"It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to."
- Bilbo Baggins, The Lord of the Rings - The Fellowship of the Ring
The inflight movie selection was purposely selected for this very moment on my way to France to begin my Churchill Fellowship. Bilbo's words to Frodo which planted the seed of journey and sense of purpose in young Frodo resonated with me and I sat back with a big smile on my face and began to ponder what lay ahead for me over the upcoming 9 weeks of travel and discovery.
I earned my Churchill Fellowship - Jack Green award, in 2012, for the study of Affinage (cheese maturation) and the development and unification of a national cheese society. 3 long years of recovery from back surgery together with great sacrifice for the creation and growth of Spring Street Grocer caused me to continuously delay this amazing opportunity for both myself and the Australian cheese industry.
My first stop on this Journey was a farm just outside of the small town named Cheniers, in the Limousin region of Southern centre of France. Cheniers is a beautiful and isolated 15-16th century town that runs along La Petite Creuse river. The first word that comes to mind when describing this part of France is Pure... Off the beaten tourist track and where barter is still the most popular form of currency.
The farm belongs to Ivan Larcher, known around the world as the 'Cheese Ninja' and rightly so; here is a man who is a guru of the technical and scientific side of cheese making. He has helped develop some of the world's most impressive cheeses and cheese facilities, from Tunworth in England to Jasper Hill Cellars in Vermont, USA. Ivan is an inspiring man in that he lives and breathes the 3 things that he loves and is passionate about; family, cheese & travel. This Holy trinity is what makes him one of the most incredible people I have met.
Ivan currently has a milking herd of 15 Jersey cows which produces anywhere from 150 to 180 litres of rich Jersey milk everyday. His farm is a picturesque landscape on a hill leading to the local river. He and his wife, Julie, brought it off her father a few years ago to set up this micro dairy he is currently converting into a Dairy School to train world cheesemakers. He has planted a field of 5 ancient grains and peas that he is harvesting to provide his herd with a greater source of nourishment that will lead to an even richer and tastier milk for his butter, yoghurt and cheese production. It is this style of farm and way of life that Ivan preaches with intense passion to the many new cheesemakers on his numerous journeys consulting around the world. Too many old school mindsets believe that you need a herd of 150 plus milking animals and vast land to be profitable. This is not the case, to ensure the prosperity of your animals, vitality of your soil and survival of your local environment which all leads to high quality milk, a small herd on a manageable property for the amount of workers you have is the way forward for all the farmhouse and artisan cheese industry, no matter what the country.
This past week with Ivan has been intensive as much as it has been fun and inspiring. The daily ritual involved waking up at 6am to milk the cows in the beautiful 16th century barn that has been converted into their milking quarters before feeding the 5 calves in the quarters next door. We would then proceed to the dairy to analyse the milk and determine what we would make that day in order to learn that cheese in both its technique (acid and temperature requirements, curd cutting size, etc.) and faults to look out for during the affinage. We would inoculate the milk with the cultures required and then head back to the house for Breakfast. This was usually fresh eggs from Julie's father's farm next door, ham/bacon from the farmer two doors down (which was exchanged for cheese), bread Julie's mum made, a cheeky terrine/pate or two from the weekend market and of course for me; fresh milk from the morning's milking (still warm at 38c).
We would then head back into dairy and set our milk with rennet and wait. During the wait we would tend to the cheeses from the past few days, whether it be flipping, brining or brushing. One thing you notice as a cheesemaker, there is never a dull moment, whilst you are waiting for the milk to set or required pH for the next step in the making, you are tending to previous days' makes or cleaning, cleaning, cleaning, all the while, keeping an eye on the texture of your milk, pH meter and temperature / wind movement of the make room - all significant parameters that can make or break your curd quality. Physically and mentally challenging work that is not to be underestimated but is too often forgotten by aspiring cheesemakers.
Lunch every day was privilege for me, a boy from Melbourne, local duck or Limousin cattle steak was the menu de Jour with new potatoes and greens, harvested right there and then, from the green house attached to the house. Tuesday's lunch involved a journey to the next country district (5 hour return trip by car) for an annual tasting and critical feedback of 14 local cheesemakers' cheeses.
Depending on what type of cheese we would make, the afternoon involved cutting the curd and moulding and then flipping the freshly made cheeses. We would then enter 'class room' mode and look at the science behind every step of the make, what parameters needed to be respected for this cheese and then affinage techniques. This was a great challenge for me as much as it was an eye opener as I spent my years in school science classes playing with the bunsen burner and making blue crystals rather than paying attention to the specifics of chemistry and biology! (Damn you testosterone fuelled private boys' schooling!)
We would break at 3pm depending on whether the curd would afford us this time and we then had a siesta for 1 hour. I took this time to explore the local countryside and feed my soul with the beautiful surroundings and historical architecture. After our break we would finish off the day's making requirements and conduct the afternoon/early evening milking.
Our days usually finished at 6.30 - 7.30pm and would end up at the table outside watching the sun set through the glass house, drinking Pastis whilst eating local charcuterie and olives and talking about life and everything in between. Dinner would be served around 8pm and once again for me it was simply amazing!!! Food and wine considered exclusive or treats in Melbourne, Australia, were local fares that were exchanged for cheese or yoghurt made on Ivan's farm.
You cannot imagine how much I have learnt this past week with Ivan, not only the technicals of cheesemaking but of life in general. I have been incredibly blessed in my young career with cheese to travel the places and meet the people I have and Ivan is right up there with the incredibly inspiring people I humbly can now call a mentor and more importantly a friend.
#cheesesolidarity at its purist!
- Next up for the fellowship this week: Normandy & Loire Valley with Mr. Moo (Adam Moskowitz)