The latest issue of Cheese Connoisseur magazine featured an article on the Mayor of Bethmale, Sylvie Domenc, whose Fromagerie de La Core is a premiere producer of Bethmale cheese. Lee Smith, the magazine’s publisher (and a good friend of mine and Michael’s) put me in contact with Sylvie in Paris during the Salon de Fromage. Now, a month and a half later, I am comfortably situated in Sylvie’s house as a 3-week stagiaire (intern).
The set-up could not be better. Not only is Sylvie a gracious host, but I have my own heated room with a big bed with a view of snow-covered mountains. I have a toilet and shower, which I share with the other stagiaire, Dan, who, in fact, speaks English extremely well (like the Scandinavians, he picked up his English watching un-dubbed American television; in his case, Friends). The kitchen and refrigerator are open to everyone.
Each night, I join Sylvie, her secretary, Dan, and Sylvie’s long-time neighbors, Gerard and Erenie, for aperitifs. Both Gerard and Erenie are in their sixties, are retired and have handle-bar mustaches; Gerard wears a beret. Both are quintessentially French country folk and, I am convinced, they could not be more jolly. They are always cracking jokes. Gerard pretends to have the shakes when he holds out his glass for more Ricard.
At 5:20am, I eat a light breakfast, then drive Sylvie’s spare car to the Fromagerie de Cazalas where work starts promptly at 6:00am. Last week (I arrived last Wednesday), I worked in the Salle de Fabrication making cheese. This week, I am in the caves where I am assigned to washing cheeses. The fresh cheeses (called fromage blanc because they are still white) I wash with salt brine mixed with protective bacterial mold to aid the cheese’s rind development; the older, aged cheeses, which already have an established rind, I wash with a less salt-concentrated brine (sans bacteria). The salt reinforces the rind while the water prevents it (and the paste within) from drying out.
The Fromagerie produces cow, goat, sheep, and mixed-milk cheeses, raw and pasteurized. Some age for more than a year. My first day, I walked the caves with Sylvie and the managing director. During the tour, we plugged more than a dozen cheeses (as I described in my last Saint-Nectaire posting): cow, goat, sheep, mixed milk, raw and pasteurized. I liked them all, particularly the sheep’s milk. If you’re curious what the cheese’s look like, check out the pictures on the company’s website.
All of my coworkers, with the exception of two, are young men in their twenties and thirties. The two exceptions are a bear of a man in his late thirties/early forties and another in his late fifties. All are friendly and like to talk. There is no music system here, so instead of music one hears lots of whistling (Bernard, the man in his late fifties, is an exceptional whistler), as well as clanking metal, laughter, and the hum of air blowing through the blimp-like socks attached to the ventilators to prevent hard air currents from drying out the cheeses.
In Valbeleix, since I arrived, I had wanted to climb the eastern hillside, but never got the chance. This last weekend, I had my opportunity, not with any old hillside but a proper snow-capped mountain (see the picture at the top; the village of Bethmale is in the foreground). My original goal was to reach the Lac de Bethmale (5 km), but when I saw the mountain summit’s black rocks and snow, I asked myself if I was a badass and decided to go for it. I climbed an extra 5 km to the Col de La Core (Elevation: 1235 m or just over 4,000 ft.), getting to within a few hundred yards of the pass when I was hung up by 6 feet of snow that had completely covered the road.
I looked at my phone, it was 4:30pm. I contemplated hiking onto the pasture above and bipassing the road, but then the rain started to fall. I decided to turn back and was pelted by rain the entire 6 miles.
Other highlights from the weekend were seeing my first handball game (Sylvie is a handball fanatic; she got me a VIP pass, our seats were courtside) and attending the Bethmale voting session for the French national election. Because Sylvie is the major, she oversaw the delegating and counting of ballots (there are maybe 30 voters in all, that’s the entire, voting-eligible local population). It was a local’s birthday, so when the voting was done, we cracked open bottles of Champagne and partied for several hours. The average age had to be around 60.
The Fromagerie is closing up, time to run!