Monday, April 20, 2009

A visit to the Goat Cheese Makers

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

With the extra free time that my kids' school vacation has given me, I was able to visit Isabelle and Paul Pierre today. Isabelle is on new chemotherapy for her tumor, and her eyes were brighter, her step lighter than the last visit. She had on a new wig which was chicly cut, nicely straightened and shiny gray. She is hanging in there, though perfectly aware that her days are numbered. She and her doctors are doing their utmost to keep her present, able to think and cope in her daily life. She was delighted by my visit -- unable to drive nor truly having the energy to leave the farm these days. And, as usual, I try to keep my visits to an hour so I don't weary her too much, babbling as I do (but then she serves me this wonderful and very strong coffee).

I used to be apprehensive visiting sick friends. I think I'm not alone in having had to pass through a barrier of unease and maladroit sensations seeing loved ones suffering from life-threatening illness. I remember a turning point, however, when I went to see the mother of a friend of Leo and I simply offered to spend the weekend, so our kids could play, and said, what can I do? what would be of help? She was bed-ridden and it was as much to relieve her husband that I came, as to help her have a change of scenery, a new basket of books to read, new dishes to eat, etc., Visiting her as I was able, trying to help, but also making her laugh, I finally "got" it that you're alive while you're alive. Till that last breath leaves the body, whether you are ravaged by a nasty illness or not, you are very much alive and in this world. Avoiding discussing the illness is awkward and not always desired. Isabelle and I always begin our time together with an update on her doctors' visits, her treatments, her energy level, where she's at, and then we pass to life, my kids, etc., On occasion we've discussed other friends and family members who are sick, but more often we stick to the day to day details of our lives, my pleasure in my kids' growing social skills, reading, books, travel, her new grand-son.

When she tired, I went out to visit with Paul Pierre. He was hanging out the laundry. A task that Isabelle used to handle, but that had now fallen to him. We laughed over the necessity of acquiring the proper skills to hang laundry. Seriously! if you don't shake it out properly, and hang it carefully, you'll be ironing all the next day. For those of us none too fond of ironing, cultivating the proper technique and method is essential. Apparently though, Isabelle was finding her sheets rather wrinkled these days... Paul Pierre garrumphed and explained to me how he'd come up with a special technique to not put the marks of the clothes pins on the shoulders of his shirts. I have memories galore of my au pairs looking askance at me as I tried to explain the art of hanging laundry on a line. It was the rare girl who was willing to do it as I suggested. When you've been raised with dryers in all the homes you visit, it is hard to imagine that such an arcane task as laundry requires skill of any kind.

A good curdle in its mold, slowly draining.

From there, Paul Pierre guided me to the cheese laboratory so I could pick up some cheeses for my home. There, he showed me the unfortunate turn of events. Earlier this year he and Isabelle sold their cheesemaking laboratory and goats to a young woman who'd been their intern. With the goats, the equipment and the space, they'd also given her some carefully preserved (in the freezer) starter -- i.e. whey-- from a last batch of their cheese. They'd strongly suggested that once she started making the cheese she put away some of the starter just in case she'd need it in the future. Things became busy, and she forgot. In the last week or two, her cheese starting smelling off -- a bit acidic. Paul Pierre noticed this and suggested that she be a bit more careful. But, the situation simply grew out of her control. And, the last few batches of cheese have been bubbly, forming a far less lovely curdle, a murky whey, and putting air bubbles in her little cheeses, which are not aging correctly.

Cheeses as they should be.

Paul Pierre was disappointed and saddened by the turn of events. The lovely ferment starter that he and Isabelle had tended for 20 years is no longer. Another yeast has been allowed to take over, either by a shift in temperature, technique, humidity, or a slip in hygiene. Whatever the cause, the cheese the young woman is making no longer resembles theirs. And, it is no longer a good cheese. She needs to thoroughly clean out her laboratory, obtain a new ferment starter, and start over clean. She'll need to go back over the basic rules, and find the rhythm that works for her in this particular cheese lab.

Georgeanne Brennan wrote of her efforts at finding the right recipe of time, ferment, and temperature making cheese in Provence. (A Pig in Provence) It is a delicate art. Seemingly so easy, it requires trial and error to get just right, even when you do follow the directions to the letter.

But in time, the young intern will get it right. And in time, Paul Pierre will be able to truly pass the activity to her in full, proud of her independence and her future. The shifting passage from one generation to the next... to each his hurdles to leap.

No comments: