Le Ferme de Monatges
As the train pulled out from Bordeaux, we unloaded our lunch. Fresh chevre, salami purchased from the market we stumbled upon in Bordeaux, apricot jam, warm bread from the boulangerie, and crisp, red wine. As we began to eat slices of salami, cheese and bread, our French neighbors across the train asked, “ You are American? What kind of cheese is that?
“It is chevre, we made it on the farm we’ve been working on for the last few days,” we happily replied.
“Oh! That must be where you learned to eat,” our companions said, in all seriousness.
I couldn’t help but laugh. Eating cheese with jam is something so natural, and yet to this couple, it was a solely French way. With our cheese, salami, and wine, we were in France, living as the French do. Watching the rolling hills of France speed by as the train headed towards Spain, our week as French goat farmers had come to an end just as we were becoming French to the French.
Tucked away in the South west of France, 50 kilometers from the rustic town of Agen, we had found ourselves surrounded by vineyards and foie gras producers, on the Ferme de Montages in Lagraulet. Owned by Cyril and Ted Braam, the 20-acre goat farm is home to a herd of thirty five goats as well as chickens, sheep, dogs, and cats. With goat cheese production, chickens with eggs, and a vegetable garden full of tomatoes, potatoes, herbs, lettuce varieties, and beans, the farm is primarily self sustained. The family supports themselves from the trade of hard and soft rind goat cheese and barter for other farmer’s wares, affording them the simple French country lifestyle they are happy and comfortable with.
This is not the story tale of a farm passed down from generation to generation. The Braams’ moved to France over 30 years ago from Holland, changing their lifestyles from city goers to goat farmers. Once a photographer and marketing executive, the couple now continuously spend their time taking care of the big and little tasks necessary for a farm to function. Cyril makes fresh bread, tends to the vegetable garden, and does much of the heavy labor, making hay, firewood, and cleaning the grounds. Ted makes jams, preserves, and prepares the daily meals. She also cleans the cheese room daily and is responsible for selling the cheese at local markets.
The day always begins with milking the goats. The goats are called into the the stable to be fed and milked. The only male, a thin, brown goat, whose long hair gives him a wise, ancient look, is tied up in the center of the stable. The females are lured to their slots in the stable with feed of oats and grains. The milk is taken from each goat, relaxing the females, and brought into the cheese room. Twice a week it is poured into the large kettle, where it is gently warmed and combined with rennet, yogurt, and whey. This is made into hard, pressed cheese. For the soft rind cheese, the milk is cooled and rennet, bacteria (penicillin, which causes the outer skin to form) and whey is added.
The goats are led back into the pastures to feed and the cheese making has begun. It is time for a simple French breakfast of coffee, fresh bread, jam, and butter. Afterward, the days work continues. The cheese room is cleaned; all the cheese is wiped with salt water and turned over. The chilled cheeses are turned over and their trays are cleaned. Work on the garden is done; plants are mulched, seedlings are replanted. Wood is collected for firewood, repairs are made to the barn and stables. Fruit is collected and cleaned, jams are put on the fire to cook down into preserves. Once a week, Cyril takes the cheese to clients, selling for the week. Around midday there is another break and a larger meal. Simple salads of grated carrots or beets with vinaigrette or a creamy soup of garlic or tangy green tomatoes begins the meal. Hearty dishes of stewed goat with rice or potatoes with anchovies are the main dish. A dessert of tangy fromage blanc sweetened with sugar ends the main meal of the day.
In the afternoon the work continues. Bread is baked and cheese making is finished. Hard cheese is pressed into molds, the whey is pushed out, and the cheese is weighed down. Soft cheese is scaled into molds and chilled. The goats are milked again in the early evening. On hot summer days, a fiesta is taken, a mid-day break. The couple enjoys a glass of locally made wine or a local French beer. Later in the evening, a simple meal of salad, cheese and bread will finish the day.
Life is simple on the farm; the cheese is made, the animals are taken care of and the garden is tended to. The work is hard and all consuming, but it is a satisfying, quiet way of life. Spend a week living this way; slow down the pace of life, but work hard, and experience France in a way no hotel could show or website could suggest. Form relationships with real people living in France, travel to small towns in tiny corners of France, away from the hustel and bustle of tourists and big cities. And eat bread with salami and cheese and jam. And be French with the French on a train speeding through France.