From farm to table
We met Marianne Denais – who has kept goats for the last 30 years – selling her much sought-after wares at the Apt market. The cheeses – from fresh goat cheese rolled in herbes de Provence, to ash-coated pyramids, to spicy medallions of crumbly aged cheese – spoke for themselves, so too did the queue to get them! It was clear we needed to pay her a longer visit to learn more about her craft.
To get to her farm, La Cabriole, you first drive up to Saignon, which seems to spring out of the very rock it’s perched on – so much so that you can spot the terracotta-roofed town from Apt itself. Next, you drive down a winding road past fruit orchards, stone farmhouses with baby-blue wooden shutters, until you creep up to the farm itself, ringed by lavender fields – Provence always likes to remind you why it’s considered the top dog of French countryside.
By the time we arrived at 8.30am, she had already been up since before dawn and milked the herd (watch the video to see just how many that is!), who are the fun-to-pronounce ‘Chamoisee’ (sham-wah-zay), a chestnut-brown mountain breed from the Alps.
As well as grazing in surrounding pastures, the goats feed on a particular type of hay grown in the region that’s usually the fodder of prize-winning racehorses. As with many regional products, like Marianne says in the video – when we talk about cheese, we can of course also talk about terroir (just as we do with wine): the taste created by the unique environmental conditions something is produced in.
There is so much more variety to goat cheese than you’ll find in the mono-culture of the supermarket. Here are the styles of goat cheeses we loved in Provence – as someone who used to dodge goat-y varieties on the cheeseboard, I came back victorious, finally understanding what all the fuss was about – and for that I can only thank Marianne’s creamy, vegetal, and altogether interesting cheeses.
1. Soft: This ultra-creamy cheese is what you see Marianne remove from the mold in the video, freshly shaped overnight after the milking. It’s ready to be spread onto bread and enjoyed!
2. Valencay: Often shaped like a pyramid, this cheese is coated in a dusting of ash, specifically edible vegetable carbon, made of dried vegetables. This is an age-old way to preserve the cheese, creating an odorless, protective layer that encases a more subtle cheese within. In Provence, we ate this creamy, more delicate-tasting variety smeared on fresh figs with a dusting of almonds.
3. Soft-ripened: Usually aged for two weeks or more, this is the variety you see Marianne making in the video – shaped like a log in that most classical chevre shape – with thin-dusty skins that develop naturally or a more ‘bloomed’ wrinkled, filmly skin that forms after the cheese is treated with bacterial powder, like Marianne does in the video. These are the cheeses you want to be putting into your Provençal tarts – I wolfed down a wonderful quiche with goat cheese and zucchini at the market that I hope to recreate at home.
4. Aged goat cheese: Aged for up to 12 weeks, these are intensely flavored, often spicy tasting cheeses. Marianne recommends grating these into a salad to let them complement other vegetal and fruity flavors. Think of them as the goat-y counterpart to Parmesan.
5. Banon: This could be Provence’s most famous goat cheese – a soft, washed rind goat cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves, a technique said to date back to the Roman era. You won’t have seen this kind of cheese in the video, but stay tuned, and I promise you’ll see us working with it very soon in the next video installment.