Friday, May 6, 2011

The sheep who make Roquefort cheese: From Provence to the Aveyron

One of the many good things about living in Provence is that so many other places are also easily accessible. Fancy a weekend in Spain or Italy? They're in easy reach. Or a quick trip to Paris by TGV? Equally, the Cote d'Azur, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the Dentelles, the Alps, the Drome and the Cevennes are all close to home.

One region I didn't know until recently is the Aveyron, which lies about two and a half hours away from here (Isle-sur-Sorgue, near Avignon). I took a trip at Easter to see friends who have bought an old ruin over there, under the foolish illusion that it won't turn into the Money Pit of Tom Hanks film fame.

François and Christie have a thing about restoring old ruins. They first bought a property near my home, back in the 80s. It was part of the local hamlet, an old plaster factory with homes for the workers, and François restored his property stone by stone and beam by beam.

The couple then sold to a couple of charming American Provenceophiles and bought a 12th century chapel in Avignon, the Chapel of the Miracle. I won't go into the 'miracle' here which involves sodomy, a young priest, burning at the stake and a dramatic escape but you can find it online (with apartments to rent if you're not troubled by gay young ghosts.)

Having made a fantastic job of restoring the ruined chapel, they've now bought their small ruin in the Aveyron for what the Provençaux call a poignée de figues and what English speakers call peanuts. Just 9000 peanuts to be precise.

With a chambre d'hote quickly booked online, I set off to Viala in the Aveyron. The region is quite different from Provence. There's far more in the way of empty rolling countryside, forest, and sheep dotted about on lonely hills. I was astounded to find the chambre d'hote - Le Tondut - which turned out to be a huge farmhouse on the scale of a chateau.

It sits alone in wonderful farmland and features 400 sheep who supply milk, daily, for the locally-made Roquefort cheese. When I arrived the flock was drifting peacefully across the hillside in the sun, nibbling the grass to within a centimetre of its life.

The owners, Nadine and Dédé Malaval, were instantly welcoming, relaxed and friendly. It was like arriving to see friends. We went into the old farm kitchen to chat and have coffee. My room was huge and light and airy with fantastic views of the countryside. The 400 sheep were right below the window.

That evening Nadine showed me la traite - the milking. I don't know if you've ever watched a traite but I found it pretty fascinating. We stood in a space around which an old wooden carousel turned. The sheep rattled up onto the platform, a door shut them into a little stall, they promptly stuck their heads over the door into a bucket of grain and there they stood, feeding, as the carousel turned. Nadine attached the milking apparatus to each sheep as it passed her and, 3 minutes later, the grain was finished, the milk was taken, the door nearest the exit would open and the sheep in that particular stall would rattle back down and off into the barn to eat hay.

The sheep all knew the drill and did just what they were meant to. They weren't the slightest bit bothered by the presence of the huge Le Tondut family hound, watching proceedings closely, one large ear up and one large ear down. In the huge barn on the other side of the milking room, Dédé was forking hay into troughs. Having given up their milk, the sheep were onto their next course. The milk meanwhile was filling a large tank, ready to be collected by the food company, Papillon, which makes Roquefort cheese. Roquefort is strictly controlled, has its own AOC and is aged in local caves. Personally, I find it too salty. I asked Dédé why the makers put so much salt in it. He laughed and said: "Weight." What? "Roquefort's sold by the kilo. Salt's heavier than milk. And it's cheap."

He and Nadine don't over-salt the products they make with the milk they retain though. At breakfast the next day, we had a wonderful farm-baked flan and home-made yoghurt straight from the sheep I now knew personally! It was lovely to sit watching the flock, eating breakfast made with milk they'd produced from that rich green Aveyron grass.

Le Tondut also features ducks, geese, dogs, donkeys, cows, calves, an immense glowering bull - and rabbits. I'm a sucker for rabbits (the soft eyes, the floppy ears...) and this lot included a couple of dozen day-old rabbits. They were nestling in luxurious rabbit-fur nests made by their mothers generously pulling out bits of their own fur. You could barely see their little pink heads. One litter was a few weeks old though and they were well into the hopping-around-looking-pretty stage.

I can thoroughly recommend Le Tondut. It's just outside Viala du Tarn in sublime countryside.

In the evening François and Christie arrived in what they call their camping car. It must be one of the first camping cars ever produced. Full of character is the best way to describe it. We ate at a terrific restaurant, La Vigne Gourmande, which is perched all alone on the side of a hill at Candas.

The views were stunning. The husband and wife owners were welcoming and relaxed. There was meat cooking on a huge open fire for a table of ten locals. The food was ridiculously cheap and really good.

All that remained was to see the newly-bought ruin the next morning. It's tiny, has no roof, no electricity, no water, but it has character and potential. It's in a tiny mostly-abandonded hamlet situated in beautiful countryside. The sun was shining, birds were singing and we set up a table and sat down to eat salad and drink a bottle of celebratory champagne.

This was my first visit to the Aveyron and I feel it's well worth returning to for its beautiful countryside and warm and welcoming people. Having a look at local farming was a bonus. So were the rabbits.

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