Jumilhac-le-Grand

I loved getting to know some of the people in this town, inhabited by 1200 people (according to Wikipedia). Maëva is friends with the coolest people – the other organic farmers (we had apéro at the produce guy’s house, that he rebuilt himself with his wife), people who make homemade pizza in wood-fire ovens located in a squat, the guy who delivers homemade organic bread for €2. I got the gossip about everyone we saw, down to the bitchy butcher’s wife.

A trio of organic purveyors at the market

A trio of organic purveyors at the market

I’m so happy I went back to the farm. Not only was it great to see everyone again, but if I randomly was forced to drop everything and run a goat farm, I feel like I would be well-equipped to do so. And I’m no longer under the delusion that living in a small town is as boring as we make it out to be. There are plenty of advantages to a lifestyle outside of a big city, things that I forget about when I’m in my hectic Paris rhythm. It’s just nice to remember that there are other ways to live in the world, in case I ever tire of big-city life.

CHEESE

CHEESE

WWOOFing in France – Cheese

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.

Scrubs!

Scrubs!

Vat of goat milk

Vat of goat milk

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!

Mixing

Mixing

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).

Can you see the lines in the curds?

Can you see the lines in the curds?

More whey has come out

More whey has come out

Separating curds and whey

Separating curds and whey

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.)

The cave: salt bath and drying shelves

The cave: salt bath and drying shelves

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!

aging cheese

aging cheese

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 market in Limoges

The market in Limoges

Louise at her stand

Louise at her stand – the “AB” sign is an official sign meaning it’s organic

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!

Clockwise from bottom left: tastes like a mixture of goat and blue cheese (my fave), a young goat cheese, one with chili powder in the middle, an aged goat cheese, the chili one again

Clockwise from bottom left: tastes like a mixture of goat and blue cheese (my fave), a young goat cheese, one with chili powder in the middle, an aged goat cheese, the chili one again

*Update: Click these links for my introductory wwoofing post and my posts about Le JardinageLes Chèvres, and my second trip there.

WWOOFing in France – Le Jardinage

More about WWOOFing! During my week at the farm, I spent a lot of time helping Louise and Gundula set up their garden for this year. Check out my first WWOOFing post for more background info.

The 4 plots I worked on - the one in front plus three plastic-covered sections

The 4 plots I worked on

There were four plots of land that needed to be reworked. All but one had been used for gardening last year. The one exception had a lot more grass that was more deeply rooted – it proved very difficult to remove. Grass is seriously a force to be reckoned with – don’t let it get out of control! (It wasn’t until I began writing this blog post that I remembered I had already learned this lesson a few years ago when I was living in a house that had been uninhabited for a year or more and I had to de-weed the front and back yards. I definitely blocked those few days out of my memory!)

La grelinette on the really overgrown section

La grelinette on the really overgrown section

Anyways, with my trusty grelinette (brand name of the tool shown in these pics) and weed-wacker, I conquered most of the grass in these areas. Once everything was passed over with the grelinette, then I went back over each section and used a hoe (ha!) to render the earth finer. It was important that very few clumps of grass and roots were left behind to avoid any maivaises herbes popping up as things start growing and to make it easier for whoever will be using the grelinette next year!

Me using la grelinette – those boots got totally destroyed during the course of the week

Me using la grelinette

At first, I was very careful to wear gloves while working. When mixing up this earth that had been covered and rained on for several months, I encountered some yucky things – tons of worms, anthills, rotting plants, as well as some stray horseradish roots which went into the pantry. I didn’t want to touch any of it because I can be kind of squeamish. By the end, I was sitting in the dirt wearing shorts, using my bare hands to remove the plain dirt from the old grass. Sometimes, I’d pick up a worm or two. Just the week before, I would have freaked out and screamed, but by the end of my week on the farm I just tossed it aside. I think my initial squeamishness was just a question of not being familiar with the work. As soon as I had a little experience under my belt, I was no longer afraid. If only people in the world could undergo the same transformations regarding more serious topics than worms…

1st pass done

1st pass almost done

Gundula doing 2nd pass – you can see the difference between the darker dirt in front and the lighter dirt behind in which the clumps are still too thick

Gundula doing 2nd pass – you can see the difference between the darker dirt in front and the lighter dirt behind in which the clumps are still too thick

After all the earth had been worked (sometimes a third pass with the hoe was necessary to make sure the dirt was fine enough), I sprinkled compost all over the plots with a pitchfork (and sometimes my hands!). Then the fun part began. Gundula and Louise consulted last year’s garden map to ensure that the new plants wouldn’t be planted in a section where they had been planted last year. They sketched out the garden and we measured out some rows for the broccoli and leeks. Early in the week, we went to a local farmer’s market to pick up seedlings they had ordered from a local gardener a few months ago.

Compost sprinkled on top

Compost sprinkled on top

Dirty hands – don’t care!  Who am I?

Dirty hands – don’t care! Who am I?

The rest was easy: we dug holes for each seedling, sprinkled compost in each one, mixed it in with the dirt, and placed each seedling inside. After a little water for each plant, that was it! I was so happy to see the little tomato, lettuce, broccoli, and leek plants.

Tomatoes!

Tomatoes!

Broccoli and leeks!

Broccoli and leeks with anti-hen fence erected

Working in the garden was so pleasant and gratifying. Some days it was a little rainy, but most days it was sunny and warm. The peaceful countryside was exactly the right antidote to the grating cacophony of the city – birds chirping, goats and cows bleating and mooing, the rooster crowing randomly, and one single car driving down our dead-end street, causing me to look up because I was noticing ONE vehicle (!!!), were all I heard.

The grelinette/hoe action was very meditative and difficult physically. I loved sweating and “earning” my big lunches and goûters with this work. Sometimes Gundula and Louise would join me, and we’d hang out and talk or just work together in silence. The hens and le coq would always come to eat the worms, and the dogs and cats would come to watch the action or sunbathe. My very favorite part of working in the garden was that without fail, within five minutes of beginning work, Lunette the cat would come find me and stay with me the whole time. She would rub my leg or the tools I was using – one time when I was squatting to dig a hole, she even climbed on my back and got comfy!

Lunette <3

Lunette ❤

Le coq and the hens pecking for worms

Le coq and the hens pecking for worms

As I was working, I kept thinking to myself, “I can’t believe farming used to all be done by hand!” This is just one tiny organic garden and I know that most produce being grown these days has a lot more machine help. But, I am glad I got to see how it feels to tend a garden by hand. It makes me appreciate food even more when I see how much hard work goes into creating it. It was also really exciting to see compost being put to use – I would put things in the green bin in the kitchen, empty that bin onto the compost heap outside, and right next to where I emptied it is where I would get wheelbarrows full of decomposed compost (redundant, but you get what I’m saying right?) to sprinkle on the garden. The circle of [plant] life!

Stay tuned for more posts about goats, cheese-making, and some visits to nearby towns!

*Update: Click these links for my introductory wwoofing post and my posts about Les Chèvres and Cheese and the second time I went there.

WWOOFing in France – Introduction

In this region of France, we just finished up our spring vacation a few weeks ago. I knew months ahead of time that I wouldn’t be able to afford a vacation like last year, but I wanted to get out of Paris. Hence, wwoofing!

What is wwoofing? World-wide opportunities on organic farms. Directly from their website, “WWOOF is an exchange – In return for volunteer help, WWOOF hosts offer food, accommodation and opportunities to learn about organic lifestyles.” The French wwoofing site works like this: you pay €30 for 1-year access to the catalogue of farms needing help. Then you can browse ads by department and contact the farmers directly. (Each country’s website is different so look at the first wwoof site I linked to for further information on countries other than France.) After sending out a ton of emails, I found a goat farm that had an opening for the dates I wanted to go.

A few hours after arriving from Paris, Louise asked me to lead the goats to the pasture.  They kept bumping me and I was so scared!  By the end I was petting them.

A few hours after arriving from Paris, Louise asked me to lead the goats to the pasture. They kept bumping me and I was so scared! By the end I was petting them.

Having never worked on or really ever set foot on a farm, I had no expectations. My main goals for the experience were to learn about farming, do some real physical activity, and accomplish something. I didn’t expect to have such great conversations, eat such good meals, or learn so much.

The garden where I worked a lot, their house is behind the big tree.

The garden where I worked a lot, their house is behind the big tree.

From the minute I first met Gundula (German woman in her 50s), Louise (Dutch woman in her 50s), and Maëva (French woman, 25), I felt at ease and welcomed. They were so hospitable and treated me more like a guest than a volunteer. Soon after my arrival I found myself integrated into the routine of the farm.

The Routine of the Farm

between 5 and 6am: wake up. La Traite (the milking of the goats). Other things I don’t know about because I didn’t enter the routine until…
between 8-8:30am: breakfast. Homemade bread smeared with butter, homemade cheese, homemade jams, organic hazelnut spread, local artisanal honey, tea made by one of their local friends…
9am: clean la chèvrerie (the barn where the goats live). feed the goats. feed the other animals (1 horse, 2 pigs, male and baby goats). if it’s not raining, lead the goats to a pasture.
11am-2pm: miscellaneous activities that change daily. sometimes cheese-making, sometimes cleaning, repairs, gardening, cooking, host random visitors who came to buy goat milk, etc.
between 1 and 4pm: lunch. always a long, hot lunch of things grown on the farm or purchased locally with dessert and coffee at the end. then: work. same as miscellaneous activities above. go get the goats if they were in a pasture.
5:30pm: goûter (snack) – always a cake or cookie with tea or coffee.
6pm: feed the goats, La Traite.
8-9pm: showers, then dinner which consists of the same things as breakfast. always a matzah-like cracker spread with butter, fresh goat cheese, and jam or honey at the end (this is just a quirk of Louise and Gundula but I started doing it too). This is where my day ended.
10-??: Louise and Gundula continued working. feed the goats again. cheese-making. treat sick goats. etc.

The tree is a cherry tree! and behind it is my cozy little trailer

The tree is a cherry tree! and behind it is my cozy little trailer “le caravan”

Having a farm is SO MUCH WORK. They have been doing this 7 days a week for the last 15 years with only a handful of instances where they’ve left the farm for a vacation. Because I have so much downtime in Paris, I relished the opportunity to sweat and actually accomplish things, but I can imagine that it gets really difficult to keep going after more than a few months. By Sunday I was already having a hard time staying energized and that was only after one week!

Left: la chevrerie. Right: baby goat house

Left: la chevrerie. Right: baby goat house

I’m so glad I’m no longer ignorant of this lifestyle. There are farmers all over the world producing the food we need to survive, and without any connection to them it’s hard to be aware of the hard work they do and the sacrifices they make. No sick days for them, no Christmas bonuses…no real Christmas break either! The goats have to eat – constantly! The sad fact is that the financial compensation nowhere near matches the effort dispensed. Luckily, my hosts seemed to love what they do and were really committed to their lifestyle and career choices. Overall, they seemed really happy.

I loved being able to take part in such a local and organic-focused home. In my daily life, I do my best to stay away from food that has been transported very long distances and yes, I would prefer not to ingest a ton of pesticides and other chemicals with my food. However, most of the time this is not feasible in terms of my budget or surroundings. During these 9 days I was happy to be able to join in their lifestyle.

Coming soon: more posts and photos about my experience on the farm.

*Update: Click these links for my posts about Le Jardinage, Les Chèvres, Cheese, and my second trip there.