Jun 19 2010

Navigating life without AMAP

Okay, so first, a confession: we have left the farm and are officially in Paris, where we are staying in a lovely apartment of a couple who are currently staying in NYC (thanks, Mom & Dad) in a house swap. It is a way of traveling that I highly recommend — an apartment with a roof deck in Paris, with three separate boulangeries within a block’s distance, for free? Amazing.

But there are still more tales from the farm to tell. Like, for example, AMAP deliveries. An AMAP is French for “association pour le maintien d’une agriculture paysanne.” (Which I suppose is still French — in English, it’s an association for the preservation of family farming.) AMAPs are kind of like CSAs in the States (community supported agriculture programs) where you sign up for a season’s worth of boxes of vegetables and fruit from a local farm.

But just as a baguette in America is an inferior version of a baguette in France, CSAs have nothing on their AMAP counterparts. An AMAP, you see, is far more than vegetables. Depending on the farmers in your area, you can place orders for everything from cheese, yogurt and milk to bread, honey, meat, and even beer. Each week you then show up at your friendly AMAP delivery spot and pick up your week’s produce directly from the person who made it.

It’s funny, first, to see the French version of a Berkeley farmer’s market (bizarrely, hippies in France don’t bother me nearly as much as those in California — white people with dreadlocks are somehow not as annoying when they’re speaking French). But second, it was truly lovely to see Laurent’s interactions with his customers — chatting with his AMAP customers was clearly one of the highlights of his week.

I think he’d invited us to tag along with him because his radio was broken, and so we did our best to keep him entertained, Peter singing nonsense songs in English about what he’d be like if he were a dinosaur, and me asking about the details of the AMAP contract system. Things went relatively smoothly until our last delivery, after which point Laurent offered to buy us a beer, so we pulled his green delivery truck up to a bar advertising pool and drank Desperados — some kind of sweet beer that has definitely not made its way to the US — as we watched a Madonna video. (It mostly involved her straddling the camera and saying something about Hollywood — Laurent was both confused and intrigued.)

Problems began when we hit our first roundabout. Peter and I had been responsible for restacking the boxes of empty jam jars and milk bottles in the back of the truck and, on our way out, Laurent had seemed to take a rather nonchalant attitude toward how secure they needed to be. I’m still not sure what the precise answer to that question is, but I do know that we did not arrange them securely enough, because as Laurent steered around the circle, we heard a large crashing sound in the back followed by the tinkle of broken glass.

We were silent, nervously waiting from a response from Laurent, who paused for about three seconds and then started laughing. (This is why we love him.) Up came another roundabout. CRASH. Tinkle tinkle tinkle.

By this point, we were all giggling uncontrollably, goaded on every time we heard the clinking of glass shard against glass. The previous night at dinner, we’d been taking bets on whether the goat with the lung infection would make it through the night (gallows humor on the farm) — so we followed that with a round of bets on how many bottles had shattered into pieces in the back.

The answer? Quite a few, which became obvious when we reached the farm and opened the sliding door to yet another tinkle of glass falling onto the cement patio. But no big deal. We swept it up, restacked the unbroken bottles and their coolers, and went in to deliver a special pasteque — watermelon — to Isabelle, who was delighted at the face Peter had drawn on it in permanent marker with a speech bubble saying “Bonjour, Isabelle!” A fantastic evening all around.

Jun 15 2010

Panic In The Goat Shed

When we first got to the farm, I felt no particular affinity for the goats. As far as I was concerned, they were a row of udders to milk — albeit, with some udders considerably more jumpy than the others (I’m looking at you, angora goat!). But that’s started to change. I’ve been spending more time in the goat shed between milkings, and have begun developing a sense of affection toward them. They’re cute, with their oddly shaped heads and conveniently backwards-angled horns. They seem to enjoy it when I pet them on the heads. And sometimes, if I’m lucky, they come up and lean against my legs, like affectionate dogs. I take pleasure in this, my time in the goat shed. And I’ve also realized something potentially embarrassing: I really, really, want the goats to like me.

I fear that, after this morning’s fiasco, they may not. Peter and I were in charge of the morning’s milking and, since it was approximately our 26th time doing so, we were getting a little cocky. Instead of letting the goats into the milking stalls in groups of two or three, we let in an entire group of 10.

“What’s the big deal?” I hear you asking. “They do this every morning of their lives.”

Here’s what: As Peter described in his legendary “How To Milk A Goat in 35 Steps” post (which we mentioned to Laurent, prompting many jokes about what the 36th step would be), there is a complicated head-locking mechanism that keeps the goats in place and eating while we milk them. It only works if the goats stick their heads into the trough one after the other — and it’s a narrow enough row that if one goat misses her chance to stick her head in a feeding slot, she’s stuck: there’s no way to sneak around the next goat to an open space.

That is, of course, exactly what happened. After displaying their customary confusion at the sight of the milking stalls (“What the hell are these?”) the goats caught sight of the food and began to stick their heads into the troughs, each successive goat accompanied by the satisfying clank of her head locking into place. But not our little brown goat. No, she took her time. Unfortunately, things move fast in the milking pen, and by the time she’d figured out that yes, this was exactly the same situation she’d been in every other morning and evening of her life, it was too late: her neighbors had blocked her out.

If the goat was agitated, it was nothing compared to me and Peter, now facing the backsides of a row of  livestock munching away as the stranded goat attempted to make a break for it by diving forward, backwards, and beneath her neighbors’ legs. Peter, thinking quickly, grabbed the soup pot that we use to measure out food and handed it to me so that I could provide her with her own personal feeding trough. He then got to milking, a slow task given that the goats who are the quickest to come in also happen to be those with the most milk. As it turned out, the stranded goat had a great morning: since I had to keep her occupied till the other goats were finished, she ended up with three servings of food. Oh well. Sometimes, you just need to keep the ladies happy.

We emptied out that round and got ready to bring in the rest — which I wouldn’t have thought would be a problem either.

Wrong again. The first three goats we brought in, unused to being the leaders of the pack, took one look at the milking stalls and panicked. What were these crazy things? And where did we want them to put their heads? They began walking in tight circles, glancing at the food, and walking in circles again. I tried talking to them, I tried pointing at the food, I tried gently swatting their bottoms with a folded paper bag. No go. (Or, rather, no goat.)

By now, I was feeling panicked — I’d just grossly overfed one of our top producers, and now we had three animals with bloated udders walking in circles while their colleagues bleated in the background, poking their heads around the edge of the gate as they waited to be let in. Please, God, I thought to myself, don’t let Laurent or Isabelle show up now.

Luckily, they didn’t. Instead, we made the bold move of letting in one additional goat. She turned out to be a leader of the herd, walking right to the end of the row and sticking her head in to feed, ignoring the panic around her. The other goats immediately followed. And about 15 minutes later, my heart rate had returned to normal.

Jun 13 2010

Naughty Kids

Well, there’s been high drama in the goat shed. One of the chevres, brown and cute, hadn’t been eating that much for a few days. I was hoping she was just a selective eater (some of them pick out the sunflower seeds with their tongues) – but when Laure came with us for the evening milking and saw her condition, she immediately went to get a thermometer. A few seconds later, we had learned a. how to take the temperature of a goat (I’ll give you a hint: it doesn’t go under their tongues) and b. that our little goat was quite sick. How sick? Laurent, firm believer in homeopathic remedies, gave her a shot of antibiotics in the neck. When we asked whether he’d know if it were working, he responded matter-of-factly:  “If not, tomorrow she’ll be dead.”

Good news, though: it’s now several days later, and the little lady – who has been spending her evenings in a special straw padded stall and has two red bands around her ankles – is, as they say, getting her goat back. She now wants to eat with the others, and has been bleating in protest when we sequester her at night – which would be sort of funny, except that thanks to her lung infection, she has a cough. “Meh-eh-eh-eh, me-eh-eh, [cough, cough], meh-eh-eh.” It’s one of the saddest sounds I’ve ever heard.

I'm the queen of the bucket!

Meanwhile the baby goats, otherwise known as the chevrettes (sort of like the Rockettes, except smaller, and with a closer resemblance to the creatures in Avatar), have been up to trouble. For the past few mornings, I’ve noticed that the bucket that holds their food has been empty. Nightime, full. Morning, totally empty. Since I’m the one who’s been filling it, I know that something funny’s going on.

Take us to the tree of souls!

I’d assumed that it must be some sort of animal that’d been sneaking in at night and eating all the grain — there’s a mole-like hole in the dirt next to the entrance to their pen, and having seen Fantastic Mr. Fox, I thought that someone was carrying out a secret attack on the farm (first goat feed, next, chickens!). But then Isabelle went to feed the goats, and announced that there was a small black one whose stomach was bloated – suggesting that the mysterious attacker was actually just a rogue chevrette.

Let me explain how odd this would be: the goat feed is, logically, outside the goat pen. The goats are kept in by a wooden wall and a chickenwire fence. Yes, I had noticed a few days ago that the same black goat had managed to stick her entire head under the wooden fence and was using her tongue, frog-like, to nab bits of food that had fallen on the ground. But I never saw her outside the fence – and each morning, she was safely inside, ready to stick her head under the other side of the chevrette enclosure, the one that looks into the milking station, and complain loudly to her mother every time we brought the adults in.

It reminds me of a story Peter told me about an octopus who somehow figured how to get out of its tank at night, slither across the floor, eat all the crabs out of a different tank, and then get back home before the scientists came back in the morning. I think they used a hidden camera to figure it out (the scientists, not the octopus.) We don’t have such technology available in the chevrette pen – but trust me: something naughty is going on.

Goat cam

Couples that milk together, stick together.

Jun 13 2010

Hijinks on the Farm

Here is something I learned this morning: chickens do not like it when you take their eggs. I don’t know why I ever thought otherwise – we’re essentially snatching their unborn babies and using them for a frittata. But reality had never hit home until this morning when, after we finished milking, Peter and I noticed a chicken who had made a nest in the goat shed.

I’d heard mention of this chicken before – Isabelle had spoken of how there were certain poules who had separated themselves from the flock near the pigpen and had made homes for themselves around the farm. Still, it was an odd choice for a location, directly beneath the goats’ water basin. Whatever bird it was, I decided, must be one tough chicken.

And indeed she was, a fact that should have been obvious by the look she gave us when we leaned down to see if she were sitting on anything. I believe it was chicken-eye for “Watch your fucking step.” But I’ve been brainwashed by the illustrations on cartons of organic  eggs, and figured that she’d be all too happy to share.  After all, aren’t we all just one big happy farm?

No, the chicken said, no we are not. I reached toward her to nudge her aside, but before my hand had made it halfway to her nest, she lunged toward me and snatched the skin on the back of my hand in her beak. It was an impressive attack, made more so when she refused to let go. “Peter!” I said, as she glared at me, the look in her eyes saying that she had no intention of releasing me.

I dare you.

But luckily she did, distracted by the end of a broom that Peter used to gently push her off the nest, holding her away until I could take the four (four!) eggs she’d been sitting on. I felt a little bad when we hard-boiled them for breakfast, but later on, the joke was on us: when we went to gather eggs from the main chicken coop, we picked up two fake ones, put there by Isabelle to encourage the chickens to tend their nests (and, apparently, to fool ignorant WWOOFers).

Speaking of jokes, this afternoon, Peter and I were standing by the buque (sp?) – the male goat whose job it is to impregnate the entire flock, including his daughters, each August.

“Why don’t you rub him on the head?” Peter said as we stood there. I noticed a naughty look in his eye, but I couldn’t figure out why. The buque , whose name is Titus, seemed friendly enough, and he’d come up to us as if inviting us to pet him. I squinted my eyes at Peter.

“Why?” I asked. “Does he get mad?”

“Just rub his head between his horns.”

I scanned my memory once more for any counterindication, but came up with a blank – so I reached out and rubbed Titus on the head. The goat seemed to enjoy it; Peter, on the other hand, was doubled over in laughter.


“You don’t remember what Laure told us?” he asked. “About the gland?”

A memory came rushing back: when she’d given us the tour of the farm, Laure had warned that male goats have a gland on the top of their heads, right between their horns, that produces a very strong goat odor – goat essence, if you will. If you get it on your hands, she said, it could last for days.

I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten this, especially since Laure had told it to me in French and I had personally translated it for Peter. But it was too late: my first two fingers on my left hand were covered in eau de buque.

C'mon. Rub my head.

But Peter got his comeuppance: not only is he still recovering from a 12-inch-diameter bruise he got the first night we were here when he fell off a log he was using to get a better look at the pigs, but the other night he got the rope we use to move the goats inside caught between his toe and his sandals. The problem? It was raining, and the rope – which contains metal – is connected to the electric fence. By the time he got his foot free, he said he could feel the electricity in his armpits.

Jun 5 2010

Magical Manure

Happy as a pig in organic, biodynamic shit.

It is six thirty on Saturday, and Peter and I are recovering from having cooked lunch for 11 people. (More on that to come.) I have goat milk on my pants, bread dough on my shirt, sweat everywhere, and I cannot tell you how much I do not want to go out for the second round of milking — which is set to begin in approximately 32 minutes. I’d love to skip it for tonight and just take a nap, but it’s difficult to shirk responsibility when it’s bleating at you from outside the window. (A side note: I realized this morning that I have become a goat racist. I know, I know, I’m not supposed to say this out loud — but I just don’t like white goats. They’re ornery and mean and try to kick you when you put a suction cup on their udder [though then again, can I blame them?] I like brown goats. Brown, short-haired, even-tempered goats.)

Anyway. There’s no point in going to the cheese lab to take a shower right now, given the fact that in a half hour I’ll have my hands covered in goat udder — so instead I thought I’d write an update on the past couple days.

First, my adventures in the cheese lab. By the end of the week, I’d gotten a bit better at some of my tasks — ladeling curdled milk into little cups to make chevre, for example, or making sure that the cream did not boil. (Woe upon the cheese maker who lets the cream boil.) I have not, however, gotten better at filling small plastic cups with jam. As mentioned previously, the goal is to use a pastry bag — filled with sticky jelly and open at both ends — to put exactly 12 grams of “confiture” into each yogurt cup. The two women who work in the lab do this by eye, squirting precisely the right amount over and over again, 48 cups per tray. I, however, am a nervous jam squirter, and like to weigh my yogurt cups, even if it means that the same task that the other women complete in three minutes takes me about 45. I’m sorry, but the difference between 12 and 16 grams of jelly amounts to approximately one apricot chunk, and I don’t want customers complaining.

But in addition to the ridiculous amount of time my method requires, there’s another problem — it tends to make the bag come open at the bottom. The first time this happened, I noticed what was going on before I spilled jam on myself, and got help. But the second time I was not so lucky. I was focusing so hard on my apricot measurement that I didn’t notice it when about two cups’ worth of jelly oozed out of the bag and onto my apron, the counter, and the floor. I uttered a hearty obscenity, looked around to see if anyone was watching, and managed to get most of the jam into a bucket before someone walked into the room — at which point I boldly announced, “Il y a un catastrophe d’abricot!” (There is an apricot catastrophe!)

After that, I requested a chaperone.

But that was less stressful than our recent experience with biodynamic agriculture. One morning — maybe Tuesday — Laurent announced that he needed six people to join him in the field to “preparer la composte.” I wasn’t sure exactly what he was talking about, but the night before people had been talking about biodynamic agriculture (a system developed by Rudolph Steiner that involves cosmology, psychology and letting things rot in deer stomachs — long story). There’d been jokes about how you needed to think good thoughts while planting corn, and it seemed like people were making fun of the idea.

But in retrospect, I think I was mistaken. Because when we got to the field, Laurent pulled out a medicine bottle full of mysterious brown liquid, put several drops in a bucket of water and began to swirl it carefully in a stick, first in one direction, then the other, for ten minutes. When I asked why he was doing it, he mentioned something about the idea that water was able to accept the energy from the universe, and that this was how you got the water crystals to open. (This was particularly odd because Laurent is a dry-humored, occasionally sarcastic guy whom I wouldn’t expect to have books that are sold at Cafe Gratitude.)

Then he revealed five small bottles of brown, humus-like material. I’d seen on the box that their ingredients were things like camomile and other herbs, so I was a bit surprised when they smelled like poop. But it turned out that part of biodynamism is to bury the ingredients in various animal organs (deer stomach, goat horn) and let them rot for six months before digging them up.

Laurent instructed Elder, the Portuguese apprentice, to make fifty holes in the compost, one and a half meters apart, and then handed each of us a bottle and arranged us in a line. Our job was to work our way down the field, each of us putting a tiny bit of our magical potion into one hole at a time, then covering them up as if planting a precious seed. It was very important that we a. work quickly and b. stay in order. Laurent followed us, putting a drop of water in every sixth hole.

I don’t entirely understand biodynamic agriculture in English — let alone French. But there are many things on this farm that I’m not sure about (why there are corks on the end of the milking suction cups, for example, or why I feed the baby goats by dropping corn on their heads). So I just took my place in line.

My first issue with this project was that while the other farm hands had wisely put on knee-high boots — a good choice when one is ascending piles of moist poop — Peter and I were wearing sneakers and long pants. “How am I not going to get cow shit in my socks?” I asked myself. It didn’t occur to me until I was actually on top of a pile, in the midst of getting cow shit in my socks, that the real problem was not my feet — it was the fact that we were supposed to fill in the hole with our hands. Oh yes. Take a small piece of rotting deer stomach, drop it in the hole, and then fill it up with moist cow turds, sticky and covered with flies. It wasn’t long before I had poop up to my elbow.

The chakras of this compost are very well aligned.

When we’d finished, Laurent walked up and down the pile using a bundle of grass to sprinkle the remaining water on top as Elder looked dramatically toward the heavens and made the sign of the cross.

Biodynamic poop aside, though, Peter and I both feel really lucky to have ended up on this farm with this family. They are generous, kind, and tend to have senses of humor about, well, us — which is something I’m very grateful for.

Peter, Elder, and the cutest dog at the farm.

Jun 3 2010

How to Milk a Goat in 35 Steps

For my first blog post ever, I thought I’d channel the master: little Catherine.  For those who don’t know, Catherine used to keep obsessive, hyper-literal journals that explained –  in precise detail – what she was doing or how something worked.  She had a particular fancy for toilets.  Yesterday’s toilets are today’s goats – so here, in careful detail, is how to milk 90 liters of milk out of 27 goats in about 65 minutes:

1)  Walk to the washing/sanitary machine in the milk shed.  Nod to Jean Claude, who will smile and say something you don’t understand in French as he milks the cows.  Laugh like you understand what he said.

2)  Attach the rubber washer that will eventually rest between the milk jug lid and the jug itself to the jug’s lid.

3)  Remove the milk hoses from the washing machine valves and attach them to the nozzles on the lid of the milk jug.  If the Americans were the ones to last attach the hoses to the machine, untangle the knot of hoses.

4)  Place the lid on the milk jug.

5)  Attach a bungee cord with a simple hitch to one of the jug’s handles and hook the ends of the cord to the other handle.  The various positions of the cords, with their attendant advantages and disadvantages, are a dissertation to themselves.  I’ll stick to the basics.

6)  On the other end of the hoses are vacuum cups.  There are two cups per hose and two hoses per jug.  Loop the hoses around the hooks on the top the milk jug to keep the hoses and cups off the ground.   Think to yourself: why are we so concerned with the cups touching the ground when we don’t wash the udders before milking?

The Setup

7)  (Repeat steps 2 through 6 on second jug.)

8 )  Bring the wheel barrow to the milk shed.

9)  Places jugs on the wheel barrow and wheel them to the goat milking shed.

10)  “The milking shed has a large vacuum, which is connected to a set of pipes.  There is a long pipe that runs along the milking stand, which has three valves.  There is a compressor on the lid of the milk jug that has a hose.  Attach the hose of the first milk jug to the first valve on the vacuum pipe; attach the hose of the second to the third valve.”  This is a direct quote from one of Catherine’s toilet journals.

11)  There are eighteen goat stations: put one scoop of feed in each station.

12)  Herd the goats into the pen that is nearest to the milking station.  Ignore the 54 horns you must push past to get back to milking station.  Ignore the stare from the bearded goat that knows you’re a rookie.

Come on, gals, please?

The Goat Whisperer

I'm going to eat your cap.

13)  Open the door that leads from the pens to the milking platform, allowing only a few goats in at a time.  The milking station has a nifty locking system: as a goat put her neck down to eat the feed, she simultaneously locks herself in and opens the gate for the next goat – who repeats the process.  Unless it’s the small, black goat, who doesn’t like the idea of getting her head locked in a feeding trough, and likes to turn around in a panic and try to push her way back into the pen. Swat her on the bottom with a plastic tube.

14)   Turn on the master vacuum.

15)  Once the first eighteen goats are locked in and eating away, place the first two vacuum cups of the first jug on the first goat and the second two vacuum cups on the fifth goat.  (Cows have four udders; goats have two.)  Repeat in mirror image with the second jug.  To place the cups on the udders, hold the first cup between your thumb and index finger and the second cup between your index finger and middle finger.  Carefully align the first cup with tip of the right udder.   (An improperly placed cup can force the tip of the udder to fold in on itself – a“kinked nipple,” one might say — which blocks the milk.)  Align the second cup with the tip of the second udder.   Appreciate the satisfying “thomp” that accompanies a goat teat being sucked into a pneumatic tube.

The Usual Suspects

16)  The jugs’ compressors switch the vacuum force from one cup to the other with each cup recieving about a second of primary force per suck.  Suck; switch; suck; switch; . . .  Check the clear tubes that emerge from the cups to make sure that milk is coming from each udder.  If there is no milk, grab the udders in both hands and pull the milk down toward the cups.  Be surprised at how clean the udders are. Unless you touch the warm crusty spot between the two udders. That’s different.

17)  Wait for the milking to complete.  This takes approximately 2 minutes per goat.   You can tell when the udders are dry based on their size and whether milk can be seen in the clear tubing.  Each goat produces about three liters of milk per milking.  (The goats are milked twice a day: at around 8 a.m. and at around 7:00 p.m.)

Thomp, Thomp!

18)  Move the hoses from the first goat to the second and from the fifth to the sixth, repeating the process down the line until all of the goats are milked.

Almost there

19)  Wait for the goats to finish eating if they have not already finished.  They’ll cause trouble if you don’t.  Trust me.

20)  Open the door to the outer pen.

21)  Release the master lock on the locking mechanism.  The goats will lift their heads and proceed in a less-than-orderly fashion out the door to the outer pen.  Be ready for the black goat that thinks heaven exists on the other side of the milking station and invariably tries to spring from the herd.

22)  Repeat the process with the second set of goats.  Since there are only 27 milking goats on the farm, the second set includes only nine goats.  Move the jug that was attached to the third valve on the vacuum piping to the second valve.  Attach the cups to every other goat – moving each set of cups toward the middle of the line of goats.

Let me at that cap!

23)  Once the milking is complete, detach the compressor hoses from the valves.

24)  Turn off the master vacuum.

25)  Place the full jugs on the wheelbarrow, and wheel them either to the cheese lab; or back to the milking shed.

26)  If in the milking shed, place three strainers over the opening of the milk vat.  Place a paper filter between the first and second strainer.  Detach the lid and pour the milk in the vat.  Laugh with Jean Claude, knowingly.

27)  If in the cheese lab, place a thin strainer over the large plastic milk container before pouring in the milk.  (Each container holds about 100 liters of milk.)  Wink to the cute girl in the window putting labels on the yogurt containers.

(Or, in this case, herding goats.)

28)  Place the lids of the milk jugs near the washing/sanitary machine and attach the hoses that had been attached to the lids onto the valves of the washing machine.  Remove the washers.

29)  Place the cups (pointed down) into the bin near the washing machine and arrange the tubes in a way so as not to tangle them for next time.   Watch as they tangle.

30)  Scrub the lids with soap, using a pipe cleaner or tooth brush for the valves.  (The washing machine hook up is to wash the inside of the hoses and the cups – not the lid or the jug itself.)

31)  Rinse the lids.

32)  Scrub the inside and outside of the jugs, rinsing at least twice to remove all of the soap.

33)  Place the jugs upside down on the drying rack.

34)  Scrub the floor.

35)  Return the wheelbarrow.

Easy peasy!

I was feeling pretty cocky after drafting this post.  I went to milk the goats with a swagger.  The primary goat tender – Elder – gave me a thumbs up as he checked over my work before turning on the master vacuum.  He gave a puzzled look and cocked his head.  One of the jugs was hissing.  I had forgotten the washer – the very first step after walking to the shed.  Très embarrassing.  I shook my head with disappointment, “Ah, Katrine.”

Jun 2 2010

The Cheese Factory

It’s only been two days since I ate my first pigeon gizzard, and already there’s tons to write about — life moves fast on the farm (while at the same time moving very slowly). I’m increasingly reminded of that children’s book City Mouse, Country Mouse. Does anyone else remember that one? (Peter has no idea what I’m talking about.) Two mice switch places, and hilarity ensues? That’s pretty much what’s happening here.

The other night, for example, I was feeling pretty good about myself for my goat milking skillz, and as Peter took the canisters back to clean them (watch for his upcoming blog post, “How To Milk A Goat in 35 Steps”), I asked Laurent if I could help him with anything. He suggested that I feed the goats with something called “le foin” and pointed me toward a bunch of bales of some farm-y looking stuff. Then he continued on to tend to the cows. Wanting to impress him with my hard work (if lack of ability with a pitch fork), I lifted up the bales by hand, untied them, and filled the entire trough with what I thought was food. I worked quite hard at this, and for quite some time. Sure, it occurred to me to wonder why the goats had no interest in the food I was giving them (they kept walking up to it and then walking away), but no matter. I was a farm hand! Doing farm things! When Laurent came back, I proudly showed him my work and asked him it was okay.

He paused, looked at what I’d done, and turned to me with a furrowed brown. “Tu les as donne la paille,” he said. Translation: “You gave them straw.”

Now, for those of you out there who, like me, don’t know the difference between hay and straw in English, let alone French, here’s the deal: hay is dried grass, sweet-smelling and flecked with flowers, and is something that goats really like to eat. Straw, on the other hand, is the bedding that they poop on. A big difference, and one that was not lost on Laurent (or, for that matter, the goats), who tried to figure out some way to say it was okay, but eventually agreed that I should probably just empty all the straw into their pens and start again. “Don’t worry,” he said to me in French as I threw handfuls of straw onto the goats, who looked up at me, confused. “I won’t tell Peter.”

Another goat moment: I was standing with Isabelle by the goat pen and noticed that some of their udders stayed larger than others even when they were done being milked. (The family likes to say that the udders look like upside down hearts — but they’re really  more like butts.) “Why is that?” I asked her.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Some of them just have bigger udders.”  As she spoke, I noticed that Isabelle herself is quite busty — and it occurred to me that since a goat’s udder is essentially her breasts, it makes sense that not all udders would be the same. I tried to express that to Isabelle by pointing at her chest, then mine, then the goats’, and then laughing. I’m not sure if the message made it through.

Anyway. Since last I wrote we’ve been joined by a Portuguese apprentice named Elder, who wears a red jumpsuit and lives in a trailer that is essentially parked in the goat shed. He really likes goats, cheese, and trying to get Peter to drink more wine at lunch. He also speaks quickly, and with a thick Portuguese accent. He’s a master with the milking canisters, and has been training Peter in his ways. As for me, I’ve been spending my mornings in the laboratoire de fromage — the cheese workshop — which sounds very similar to (but is very different from) un abattoir — a slaughterhouse. Yesterday I spent several hours ladeling curdled milk into small cups for cheese, and stuck labels on yogurt containers. Sometimes I wonder if we’re helping them at all.

But today was different. After spending a half hour emptying cups of cheese onto my hand, flipping them over, and putting them back in the cup (a process known, unsurprisingly, as “turning the cheese”), the cheesemaker, also named Isabelle, showed me the first step of making fromage blanc — you put cheesecloth in a bucket, fill the bucket up with a mixture of curds and whey, and then lift the bag of cheese out of the bucket and leave it on the counter to drain.

“Ca va?” she asked, after showing me how to do it, and then walked into the other room to make butter. No problem, I thought. Isabelle is not much taller than I am, and she had no problem lifting the sack out of the bucket and placing it on the counter. So I dutifully filled up the bucket, tied up the top — and then, as I moved to lift the bag from the bucket, realized that it weighed approximately 40 pounds. (No joke.) Making things more difficult, the bag had suctioned itself to the bottom of the bucket. I stood there for a moment trying to hoist the bag out, reluctant to call attention to myself by asking for help, but also unable to remove the bag. It was too heavy to shake, and I couldn’t take away a hand from the bag to remove the bucket, so instead I kind of swayed from side to side,cow-like, hoping the gentle movement would break the suction.

It did. Unfortunately, when the bucket finally came loose, it threw my weight backwards, which made me lose my balance (the floor is covered in whey, which it turns out is quite slippery), which made me reach out desperately for something to catch myself, which made me drop the cheese bag onto the floor. It landed with a wet thwap as I reached out for something to catch me, which turned out to be  a metal sheet balanced on plastic horses that was covered with hundreds of cups of cheese — the very ones I’d spent the morning turning.

I had a momentary vision of the entire sheet flipping over as I crashed to the ground,  landing on top of the sack of fromage blanc, a hailstorm of petits chevres arcing up into the air and down onto my head as both Isabelles rushed from the other room to see what had happened. Luckily, however, the sheet did not flip; instead, after glancing around quickly to see if anyone had seen me, I hoisted the fromage blanc off the ground and dropped it on top of the other sacks on the counter, hoping that cheese cloth is considered an effective barrier for floor-borne bacteria.

Things went smoothly for a while until Isabelle asked me to watch a bucket of milk she was cooking over a large propane flame. Unfortunately, however, she didn’t tell me what to watch for — only that if there was a problem, I should turn off the gas. I stood there for a bit trying to look like I was actively watching — by which I mean stirring the pot every time she walked by — and then, as she filled a bucket of cold water to cool off the milk, I noticed that the thermometer reading was rising fast. Before I could say anything, the cream  erupted into bubbles  and began spewing out of the top of the pot. “Nous avons un probleme!” I announced as I reached for the shut-off. This turned out to be exactly the “probleme” about which she was concerned, and she became so paranoid about milk spilling over that later on, when her leg brushed against a piece of plastic bag that made the same sound as boiling milk, she lunged across the room so fast I actually had to catch her.

After the milk and fromage blanc disasters, I was ready for something simpler — which turned out to be measuring precisely 70 grams of jam into approximately 150 glass jars. Apricot, pear, red berries, lemon, chestnut, something called myrtle that smelled like blueberries . . . there were a lot of glass jars, but you know what? I did a damn good job. Unfortunately, my success was rewarded with the task of filling even smaller plastic cups — 96, to be exact —  with precisely 12 grams of jam each, which I poured using a big icing bag filled with jam and opened at both ends. Not only did it take me close to 45 minutes to do one tray, but by the end, my apron looked like I’d killed someone.

Last up was putting tops on pots of fromage blanc. You’d think this would be easy, but the plastic containers were just soft enough to crumble if you pushed too hard on the lids, which had a frustrating tendency to open on one side just as I was closing them on the other. I tried to carry on a casual conversation with one of the Isabelles as I worked, chatting in French about the details of biodynamic wine (“It is involves the moon?” I said, “And poop? And goat horns?”) while trying to get the goddamned lids to stay on. As I repeatedly felt the lips of all the containers I’d already finished, I reailzed this whole endeavor — the jam measurement, the cheese turning, the lid placing — would be horrible for someone who is OCD (or, for that matter, me). Forget about wondering if you left the oven on. I had 60 containers of fromage blanc to check on, over and over again.

I think I did them right. But if you discover that your yogurt has 18 grams of berry jam in it instead of 12, or if your fromage blanc spills on your pants when you pick it up — or, for that matter, if your cheese tastes like floor — I apologize. It’s probably my fault.

May 30 2010

Getting Our Goats

Well, it is our second day in Coutras at a farm nestled in the countryside near Bordeaux. To be honest, I have really no idea where we are on a map. Nor do we have any means to leave the farm without help (yesterday we went for a walk and ended up in someone’s corn field). But  here’s the view from our window:

Please note the goats. As newcomers to the farm, we have been assigned to their care. Also note that while there are two of us, there are 27 of them, plus several “chevrettes” (little goats) and a male goat named Titus (or, alternatively, Leonardo Da Vinci). Every August he’s tasked with impregnating all the females — but right now he’s just hanging out next to the barn, eating hay and bleating loudly.

Anyway, one of my favorite parts of traveling is seeing and doing new things — like swimming in warm rivers, for example, or even sampling putrefied shark. But spending time on the farm is a different sort of experience — it’s giving us the chance to learn how to actually do stuff. And there is a lot of stuff to do on this farm, seeing as how there are some 50 cows, 27 goats, 6 pigs, countless chickens and pigeons, and two enormous work horses (and that’s not counting the four cats, four dogs, and the tropical fish tank in the kitchen). It doesn’t take long for situations like this to make me feel extremely incompetent,  or at least lacking in my ability to survive in the wild. Granted, I am an excellent touch typist — if the apocalypse came and the human race depended on secretarial skills, my stock would be high. But not on a farm — within several hours of being here, we’d observed the father milk the cows, the mother make cheese and yogurt, and the two daughters sharpen the knives, care for the goats, and just to top things off, service their car. As I type, one daughter is simultaneously making tiramisu and madelines, the son (who also fire juggles) is preparing oysters, and the mom suffocated some pigeons for lunch. (Peter just yelled “Catherine, do you want to pluck a pigeon?” up the stairs, and I have confirmed that he meant it literally.)

Luckily, they’re patient. Having correctly judged that goats were a good starter animal, Laurent (the father) showed us how to set up their milking stands and then distract them with breakfast so that we could get at their udders. (I have also learned the verb for “milking” — “traire” — and quite a bit about the details of goat reproduction.) Back when they only had two goats, they milked them by hand, but these days they have a small contraption that sits on top of the milk container and pumps it for them — our job is to grab their udders (les mamelles) and position the teats so they get sucked inside. I may be a city girl, but it’s strangely satisfying to hear the “whoosh, pop” sound of a teat attaching to the pump — and even more so to see the milk flowing from the tube into the container. Also, I can now say that I know not just what it feels like to touch a warm goat udder, but to be sprayed by one — yesterday while demonstrating how far you can squirt the milk (the answer: far), Laurent water-gunned my pants. I think it might have been a hazing ritual.

Anyway, between setting up the milk contraptions, actually getting out the goats (in two batches), milking them, and then washing out the containers, the whole process takes about an hour — and is repeated twice a day, in the morning and around 6pm. I would have thought that it would start to get tedious after, say, the third round — but instead I’m finding myself looking forward to the next milking session. I may not know how to make yogurt or cheese or suffocate a pigeon, but goddamn it, I’m getting good with goat teats.

It reminds me of a conversation we had over dinner our first night here: the mother, Isabelle, was asking whether it were really true that in English, “flower” and “flour” were pronounced exactly the same. “Yes! Exactly the same!” I said, wondering why I felt so satisfied with myself — and then realized it was because while I was/am completely useless as a farm hand, I am very good at pronouncing English words.

What else . . . yesterday, one of the daughters — astonished that I had never tasted milk straight from a cow — brought a plastic cup into the milking room and squeezed out a sample for us to try. (I was surprised to find that it tasted ,well, like cow’s milk — albeit a little warmer and with more froth.) She had us both try milking a second cow so that we could taste the difference, then filled the cup with cold goat milk and gave us that as well. We also had the chance not just to milk the goats in the morning and evening, but to eat one for lunch. This morning included the disconcerting scene of watching Laurent milk the cows as Lady Gaga played on the radio. And lastly, in addition to learning how to make cheese and yogurt, I’ve also discovered a new goal: learn to play a French accordion. Last night we had an 11pm music session with Laurent playing guitar and accordion and me on a tiny synthesizer — and now I’m hooked.

More photos:


Your shirt looks tasty.

Peter's new friends

I am a very large horse.