Perigord is a beautiful region of France, a patchwork of farmland tied together by low rock walls and ancient roads, sleepy little towns with the occasional castle rising up above the horizon. If you ask me why I like to travel, I would say it is because I love being confronted by the wonders of God and the awesomeness of the world he has created. As we rolled along the sleepy country roads, peering out on the fog settling over the vineyards and with the misty haze of sunlight rising just over the mountains, I couldn’t help but feel I was bearing witness to the testimony of something much greater than I, and I felt extremely privileged at the opportunity.
The trip promised to be a cold and wet one (I had gotten “snowed in” the weekend before in London, and a good dusting of white continued to cover much of Europe), but in these southern regions, the sun was shining again and the dewy grass was a welcome change from the icy sidewalks of Paris. After a night on the train, none of us were feeling particularly bright-eyed or bushy tailed, but we pulled on our boots and set out with the promise of fresh perigoridan truffles luring us ahead.
But first, there were cows.
Y’know, Parisians pride themselves on fine food, but just like any major city in the world, most of it comes from somewhere else and (contrary to what they might like you to think) there is an epidemic of children growing up who cannot even identify common vegetables. In America, we don’t do much better, but there is a movement to support fair trade, local farmers, and provide wholesome, healthy food to everyone (although this does seem to mean, in practice, “everyone who can afford it”). Restauranteurs are jumping over each other to boast the loudest that their menu now features lots of organic labels and seasonal produce. Unfortunately, it’s mostly marketing…I was particularly struck when one prominent local chef wrote proudly on his website that he “EVEN visited the farm!” It just sounded all a bit superficial…to think that we should be impressed!! It somewhat astounds me that we don’t expect the people who source our food to at least investigate its origins.
It’s important for anybody to know where food comes from, but doubly so for people whose career is to prepare the best quality products for others to eat. When we arrived at the barn, cows staring at us suspiciously from behind a table spread with fresh, homemade charcuterie and orange juice, there was no avoiding the conclusion that the meat on the table was formerly their brothers and sisters. It just gives confidence that the animals are well cared for, healthy, and as happy as a cow can be…when its obvious that every aspect of the operation is carefully managed and the farmer takes great pride in his work, you can bet that it will all shine through in the finished product.
The purpose of this trip, wonderfully, wasn’t just to observe the scenery and enjoy the attractions of another part of France. It was a very educational experience to see firsthand what we’re eating (and hopefully have some fun, too).
The stars of the show, inevitably, were the goats. Anyone who has ever met a goat will tell you what fun animals they are, and I think we probably spent more time just playing with them and scratching their ears than we did paying attention to our tourguide.
The goats we saw were all milking goats. The ones above are in a large complex that produces hundreds of little rounds of goat cheese each day. The goats are milked twice a day, and the milk is sent to the on-site creamery, where artisans fashion it into cheese.
There are hundreds of goat cheese makers across the Perigord region. They all look more or less the same, with the only difference being that each has noted on its label the farm where it was produced. The uniformity is a mark of quality and cooperation with the high production standards that are established across the region. Unfortunately, these days there is a rather unusual problem—-there are nearly too many Perigordian goat cheese makers, and the market is so saturated that it is difficult for any newcombers to break in.
These goats are part of a much smaller operation (I think the herd numbered 12 total). Their owners moved down from the Netherlands a few years ago, looking for a change of pace, and bought a couple goats. Realizing that cheese wasn’t going to be the most profitable option, they turned the basement of their house into a tiny kitchen, bought some used equipment, and set some picnic tables in the front yard. And they began selling ice cream instead. Ice Cream is a popular snack in France, but the French, apparently, are very particular about when they eat it. 12-2, we were told, is strict ice cream time in France. Luckily, Perigord is a popular tourist spot in the summer, and foreigners generally aren’t weird about what time they eat ice cream, so they were soon flooded with eager not-French customers looking for a cool snack throughout the day. So much so, in fact, that they had to hire some extra hands to help them keep up with the sales.
So how does goats milk ice cream taste? delicious. It’s not noticeably different from “normal” ice cream, but it is lower in fat (there is no need to add extra cream, as one might do for cow’s milk ice cream) and it is also very low in lactose, which means it is enjoyed by many people who usually cannot indulge in this favorite treat.
Of the two goat farms we visited, the larger one was definitely most impressive, but the smaller one was the most inspiring. As culinary students aiming to go out into the world and hopefully start our own businesses one day (as I think most of us plan to do) it was an encouragement to see people succeeding, and to talk to them a little bit about their business model. It’s just amazing that two people have built a business and can support themselves on icecream made from the milk of just 12 little dairy goats. And, to go back to what I was saying at the beginning about visiting the small farms and supporting them, it’s important to note that shopping locally isn’t just about business opportunities and marketing strategies, but making connections with other people and building a community where we can all help and support one another. Taking the time to speak honestly with the farmers we met on this trip, to taste their food and buy their products, even though they are not particularly “local” to any of us, is as much an investment in our future businesses and our own aspirations as it is in theirs.