From afar I am sure I’ve made a mistake. Row upon row of plastic covered greenhouses, like giant silvery worms, appear out of the fog and not a sheep in sight. It’s only when I approach a long, greenish tunnel and my ears are filled with a symphony of BAAAAAA’s that I know I’ve found the right place.
Les Bergers de Belvezet is a small, artisan ewe’s milk cheese company run by Jean-Michel Reymond and Christelle Houy. They greet me with warm smiles and the relaxed assurance of people who are totally happy with the choices they’ve made. Both have worked around sheep for years. Jean-Michel grew up on a farm in the Crau to the south of Arlès and found he enjoyed working with sheep over the summer vacation. Christelle has always worked on farms but the day she discovered shepherding she knew it was for her. Soon afterwards she earned a diploma from the only shepherding school in France near Salon de Provence in 1999.
So when a good friend decided to get out of the sheep rearing business four years ago and asked Jean-Michel and Christelle to take over what was left, they jumped at the chance. And right from the start the couple decided that they wanted to make cheese. The fact that neither had a clue about where to start says volumes about their courage and tenacity. Before long they contacted an experienced fromagier, Alain Perret in the Pyrenees mountains and arranged to work with him for a time. He gave them all the technics they needed to produce the classic Tomme style of cheese.
Christelle remembers it as an intense, exciting time. “We started with only 40 sheep and a handful of baby lambs, no barn, no land and very little equipment. Now we milk 100 sheep twice a day and have plans to build a new fromagerie and milking barn on a small piece of land close by within a year or so. It was hard in the beginning, getting up at 5:30 a.m. to bottle feed the baby lambs or sometimes we had to wrap them in warm blankets to protect them from the cold.” The work is still hard but now the couple are equipped and experienced. For Christelle nothing beats a spring morning spent walking through the lush garrigue with her troupe of sheep and the huge sheep dogs she uses to keep them in line. The air is fresh and the only sounds are those of her dogs and the bababa of the herd.
Back at the tunnel the noise is deafening and I wonder to myself how anyone of sane mind could manage to work with these wooly, four-footed milk machines for longer than a few days. When I pose the question to Jean-Michel and Christelle, they tell me that after a while it isn’t that bad! I guess one could resort to earplugs or an Ipod. But then you might miss something, for it seems sheep talk. And I guess if you’re around them as much as Jean-Michel and Christelle you start to understand. Before long the daily milking is over and three large jugs are transferred to the adjacent fromagerie.
While Christelle tends to the sheep, Jean-Michel makes the cheese. The building resembles a large fibreglass Lego block house and looks totally alien amongst the typical old stone buildings of the Uzège countryside. Jean-Michel explains that this odd-looking portable fromagerie hails from the Pyrenees mountains where they’re used to make cheese in high altitude alpine pastures after being brought in by helicopter. For Jean-Michel and Christelle the structures provided an inexpensive way to produce their cheese under modern, hygienic conditions.
He makes his cheese in the same manner as the Pyrenean Tomme. The milk is heated slowly to 30˚C with rennet that causes the milk to separate into curds and whey. The curds are removed, cut up a bit and ladled into moulds where they spend about a day to take on their final shape. Then they’re dry salted once a day and rubbed with a cloth to remove any black mould. The rounds, which weigh about four kilo each, mature slowly for a minimum of two months ending up with an orange-tan rind and a creamy, ivory coloured heart. The taste is typical of ewe’s milk cheeses, mild and fruity but with a funky kick. Jean-Michel explains that the flavours get quite strong after five or six months maturation but the production sells so quickly he seldom has rounds that get to that ripe old age.
The cheese along with ewe’s milk yoghurt and fresh ewes ricotta are available at the Wednesday farmers market in Uzès and at the Friday market in St. Quentin la Poterie. During the summer you can also run into Christelle and Jean-Michel at a small Friday evening market in Belvezet that usually includes some live music at the café municipale. A great local tradition that’s worth checking out.
The bottom line? Even though the two young entrepreneurs were both quite ill just before my visit – a result of four long, hard years of constant effort – I get the feeling they wouldn’t give up this lifestyle for anything. And each Friday when I head to the St. Quentin market Christelle backs up my intuition in the form of a lovely, contented smile.