Tag Archives: locavore

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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Alfresco dining, Okanagan style

You may have got the impression from some of my earlier posts that I have many fond food memories of the years I spent in France. Well you’d be bang on. And now that we are in the final preparations of moving back to France, I am getting excited about all the great little moments of life that I miss so much here.

But my wife and I were reminded last week that real food prepared with care and talent can be found in BC as well. The opportunities are just harder to find.

We were invited to attend the premier alfresco dinner at a stunning Bed and Breakfast called God’s Mountain Estate, high above the shore of Skaha lake, south of Penticton http://www.godsmountain.com/index.html.

White walls, blue sky, striking vistas

This Mediterranean styled, 14 room small Inn is by far the funkiest, most relaxing B&B I’ve encountered in a long time. Owner Sarah Allen fell in love with the property by chance in 2003 and within two years sold her Bowen island restaurant and along with her husband Richard purchased God’s Mountain.

The stunning 115 acre hillside property is a functioning organic farm growing apples, plum, cherries, apricots, grapes and a horde of vegetables. Hence the guest book at GM is filled with glowing comments on the food. There are no phones or TV’s in the room and if you like something different there’s even a roofless room for romantic star gazers.

Sarah has found a unique approach to staffing her estate too. On arrival we were greeted by a friendly young girl offering us a glass of sparkling Blue Mountain, one of Canada’s top bubblies. Turns out she’s  a woofer from Germany. A what you may ask? After some digging, I discovered a website for World Opportunities on Organic Farms. It’s an organization that helps travelers  find temporary work on farms worldwide and at the same time discover a new culture. In return for their labour woofers are given room and board.

But back to the food. The kick-off alfresco dinner was prepared Joy Road Catering, http://www.joyroadcatering.com/, which is run by two Stratford Chef’s School grads, Cameron Smith and Dana Ewart. They’ve lived in the Okanagan for several years and want to show the world what they can do with the top quality organic food being grown in the BC interior.

They are committed locavores and even spent much of the day before our dinner gathering wild greens, morels and herbs. The hard work and great ingredients really did make a huge difference. My wife stated it was the best meal she’s ever had. I wouldn’t go that far but it was the best diner I’ve had in several years.  And outside of a dash of olive oil, a shaving of pecorino, a few lemons and a handful of coffee beans, everything was grown or raised in the Okanagan. Wines of course, followed the same theme and all were excellent, especially a God’s Mountain Riesling from Wild Goose that was sourced from the vineyards on the property.

Just to make you drool some more, I’ll list a few highlights from the menu.

Selection of Oyama salami, pork rillets, market radishes with goat’s cheese – served with Blue Mountain Brut- one of Canada’s best bubblies

Chef Dana preps dessert

prepping the charcuterie platters

Wild herb, leek and spinach potage – served with God’s Mountain Riesling

Salad of shaved fennel, wild watercress, picked baby beets and quail eggs

Cider brined and charcoal grilled leg of pork, served with roasted asparagus, wild mushroom risotto –  served with Pentage Syrah from next door – superb

An amazing lemon tart served with strawberry rhubarb compote and crème fraiche

The combination of great food, the incredible view and the joyful,relaxed mood was truly memorable. By the end of the evening conversation at the communal table flowed as easily as the wine and I was left with a warm feeling of deep satisfaction.  If you want to see just how good the Okanagan can be I highly recommend you make the effort to attend.

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