Falling in love with France and cheesemaking took some perseverance. In the early eighties Paris was a frosty city for a nineteen year old American. Parisians didn’t even like French people from the Provinces.
That said, there was still something so magical and formative about living in Paris. As students, we failed miserably at not being American, reluctant and ashamed apologists for trickle down Reaganomics, frumpy running shoes, and the ubiquitous back packs.
We were broke and could dine for days on a bottle of Côtes du Rhône, a wheel of camembert and a baguette. Surrounded by beautiful French women who were oh-so-stylish we ate a lot of fromage blanc to counter the carbohydrate creep of bread, cheese and butter. The butter was so good that we actually spread butter on the bread before the slab of cheese. Unlike today we NEVER saw a jogger sweating along the Tuileries. And, who would dare to give up our American “sportif” identity so easily?
It look me months to settle into Paris, the city that tested my mettle as a young, unconfident and introverted college Junior. I endured the torture of Parisians’ disgust for my lack of savoir-faire and butchering of their language. What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.
I decided it was too soon to quit. I would stand my ground, stay another semester, learn to say “oui” by a short inhale that came out something like “who”, I would cut my long college locks at the École de Coiffure L’Oreal, trade in my Levis and running shoes for tights and suffer in heels with my Parisian sisters. I am glad for it because what ensued was a 35-year love affair with France, cheesemaking, and a deep appreciation for the hard work of simple living. I still look for an excuse to visit my favorite city to shop for shoes and commune with French people.
Still without money I “summered” in Brittany on a farm. A letter to the Organic Farmers in France produced an offer to tend animals on a cheese farm in Brittany. Unlike the “au pair” south-of France-summer séjour, there were no beach chairs in Rostrenen. There, I discovered the warmth of French people living in the country content with their simple life where food was central. At Manez Cure, where we had goats, cows, sheep and pigs, an American “intern” had a fairly steep climb to earn a spot in the cheese room. I spent my early days fencing, milking, moving animals into the pastures, haying, planting sugar beets, haying and more haying. Once I demonstrated that Americans could actually work and follow directions, I was invited to make cheese.
This I loved.
We had a small and varied production, the learning was far from formal and wasn’t until I started to make cheese on my own in Vermont, how clueless and unprepared I was for this endeavor. Days were spent ladling goat cheeses for fresh and aged geo rinds. We made a pâte molle in the style of a Tomme de Savoie and lots of great butter, crème fraîche, and fromage blanc. The rigor and physicality of the work appealed to me. The ability to affect the quality of the cheese by attending to small details earned me a decent level of responsibility. I returned to the farm after I graduated from college to help the family with the cheese just after the birth of their second child. Life was rich and uncomplicated and I began to see my future more clearly.
From Brittany I hitch hiked through Lyon to Gap, in Hautes-Alps, where my next employer, Gilles picked me up in his rickety Deux chevaux. Unlike the soggy, green region of Brittany with its Gaelic influence, the terrain was vast, parched, and rugged. We climbed on switch back roads to a remote village in the foothills of the Alps called Éourres.
Like the novels of Peter Malye, this was quintessential South of France. If I wasn’t in love by now, I was in need of a stiff lavender and pastis aphrodisiac. I had the tough job of taking the young goats into the hills to graze where they would learn to stay together. The milkers had much to browse in the hills where they disappeared for the day. Every evening they showed up on the one and only main street of the village and would march to their stable to be milked. The milk was cooled in the cistern in the center of the village.
The following the day the warm morning milk was mixed with the milk of the last evening and it was miraculously at the perfect temperature for making cheese. The can of tempered milk was carried to the stone cellars under the house where it was coagulated in buckets and left overnight. The tiny fromagerie had just enough room for two thin people to work efficiently to ladle curd and move cheese on racks precisely to assure the proper rind development of the Picodon, a traditional goat cheese of the Ardeche.
If I wasn’t deliriously in love by then, I had the opportunity to assist with the bi-monthly cheese delivery to the coast. The cute French Camion was charged with open crates of Picodon ranging in age from fresh to ripened “affine” to dry “sec.” We drove to tiny cheese shops in St. Tropez and Antibes where each cheese monger had their own mind about a “proper Picodon”. Once the Camion was empty there was nothing left to do but find a saucisson sec and a Panache, a favorite libation of beer and limonade (not lemonade but more like our tonic); all punctuated with a dip in the Mediterranean. I asked myself how I could possibly replicate this love affair upon my return to New Jersey? Love would find a way.