September 4, 2012
Mont: population 20. The Valley of Louron is the end of the world. We see everything. The tiny villages nestled in the floor of the valley, the velvety rolling ridges that house herds of animals, and the turquoise sparkle of the lake. As we take the cows up the hill after the evening milking we watch the graceful parasailers as the sun sets behind the mountain, tiny floating crescents of orange and pink who will come to rest on the grassy valley floor. In the center of the valley lies a manmade lake in the center for boating, with a public park around it. Last year at this time I was in New Delhi, sweating through my kurta and taking the subway to world heritage sites I couldn’t afford to go into.
Before we arrived at the fromagerie of Mont, my sister and I joked that we were going to live like Heidi, living in an ancient village perched in the mountains, living off of goat milk and toasted cheese sandwiches. When we opened ourbedroom window that overlooks the valley below. Brett and I were in raptured disbelief. “Wait, really? We get to live here for a month? How did we get so lucky?” I mean we thought the bee farm was beautiful, but this land makes Stephanie’s bee farm look like downtown Hillsboro.
Let’s meet the gang. First, there’s le patron. “My name is Yves, but my friends call me Tom.” Well, that clears things up, doesn’t it? I started calling him YvesTom to cover my bases. YvesTom is a fawn who crossed over into the human world to become a cheese farmer. At about five feet tall, he has dark shaggy curls, several missing teeth, and a laissez-faire attitude about everything. He likes to blast Gaga or Led Zeppelin as he loads his truck for a village market. Then there’s Julie, also tiny, with a light-up smile who could charm the pants off a 2×4. Naturally, she takes care of the animals. The rest of the day she buzzes around organizing, scrubbing pans, selling cheese to tourists at the fromagerie until about 3 pm when she crashes on the couch for a nap before the evening milking. To round out the group we have Luic, the 18 year old agricultural engineer student, interning for the summer. He spends his non-working hours playing fantasy fighting games online, swearing at the screen as his cigarette misses the ash tray for the tenth time. But when he tunes back into reality, he’s much more pleasant, telling stories with flailing hands, deftly rallying the sheep with a sharp whistle through his teeth. YvesTom also has two daughters who spend half their time with their mom in the valley and the other half on their cell phones, watching TV, or generally looking pouty. (All three farms we have worked on have had two daughters. Coincidence? Or do they all have a secret affinity towards two traveling sisters?)
Luic, Julie, and Amelie a-milking
In the Vallee of Louron there are two tourist seasons, winter for skiing and summer for hiking and parasailing. So the economy has about four months a year of heavy activity, with lulls in between. Such a nice rhythm, no? Although it’s not as if YvesTom has less work to do, in fact, quite the opposite. Selling cheese and drinking beer with your farmer friends at markets is easy compared to milking and making cheese every morning, especially when you would rather just sleep in and forget about the whole thing.
YvesTom makes cheese from sheep and cows. He used to keep goats too, but spent all his time running around the mountain rounding them up. Apparently they would sneak through the gate behind passing hikers, like four-legged apartment burglars. Too bad, because goat cheese is delicieux.
Here’s an idea of what a day on the farm is like:
8:30-9:00 am Eat oatmeal, drink coffee. Boot up.
9:15 am Walk down the gravel road to the fromagerie. Gape at the mountain peaks and the valley below. Find the cows and herd them inside the barn. Water the animals. Milk the cows. Find the sheep and herd them inside the barn. (As soon as the gate to the sheep pasture is opened, YvesTom sprints with all of them around the backside of the barn so he can shut the gate behind them. It’s the most hilarious part of the day, YvesTom sprinting in his boots with his hair in his face, a lit cigarette dangling from his mouth.) Then everyone milks the 140 sheep together. Clean the milking machine. Let the sheep out to pasture. Let the cows out to pasture.
10:30 am YvesTom and Julie go back to the house for a coffee and cigarette break. Brett, Luic, and I enter ‘la cave’ to flip the cheeses and rub them with Armagnac, spreading the mold and building up the edible crust of the cheese.
On Mondays and Thursdays we “fabrique le fromage.” Well, YvesTom makes the cheese while we watch. We’re on clean-up duty, squeegeeing the floors, scrubbing utensils in scalding water, etc.
12:00 pm Come back to the house, loiter around for an hour until I or someone else makes lunch.
1:30 pm After lunch is free time. We read, go on walks, take naps, Skype our loved ones, or do art.
4:00 pm The fromagerie shop opens to visitors, so if the walkie-talkie ringer sounds, one of us (usually Luic) will run down the hill to serve les clients.
.In the summer, there are afternoon markets several times a week, so sometimes one of us will go with YvesTom, Julie or Luic to help. I love working the markets. Shaving off tastes of cheese for clients, chatting with them about the cheese, being nice to their children and dogs. And almost every village in the valley has an annual foire, or agricultural fair, which is simply a bigger-than-usual market, sometimes with a day concert and a beer garden thrown up.
6:03 pm But back at the ranch, it’s the evening milking of the cows. This milking is open to the public, so as tourists begin to trickle down the hill, we cry and push the cows down the hill, into the barn, and get the machine humming. I like the evening milking. You’d be surprised how many touristing families think it’s swell to come watch three cows get milked, but I guess if your kids are too young to ski or parasail and it’s raining, visiting a cheese farm sounds riveting after a week of paddleboating on the lake or walking up and down hills. Every day we answer the same three or four questions, (“Yes, we only have three cows…yes, the cows are milked twice a day…Yes, Daisy is an Alpine breed and the other two are Jersey…”) It makes me happy to see wide-eyed children stand a few feet from Daisy’s enormous head, caught somewhere between terrified and thrilled. As I crouch underneath the cows, squeezing out milk to speed up the process, I listen to young parents explain to their kids about the cows, (“See the milk goes through that tube there.” “No, these are all girl cows…”) The evening milking connects consumers to the agricultural process through a positive, interactive experience. This is exactly how we become more conscious of how we treat each other and all creatures on the earth. The evening milking is what it’s all about.
6:59 pm After all the tourists have bought cheese and gone home happily, we wash the milking machine, then cry and push the cows back up the hill. Panting up the stone steps, we go back to the house for l’aperitif. Rinse and repeat.