Tag Archives: france

I say cheese, ewes say cheese!

Lunch time!

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.

Jean-Michel

Christelle at work

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.

Jean-Michel heats the milk to 30˚C

Everything must be spotless

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.

Helper Nicolas Cabello washes the rind daily with sea salt

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.

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Market mania in St. Quentin

One of my favourite pastimes during the long, cold winter months of our three-year stay in the interior of British Columbia consisted of dreaming about the amazing farmers markets I’d left behind in France. Our thrice weekly forays to the local supermarket were always an adventure — at least until we traded our bikes in for a car. The thrill of navigating through slush and snow on two wheels wore off quickly once the shopping began. Greeted by row upon row of uniformly tired, sad-looking fruits and vegetables, my mind wandered often to the warm, colourful, scented markets I’d known in France and I felt instantly soothed.

And now that we are finally home in our very special village, I can confirm that the reality is even better than my reminiscing. The local market has almost doubled in size and attracts huge summer crowds every Friday morning.

Amazing tapenade

Delicious unfiltered grape juice

But it’s not full of the gawking tourists who frequent the more trendy Saturday Uzes market. There are some to be sure but the core users are villagers who want to support local farmers and at the same time catch up with friends. On Tuesdays there’s a more intimate producers only market with several excellent organic growers.

This morning I was up by 7 am to get to the market early. The sky was a deep, clean blue and the air crisp. Many merchants were still setting up their stalls, all the while joking or sharing a coffee with their colleagues. An air of lively anticipation of big crowds and good sales seemed to float about effortlessly. Another good day to be sure. The only customers this early were older, retired locals who get their shopping done before the crowds and the heat arrive.

Always time to chat

The whole scene took me instantly back to all those early mornings several years ago when I sold wine five times a week at markets throughout the region: the routine of packing the truck the night before; the piecing pain of those 5 a.m. alarms followed by a lonely drive in pre-dawn half darkness.  But the hard part was quickly forgotten once I got set up and that same anticipation kicked in. A kind of perpetual optimism that kept us coming back for more regardless of the days outcome.

So what makes my market and any good market so much better from a sterile North American supermarket? Well you buy your veggies from a farmer who picked them just hours earlier and your meat from a butcher who greets you by your first name. Christian, the honey guy always has a good story or two. 

Solange, lets me taste her wines and at the same time she brings me up to date on the latest news in the wine business. The recession has brought about a lot of closures, lower prices and slack sales but she is optimistic about the future. With this years harvest her Mas Mouries will be an official organic wine. Crises come and go but these tough, resilient people always find a way to make things work.  I can’t wait till next Friday.

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Draught Horses and Dirty Laundry – c’est chaud

Martin and Joel setting up a shoot.

The last few months I’ve been busy with a new project that is very exciting. Along with my friend Martin (east2west.tv) I am making a documentary film on the wines of the Okanagan. So far we’ve had nothing but positive interest in the project and I look at it as a great new opportunity. I’ll give periodic updates on how we’re progressing but today it occurred to me just how diverse the wineries are out here in BC. There’s a real spirit of adventure and newness that you don’t feel so much in France. Kind of normal when you learn that quality wine’s only been made here for less than 20 years. Compare that to over 2,000 years in France.

One encounters just about every type of major grape variety up and down the valley. Growers are experimenting to the max  to find the best clones and the best sites for each. Some are pushing the limits truly into orbit by planting mediterranean grapes like Cinsault, Grenache and Tempranillo. Who knows? Maybe global warming will turn this arid valley into a hotbed for southern French grapes but for now the risk is high and a bad freeze like we had in December 2008 can wipe out the less hardy varieties.

I’ve also met many fascinating wine makers on my travels up and down the valley. How about a retired Israeli fighter pilot who makes stunning Viognier and Pinot Noir (http://www.silkw.net/)? Or the Punjabi immigrant who’s making great organic Pinot Gris yet doesn’t drink wine at all (http://www.kalala.ca/wine/index.php).

Tilman and his horses hard at work

And then there’s Tilman Hainle. He’s made wine for many firms over the years but today he is back at his small family farm near Peachland. He and partner Sara Norman created the Working Horse Winery as a showcase for organic and  bio-dynamic methods. As the name implies, a beautiful pair of Suffolk draught horses supply the muscle at WHW. Talk about a low carbon footprint or should I say hoofprint!  http://www.workinghorsewinery.com

Dirty Laundry makes three Gewurztraminers

As for dirty laundry, I’ve got lots but in the Okanagan everyone knows about the liquid Dirty Laundry. This dynamic little winery in Summerland – gotta love that name – has proved a point that in order to rise above the pack in the new world, the marketing and the look have to be special. A few years back Dirty Laundry  had a long, difficult to pronounce German name and was not hugely successful even though the wines were solid. In 2005 the winery changed hands and a new name was chosen from a rather steamy detail of Summerland’s pioneer past. It seems there was a Chinese laundry in the village at one time that not only starched shirts but provided other services that left customers hot under the collar! The locals referred to it as the Dirty Laundry. Since the name change the winery sells out of most of their wines quickly. The latest addition to the portfolio is a red blend called Bordello and I think it is likely the only wine in the world that comes with a magnifying glass attached! http://www.dirtylaundry.ca/

cheers,

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Grazing is for Cows

French fast food photo: Vincent Dancer

I’ve lived here in the wild western mountains of the interior of British Columbia now for about 3 years. We came here from the south of France where we lived comfortably for 13 years. The cultural shock was as you might imagine pretty complete. And none more so than the way people here consider food and drink.

In France food and wine are a source of national pride, an integral part of daily life and something the French don’t mess with. Here discussion of food and wine comes way down the list for most people, after hockey scores, the Olympics  and the latest TV scandals. Canadians work very hard and days tend to start early. So what do Canucks do to kick-start their day? They flock to Starbucks or Tim Horton for the morning drug of choice; a big mug of steaming coffee. Unlike France, where everyone sits at a café to down their espresso, Canadians get their java to go. And for many the grazing attitude continues all day long.  Only at night can most people have a more relaxed, communal meal with family, that is if everyone is home at the right time!

The same kind of system applies to many school kids.  They start early and finish early and have a minimal amount of time to eat. There is no city-wide system of school cafeterias such as one finds in France. Most kids just brown bag it. What goes into those bags can vary from quite healthy to downright disgusting. My son has a friend who eats a peanut butter sandwich every day throughout the year. Or another who survives (not sure this is the best word) on MacDonald’s fare almost every day. How can we be one of the richest countries in the world and yet feed our children so poorly? We’re giving our kids terrible eating habits that encourage obesity and will eventually create a huge burden on our already over burdened health care system.

Just try to take a bit more time the next time you have a nice meal as a family. Be in the moment and really taste the food. Savour it. Breathe it in. Enjoy it completely with focused delight and give thanks to God, the earth, the rain, the sun and our amazing world that came together to put it on your plate.

cheers,

Joe

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