Today, on day 4 of the 10-day Wisconsin Cheese Originals' Grand Cheese Tour of France, we toured the largest castle in the Loire Valley, learned how to make Sainte Maure de Touraine, nearly got crushed by a hay loader, and sang along to French show tunes in a tiny restaurant in downtown Tours.
You know, just the usual day in the countryside of France.
After an amazing morning tour of the Chateau de Chambord, its double-helix five-story central staircase, 282 fireplaces and 426 rooms, our Wisconsin cheese bus wound its way to the La Ferme du Bois-Rond farmstead goat dairy in Pussigny, France, where the husband-wife team of Dominique and Marie-Therese Guillet provided 20 members of Wisconsin Cheese Originals with a remarkable, once-in-a-lifetime personal experience of the making of Sainte Maure de Touraine.
Sainte Maure de Touraine is an AOC (Appellation d'Origine Controlee) designated cheese, made only in the Loire Valley, about 30 miles south of Tours, in the central region of France. It gained AOC status in 1990, and today about 240 goat dairies in the region are authorized to make this raw-milk, whole goat's milk, soft-ripened beauty.
Dominique showed us the farm, while Marie-Therese provided an amazing tour and cheesemaking demonstration in the farmstead creamery. But like any farmstead cheese, the story starts with the milk. And this is a story best told in pictures. So here we go.
A herd of 340 dairy goats, made up of eight different breeds - Poitevine, British, Toggenburg, Alpine, Nubian, Boer, Saanen and La Mancha, are milked twice a day at the farm. Quick science lesson: in order to give milk, goats must have babies. In order to have babies, goats must be bred. With a five-month gestation period, and a due-date of February 15, guess what time we arrived at the farm? That's right, breeding season.
For three weeks every year, Dominique puts a group of bucks (male goats) in with the does (female goats). When we visited, the bucks were only on day 4 of their 21-day breeding season and already looked tired. Dominique said some of the bucks had already lost 20 pounds due to "being so busy," which our translator had trouble saying with a straight face.
To give a good amount of milk, goats need to eat well. Dominique feeds his goats a mixture of grains and hay everyday, and the goats get two hours on fresh pasture each morning. He couldn't wait to show us his barn's super-nifty hay-loading/unloading roller-coaster machine, made by French manufacturer Griffe a Foin. After a demonstration of its cab that runs on rails attached to the barn ceiling, with attached giant hay-scooping hook that he arced out above us, threatening to scoop us all up (with a smile of course), we decided we all wanted one, whether we needed it or not. It's amazing technology that I have not seen in the U.S.
When he's not playing with his super cool hay unloader, Dominique milks the goats twice a day. The evening milk is combined with fresh, warm morning milk, and placed into 58-gallon mini vat tubs in the farm cheesrie where it is warmed to 68 degrees F. Rennet is added and the milk is then left to coagulate for 24 hours.
The next step is hand-ladling the curd into specially curved forms, where it drains naturally.
After it is set, the new cheese is removed from the form, and a rye straw that is marked with the AOC seal and a number indicating the producer is inserted into the middle of the cheese log. This helps the log keep its shape for the next step of the process.
Once the straw is in, the log now has enough stability to be rolled in a mixture of salt and charcoal ash, which gives it its unique grayish/blue color and contributes to its taste.
The cheese is then allowed to dry overnight before being placed in an aging room, where it is hand-turned daily for a minium of 10 days, as outlined by AOC regulations. Marie-Therese actually ages her St. Maure de Touraine for 12 days. Once a week, she ships wooden boxes, each holding 12 precious logs, out to a host of retail shops, who then have the option of aging it longer or selling it immediately. Marie-Therese told us she believes the peak time for her cheese to be eaten is at 45 days.
Keep in mind that this is a raw-milk cheese, and you'll understand why we don't see this cheese very often in the U.S., as American laws dictate a raw-milk cheese must be aged at least 60 days before being sold to consumers.
After the farm and creamery tour, Marie-Therese and Dominique set up a wonderful tasting session for us, where we got to taste both fresh and aged Sainte Maure de Touraine. What a treat! Thank you so much to the Guillets for opening their farmstead dairy to a cheese geek group from Wisconsin. We appreciate you!