La Roquebrussanne, Var (Provence)
While we were staying in Provence recently, we visited a goat-cheese farm in the deep wooden expanses of the Var département. Visiting the farm of Carel father and son wasn't too arduous, it is located on the bushy slopes overlooking a valley planted with vineyards near the village of Laroquebrussanne, very close to an estate that I visited a few years ago, the Domaine du Loou. We went there with a friend who has been living around for some time and uses to buy cheese there. The cheese (which is sometimes called Rove de Garrigues) was very tasty, with this concentrated character derived from animals feeding on Provencal herbs and weeds growing in harsh conditions. Here is a country where thymus, rosmarin, even lavender (like on this picture on the side, in a spot where there was wild lavender almost everywhere - the lavender can be guessed at the left of the dirt road) grow in the wild, not counting other lesser-known precious aromatic herbs that a knowledgeable cook would spot immediately. We use to stock up every year on the main Provence herbs when we walk through such remote areas (be it in the spring, which is better, or in summer), and we use them for our winter herbal tea or for cooking. It's so plentiful everywhere you look that I have a hard time understanding how shops can sell packaged aromatic herbs around here...
Going to where these goats graze in the wild was another story compared to driving to the cheese farm, this is a long walk through the plateau under a scorching sun and it ended up being quite an expedition.
When we dropped unanounced at the small facility, there was just the employee who was busy working in the cheese-making room. The place looked like any other cheese facility (see this satellite view of the cheese facility), just that it was in Provence, but the surrounding was so peaceful and laid back, like this hammock hanging between trees in the shade; If I hadn't known that cheese making is nearly as exhausting as artisan grower, I'd say they have the real good life here.
We bought several small round half-dry cheeses, of the soft type, and a slice of a goat tomme, a larger cheese with a longer aging. The one we bought had a two months and a half affinage (affinage for cheese is the equivalent of élevage for wines, in French). This latter sold for 25 € a kilo if I remember, and I loved its texture. The round goat cheeses were smaller than the ones I use to buy in the Loire, but very tasty because of what the goats eat in the wild.
After another hour maybe we saw signs of life in the wild, first a lone horse grazing under the trees, then a big white sheperd dog, and the mobile milking trailer where _we were lucky_ the farmer was busy relieving the goats from their milk. I looked for some time on Google Maps and I think that I found the Satellite view of this summer goat camp with the mobile milking-machine unit. It must be there for months in a row if the satellite caught it. Mathias Carel is the goat-cheese farmer, he is a young guy in his late 20s maybe, or early 30s', and he runs the farm with his father. Every day he drives up here with his pickup (he has the right to, because of the goats) to check the goats, feed the dogs and collect the milk. Then he drives all the way down back to the milk farm near La Roquebrussanne.
The milk farms was settled in 1978, starting with goats grazing around the facility in the garrigue. Later, as land was fenced and private houses built, it was more difficult to let the goats graze and have access to available land. Since then, they made deals with local forest authorities so that they could let the herd graze in the wild. The forest administration considers that the goats help prevent the forest fires by eating the lowly vegetation and clear the underwoods. Plus, the presence of the farmer coming and going everyday in these uninhabited areas brings a human-surveillance element which helps prevent forest fires. They signed contracts with the French Forest Service (Office National des Forêts). These contracts, which are named Mesures Agro Environnementales (M.A.E.) have been set up by the State, the European Union and the region administration and the selected partners like Mathias' organic farm and herd contribute to the preservation of the wooded land.
Mathias Carel confirms that the metal barn that we passed on our way to here is the winter base for the goats. From november to june, they move the goats to there because this plateau is too rough in winter. The goats spend the nights in the barns for protection against the cold and hard weather (yes, Provence can be harsh in winter...) and also against the wolves, as these wild animals are back in Europe after having been re-introduced by the administration for debatable reasons. In this regard, two of the dogs are for protection of the herd only (they aren't trained to guide the herd), they are the big white Patous (see one on the pic on the sides) and they're with the goats round the clock to prevent any attack from wolves. There is actually one wolf in the area since 2008, when it was officially spotted by agents of the ONCFS, a State administration in charge of the wild species in France. The official aknowledgement came after there had been several attacks and deaths among the herds of the region in 2007. There has been attacks also in 2008 and 2009 (the last one). Among the reasons there hasn't been any goat loss since 2009 is that they invested in fencing and changed the procedures to limit the possibility for tyhe marauding wolf to prey of the herd. After the wolf was officially considered present in the area, they could receive some public funding to help pay for the additional fences that they had to build.
Every day, Mathias or his father drive the pickup truck with the tank to the plateau to collect the milk and hauls back the precious liquid in the valley to the facility. The other people allowed to drive around are the fire department people, the ONF and a few private owners who own some land here and there (although new construction isn't permitted in these wild natural expanses).
Speaking of the cheese and milk farm, they have a total production of 30 000 liters of milk a year, which is processed into cheese. They sell lots of this cheese in the AMAP network, which is in short a group of farmers and shops spread all over France so that the organic products connect directly to the customers/consumers. They sell to several of these AMAP distribution fronts and this works well. They used to go to Rungis, the Paris wholesale food market but in the end, for ethical reasons, they preferred to concentrate their sales on the AMAP and other direct-sales systems. Asked about how hard the job is, Mathias says that during the season, it's quite a lot of work all day, even if his fathers helps and that they dispatch the tasks to get some free time. Winter is of course more quiet. Overall, the beauty of the area in which they move every day helps a lot. We saw it once for this regular summer day but the light is very different depending of the season and the best moments aren't necessarily in the summer days when the sun is at its zenith.
Read this interesting page about raw-milk cheese in France (in English) by Madeleine Vedel, an expat from Seattle who lives in Provence (here is her blog).
The inside of the building where you can access to the paintings, is closed to the public. The area is so remote anyway that I doubt a lot of people come here. I tried to locate this place on Google Satellite View but couldn't find it.