Letter from France: Of goats and cheese

  • Article by: STEVE HOFFMAN , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 20, 2012 - 11:50 AM

A letter from France: Steve and Mary Jo Hoffman of St. Paul are living in a small village in the Languedoc region of southern France with their two children this fall. Steve will write a monthly letter about their experiences, illustrated with Mary Jo's photographs.

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I know how it sounds. Three months in southern France calls to mind such gauzy and idealized images that they end up conveying nothing.

It may sound extraordinary, but life in Autignac is both more and less interesting than that. We are in a very specific place: a very small village in a wine region that is, more accurately, a farming region whose main crop happens to be grapes. We're here because I speak French, not Italian, because it is mostly warm, and because the village is big enough to have a bakery and small enough to be ignored by guidebooks.

Think of it as Milaca, Minn. A perfectly nice, perfectly ordinary place to live.

That is pretty much how our French neighbors see things: "You flew across the Atlantic to spend three months in Milaca?" But to this Minnesota family, an ordinary village means we are not simply four badly dressed tourists. We are Mah-Ree Zho (Mary Jo) and Suh-Teeve (Steve), the parents of Eva, 14, and Joseph, 9, who sit next to Heloïse and Baptiste at school. And access to that kind of ordinariness, in a foreign place, leads to its own kind of extraordinary experiences.

Today, for example, we elected to reward ourselves for an afternoon of modest achievements with a visit to La Ferme du Mas Rolland, a goat farm in the hills nearby, where Laurence, Eric and Jonathan welcomed us to visit their herd and buy their spectacular cheese.

A new terrain

The route by car from our front door to theirs, through scattered vineyards and dense brush, takes about half an hour. I have lately been conducting an odd, halting love affair with this Mediterranean scrub land, which the French call garrigue (pronounced gah-REEG) -- a landscape that seduces slowly but thoroughly, with a prickly allure not unlike the high desert of the American Southwest.

At first sight, it looks like a scrubby no-man's-land. The stony hills are tufted with a misfit jumble of flora, as if the region had ended up last in line, forced to choose its species after the more attractive ecosystems had taken their pick. All the stately oaks were sold out (and worse, sent to Britain), so the garrigue said, "Whatever," and grabbed the kermès oak, which looks more like a holly bush.

But the garrigue holds a place in the imagination here similar to the North Woods back home. It is the hardscrabble place of origin where ancestors eked out difficult lives, close to the land. It is shorthand for wildness. It is where (mostly) men go to hunt, and where they secretly believe they could return, if necessary, to live by their wits and ancestral skills, roasting partridge over tidy twilight fires.

This being France, of course, the cooking fire might require a handful of rosemary branches for that certain resinous something that just makes all the difference. And the game bird, one feels, ought really to be rubbed, or possibly stuffed, or maybe both, with some thyme, garlic and sage. And the good news for the intrepid hunter/cook would be that a meandering walk through the garrigue would shortly procure him all of these ingredients.

The reverence for the garrigue, unlike our love affair with the northland, also includes this understanding that up in the stony hills, among the faded green vegetation, can be found the origins and the heart of the region's cuisine, which is at once world-renowned and explicitly local: thyme, sage, rosemary, lavender, savory, fennel, almonds, garlic, olives, capers. The expression Saveurs de la Garrigue is used to the point of cliché here to describe a certain rough-edged, yet refined set of these earthy flavors. The phrase does not translate well as "flavors of the North Woods." We Minnesotans love us some stoic Finlanders, but let's face it, most of the time we don't want to eat like them.

At home with the animals

The resident goats at Mas Rolland spend at least 250 days a year browsing the spiky offerings of their corner of the local garrigue -- one of the requirements that allows their cheese to be called Pélardon, an Appelation Controlée, unique to this part of the Languedoc.

The goats must live within the boundaries of the appellation, and must forage primarily in the wild, so that the flavors of the region find their way into the milk -- raw milk only, please.

At her counter, with the rhythmic chunk-chunking of the milking machines behind her, Laurence Testa will tell you all of this and more. Dark-haired, compact and wiry, she looks as if she could scamper off into the hills herself and live on sparse vegetation and sunshine.

Today, in rapid French, she is on the subject of cheese competitions, while I strain simultaneously to follow what she is saying and concentrate on the creamy pucks of cheese she brings up from behind the counter.

"Yes," she agrees with herself, "the only cheeses that win competitions are from goats that forage en pleine air."

She unwraps a small gray disc rubbed with ash and places it in ront of us.

"Oh, now and then, you'll see a winner that eats hay, but ... " Here she frowns to herself and tips her right hand back and forth. This appears to finish her thought, because she moves on to the tasting.

Four cheeses are lined up in front of us on a narrow counter -- three plain white cylinders that decrease in size from youngest to oldest (aging removes moisture and volume) and a gray ash-rubbed cheese.

"This little boy here," she says, slicing a thin wedge from the first cheese, a wet, loose round that still weeps onto its white wrapping paper, "is one day old."

The cheese is tart, tender, a little grainy and unmistakably goaty, with an astringency that lightly chalks our tongues. It is simple, and it is not simple.

Laurence looks up at me. "This is fig season. You should have this one with figs."

I think to myself that we have planned and saved a long time to get to this spot, this ordinary place, among undramatic hills, in a perfunctory outbuilding, in a room next door to small brown goats resignedly giving their evening milk. And I think to myself that there is nowhere else in the world right now where this cheese could be presented to me as one day old.

And there are still three cheeses to go.

Steve Hoffman is a Twin Cities tax preparer and real estate broker who always cleans his plate. Reach him at hoffmans.france@gmail.com.

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