Thursday, May 27, 2010

Tomme Fermière

La Belle Fleurie, the farm a 100 meters or so from our gite outside Thônes, produces tomme fermiere. Tomme is one of the two main cheeses of Savoie, the other being reblochon--a mural on the highway to Thones depicts the city as the capital of reblochon. Fermiere means that it's an artisanal, farm-produced cheese. We visited La Belle Fleurie twice, in the morning and again in the late afternoon, to tour the cheese-making facility and to see the cows being milked.

The owners of La Belle Fleurie, Arlette and Henri Clavel, were kind enough to show us their farm. M. Clavel milks the cows twice a day, every day, at 5:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Every cow has a name, such as Dahlia. The cows come to the stable from the fields.

The farm has about 40 cows, of which 21 are currently milk cows. They are all of the Abondance breed, the traditional breed of cows in the Haute-Savoie.

The cows take their places in the stable. M. Clavel said that cows have highly hierarchical relationships, with a chief cow. The cows all have bells because, Mme. Clavel explained, she and her husband like the sound and, more practically, the bells make it possible to know where the cows are, to hear if they're agitated, and to find a lost cow.

Some of the bells are simple. Others are ornate. This one has symbols of the Savoie, including the Savoie coat of arms, a pine tree, and a chalet.

The cows are milked by machine, four at a time. It takes about 45 minutes to milk the entire herd.

While you're being milked, why not enjoy the salt lick?

The farm uses organic methods, and its cheese is certified as "biologique." M. Clavel even studied homeopathy so he could treat the cows. The cows eat meadow hay from nearby fields, all grown naturally, unseeded, and without pesticides. During the summer, each cow eats about 2.5 kilos of hay a day, in addition to what they eat in the pastures. In the winter, when the cows have to stay inside, they eat hay that's been stored for the season, about 120 tons of it. M. Clavel showed us some of the meadow hay--it's almost something that you'd buy in a fancy store for use in sachets. The field next to our gite is one of the fields that M. Clavel cuts for hay, and it's brimming with flowers.

After being milked, the cows get a helping of organic grain as a treat, and then they head back down to the pastures.

Mme. Clavel uses the raw milk from the cows to make the tomme fermiere. The farm's particular niche is an organic, soft tomme, unusual in the market. The milk, with a curdling agent, is heated in a stainless steel cauldron. The curds are mixed, then pressed into molds and left to drain. The farm produces about 15 cheeses from each milking, so this is truly the opposite of industrial farming.

The new cheeses are put in a drying room for a week. After that, they're moved to the "cave," where they age for about a month anda half. The natural mold in the cave grows on the surface of the cheeses, forming what Mme. Clavel called "cat hair." The newest cheeses have the mold patted down and are turned over every day. The cheeses that have aged the longest are turned once a week.

The Belle Fleurie farm sells most of its product itself, some to local buyers and some to buyers in Paris and Germany. A small part of the production is sold to an affineur, who ages the new cheeses himself. All of cheeses aged at la Belle Fleurie are stored in the cave.

For M. and Mme. Clavel, this is clearly a labor of love. They care deeply about their cow, about organic farming, and about traditional methods of making cheese. Eight years ago they left salaried city jobs to start their farm. Today, they sell all the cheese they make, and could probably sell much more if they had it. M. Clavel does not wear a watch, nor does he have a cell phone. They work every day, day and night. It's only in the last few years that they've taken any vacation at all, and that's been limited to about four days a year. Indeed, it's hard for them to relax on vacation, because even though while they're gone the farm is in the hands of an experienced farmer/cheese-maker, their minds are always on their cows.

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