Friday, January 19, 2007

Old School Production

A Lesson in Slow Food:

The last day in the mountains led us to an even smaller production facility. Marion, the ever generous and knowledgable hostess, arranged for us to tag alongside and elementary school field trip of one of the only cheesemaking facilities still adhering to the age-old hand and teeth tradition. When we arrived (late of course) at La Combe Laisia, Thomas, an ex-wine-seller from Dijon was already busy cutting the curds in a large copper cauldron for gruyere. After trekking past the barn, mounds of cut grass for fodder, and piles of mud, we entered the cheesemaking room and also travelled back in time a few hundred years. In an effort to bring back the missing human link one sees nowadays with technology, La Combe Laisia has stuck with tradition quite impressively.

After about 30 minutes of hand-churning, Thomas set up the mechanical churner--the kids were getting a bit ansty, so it was time to change things up a bit. All milk here is pasteurized, for the facility does not exactly meet the EU's modern standards of production. La Combe Laisia was given the green light to continue making and selling cheese thanks to Monsieur Pasteur. For the pasteuriwation, the cheese is brought to 52°c by way of wood fire. This takes a good while, so the kiddos are sent to see the cows. I linger to talk with Thomas.

My questions about pasteurization and EU laws seemed very American to hm at first, as he, and just about every other cheese person in France, think Americans possess an unfounded and "idiot" fear of raw milk. I tried to explain that I and others in the U.S. did not agree with FDA laws in place. I guess in countries where voices are heard and votes count, it might be hard to understanc the disparity between U.S. laws and certain American thought. Understandable. Once Thomas understood my position, things eased and information flowed with less hostility.

In an effort to truly educate people of the cheesemaking process, La Combe Laisia--also organic--keeps things slow and simple so as not to miss a step. Excellent for me as I even have difficutly explaining where vegetable ash comes from to inquiring customers. When I asked Jean-Paul at the previous fruitiere, he responded with a dumbfounded, "We buy it." Yes, I know, but how is it made? It remains a mystery, as he did not have an answer for me. At La Combe Laisia, I saw everything, including the source of rennet, the enzyme added to the milk to make it separate. Thomas told me that they might buy the rennet (let me clarify: buy the baby cow's stomach to then make the rennet), but a neighbor that had recently slaughtered a calf for consumption was kind enough to give them the stomach. He pulled a plastic shopping bag off the hay-laden floor in the hallway and showed me the fresh stomach. He then showed me a dry stomach that he would cut into 30 1" x 1" pieces to add to a jar of whey, which would then ferment and become, voilĂ , rennet. Whew! This is slow food folks.

Thomas cutting the dried calf stomach for rennet

When the kids returned, it was time to finish the cheese. Thomas took the caldron off the fire, prepared the wooden mold and cheese cloth, and proceeded to drain the whey with a sieve and pump.
Once most of the whey had been drained, Thomas took the cheese cloth, one side held above whey and curd by his teeth, and slid it under the curd at the bottom of the pot. Teeth and fists, he lifted the curd, put it on a pully, and moved it to the mold. Through this whole process, whey drains into a bucket. After one turn of the cheese, the tour was over. After we left, there was still more turning, draining, and salting to do, as well as months of aging before it would be edible. And the taste? Delicious.

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Cows in Repose on Veldhuizen Family Farm. Dublin, TX