Monday, April 22, 2013

Lactopôle: The World's Largest Dairy Museum

Last Wednesday we had our second field trip, this time to the town of Laval, and the headquarters of the huge Lactalis international dairy conglomerate, which started out in 1933 as André Besnier's small family Camembert and butter production facility, and is now the largest dairy products group in the world, although, as we were told, it's still family-run, under the direction of André Besnier's son Emmanuel, head of the current "family of 52,000 employees" as our guides told us. We didn't see any industrial-level cheese processing, which was somewhat of a disappointment, but we did spend a good bit of time that afternoon discussing (arguing about) the roles of small farmers vs. megafactories and the pros and cons of each, the price and availability of milk, and the flavors of different types of blue cheeses. Actually, there was no argument about that last bit, just happy tasting, especially when we were shown the proper way to serve blue cheese: scraped with the edge of the knife into a paste to break up and homogenize the mold and cream and salt, spread on bread (and then licked off, if you're me - I'd neglected to bring another GF baguette).

There's no denying that the Lactalis group controls a good bit of what happens in the dairy industry, here in France and in many other countries around the world, including the United States. It was interesting to see how little time it took for the company to grow from 50 people to 50,000. The museum was created to commemorate this journey, as well as store the collection of cheese and butter and milk paraphernalia amassed by the Monsieurs Besnier over the decades. The fame of the collection - within the dairy industry in any event - grew such that people were sending their old butter churns and so on to Laval, for inclusion in the exhibits. We got the full guided tour, staring in a part of the building dating back to the original milk collection and production area, and offices still full of old ledgers and typewriters.

We also saw one of the first Tetra-Pak machines used by the company to store and sell milk; the company has been quick to take advantage of new inventions, or to get people to invent things for them. But no matter how industrialized the process gets, there are still some elements that never change, like the cheese molds used for traditional Camembert, and the metal racks that they dry on after being unmolded and salted.

Anything and everything cheese-related is found in this museum, with a special emphasis on Camembert. There's an entire wall of labels from old brands of the cheese, most of which aren't made any more, dating back to the earliest standardized production with boxes and labels back at the end of the 19th century. A large area is filled with information on many of the AOP cheeses from France and elsewhere in Europe, but we didn't spend too much time in there; I imagine that it would be more interesting if we hadn't already been sitting through classes on that same topic. The tour's designed for people who don't know much about the dairy industry, I think, so there was a lot of old info. Personally, I think it would be better to schedule this visit at the beginning of the DU program, but most of my fellow students disagreed with me. I know I'd have been more interested in spending time looking at the exhibits if it hadn't been a rehash of the last three weeks.
We even got a brief overview of cheese science, including a transparent plastic cow, and some information on the protein and fat content from various other animals. We'd seen a similar chart in another class, only that one also included animals like squirrels. They'd be a bitch to catch and milk, but I bet the cheese would have a wonderful nutty flavor.

One section of the museum is devoted to butter-making equipment, from old hand-cranked barrel churns to American standing pole churns, a combination ladder and churn from somewhere in the Alps, yak horns for storing butter in Tibet, and gourd calabashes from Africa. There is a shelf of glass jars with screw-on beaters that were very popular in Paris at one time for making butter at home, and a lovely collection of wooden butter molds and paddles.

Many of the once-common cow breeds are gone or rare these days, with the Prim'Holstein being far and away the most popular, especially for milk production - there are almost more of this breed in France than all of the other breeds put together, milk and meat combined. The russet-coated stuffed Salers cow in the museum represents a much more ancient breed, used for both meat and milk, and with a unique feature that affects milk production: the cow won't let down her milk unless she can actually see her calf, and have it right next to her.

When we moved into the product display area on the upper floor, we found out just exactly how many "different" brands of milk, butter, cheese, yoghurt, and more are made by Lactalis factories around the world. I wonder how many of the silly people in the United States who were eating "freedom fries" and avoiding anything to do with "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" made their lasagna with Precious brand ricotta, or stuffed their sandwiches with Sorrento brand cheese, both of which belong to the Lactalis group. And it's not just the USA - in Russia, cheese loves you!

One of the afternoon discussion/argument topics was hand-ladling vs. robot-ladling cheesemaking techniques, and whether using robots negatively affected the quality. Our guide pointed out that it's really quite hard work, ladling heavy curds just so into an endless array of molds, and he thought it was an improvement, though some of my fellow students disagreed. Personally, I think that if you can incorporate time- and effort-saving mechanisms into the process, there's nothing wrong with that, as long as you don't lower the quality of the final product. If a well-designed robot ladles the curd carefully into the Camembert molds in the five required layers at the specified 45-minute intervals, so what? A bored and rushed and weary human worker might make a mess of it, tempted to just slop the stuff around when facing the ten-thousandth cheese mold at the end of a long morning.

Molds for cheeses come in all shapes and sizes, and I regret not spending more time at this exhibit. The mold plays a large part in how the cheese turns out, because total surface area is an important factor in aging, as is the thickness of the cheese. Most are variations on rounds, squares, pyramids, and hearts, though there are new forms being tried constantly, like the raw-milk soft goat cheese "Le Trèfle" made in the Loire Valley in the form of a four-leaf clover. I think I even saw a cheese made in the shape of the map of France, in one of the shops here in Tours - I'll have to take Pat there tomorrow and look for it.

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