More goats, and also some castles

After a few days of Parisian adventures, Dad plugged his pre-programmed GPS into a French rental car and a motley crew piled on in: Mom, the official critic of driving style and automated directions, sat shotgun. Stephen, my friend from England, hopped on the Eurostar just in time to join us for the trip, and he quickly fell into his role as the group photographer. He sat in the back seat, except when he was disappearing to take pictures and collect strange rocks, which was usually. I sat next to him, translating and troubleshooting linguistic and cultural dilemmas. Aunt Eileen was in the other corner, observing and chuckling at the chaos.

Despite (because of?) this insanity, it was awesome. Three hours of driving took us straight into the heart of the Loire Valley, a land known mostly for its castles and (at least in my circles) its goats.

Our first touristy stop was at Chateau Villandry.

Yes, that is cabbage that you see. In the early 20th century, an insanely rich American expat and her Spanish husband bought this castle and started landscaping with vegetables.

If Bill Gates designed a formal garden out of pumpkins on his personal estate, let’s be honest, we’d probably hate his guts for it. But in France? This is culture! Beauty! History!

We then followed my father on a quest to discover an enigma translated by Lonely Planet as “smashed apples.” “It’s a thing…” he told us, “a product…they eat it in the military, they make it in caves!” They turned out to be apples dried for several days at the age of a massive wood-fired stove. In a cave. And then they were smashed.

I got my fill of goats on this trip, and my family got to experience a little bit of my usual daily life.

They paid for it. By which I mean they literally paid money to stay at a goat farm overnight. Sometimes people do that.

And when my parents got back on that transatlantic flight, saying goodbye was kind of like saying goodbye after Thanksgiving weekend when I would soon be home for Winter Break. My journey was officially almost over.

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When I said goodbye to Shelly, I got back on the train for a long trip to Paris. I have an aunt and uncle who are spending a few years living there, and my parents flew in to visit a few days after I arrived. On the train, I befriended the frazzled Mexican couple next to me by helping them communicate with the train conductor. Then I explained how I had been biking around, eating oatmeal and sleeping in ditches, and I was about to meet up with my family. The man nodded sagely. “When you get off this train,” he said, “your life will change immediately.”

That it did. There were restaurants involved. Hotels. Guided tours. Castles. And, you know, I got to see my parents for the first time in nine months.

In Paris, we perused the markets.

We helped my dad succeed in what I thought was one of his most futile missions: he had read somewhere on the world wide web that there were beehives at the Luxembourg Gardens, but the Parisians and local scholars we talked to all denied it. They’re not on any signs or maps, but the bees are there and we found them.

We took a tour of the King’s Kitchen Garden at Versailles. In 1678, Louis XIV’s head gardener, La Quintinye, began working these nine hectares to supply year-round produce to the royal kitchen. He tried out new varieties and new-to-France vegetables, and pioneered season-extension techniques. Today, the garden showcases some of these historical varieties and techniques, and also serves as an experimental playground for the students of the school of horticulture next door.

Does this raspberry bush look angry that it’s being forced to grow in an unnatural shape for the aesthetic pleasure of aristocrats, or am I projecting?

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San Sebastian

Three trains, one national border and a twenty-mile bike ride later, I was trying hard to remember my Spanish in the beautiful coastal city of San Sebastian. I arrived the night  before Shelly would be there. We had hostel reservations for our time together, but I spent my first night with a warmshowers host. He was a German man who had been living in Spain for twelve years, which gave him a unique perspective on the city. Despite my fatigue, he convinced me to come out to a concert in his neighborhood that night. And the next day, after I met up with Shelly, he took us on a bike ride up a giant hill where we could see everything.

San Sebastian is a beautiful, small, incredibly bike friendly city. It was just a little bit too cold for me to want to jump in the ocean while I was there, but we saw plenty of surfers in wetsuits enjoying the waves.

It’s also famous for its food. There is a large Basque population in San Sebastian, and they get a lot of delicious food coming in from the mountains. I tasted Basque cider, which was completely different from anything I’ve tried in the UK or at home. Some people don’t like it, or can’t tell what it is, but I thought it was excellent. It’s made out of mostly sour apples and it’s not very highly carbonated. It’s dry, tart, refreshing. And San Sebastian is a great place to try the regional cured meats,  cheese, even raw milk. One day, when Shelly and I were out walking in a residential area, we came across a raw milk vending machine. It’s the first one I’ve ever seen. My camera was broken at this point, but there are some photos around the internet.

San Sebastian is also home to lots of innovative chefs develeloping interesting gourmet cuisine. This wouldn’t normally matter to me since I can’t afford to eat at any of these restaurants. But the Basque tradition of pintxos made some of these dishes accessible. Pintxos are like tapas but they’re even smaller. The fancy ones were extremely expensive for what they were – we’re talking like five euros for five bites – but I appreciated having the opportunity to taste some of these creations, and I liked pintxo culture. Shelly and I would have a small meal at home before heading out around eight to check out a few different pintxo bars. Then, sometime before midnight, we would head home. The locals skipped the pre-game meal, went out for pintxos, went home and ate dinner afterwards, then went out again to the discotequas. Sometimes cultural immersion can only go so far.

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On Basque Country and Spontaneous Decisions

When I emerged from the pine barrens of France’s western coast, I turned left and found myself in the Pyrenees without any real plan. I decided to ride around in the foothills and see what I could find. At this point, I associated the Pyrenees with idyllic lifestyles, spectacular wilderness, and delicious farmstead sheep’s cheese. I did eat some great cheese. Mostly, I tasted different versions of Ossau-Iraty. It’s a medium-soft pressed cheese meant to sustain shepherds in the mountains through the winter. It’s nutty and sheepy and a little bit grainy and it holds quite well in a hot pannier in the mountain sun.

I also ate the AOC hot pepper of Espelette. I listened to people speaking Basque. I got some amazing views. But mostly, I rode my bike up and down mountains. It was hard. I was starting to feel a little directionless. A little too late, I decided that although the idea of actually cycling over the Pyrenees sounded intimidating, it would have been more rewarding than what I was doing. And then my friend Shelly, who had recently moved to Madrid, offered to meet up with me somewhere. Yes! A destination and a friend – everything I needed. We made plans: Toulouse, over the weekend. I could get there by bike. Shelly would take the bus.

But then something strange happened. Shelly accidentally bought a ticket to Tolosa, Spain instead of Toulouse, France. Oops.

Shelly, of course, had a job and a schedule and responsibilities and she wasn’t going to be able to make it to Toulouse. I had none of the above. So, with the help of some very patient train station employees, I concocted a plan. I would arrive in Toulouse as scheduled, hop on three different trains to the very southwestern tip of France, and ride my bike across the border. Shelly would get a four-euro extension on her bus ticket and meet me in the city of San Sebastian. It sounded like a better city than Toulouse anyway!

For most of my life, I will have responsibilities that prevent me from making such spontaneous decisions. That’s ok. I know that there is value in stability and commitment. But for now, it really doesn’t matter what I do. I can be flexible enough to just ride my bike to a different country. I might as well exercise that freedom while I have it.

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The Pine Barrens

When I said goodbye to La Ferme des Jarouilles, I got on my bike with only the vague destination of The Pyrenees in mind. I knew that this mountain range, which separates Spain from France, is known for its farmstead sheep cheese. I knew that areas within the Pyrenees would be isolated and spectacularly beautiful. For some reason, I had trouble finding a farm to stay at down there. But since I had been having so much fun just riding around in France, I just went for it.

The first day, I rode to the pretty riverside city of Bordeaux and stayed for a day of sightseeing with a great family. Then I took the flat and windy main road back to the West coast.

And then there were pine trees. From the Gironde River almost all the way to the Spanish border, the Landes Forest covers 3,900 square miles of south-western France. It is a man-made pine plantation that is almost all managed for industrial use. But it’s also a great place to go for a bike ride. There were almost as many bike paths as roads. I could ride through the forest for hours without coming across a car. And though the evenly-spaced maritime pines did get a little monotonous, the understory was blooming with yellow gorse and purple heather. And as I think I’ve mentioned before, pine plantations make for well-hidden and well-padded camping spots.

One night, I made myself a little bed on a patch of heather underneath the pines. The only road in sight was a bike path. The sky was so clear I didn’t even bother pitching a tent. In the morning, I woke up to a nip in the forest air, packed up and got on my bike. I rode along the path until around 9 AM when I came to a little turnoff to a completely deserted beach. The air was still quite chilly, but when I felt the ocean water, it was WARM. So I took off my hat, gloves, and under armour and went for a dip. Bicycle touring at its finest.

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La Ferme des Jarouilles Continued

Just a few more thoughts on this farm before I move on.

The cows and goats had access to pasture and browse, but they hung around the barns for most of the day because they were full-fed hay and haylage and, due to the drought, there wasn’t much for them to eat in the pasture anyway. Laurent told me that normally the animals graze a lot of their food, but that he’s had to slowly increase the amount of hay he’s been feeding over the past few months as the region slipped into worse and worse drought. They grow all of the hay, and all of the grain they feed, themselves. It was crazy to get used to the idea of drought again after the summer I spent in England, Ireland, and even northern France. One night, after a week of pleasantly scorching sunshine, I was sitting inside with the family eating dinner when it started to rain. Everyone ran outside, laughing and screaming. “That is beautiful weather!” said Laure, in French. Then Laurent turned to me and started speaking English. “Money money money.” He rubbed his hands together and grinned. “It’s raining money.”

The farm is located less than a mile outside of the small, but not tiny, town of Coutras, and an hour’s drive from Bordeaux. They have an on-farm store and sell a lot of their products to members of the community who come by every week. They also drop off products at a few organic groceries in Bordeaux, and they participate in several private buying clubs. I got to go to a buying club drop-off with Laurent. A vegetable farmer, a baker, and a couple of people selling prepared foods send out order forms to buying club members every week. The members send in their orders and their payment ahead of time, and then Laurent compiles the orders and drops the products off at a meeting point, in this case the parking lot of a community building. Laurent likes it because he knows exactly how much he needs to bring into town every week, and he can drop it off quickly, unlike at a market. The advantage for the consumer over a CSA situation is that he can choose exactly what he wants week-to-week, and can order more or less depending on changing needs. Farmers are usually willing to offer their products at slightly lower prices than they do at a farmers’ market because the labor cost is lower, and because the different farmers work together the consumers can get all of their shopping done at once. As both a consumer and a producer, I’d like to see more arrangements like this in the US!

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Milk, butter, yogurt, cheese…

One of the best parts about working at La Ferme des Jarouilles was helping to make all of their different products. They make so many!

I got to bottle raw cow’s and goat’s milk for the first time. We also made big batches of yogurt in a vat pasteurizer. They use the same same basic procedure that I’ve used at home: heat milk to 180 degrees, cool to 115 and add culture, put the cultured milk into final containers and then keep it at 110 overnight. But they have fancy machines to do some of the work. One machine squirts cultured milk into little plastic yogurt tubs and then seals them. They also have a walk-in incubator the size of a large closet that keeps the yogurt warm as it’s culturing. I also helped to make raw fromage blanc, which is a bit like rich yogurt, but it’s made with rennet and a lactic culture, strained, and then whipped up.

They make crème crue, delicious raw sour cream, which they culture with the whey from their chevre. Some of the crème crue gets made into cultured butter in a small electric butter churn. One of my favorite jobs was kneading Guerande sea salt into the fresh butter by hand.

And of course there was the cheese. Little goat’s milk chevres, sold both fresh and aged for a few weeks. Faiselles – lactic curd, made with both cow’s milk and goat’s milk, ladled into plastic containers unsalted, with a bit of its whey. Goat’s milk and cow’s milk tommes. The word tomme really just means a biggish round wheel of aged enzymatic cheese, but I learned Isabelle’s particular recipe, and a few tricks of the trade. Sometimes, when there is extra goat’s milk (this never happened while I was there) they make a pate molle – soft paste – tomme. It’s stronger and really highlights the goaty flavor. I loved it – and it’s a useful recipe to have because it’s aged for at least three months.

It was fun to help with all these products – I got to do something different every day, and I learned so much. It also got some entrepreneurial ideas going through my mind. But as you can probably imagine, there were a lot of machines involved in these processes, which must have cost a lot of money. Isabelle and Laurent were lucky to have inherited the farm from Isabelle’s parents, so they could afford to invest in improvements. But I have a strong suspicion that they could get away with raising a lot fewer animals and hiring fewer employees if they stuck to a couple of basic products. Obviously that’s my plan for the future. At least to start off.

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French Dreams about Milk Machines and Butter

When I arrived at La Ferme des Jarouilles and leaned my heavily loaded bike against the barn, Laurent looked me over and said, “You rode your bike here from Normandy? I thought you were riding here from the train station!”

Laurent, his wife Isabelle, and their 22-year-old daughter Laure quickly welcomed me into the family and onto the farm. It was easy to slip into the pleasant rhythm of things – milking goats every morning and then helping out in the cheese room throughout the day.

Like the last farmers I stayed with, they raise cows and goats – but this is one of the biggest operations I’ve ever worked on, and it’s mostly cows. I confirmed my suspicion that I don’t really want to work with cows commercially, or at least not more than two or three. As Laurent put it, the problem with cows is that they are huge and they are dirty. “Et tu es toujours en train de nettoyer leur merde.” (I’ll let you translate that part yourself.) On the bright side, just to throw some numbers out there, two cows might give you around twelve gallons a day. Which could make several pounds of butter. A day.

My time at this farm flew by. I am always happiest when my work is of value and I feel productive. Here, they appreciated my goat experience and often let me milk the goats on my own. It was also fun to hang out with Laure, who plans to eventually take over her parents’ farm, and two of the farm’s employees, who are also around my age. They taught me some of what they know about goats, and showed me around the neighborhood. We played cards and visited nearby farms. Once, we went to a downhill skateboarding event. No, they did not let me participate.

We also spoke French. Always. And since this was the first time I’ve ever spoken exclusively French for days at a time, I felt it improving faster than it ever has before. I’ve often heard that you really know you’re getting fluent in a language when you start to dream in that language. Over this time period, my dreams typically went like this: I would be in France, interacting with French people, speaking in English. Then partway through the dream, I would say, “Why are we speaking in English? We always speak French together!” Then we would switch and the rest of the dream would take place in French.

I am starting to appreciate that cows, too, can be pretty cute:

I’m still not that good at photography though. Sorry.

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The Road to Tomato Heaven

When, once again, it was time to hit the road, I grabbed some cheese out of the aging room and waited for a sunny day. I didn’t have to wait long. My next destination was another farm with both cows and goats outside of Bordeaux. And as I rode south, along beautiful, flat coastlines, it got warmer and drier until I started jumping into the ocean during my lunch break. By the time I turned inland, a day’s ride from the farm, the scenery was decidedly brown, the farmers were complaining about drought, and the tomato stakes were breaking with the weight of ripe fruit. In mid-September, I had finally arrived at my summer.

It will always amaze me that I can ride my bike for a week and enter a completely different climactic zone. But I think that’s one of the reasons I like to do it. That, and the people I meet.

I spent about half of my nights camping and half of my nights staying with new warmshowers friends. Such as Jose and Myrtille, who greeted me just as they walked in the door after Jose finished running a marathon. Jose and I were both still wearing spandex when Myrtille’s parents invited her to their house across the courtyard for dinner with her five adult siblings. At the end of the meal, I was offered a choice of sixteen flavors of ice cream. Another family I stayed with, a couple with three children, made a dinner of traditional Breton buckwheat-flour crepes (they are delicious – perhaps some day I’ll master the art!) Then they told me of their future bicycle touring plans: two adults, three children between the ages of 6 and 12, three bikes and one tandem. To Asia, South America and beyond. Makes my trip seem like a minor pleasure ride. I hope they keep a blog!

Was it the weather? The people? The flat, flat roads? I ended this segment of my trip feeling like I could keep riding my bike around France for months. But I’m glad I stopped for my next farm-based interlude. Stay tuned for more adventures with ruminants and microorganisms.

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AOC Does Not Mean Great

I remember sitting in a cabin in New Mexico around this time last year reading a book about French cheeses and daydreaming. “Wow,” I thought to myself. “Instead of banning raw milk cheeses, the French make laws to protect them! What a wonderful place.”

It’s true, sort of. More than 40 different classic French cheeses (and also various wines, ciders, butters… even a variety of hot peppers) are protected by an AOC – Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, which translates as controlled designation of origin. It’s based on the idea of terroir – the soil and the climate and the microorganisms in a specific place give flavor to a cheese, and a cheese made in the same way somewhere else won’t taste the same.

So, the 15th-century French government made a law. Roquefort has to be produced in the area surrounding Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. It still does.

In addition to defining the region in which certain cheeses must be made, AOC laws regulate the cheesemaking process – some cheeses must be made from the milk of a specific breed, some must contain a certain percentage of fat, some must be salted in a certain way, and many, many AOC cheeses must be made with raw milk.

One of those cheeses is Camembert de Normandie. You’ve probably had a cheese called camembert. It was probably made in an American factory. And it was probably mediocre at best. It’s unlikely, however, that you’ve tasted AOC Camembert de Normandie, unless you were in France. It must be made in Normandy, it must be made from raw milk, and since it’s aged for less than 60 days, it can’t legally be sold in the US.

Obviously I was excited to try this cheese. My first night in Normandy, I did…and it was…good. Nice texture, and unlike its pasteurized American counterpart, it had some flavor. But it wasn’t great. I have nothing in particular to complain about, but that pure white rind, perfect shape, uniform taste and texture just seemed a little bit predictable. Uninspired. It was missing the kick, the element of surprise, the depth of flavor that makes a cheese great.

I learned later that that particular cheese was made in a factory. And that, in fact, almost all Camembert de Normandie is made in a factory. That there are two or three farmers who still make the cheese on their farms, and that their products are delicious but very difficult to find.

When talking to Emeric about why he doesn’t make any of Normandy’s AOC cheeses, he said that when you make cheese on the farm the old-fashioned way, it’s best to develop your recipe by experimenting and figuring out what works with your milk and your personality on your farm. You won’t know what your cheese will taste like before you make it. But with a lot of experimentation, you will probably develop a cheese with that je ne sais quoi that no industrial Camembert can compete with. On the other hand, when you make a well-known AOC cheese, people expect it to look and taste a very specific way. Achieving results that are not only consistent but predetermined is usually only possible with the help of modern tools – commercial cultures, humidity-controlled refrigerators, near-sterile environments. Cheeses controlled this closely will never fully express their terroir. In fact, it’s probably easiest to make this kind of cheese in a factory.

Thus, laws designed to protect terroir may end up stifling it. So, in France, instead of looking for cheeses with certain names, I ask the same questions I ask everywhere else: Do you make the cheese yourself with milk from your farm? How many animals do you have? What do they eat?

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