Saint Leger Vauban, Burgundy
The Abbaye de la Pierre Qui Vire is a Benedictine monastery nestled in a corner of the thickly-wooded Morvan hills in central Burgundy. It was founded in 1850 in a beautifully- remote area with lots of forests and pastures. The abbey itself is opened to visitors year around except january, and some people use the accommodation wing of the monastery for a retreat.
In 1938 a neighboring farm was purchased by the abbey in order to provide work and revenues to the monks. In 1950 the farm worked closely with the INRA, the then-recently-created French research body dealing with agro sciences. This collaboration led to massive use of chemical fertilizers to compensate with the poor local soils of the area, and in 1969 the monks overlooking the farming decided to stop working with the INRA and turn the farm organic, which was not common or trendy at the time. Starting in 1980 the farm specialized into cheese, using the farm's cows for the milk and later in 1994 added a goat cheese wing, also sourcing the milk from the goats of the farm. The name of this abbey has thus been now associated with their raw-milk cheese, which is very different in its texture and qualities from the époisses, it doesn't run for example and stays firm. This cheese is not an AOC but it has a similar status in the mind of cheese lovers, it is a registered brand and holds quality standards that can largely compete with AOCs.
The road to the abbey, while much more comfortable than when this monastery was built in the mid 19th century, has still this feel of remoteness and forest immersion that was probably dear to the founders.
Pic on left : Philippe de L'Escalier
The farm has a total surface of 166 hectares, 80 being around here in the Morvan on a poor granit soil with occasional surfacing rocks, and that's where they have their pastures for the cows (they renew the pastures regularly to preserve the soils). This region is normally wet enough along the year (they get 1200 mm of rain every year) but they've been occasionally through drought episodes. They have another 40 hectares of agricultural land near Sainte Magnance, 10 km from here where they grow other crops, Triticale/pois, a cattle feed which is a cross between wheat and rye. In the Morvan (this pasturing area of Burgundy) the feed is usually avoine-vesce-pois (oat-vetch-peas) in the spring.
The farm has 80 milk cows in production, all from the Brune-des-Alpes breed and if you count the young cows they have about 140 or 150 cows. And on top of that they also have a hundred goats in a barn, as the farm is also making goat cheese.
While they use all the goat cheese (around 40 000 liters per year) when the goat are in their production season, they use only part of the produced milk and sell the rest to a Biolait, a collector sourcing its milk only from organic milk farms and distributing it to more than 40 dairies. By the way when we drove along the winding road through the woods to the monastery we saw the Biolait milk truck in fron of us.
They have right now in this farm a quota of 500 000 liters per year. The milk quota system was put in place by the European a few decades ago to counter surproduction and each farm has a milk quota, a cap it is not allowed to exceed; the quota system is to be scrapped in 2015. Out of their 500 000 liters of milk they use about 300 000 liters to make cheese and they are thus self-sufficient, plus, they can modulate the volume they need with the cheese market demand.
They have a year-round calving using artificial insemination, and they try to have a peak in spring. If they didn't use insemination it would be very arduous to select the best breeding stock and the best cow. Phiippe Abrahamse says that a good cow milk must not only make good milk with fat and protein qualities but it must also be able to bear one calf per year, doesn't get sick, knows how to walk, graze on the pastures around, and for that you need to optimize the process by choosing the best cow and the best donor.
They renew their herd every 5 years (20% turnover rate), while the conventional (non organic) herds are renewed every 2 or 2,5 years (which makes a 45%-50% turnover rate). He says that if he used a bull for his cows, the time needed to see the result being 3 or 4 years before the calf becomes a producing milk cow and he can see if the milk is fine and the cow behaves well, it would be a huge loss of time and investment if the bull happened not to be suited for the job. He says that they're not looking for high-yield cows, and they're just content with the 6000-liters a year they have with this breed.
Newspaper page in French (L'Yonne) about the methane recycling unit of the farm
Asked about the hygiene rules in the cowsheds and if they have issues about that, Philippe says that while keeping things clean is important the natural microbian population also plays a role and he says that once when he began to work in this farm he decided to disinfect the calf boxes (cases à veaux in French) and that's when he got sanitary problems because the natural microbian population had been erased by the heavy-handed cleaning and pathogens had appeared. In short, there's a microbian environment in a cow barn and bleach should be banned. The best example about how things really work for the animals is the colostrum, this early secretion that a cow produces right after calving : this fluid is vital for the health of the calf because it contains mostly antibodies and proteins and the young animal must have some in the 2 to 3 hours following its birth to be disease resistant.
Watch on the video above how calm and relaxed these cow are when lining up for the evening milking. The small unit can handle 10 cows at a time, 5 on the right and 5 on the left, and the cows have their habits, some always go right and others only left, and when the 10 positions are occupied the others just wait gracefully behind for available room. This breeed seems to be very easy going, the cows understand that their turn will come in a moment.
Philippe says that it takes about an hour to milk the 80 cows, and after the mùilking each batch od cows walks out through the back door and back to the big barn. On the way just outside the barn I noticed a cement container where a few cows stopped to sip what seemed to be their reward treat for their going through the milking : whey. It's a side product of the cheesemaking facility and I'm sure that we humans wouldn't balk at having now and then organic whey....
At one point while Philippe was milking the cows, disinfecting their tips and putting in place the automatic milking machines, I spotted a cow with a red mark on its leg (pic on left), Philippe told me that it was a cow that had just delivered a calf and they took its milk separately to give it to the calk, as it contains the colostrum, this super-milk boosted with natural antibodies without which a calf would soon die. The milk wouldn't be suitable for human consumption or cheese making anyway.
The goats have their breeding through the usual natural cycle, meaning that the goats go into heat when daylight decreases, and the farmers put the male goat in the barn with the goats around mid august and right now the goats are in their breeding time, and they will give birth in february or march (sometimes as early as late january). All this breeding is cycled by the daylight length and the farm doesn't intervene like it's often done elsewhere to artificially extend the milking season. That's because of this natural cycle that you normally find much less goat cheese at the end of the year, if you fiond some in the cheese aisle it's probably because the cheese farm has "de-seasoned" the goats, most of the time (90 %) using hormones and some using artificial light. This farm being organic it is out of question that they use hormones but they don't do the artificial-light trick either, they decided to just let the natural cycles unfold. Philippe Abrahamse admits that when he was younger he briefly considered using lights to extend the milking season because it was frustrating to have buyers complain at the end of the year that they could have sold lots of goat cheese if he ad the supply, but he never materialized his plans and he considers that it is fine like that.
Charline is the young cheesemaker in the farm, she works here since february 2013 and she was working previously in the Franche Comté region (Jura), helping make Comté cheese. She studied in the cheesemaking school of Poligny, also located in the Jura. She likes it here because they're working with the farm's milk, compared with the dairy where she was working before and which was using the milk of 10 different farms.
What you see in the large containers (2nd pic above) is the first stage of the Abbaye-de-la-Pierre-Qui-Vire cheese and the volume of one day of cheesemaking at this season, it will yield from 600 to 800 cheeses (250-300 gr each). This milk was taken from the cows the previous evening and cooled down to 12 ° C (54 ° F) in order to have a long fermentation, they added the ferments (bacteria) and left the milk by itself a whole night in these large plastic containers, then the following morning they added atop the milk from the morning milking, which raised the temperature of the whole batch to about 20 ° C (70 ° F) and added the rennet, and at the end of the day you get this result : a solidified block of milk under a thin layer of whey.
The following stage is when they fill the molds, they do that the following morning : the curd will begin to get more compact and let some fluid go. Later in the day they turn over the cheese like you can see in the video. They do that only once and after yet another night on this table, they'll be unmolded and get a bit of salt. The cheese will then really get closer to its final shape and volume. They'll stay while like that a couple of days and after that they'll get their orange color with a sprinkling of paprika powder. Very early, if still white, the cheese has already its unmistakable striated top (pic on left).
As we were leaving the cheese lab and heading to the maturation rooms (or cellars) we passed along the stainless-steel vats used (pic on right) to make the Tomme, a cooked-rind cheese that they also produce here. It's a cheese type similar to the Tomme de Savoie and they call it Tomme des Moines.
This size is the regular 350 gr end size but at this stage it is still bigger than what you'll find in the cheese shop.
There's a bucket full of water in the middle of the room to keep the right moisture in the air, so that the cheeses don't dry too much.
Today, the cheese facility
is compliant with the compulsory norms but they're not adapted to the raw-milk cheesemaking which is a pretty safe way to make cheese free of pathogens. When Philippe Abrahamse
took the cheese farm in charge in 1994 he had to remodel the facility with the last norms [it's the law when a facility changes hands, that's why so many cheese farms close down when the heirs can't afford the costly _and pointless_ investment], and he had to put immaculate plastic linings all over the walls, which shut down overnight all the positive microbian life which plays such an important role in real-cheese making from raw milk. They had a few deviant cheeses then because the natural equilibrium of the cheese rooms had been disturbed. Somehow the microbian life behind the cheesemaking came back after a while and problems wen away but I'd add that it's just that reality overcame the white immaculate walls without the knowing of the sanitary inspectors who just look at the surface of things (so to say) without noticing that in spite of the hygienist tiling and flooring, the life has come back, finding other inserstices in the cheese facility to set up a base, beginning with the rind of the cheese still in the affinage room, from which it can probably connect with the cheese at the early stages of the process.
What is strange again is that scientists at INRA have recently determined (source, in French) that the microbian life in raw milk is huge and diverse and that it plays a positive role against pathognens, but down on the base, the administration inspectors doing the dirty job in the cheese farms didn't get the message, the earth is still flat for them and they still fantazize about a bacteria-free facility...
These pressed cheese need ideally to stay two months here before they get the right maturation. The Tomme is a long-keep cheese, it's almost like the more you keep it the best it tastes.
The volume of Tomme cheese they make depends of the regular washed-rind cheese production, when they have enough Pierre Qui Vire underway, then they use the morning milk to make some Tomme, and it depends of the sales too, because it's a more expensive cheese and they try not to overstock even though the cheese improves with age. Philippe adds that at the beginning when he worked here they had no dairy quota (maximum production cap) and they would transform all the milk they had, and the Tomme helped play the role of a shock absorber in the volume and sales. The Pierre-qui-Vire needs to be sold early, in the 15 days following the production [even though we'll see later than old the Pierre-Qui Vire-is a little-known delicacy] while the Tomme can wait much longer and has its amateurs. This is by the way why cheese was made hundred years ago, to store a dairy product, transport it and consume it when milk production is low. For example some years they don't have Tomme in september because they had good sales.
Les Cèdres de Franc Mayne Saint Emilion Grand Cru 2000 is a "second wine" of Franc Mayne, but a first choice already in my mind. The wine is delicate and complex and there was no imbalance when sipping it along bites in the cheese.
I bought actually plenty of cheese at the farms shop, the prices were very affordable, 3,2 € for the regular 300 gr cheese, plus they had lots of other cheeses of the farm which you don't often find in the retail, like 2 demi-sec cheeses for 5 € and a really-dry (several-month old) Pierre-Qui-Vire at 2 € apiece. I should have bought several of this one, this was a very nice one (see on the left, I love these unpretentious piles of cheese). The size of the Pierre-Qui-Vire cheese has shrinked to a portion of the original size as it dried, and the taste has evolved beautifully. Again, the Pierre-qui-Vire is not a stinking, powerful cheese, it is a cheese with a particular texture, already beautiful at a young age if aromaticly not very expressive, then at the semi-dry stage (there are several stages they call semi dry, I'm speaking of the driest version of the two, the one they sold 5 € for 2 packs) you get a really beautiful cheese, making you wonder why we always eat the Pierre-Qui-Vire so young. It has this beautiful texture that you find in the Saint Florentin (also a northern Burgundy cheese), a firm, compact cottage cheese that I use to eat with sugar when I was a kid but that they often sell salted nowadays for longer conservation.
And lastly there was this "old" Pierre-Qui-Vire, this humble little thing they had a stack of near the cashier, and this was simply awesome. And the thin-and-intense texture was underlined by the elegant tannins of the Franc Mayne, really a nice match. Again, a superb, excellent old cheese, only found at the farm, except if you do the long cellaring yourself.
I decided to buy one when I spotted the stack near the cashier (pic above, right), at 2 € apiece this was a bargain.
These dry goat cheese are probaby something like 4 months old, they're made with raw milk like all the cheese here and if you are an amateur of strong dry cheese with ammonia character, this should suit you. When trying to cut a slice, the cheese breaks in thin plates, like usual, you think it's a good omen, and the strong cheese melts in your mouth, releasing its power down the throat.
When I'm not indulging into cheese & wine in Burgundy I'm sometimes feeding the hens of one of B.' parents neighbors (they're so impatient for our leftovers), dreaming all the while of moving into this dilapidated old farm and renovate it...