Here’s what I learned at a dairy farm

A visit to an or­ganic farm in the Savoie re­gion in the Alps to taste Re­blo­chon was enough to put us in state of awe — at the hard work, ded­i­ca­tion, and pas­sion of dairy farm­ers who make this moun­tain cheese

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We’re on the hour and have to reach our des­ti­na­tion at 16:30 — not a sec­ond later. A 45-minute ride later from An­necy, a town in South of France, we’re in the lap of Alpine pas­tures. The roads from here on are nar­row, wind­ing. Of course, we’ve belted up, but it isn’t calm­ing our nerves.

A few twists and turns later, the bus comes to a halt and we find our­selves in front of a wooden cot­tage in the Savoie re­gion, Le Bouchet Mont Charvin. It’s a post­card view to be­hold. We ab­sorb the quiet­ness, in­ter­spersed with the melody of cow­bells. In the front yard, a hand­ful of hay bales lie, ar­ranged neatly. They’re last (best) of the sea­son, we learn later. In­side, 25 cows share their home with a young cou­ple, the cou­ple’s old granny, a teen ap­pren­tice, and a dog called Wig­gles. This is their home, an or­ganic farm — La Ferme des Pez­ières — where the cou­ple pre­pares Re­blo­chon Fer­mier cheese (PDO), every morn­ing and even­ing. It’s one of the three dairy farms in the re­gion. They’ve in­vited us, cheese lovers, over for Re­blo­chon tast­ing; we take back with us a lot more than the taste of the smear-ripened moun­tain cheese.

The cou­ple, Fabrice (25) and Mathilde (27), is dressed in pair of shorts and boots, and vests. Their hair and nails are cut short. Fancy man­i­cures for long nails are not an op­tion for Mathilde. She isn’t wear­ing any makeup ei­ther. She wel­comes us in the barn where cows of three dif­fer­ent breeds {Mont­béliarde (Jura type), Abon­dance (brown sun­glasses) and Tarine (to­tally brown)} greet us with the sound of their ac­ces­sories. The barn is clean. Yes, there is the an­i­mal odour, but at no point do we feel the need to reach out for scarves or our hands to block the smell. It’s 16:30 sharp: the milk­ing hour. In Mathilde’s hand is a ‘clean­ing ball’ of sorts made of saw­dust and wood shav­ings, which she uses (along with soap) to clean the ud­ders of the cows be­fore milk­ing. Within min­utes, Fabrice joins her. They use pump­ing equip­ment for milk­ing too. They op­er­ate with fac­tory like pre­ci­sion, but with a ‘heart’. I watch Fabrice com­fort a par­tic­u­lar cow. She’s a new mum, hav­ing de­liv­ered only last even­ing. Her phys­i­cal and men­tal pain is vis­i­ble, in her eyes and pos­ture. Her milk, yel­low in colour, is filled in a tiny bucket and taken straight to her calf, who is rest­ing in a tinier area of the barn, with other younglings. “It’s rich in an­tibi­otics, just like a mother’s (hu­man) milk,” he says.

We fol­low Mathilde, as she heads to the cheese­mak­ing room, whilst Fabrice stays back to com­plete the milk­ing process and take the cows out to graze. This room is let’s say min­i­mal, with just a hand­ful of tools re­quired for the prepa­ra­tion of cheese. The milk (120 litres) has been trans­ferred to a large steel con­tainer. She checks if it’s the right tem­per­a­ture, be­tween 23 and 23.5 de­grees. She has now added lac­tic acid bac­te­ria to it, ‘It will take 45 min­utes for it to grow.’ As the milk co­ag­u­lates, she slices it us­ing a large-sized comb. Next, she pre­pares the cheese mak­ing sta­tion. Round plas­tic moulds (seven-eight inch di­am­e­ter), cleaned thor­oughly, are lined up. A piece of cheese­cloth is placed over them. Soon, it is time to pour the milk in the moulds. She has to en­sure each mould (cheese wheel) weighs not more than 450g. The whey is al­lowed to trickle down from the sta­tion into an­other bucket, from where Fabrice (who is back, just in time) trans­fers it into a but­ter-mak­ing ma­chine. Noth­ing is al­lowed to go to waste on this farm.

As we rub our eyes in dis­be­lief, they’ve al­ready given the cheese a shape and placed green-coloured stick­ers on each, sig­ni­fy­ing their farm­house made ori­gin. Mathilde places them in the tem­per­a­ture­con­trolled sec­tion of the room on spruce boards; mean­while, Fabrice cleans the milk con­tainer and the sta­tion. Af­ter a day or so (al­low­ing the first yeast to de­velop), the wheels will be brushed with sat­u­rated brine (a mix of salt, wa­ter, and vine­gar), and then trans­ported to the caves for age­ing. ‘Ours is a small farm and age­ing is not pos­si­ble here.’ When the cheese has been aged for 21 days, she will drive down to col­lect the cheese and sell the same in the mar­ket. She makes this trip thrice a week ex­cept in win­ters, when the busi­ness is slow and many farm­ers take up work at ski­ing sta­tions. In the colder months, the cows spend the most time in

the barn — step­ping out to graze for a few hours every day.

Next, we’re in­vited out­side for a meal in the moun­tains. Within sec­onds, a ta­ble is laid down with well, or­ganic, farm-fresh Re­blo­chon Fer­mier cheese. There are loaves of fresh bread and fresh juices too. There is no sign of tired­ness on the cou­ple’s face. They are at their hos­pitable best. The cheese has a vel­vety taste of cream and it seems to have a nutty af­ter­taste. The tex­ture is silken, ‘Melt it over pota­toes or dried meats,’ they say.

It will be sun­set soon and also time for the cows to re­turn. The cheese would re­quire to be flipped every day for the next eight days. By the time the cou­ple will go to bed it will be close to mid­night. This is ‘their’ every day, a rou­tine they re­peat twice a day. There’s no ques­tion of va­ca­tions. “We eat cheese and bread — there’s no time to cook,” they say, when we ask them when will they pre­pare din­ner for them­selves. There’s a sense of hap­pi­ness, con­tent, and peace on their faces. They’ve cho­sen to be farm­ers and they love their lives.

We’ve barely boarded the bus, when I no­tice they’re in­side the barn, clean­ing it up. Be­cause when you are a dairy farmer, you work every wak­ing up hour. And if you make Re­blo­chon, a cheese that is made di­rectly af­ter milk­ing, your life is de­fined every hour on the hour. I will rel­ish more than the taste and tex­ture of Re­blo­chon, I smile to my­self as I brace my­self for the ride back.

Re­blo­chon is avail­able in Dubai across Car­refour out­lets and Ga­leries Lafayette in The Dubai Mall.

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