Thursday, May 20, 2010

Farmstead Cheesemaking in the Pyrenees

Sharilyn and Brian Clowes
Last year, Sharilyn Clowes and her husband celebrated their 10th anniversary by selling their belongings and taking off from Canada on an open ended bicycle trip through Europe.  They visited 14 countries and they documented the entire trip on their blog on Travelpod.

When they were staying in Boussenac, Midi-Pyrénées, France, they were taken by friends to a small dairy in their neighborhood.  They went in and found themselves making cheese!  Here is their story as told by Sharilyn on their blog:

I’ve always loved cheese and have gained a greater appreciation for the different varieties, tastes, and smells of it over the years (beyond Kraft Singles and Mild Cheddar).  So far in France, I've greatly enjoyed tasting cheeses whose names I cannot pronounce, and can eagerly say that there’s nothing I’ve tasted that I didn’t like.  Certainly some more than others, but nothing I would not eat.
Part of the dream of our little self-sufficient farm would be making our own cheese out of cow or goat milk.  Out of all the culinary arts of homesteading I’ve tried (pickling, bread making, condiments, etc.) cheese making has yet to be attempted.

  In discussing different interests with Justin and Emily (our Helpx hosts) it was mentioned that they have friends just down the road who make their own cheese from the milk their cows produce.  Soon a phone call was made and we were whisked off to plunge our hands into all sorts of funky smelling substances…
Upon arrival we came to the sweetest flower-framed doorway with a little ‘ouvret’ sign hanging on the door.  Leading into a tiny room with some baskets, waxed paper, a weigh scale and a knife.  Off to the side was a wall of windows peering into the room where the cheese was made.  Beyond that was the door leading into the ‘cavern’ where the cheese ages.  
Milk was already heating in the large tank.
A lovely lady patiently and slowly repeated everything for us several times (in French) until we understood, and actually got us involved in the process.  We were able to wash down the aging cheese rounds, feel the curds, and pack the molds.  Quite amazing to think that in a couple of months people will be buying this cheese that we made.  
Testing the curds.
Cutting the curds.
Inside the cavern were shelves and shelves of large saggy cheeses in various stages of decay.  Dark and moist- it’s the perfect place for the yummy bacteria to grow that makes the cheese so tasty.  This particular type of cheese is called a Tomme and is very unique to the region.  Each round is marked with a batch number of when it was made so it can be tracked if there are any problems, and helps with the rotation and knowing when they’re ready for sale.
   Very easy natural type of cheese that can be made with any milk.  Down the road a bit there’s a local farm advertising the sale of their cheese made from chevre.  There have even been sheep’s milk cheeses for sale in some of the stores.  Tomme des Pyrenees is a very mild tasting cheese, firm, but with holes in it.
Seeing all the work involved I still can’t believe how cheap the cheese here.  This lady is selling hers for 13 Euro ($17) a Kilogram - a KILOGRAM!!! (over 2 lbs.)  I’m used to Canadian prices of $4-6 for 100 GRAMS (3.5 oz)!  Many people place their weekly/monthly orders with her.  She packages them up as closely as she can without wasting any cheese, and then they are taken around for delivery.
The community here is just what I’m hoping to find someday.  Where neighbors all know one another and trading is perfectly normal.  The farm we're at trades eggs for milk.  We even got a little triangle of cheese to take on our way.

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