In France, all cheese is local, but rarely do we actually taste it in the ‘hood’ where it was made. When I order a goat cheese salad in the town of Uzès near the Pont du Gard, I know I will be served a creamy white disk of Pelardon. If it came from the farm of Mme. Gueit, I can even picture the faces of the alpine goats from whose milk it was made. I’ve been there and met them!
Like many other wonderful foods in France Pelardon’s rich, picante flavor is protected by law. In 2000 the French government recognized its distinctive character and awarded it AOC status. This designation specifies the regional boundaries and production practices that must be followed in order for a cheese to bear the Pelardon name. (Are there cheese police out there?)
That said, there have to be small flavor differences among Pelardon. As a raw milk cheese it is literally alive with microbes that modify its flavor over time. Changes in temperature and humidity play a role, and each farm has a slightly different microclimate. Pelardon isn’t just produced, it’s created. The French like it that way.
To observe the cheesemaking process close-up my culinary tour group visited Mme. Gueit’s farm in the rugged foothills of the Park of the Cévannes thirty minutes north of Uzès last month. We were met by Mme. Gueit at the entrance to the large barn on the property where several dozen goats were quietly eating a breakfast of organic hay. A few curious goats wandered over to greet us. They were attractive, social animals who twisted their heads through the bars of a metal barrier so that we could rub their muzzles scratch behind their ears.
We covered our shoes with paper slippers before entering the small fromagerie across from the barn. Milk is piped in here from a raised walkway in the barn where the goats are mechanically milked twice a day. Milk is divided among plastic containers and a coagulant is added. Within hours milk curds separate from the liquid whey which is carefully drained off before the solids are ladled into molds.
The molds are minutely porous and whey continues to drain. Within two days the curds take on the definitive shape of the Pelardon. Released from their molds the cheese is ready to eat as fresh cheese. Most rounds will begin the aging process under Mme. and her staff ‘s watchful gaze.
The maturing of goat cheese is easier to comprehend in a fromagerie where there are a full range of examples to observe. Older cheeses take on a yellow cast and shrink slightly as they are moved back and forth on racks between two small rooms. One room is humid the other is less so. Both are cool and smell of the surrounding damp stone walls which must offer some interesting microorganisms of their own to the air. Mme. Gueit demonstrated textural changes, lifting one then another disk to show us how the cheese first becomes firmer, then later softens and then develops a creamy layer beneath a thin crust.
I purchased five Pelardons at the farm for us to sample with a glass or wine and bread later that day. Each exemplified a different stage in the aging process from the freshly drained cheese to a two month old Pelardon that was noticeably shrunken and beginning to show signs of mold on the surface. Some French “specialists” as Mme. called them prefer this very aged cheese. Judging by the appearance of the serving plate after our tasting, I would say that my American friends liked the fresher, milder cheeses more than the older examples.
Visits to artisan producers of local cheese, wine and olive oil in Provence are a special feature of Chez Madelaine's tours in France. If you would like to see for yourself how goat cheese is made and haven’t yet met a friendly goat, join us on next year’s Provence Odyssey. Specific information about the September 2018 tour will be available soon. Enrollment is on a first come, first served basis.