08/25/2010 11:49 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

An Idiot's Guide to French Cheese

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? ) 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, 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.