France, the Font of Holy Goat Cheese

french cheeses on displayFrance. Ten days. Sixty Cheeses. And that was just the Affinage Course. We’ve just had three weeks in France where we took part in a specialist cheese course at Mons – Fromager Affineur the Academie Opus Caseus course – to learn more about French cheese and the ripening and maturation of cheeses. Our small group included an English cheesemaker, American cheesemonger and our American interpreter and French teacher. We also acknowledge all the wonderful cave dwellers who care for the cheese and prepare them for sale.

Apart from the formal cheese tasting (six cheeses each day) and learning about the intricacies and alchemy of maturing different cheese types through the coursework, our trip was a goat cheese immersion. We visited some of our past French interns at Holy Goat and saw how they had developed their own farm businesses. We also visited Ivan Larcher who has come to Holy Goat previously, to advise on our cheesemaking. The trip was so very inspiring and affirming for us. We’ve come home with a two page manifesto of ideas and tasks, from the small to the large-scale. Travel broadens the mind, but travel with a purpose surely focuses and renews it. We already have a couple of larger projects on the go, to improve our efficiencies in the dairy and the cheeseroom, as well as a host of small improvements including specific brushes for affinage, new cheese hoops, changing our maintenance schedule and learning French!

But back to those 60 cheeses. Each day we would have a formal tasting of six cheeses, maybe of the same family, or from the same animal, or a mix. It was a thorough process; first to determine parameters for the cheese – visual, smell, texture – and only then to taste the cheese. We had to try to identify the animal (sheep, goat, cow) what cheese type (goat, fresh, soft ripened washed rind, soft ripened bloomy rind, pressed uncooked, pressed cooked, blue, processed) and where it was from. The French have strict codes on their cheeses – the AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protegee) or ‘protected designation of origin’ is a certification granted to certain products to guarantee its characteristics and origins. The AOP defines the region of a cheese and where and how it has been made over centuries, which gives it status that is embedded in French culture; the design, style and origin is a mark of standing and importance. This AOP can be both a blessing and a curse. Here in Australia we have far more flexibility to experiment with our cheeses and cultures. But the French legacy of history, from centuries of cheesemaking, is enormous. In fact it was the Islamic Saracens who first brought goats into France and by about  800AD goats had reached the Loire Valley. Puts our own industry into perspective!

Goat herds have always been an important part of French dairying and so have the small, french goats grazingspecialist cheesemakers, with around 7000 specialist farmhouse cheesemakers like us (for a population of 70 million). Compare that with less than 50 in Australia. Milk is not seen as a product or commodity in France. The French rarely drink milk, but do eat massive amounts of cheese, yoghurt, butter. Australia produces milk. The types of cheese produced in France also reflect the population, topography and climate. In the river valleys where populations are focused, fresh cheeses rule. In the high alpine country, the dense, high protein, high nutrient hard cheeses reign. The French eat at least 24kg of cheese per head each year. Australians eat 12kg.

As much attention is paid to the ripening, care and retail of cheese as the production, hence the course run at Mons. Agricultural education is paramount. Specialist Dairy Technician training is available through five schools across France. Training is industry focused. Graduates have extensive and impressive knowledge of all things cheese, from animal husbandry and milk production right through to the final product. This explains why we have found our French interns so valuable – they have both the applied and practical training before they even graduate. When our interns arrive at Holy Goat, they are ready to work.

More Impressions from France:

  • There are real openings and opportunities for the young and enthusiastic to get a start in dairy farming. For instance, it is feasible to have a small herd of 12 cows producing 200 litres of milk per day, a little factory to produce yoghurt and butter on farm, and to make a living.
  • Goats are vital contributors to agriculture. Goat cheese has a category of its own, ahead of cow, sheep. It is lauded.
  • The willingness of dairy farmers to share information, resources and advice. We experienced a real exchange of ideas, especially from the day to day operations and systems of local farms. Farmers share a real pride in what they do and their industry.
  • Organic methods and inputs are widely used, with many options to improve and support growers, especially with nutrition and animal health. Animal health observation cards, “Obsalim” a fantastic example. We were thrilled to find out that they are available specifically for goats, and also in English!
  • Because goats are such a large part of the French dairying, there is a huge amount of resources and research to support the industry.

And what’s next? Well back to our two page list, for a start. And to enjoy the inspiration from seeing our goats, and cheese, anew.

Thank you to our generous sponsor who enabled us to travel and study. Also the amazing team at Holy Goat for sailing the goat ship and cheese room whilst we were away.

Here are a few pics from the trip … click on the images to see the larger version.