The work of artisan goat cheese producers in France.
There are only 35 ‘artisan’ cheeses in the Dordogne. That is, there are only 35 people left who rear and milk their own animals and make their own cheese. Appart from that, all the cheeses which are made in the region, come from co-ops. This means that there are goat and cow farmers, who sell their milk to what are essentially cheese factories. The situation is the same – or worse – all over France.
I went to see Christelle and Dominique Foucaut, who live just down the road from me, and who have been making their own goat’s cheese for a living, for 16 years. Their traditional ‘cabécou’ (small, round, flat, gooey) cheeses are in huge demand, but they keep their production levels low, and see their bread and butter as more than a living; for them it is necessary to embrace it as a lifestyle. I had lots of questions for them, about their production methods, ethos and the French cheese industry. Here is what they had to say:
How did you get into this way of life?
Dominique; “We were living in the north of France, and wanted a different lifestyle for ourselves and our future family. We loved this region, and knew that we wanted to make a living from farming in some way, but I had expected to be growing vegetables or something! We found this property, and it just happened that it was already a goat farm, so we thought we’d give it a go. A lot of people will try farming goats for a couple of years, but find that it doesn’t suit them. I was lucky in that I was able to come down and stay with the previous owners for a few months, learning the skills that I needed to run the farm. This was crucial for a complete novice – I was, afterall, a foreigner to the area, the local culture and this industry, just like you! That was in 1988.
Do you sell goat’s meat? Or do you make your living entirely from the cheese?
Christelle; “No! We’re no very suited to being business people, because we love our goats too much! All our income comes from doing the markets (Terrasson on thursdays, Cubjac on fridays and Thiviers on saturdays), and we only sell cheese, not milk. We do sell surplus baby goats, but instead of killing the older ladies, we firstly keep them much longer than ‘good business’ dictates – they should really go after 5 years, but we keep them in production for more like 10 years! – and then we give them away to people, perhaps for grazing, but mainly so that we don’t have to end their lives! We have 40 goats, and know them all by name.”
Dominique; “Some people are surprised that we can make a living from 40 goats, but, although the type of small, fiddley cheese we make is very time consuming, the cheese yield per litre of milk is high. Then, we have no cheese wastage at all, because we sell fresh cheese, slightly matured cheese, and also people travel a long way to buy our very strong, dry cheese, which is hard to come by nowadays. This means there’s a market for our cheese, however old or young it is. We are lucky and unusual in that our product never goes off! Also, because we limit the number of goats, they are less time consuming to care for – we don’t have to spend all our time trimming hooves!
And I suppose that because the goats aren’t crowded, there is less need for expensive medication?
Dominique; “No, exactly. We treat them twice a year for parasites, and sometimes give them plant-based or mineral supplement, or vitamins. We only give an individual antibiotics if they are ill, which is rare. Even organic farms are allowed to give an animal antibiotics twice a year, but we reject the milk of any animal that is being treated with antibiotics.”
Christelle; “No, it’s not like we give them medicines in their food every day.”
Have you thought about becoming organic farmers?
Dominique; “Yes, we did look into it. We basically are organic, but it wouldn’t increase our income if we paid to be part of the official scheme, because we are not trying to sell to supermarkets or anything. We sell everything we make, and people who will only buy organic produce when they are shopping in the supermarket, are happy to buy cheese from us, because they know us, and they know how our cheese is produced. The organic label wouldn’t do us any favours. If we produced twice the amount the expense and complications might be commercially worthwhile, but as it is I’m not sure that I think the organic regulations are logical or even very clear.
Lots of cow and goat dairy farmers keep their animals indoors, with carefully regulated feed, in order to produce large and even quantities of milk. Your goats are free to roam in the fields and woods. Does your turnover suffer as a consequence?
Dominique; “No. It’s more important for our cheese that the milk is rich and of good quality, than to have lots of it. Our goats have a really good diet of wild plants and grass, with hay and a little grain in the winter. They’re never fed silage or pellets like in more intensive farming, and that’s another reason why our goats are productive until they are much older than worn-out, intensively farmed animals.”
Christelle; “Our goats are well-nourished and have a fun time, finding their food. They’re not exactly exploited!”
Dominique; “The cheese does change throughout the year, though.”
Christelle; “Yes, if they’re in the woods, eating different herbs, leaves and fruits at different times of year- lots of blackberries in September- that makes a difference. Not radically, but the qualities of the cheese do change.”
Dominique; “There are times when our customers are super-happy with the cheese, but they’re never unhappy! They appreciate the creamy texture and depth of flavour that our cheese always has. They can’t get that from coop cheese, and we would loose customers if our cheese production went up by using unnatural feed, because the flavour and texture would suffer. Once, each farm had it’s own distinct cheese, due to specific moulds, yeasts and bacteria, but also because of the plants on the farm. That’s how different famous cheeses developed their individual characteristics.”
“Also, we make our living from these animals, and feel we should respect them. It’s lovely to see them happy, doing what they naturally do.”
Do you still eat the cheese that you make?
Dominique; “Of course! Everyday!”
Christelle; “It’s Dominique who deals with the maturing of the cheeses, so he’s obliged to taste the cheese very regularly. We have three children and they all like the cheese, and recipes made with goat’s cheese. One of them loves it! Of course, it’s not the only cheese that we eat.”
Do you still enjoy what you do?
Christelle; “Well, we wouldn’t change! Our whole lifestyle is wrapped up in it. We’d have to move…”
Dominique; “You can’t see what we do with rose-tinted glasses. It is sometimes hard, we have to milk the goats twice a day, every single day, so weekends don’t exist, and we can’t really go on holiday, except occasionally when the goats are pregnant – they are pregnant for two months every year, around February time, and therefore don’t provide any milk. We can’t go on summer holidays with both of us and our children. Having said that, we don’t work all the time.”
Christelle; “We have time off in the afternoons, like now!”
Dominique; “We do three jobs, really. Firstly we care for the animals, feeding, milking et cetera. Then there is the cheese making, which I find a bit tedious, and takes a couple of hours everyday. The third type of work is the markets, where we have contact with the public and meet our customers, who are very loyal, and this bit really makes everything worthwhile. I wouldn’t want to be making the cheese full time, like in a factory, but I am happy to do my own each day, because it comes from our well-cared for goats and well-cared for milk. So even the boring bits, like washing up the cheese containers for ages, feels worthwhile. In general we love what we do.”
Right, everyone! Of course we all want to make the most of the vast variety of delicious French cheeses available, but remember to look out for ‘artisan’ cheese, and remember to buy it! We don’t want this breed to die out.
© Gem Driver 2005