Margaret and Dick   


October 2011: Artisan cheese

Each week at the Friday market in Limoux, we buy goat cheese from the same vendors, Xavier Tissot and his daughter Magali, who is training to continue the family business.  We always buy their affinés (aged) cheeses, when available, for their complex flavor.  We’ve brought them back to USA – no problem for transport or for customs with aged cheeses – and made some friends among Atlanta chefs when we share the wealth.  

As we got to know the cheese makers, their story got more fascinating, and ultimately we just had to ask if we could visit the farm.  Xavier was a career army helicopter pilot.  From colonel to goat farmer, just how does that work?  During his army career, the family always kept a few goats for their own milk and cheese consumption.  Army folks are transferred every few years, so Xavier and wife Delphine simply moved the goats along with their eleven children – plus horses, chickens, and miscellaneous pets.  As retirement approached, they bought their dream farm Bourdichou in the rolling hills of the Lauragais, not far from Limoux.  Xavier has traced the farm’s history back to 1596.

They now have 33 goats and plan to add three or four per year until they reach their capacity of forty.  Just like family winemakers who limit out at thirty acres of grapes, a family of three can handle (quite literally at milking time) around forty goats.  Any more than forty would require milking by machine, and Xavier has no interest in automating the process.   Running the business is a full-time job for the family of three.  On market days they rise at 4am to milk the goats; other days they can sleep in until 6am.  And they can’t exactly get a goat sitter when they want to go on vacation!

Each goat has a name whose first letter matches their year of birth:  Eve, Elia, Elizabeth in 2009, Francoise and Frederique in 2010...  Each adult produces two liters of milk per day, for an annual production of some 30,000 cheeses per year, which they sell at 2€ ($2.75) apiece.  By selling directly to consumers at the local markets, they’re able maintain a reasonable profit margin.  And they clearly enjoy talking with their regulars.  

The scale of the operation feels just right.  We watched Magali doing the daily maintenance on today’s cheeses:  flipping, salting, and shifting them successive phases of draining, drying, and aging.  In the 75°F (25°C) cheese-making room, curdled milk goes into a mold with holes in the bottom and sides to drain excess liquid.  Tomorrow it will be unmolded, drain and dry for another day or so, and then go either into the refrigerator for a week to be sold as fresh cheese or into the cool aging room for a few months’ affinage.  Your Bourdichou cheeses won’t have the overwhelming sour taste that often characterizes fresh American goat cheese:  raw milk provides an active medium that evolves the lactic acid into more interesting tastes over the period of a week.  And their aged cheeses?  You need to taste to understand what it’s all about. 

Goat’s milk really wants to turn into cheese, just like grapes want to turn into wine.  The cheese flora occur naturally in the milk, multiply rapidly when held just below body temperature, and soon dominate competing bacteria.  The lactic acid kills most bad bugs such as staph.  “Like good soldiers, they protect each other”, says Colonel Xavier.  Add a bit of rennet to trigger coagulation, and in 24 hours you’ve got cheese.  In affinage, the good bacteria develop a protective skin that gives an aged cheese its crusty outside.  Xavier’s personal stash includes a cheese so old it looks positively scary.

Milking time is meal time, and in anticipation the goats stick their heads into the spaced wooden slots that will keep them from stealing each other's food.  It takes two people a half-hour to milk the goats.  And it takes strong hands, as evidenced by Magali’s bone-crushing handshake.  They wash the teats and squirt the first two pulls onto the ground so only clean milk goes into the bucket.  Now and then they lose a bucket when a goat kicks it over or puts her foot in it.

There’s a big transition from milking in the barn – definitely not a sterile environment! – to the clean lab where Magali wears a white coat.  The occasional fly that wanders in from the barn is soon zapped or stuck to fly paper.  

“How did you learn to make goat cheese?” we asked Xavier.  Initially au pif (literally, by his nose), by intuition and taste.  “We practiced on our family for years with our few goats.  All the children were raised on unpasteurized goat’s milk as babies.”  They survived and thrived.  Lucky for all that Magali wants to continue the enterprise; the ten sons all chose other careers.  Now 19, she occasionally spends a week in formal training for cheese-making to eventually broaden the farm’s offerings.

As we got ready to leave, we looked around at all their tractors and equipment.  It’s a huge commitment, financially and personally, to run a family farm.  It’s exhausting just to think about the work involved.  In France as in the USA, city hippies flocked to the country to raise goats in the 1960s, and most learned it’s not for everyone.  But farming isn’t all work, and mama Delphine happily showed us her pet greyhounds, horses, and donkeys. This is their chosen life, and they love it.  

Any other projects in mind?  “Yes, I want to sell bread,” says Xavier.  “I have 17 hectares set aside to grow wheat…”  

It’s so gratifying to see these traditions continuing, and we moan a few words of thanks to les Bourdichou whenever we bite into one of their aged cheeses.  If you come to Limoux, do be sure to seek out their stand at the Friday morning market, at the corner of Avenue des Marronniers and rue Jean Jaurès.  

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