In this thirteenth edition of The Wandering Cheesemonger,  Grace, the ever-observant blogger, admires the process followed by her mentors.

Marisa and Frederic Thomas never imagined themselves as ‘paysannes’, raising goats and making cheese for a living.  They originally bought two goats to keep their horse Histoire company, not intending to even have to milk them. Fast forward a few years, however, and Marisa couldn’t resist the urge to try making some of the fresh goat cheese that is so commonly found in French markets.

By 2005, Marisa had expanded her herd to 30 goats and was milking them outdoors from a portable milking station.  In the summer, this was ideal; she worked in a bathing suit and rubber boots, enjoying the sun, and tells me that everyone envied her tan.  However, when the weather was bad (and in Brittany this is often), milking her 30 goats two-by-two out of doors was a 3 hour long nightmare

In 2009, after having made cheese for a few years with no training, Marisa went back to school and got her professional license to raise goats and make cheese.  The same year, Marisa and Fred decided to build a barn to house their goats so that they could continue to expand the business, naming it the Chevrerie de la Baie.  To them, this didn’t seem like a big deal, considering that they had already built the house they live in now with their own hands.

Soon after, they decided to buy their first buffalo, an addition to the farm that would eventually allow them to make buffalo mozzarella. Marisa didn’t succeed in making her mozzarella until 2013, due to multiple hiccups (including finding out that their only male buffalo was sterile).

Today, Marisa and Fred are still expanding, adding buffalo and goats to their herds, adding on to the barn, and even adding cheeses – Marisa plans to tackle making burratta next.  Every day during the busy season, Fred and Marisa have to work 12 hour days, but every day they sell out of cheese and end up having to turn people away.  This story is still ongoing, and their hold on running a successful business is still sometimes tenuous, but the most incredible part of their rise to local cheese fame is the fact that they figured it all out themselves.  They built their own barn, learned how to take care of large herds of goats, taught themselves how to make the cheese, and even took the leap to be one of the very few buffalo mozzarella producers in France.

Marisa, the head cheesemaker, is an embodiment of the vision, courage, and hard work that goes in to making an exceptional cheese.  She has made goat cheese for years in a country where cheese like this is taken for granted.  Fred and Marisa’s creativity and innovation cheesemakers is inspiring and impressive, and I feel lucky to get the chance to work with and learn from them. And, if you ever happen to be in Brittany, don’t miss visiting their farm – it is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever had the privilege to be.

In this twelth edition of The Wandering Cheesemonger, Grace, our blogger whose mission is cheese, examines the mysteries of making good cheese.

About two weeks ago, Marisa walked out of the laboratory looking frustrated and stressed. For some reason, the buffalo mozzarella wasn’t coming out right, and she had had to throw away all of the cheese she had made that day. She had no clue what could be wrong. Everything was the same as the day before, when the cheese had come out lusciously creamy. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with the process.

Around 6:00 the next day, I looked in to the window of the lab and saw her throwing away another batch of cheese. Again, the mozzarella had a weird texture and a bad taste. And again, we had no explanation for what had happened.

We wracked our brains for what could have gone wrong, starting with the new batch of rennet she had recently gotten in the mail. She had been using it for a few days already and it had worked well, but she was still suspicious, and immediately put in a rush order for a new batch. The new rennet did nothing, and at this point, a weeks worth of cheese had been unsuccessful.

Marisa then milked each of the buffalo individually, storing the milk from each in a different container, so that she could try making cheese from each to see if one of the buffalo was perhaps the problem. No luck; none of the batches of mozzarella worked.

Marisa had already called every cheese maker and cheese savant that she knew, asking for a solution, with no luck. Not many people know how to make buffalo mozzarella, and especially not in France (buffalo mozzarella is a traditionally Italian cheese). Finally, Marisa spoke to someone from the company who sell her the culture she uses for the goat milk cheese. As soon as they heard what was happening to the cheese, they knew what the problem was; the milk composition had changed, and was causing different reactions during the cheesemaking process. She needed to adjust the quantities of each component of the cheesemaking process to the changing milk.

No one really knows why the milk changed. Marisa has been making this cheese for 2 years now, and has never yet had an issue with the composition of the milk. This taught all of us, though, how tenuous a fresh cheesemaking production can be. Marisa lost two weeks of sales, a huge blow for a small producer like her. But she came out the other end with new cheesemaking knowledge, and is now back to making delectable balls of buffalo mozzarella. When customers ask about the high cost of the mozzarella, Marisa explains that it’s two times the work for half of the cheese, and therefore four times as expensive–and this hiccup served to underline exactly how true that is!

In this eleventh edition of The Wandering Cheesemonger, our blogger Grace explains a familiar concept: “High quality in = high quality out.”

After almost two weeks at the farm, I’m exhausted but happy, spending my days caring for and milking goats, bottle feeding the kids, and working in the lab. Marisa has been teaching me a lot already about cheesemaking, and it’s all a lot easier to understand this time, now that my French is up to snuff. I’ve been making a lot of fresh fromage de chèvre, fromage blanc (similar to yogurt but fresher), faiselle (basically curd that has been lightly drained, eaten very fresh), and watching as Marisa forms the beautiful rounds of buffalo mozzarella.

The other day I was spooning whey in to molds with Marisa in the lab, putting the same amount in each mold as I had the day before. She stopped me and told me I only needed about half as much whey for each cheese, because the whey was different today. I asked how she could tell and responded, ‘I can’t explain it, but I just know.’ She told me that the whey was different today because the milk was different. The milk could change because it rained and got colder, or because the goats had eaten a bit less that day, or for some reason we didn’t quite know.

This concept of the milk changing is bizarre, but it is also the root of any good cheese. Quality milk is one of the most important parts of producing good flavor in cheese, particularly in fresh, unpasteurized cheeses like Marisa’s frais fromage de chèvre. However, quality milk is a lot of work, and every detail counts–you need to take very good care of your animals, your barn, your milking equipment, and your lab. If your animals aren’t doing well, or your milking room isn’t clean, or any other small part of the process changes, your cheese will suffer.

It is also crucial to have this understanding of how the milk changes from day to day, something that still eludes me. It takes years of working with the milk to know when the curd is going to act differently, and how to compensate. Marisa is somewhat of a cheese wizard in her command of the milk. The second something is a little different, she knows how to fix it so that her cheese isn’t affected. That mastery of the milk is truly the mark of an accomplished cheesemaker.

[Note: We are weeks behind in posting Grace’s tales…but set to catch up quickly!  The image above is provided by the Wandering Cheesemonger.]

In this tenth edition of The Wandering Cheesemonger, our blogger-on-the-road, Grace, arrives in France and is greeted with some famous friends.

After a whirlwind of rushed re-organizing sparked by the French Consulate changing the requirements to get a visa days before my appointment, resulting in my visa request being denied, I am finally in France (if with a slightly different trajectory–stay tuned for more updates). I’ll arrive at the farm in Brittany tomorrow at noon, but for now I’m eating my way through Paris.

Today for lunch, my friend Matilda and I went to a traiteur du fromage close to her apartment to pick up a few cheeses, grabbed a few baguettes from Maison Kayser (my personal favorite Boulanger in Paris, even after tasting the top ten ranked baguettes in the city), and topped it off with a few Belgian beers. We considered salad but decided against it–you don’t want to fill up on greens and not be able to eat as much cheese, right?

We only got 3 cheeses, but we went for some French favorites that can’t really be found in the U.S. (or at least not in such good shape as in France). The cheese on the left is Saint Nectaire, a semi-soft washed rind cows milk cheese from the Auvergne region of France that is usually aged around 2 months. Saint Nectaire’s soft, gooey paste has a rather mild flavor–slightly nutty and almost mushroomy flavors are undertones to the primarily creamy taste this cheese leaves as it melts in your mouth.

The cheese in the middle is Beaufort, often considered the king of cheeses. This alpine cheese, somewhat similar to a Comte in style, is made of cows milk and generally aged between 12 and 16 months. As with many alpine cheeses, Beaufort is creamy in texture but has a strong nutty flavor. I forgot to ask at the store whether this was a Beaufort d’hiver (made in the winter) or a Beaufort de Savoie (made in the summer), but I would guess that this was d’hiver because of its extremely strong flavor and pungent odor. In contrast, the summer Beaufort is more floral and mildly creamy, a direct result of the difference in the diet of the cows. Cows grazing on fresh grass and herbs produce milk that reflects these characteristics, while the milk from cows being fed hay in the winter will produce a completely different flavor in the Beaufort d’hiver.

The last cheese is Roquefort, another pièce de résistance of French cheesemaking. Roquefort is a sheeps milk blue cheese, usually aged around 3 months, with a strong and salty flavor. This is blue at its best, with a sharp, tangy flavor that hits you immediately, mellowing off in to a creamy and sweet finish that lingers on your tongue long after you finish eating. This cheese isn’t for the faint of heart. The first time someone tastes it, I often watch their faces register disgust, then confusion, and finally ecstasy as they reach for another piece.