October 18, 2010

the buried lambs head that was not to be

I was watching workers in the Kawa Ijen region of east Java in Indonesia ceremoniously carry a lamb head to bury in the accumulated sulfur deposits on the side of the volcano. Once a year they performed this ritual to avoid unwanted accidents. I was impressed by the act. I understood it as something like a physical prayer. The ritual began because a friend of one of the workers had a dream which scared him, with many omens and demanded of him somewhere in the waking hours the need to bury the head. There was a meeting. They decided. One day, before the incredibly difficult labour of carrying kilos of sulfur stones in baskets balanced on their shoulders down the side of the volcano, they buried the head of a lamb and the rest they ate.

Driving up the Saint Joseph du Lac mountain I was wondering if I would bury my own lamb`s head. I received a call from Brigitte, one of the owners of Fromages Du Verger telling me that this years animals were ready. Last year I had put my name down in a waiting list for the yearly slaughter. The orchards are all empty and closed. A sure sign that winter is coming. I turn onto rue de la Pommeraie, a quite, rural road with a few bungalows and much bigger homes, and after a minutes drive pulled into their driveway. The one thing I note is that there already a 6 degree difference between here and the town of St Joseph du Lac. Instead of going into the boutique I decide to walk around their land first. The orchard is quiet. The whole land is surround by woods which has cut the strong wind to a whisper. The sun is intense and hot here. Beside the orchard there is the barn where the sheep are divided by age with an exit which gives onto a large pasture. A few apples are half eaten here and there. Their myriad faces stare at me with those curious eyes, ears punching out like wings. Here are a cross breed of East Friesian and Lacaune sheep. The first from Northern Germany with an extremely high yield of milk and the second from the south of France which is predominately used for the famous Roquefort cheese. The crossbreed favoured in these parts of North America. The collective murmur of burping, bleating, grunting, snorting, scratching against the wooden fences, farting and pissing takes on its momentum again. I watch them feeling somewhat intense about the fact that I was going to eat on of them. And one of them really was staring at me so intensely that I almost told him 'sorry'. Following a group of them to open pasture I notice that most of the trees have lost their leaves but there still remain a few lone apples clinging to the bare branches.

I found it incredible that when Brigitte told me that she and her husband Michel worked in the pharmaceutical industry...this was something happening more and more. Like most, they wanted to start off on their own. But the idea of continuing in their own trade exhausted them. They thought of making pret a manger meals but neither of them were cooks, they also considered wild mushrooms, but that was too much for them. Cheese on the other hand seemed to be a natural transition. They took a cheese making course at the Institut de Technologie Agroalimentaire in Saint Hyacinthe. What kind of cheese they hand to decide. They found goats too nervous and enervating, but sheep were calm and quiet, essential with very little maintenance. After having searched for 9 months for a location they had found this orchard which at that time was called Le Verger de la Tentation. They purchased it in 2007. They bought 60 head from M. Goyette in Cantons de l'Est and built a barn next to the orchard, which for two ex-pharma heads was as one can imagine quite the undertaking. Then they had to build the fromagerie. In the meantime they were able to rent a space at the ITA in order to develop their style of cheese. I listened, amazed at the sudden and so recent transition that these two have went through. The conversation veered into all the strange ingredients one finds in food. Milk powder especially. A lot of cheeses out there use it, she tells me. At 1/3 the price. More profit. Instead they took the ethical stance many are taking. She shows me the ingredient label of her yogurt-Pasteurized sheep's milk and bacterial culture. That is it. No ultra filtered milk or milk powder with how many vitamins and pro-biotic additions or whatever the trends are now. This is a solid 6% fat content yogurt. More or less the real thing.

le Pommé-firm cheese with a wax rind to remind one of the apple used in the recipe. Taste of toasted butter, subtle in taste with hints of apples and pears.

Le Bohème-firm cheese with herbal and good acid accents reminding one of a good aged cheddar. Subtle hints of pear, hazelnuts.

Le Louché-like a faisel, thicker than yogurt, less salty than labne, less acid. Perfect with some fresh fruit.

Brebichon-winner of 2010 Caseus award. Soft apple washed rind, strong mushroom and toasted nuts on the nose, creamy floral almost roasted chestnut tart shell taste-pretty tasty with a Saint André de Figuière Cote de Provence Rosé 2009.

There were more and more clients coming in wanting to taste their cheeses. I could feel a bit of stress. It is only the two of them running the show. Time to go. I quickly paid for my 62lbs of lamb as they quickly described all the cuts that were already prepared for me...neck, rack, belly, testicles, but no tongue, meaning no head. Maybe it was processed somewhere into cat food or something. Walking to the car I thought how stupid it was to bury the head anyway, one could make a wonderful roast with it or stock. We all have our priorities, and I suppose mine was that I felt safer eating their cheese and meat knowing it was virtually free of anything than what it was. As for the world of the spirit, I suppose it was enough to know that they cared that much to have chosen their new profession with less greed and avarice than many other do.

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