May 1, 2011

the good sheppard, the cheesemaker and the farmer

Morning. Driving through Bois Franc region's serene countryside from the river's edge to the church at the top of a steep hill a sort of longing takes hold for some vague moment of simplicity, purity and tranquil harmony. I do not think it was particularly due of my lingering hang over.

Pulling into La Moutonniere's parking lot across from the village St-Helene de Chester's church I was greeted by a family already waiting with another couple to partake in being a Sheppard for a day at one of the first sheep cheese makers of Québec.

10am greetings from owners Lucille and Alastair. Introduction of the farm, their history, their philosophy. Slip on hair nets, wrap ourselves in plastic aprons, and awkwardly fit funny blue plastic slippers over our shoes; not unlike going to the dentist in the winter.

10.20am visit the fromagerie. Explains the process the equipment. Here the equipment is not silent. We use a smaller metal container which is already full of the morning's pasteurized milk. She adds the rennet mixture, heating the mixture to 38 degrees C approximately, and we wait 20 minutes for the magical effects to take form. Pressing a finger in the mix gives the impression of a sort of huge panna cotta. The next step is to cut this initial mass which splits it into petit lait or what people know as whey which will go into making ricotta, the moist solids which will eventually become one of their aged cheese. We are a witness in the process but not removed, as we each take turns stirring the mass which is being slowly transformed, slowly `building` something we are more familiar with. Our hands are oily, as if by some incredible moisturizer. We each taste this initial mix and are surprised at how sweet it is.

10.45 am drain the whey into buckets. We each, in an impressive spontaneous team work, press the remaining solids in plastic molds with filters and fit them horizontally on a press. This cheese, our cheese, will be ready in 2 months.

12.45 am wash the metal container. Strain the whey (petit lait) into it and heat to approximately 82%. Only 8% of this liquid will become ricotta, the rest will be fed to the pigs, the chickens, the animals.

1.15pm lunch. a copious intermission of homemade dishes, a lot of conviviality, a little vino and generous amounts of their own cheeses.

2.00pm check ricotta, strain it. Drive out to their farm to shear, feed the sheep and lambs. Clear the hay, fill the feed troughs, step in sheep shit, listen to the loud plaintive cries of the new born. Hold a baby lamb which was born at 5 in the morning. Get pissed on. And yet, I have never seen so many constant smiles, and have rarely felt so happy doing something, learning something.

4pm milking the sheep. The sheep walk up a ramp onto a platform, and we below, the naive, the novices have to attach the plastic suction tubes to their teats. Intensive, intimate labour which solidifies the group, as we all realize that at the end of our day as farmer cheese makers, we are really at the beginning again. Full circle with appreciation and a better understanding of what we are eating.

Although La Moutonniere have this sort of 100% moutons heureux certification which is not related to any organism, their openness to have their customers explore every inch and crook of their routine on their farm I think is an interesting way to gain 'certification'. If the engaged client is convinced, and questions and engaging we were, there has to be some foundation to their claim. But, as most of us know, theirs is one of the rare exceptions, but one in which is precious because of its realism. One thing is for certain; having passed a day on La Moutonnière's farm I can attest that there are a dozen people every month who are 100% happy when they leave, and that is the ease in which the owners share their day. As for the simplicity, purity and tranquil harmony felt earlier in the day, it does in fact exist, alongside a lot of hard work, patience, giving and understanding...and a little pot of freshly made sheep's milk ricotta cheese.

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