Tag Archives: market

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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Slap me again, it’s not a dream

I’ve had several bouts the last few weeks of a strange disorder I’ll call lost in transititis. You know, it’s that displaced person sensation. Everything looks so familiar but it sometimes doesn’t register that I really am back in my charming village in the south of France. I haven’t done so much moving around since I was a restless twenty-something. I think I remember that it was pretty easy to adapt to new locals way back then– more brain cells without a doubt.

The good news is I try to put what I’ve got left to much better use. Seriously, though, my condition is improving and I am no longer tongue-tied each time I stroll about the village. It feels so good to run into all my old friends and get into the way of life here again.

Michel, king of the Accra

Today I cycled into Uzes, the large Medieval town just up the hill. Saturday is market day and to avoid the huge summer crowds I arrived a bit after 9 am. I could feel the energy and excitement building. The calm before the storm of Dutch, German, British, American and French tourists arrived in late morning. It felt so familiar, normal I guess since I sold wine at this same market for several years. Not much had changed; my good friend Michel was still at his habitual stand, slaving away like a madman dropping tiny teaspoons of salt-cod accras into hot oil all the while chatting with me. Elsa, his smiling young assistant was selling the golden morsels as fast as he could  make em. Michel’s stand, Les Accras de Marius, is known throughout Provence as the king of accras and falafel. His brandade, a salt cod and olive oil paste, is legendary. As luck would have it,  today was his 50th birthday. I couldn’t leave the market without doing something special so a bit later I passed by a second time with a nice bottle of red. Come September when the hordes of tourists have mostly gone home, we’ll get together and catch up, minus the smoking hot oil and the crowds of other displaced persons.

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