Thursday, September 10, 2009
A goat kind of day
Today was calm and easy, though with a few moments of whoops. Zooming over after seeing my kids off to school, I arrived during the first session of milking (with the 36 goats, there are three sessions). All was progressing smoothly, permitting me the occasion to ask Aurelie about the different goats, to get a better sense of their teats: which ones were lumpy and bumpy, which ones seemingly never emptied out, which just went on for twice the length of the others. As we handle each goat and help them get the most milk out by doing a bit of manual squeezing, helping along the milking pumps, it is just part of the job to become familiar with the particularities of each goat. Goats are individuals in the shape of the teats, the density, the let-down impulse, and the quantity of milk they give. The goats have been bred to be good milkers, but nonetheless, whether or not they gave birth (or miscarried), and to how many kids, and whether they'd been injured during the birthing, or by the billy goat... so many factors come into play.
The bits of hay which the goats hadn't eaten were outside in the wheelbarrow. These are for Isabelle's horse. It is an interesting fact that many goat herders have a horse or pony and find it a very economical arrangement as the horse will eat the hay that the goats refuse. You feed a horse for free this way, especially if it is of a hardy breed that can be left outdoors much of the year. So, I brought the wheelbarrow over to the horse and gave him his day's share of hay. He's pretty skittish, and barely sniffed me, shying away from my hand as I went to caress his nose. With time, perhaps he'll be more at ease with me.
And then back to the goats. We had four very full tanks of milk to gently roll into the laboratory. Today there was a young man who is attending agricultural high school interning with Aurelie. His family raises sheep for meat not too far away. Hence he was quite at ease with the animals. Then, eager to help, he followed after Aurelie and lifted one of the tanks to pour the milk through the fine sieve. But,.... he slipped. More than half of the tank of milk splattered all over the floor of the lab, and worse, the aluminum tank/recipient was dented which will prevent a perfect seal between the lid and the tank, which renders it useless for milking with the pump. It was a sorry affair, though Aurelie was extremely gracious and patient with him. But it was one of those "watch me before attempting this" moments, and... rather than pull him back, we two women just let him go ahead, assuming that with his masculine strength he'd be fine. Ah well. A little humility, patience and prevention go a long way. Today's take is a full 20% under what it should be. Only four 20 litre bins were filled rather than five. Mistakes happen, and you just have to deal with them.
For myself, it was a day of repeating gestures more smoothly and assuredly, asking more questions about the goats and the curd, attempting to be more consistent and attentive to the rhythms of the laboratory. Trays of cheese are daily shifted around, and I've not yet completely got their movements clear in my head -- which ones need turning in the dryer, which ones are which age in the cave d'affinage. I've also much more to learn about the curdling milk. I feel I could easily still mix up the two and three day curd. One day a week is a strict minimum for learning this trade. In general, serious interns spend six months, every day, alongside established cheese makers, repeating, learning, watching, following, and gradually absorbing all the many, many aspects of this trade.
Over a proper Breton lunch of sarrasin galettes filled with cheese, ham and a fried egg, topped off with good salted butter, all prepared by Paul Pierre, formerly of the North Atlantic coast, he and Isabelle spoke of the details that separate a decent cheese maker from a gifted one. It is very easy to make basic cheese they avowed. But to make consistent cheese, in texture, salinity, weight.. that was the challenge. And you could only do so if you pay extra careful attention, note what you've done each day, and taste the results. Amongst the more difficult aspects is final weight. Simply filling each mold to the brim is not enough. The curd is textured differently and of changing density depending on where it is in the bin. Thus the cheesemaker needs to gain sufficient experience to know, adapt and perfect his gestures. Consistency. Respecting temperature and time is of course important, as is the number of drops of rennit, the time in the drying room, the time before flipping... and the quantity of salt gently sprinkled upon each side of the cheese.
As I set off after my post-lunch coffee, I smelled the potent muskiness of the billy goat. Aurelie hasn't put him with the goats yet, but soon, perhaps even next week, he'll get his time with them. That will be interesting.