Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A New Phase

It's time to pack the suitcases again and move on to the next adventure. I leave tomorrow morning on the train from Grenoble to Paris, where I'll spend a few days getting lost, undoubtedly, though I hope I remember Mom's suggestions for orienting myself relative to the location and the map. It's supposed to be sunny, and that will help. I might be able to catch up on blogging while I'm there, and post the pictures of my afternoon in Grenoble, and the morning I helped 5-year-olds make cheese. And of course I have many pictures of the dairy here, and all of my thoughts and notes to write up into something that I might be able to pitch as an article to a cheese-centric magazine or website eventually.

Next destination: Pau and the pig farm!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Walking To The Church

I walked down to the local church the other day, the Eglise de St Barthélémy de Séchilienne, because the day was sunny and I didn't have any work to do with the goats or the cheese, and was tired of sitting at the computer. It was such a sunny day that the photos of the church that I took didn't come out, much too overexposed and not really from a good angle either. You can see the church from the road below, because it's built on an outcropping of rock, but this also means that there's no good place to stand and take a picture of the building. Especially not on an August afternoon. But the walk down was nice, and it felt good to stretch my legs.

I hope to come back here next year, after Laetitia has the new cheeseroom finished, with her small shop in front, and the temperature- and humidity-controlled rooms that will allow her to really get into the pressed-curd cheeses that need more aging. She plans on getting more chickens, and some pigs that she can fatten on the whey that's currently draining into the septic tank and then later butcher and use for homemade charcuterie. And perhaps there will be a garden as well, which she'd like to set up soon to grow her own vegetables and make use of the manure and old hay that is in constant supply.

I'd also like to come back here in the winter, and do another trip up into the higher mountains. I'm not a skier, especially with my ACL-free right knee, but I wouldn't mind sitting by a nice fire looking out over the snow and nursing another glass of gentian liqueur. Or in the spring, when it's not too hot to hike, because Lac Luitel and its nature reserve is just a few kilometers - admittedly incredibly steep ones - to the north, and the wildflowers in the high alpine meadows must be just amazing at that time of year. And then I could always come back in the fall, and pick some of the wild mushrooms that are springing up right now (plate-sized boletes, we heard yesterday from a neighbor, and Laetitia knows where to find lots of trompettes de la mort) and enjoy the wild boar that the hunters bring back from the forested slopes on either side of the valley.

Even though I know they're often horribly inconvenient to live in (without spending buckets of money on renovations and remodeling and upkeep) I do love the stone-built farmhouses here in France. Especially ones filled with heavy solid wood furniture handed down for generations. Now, if you ask me if I want to be responsible for said farmhouses and furniture, I'd have to say "no, not at all" - but when it comes time for me to retire, I would certainly consider it. Speaking of retirement, I got a message from AARP today. I am going to pretend that it was spam and not related to any sort of upcoming birthday. Not that I regret getting older, because I am thoroughly enjoying what each year brings, but the fact that I'm almost ten years older than the woman I'm currently working for does seem odd, now and then. And yet I do not feel nearly-fifty at all. Maybe that's why I like being in Europe - surrounded by all of these old buildings, I'm merely a fleeting second in history.

Of course, everyone's history comes to an end some time. I watched a bootlegged YouTube copy of "All of Me" the other day, and found that it's even more poignant than I remembered. I started crying when Lily Tomlin's character says, "Oh, please, make me not dead." I am so grateful to be alive, with the freedom to do what I love, and to explore the world to find more things to love. So many things to discover out there.

I would have liked to discover more about the church and its history, but it's only open for mass on the third Saturday of the month or something like that (unless the church is undergoing renovation or there is a visiting dignitary, of course). The river-stone foundation dates back to the 6th century and the tower to the 12th century, with the rest of the church rebuilt in the 17th century and then again, into its currently not very interesting architectural shape (which is why I don't particularly regret that the photos didn't turn out) in the 19th century. However, I do regret that the church wasn't open, because there are supposed to be some quite nice 16th-century gilded wood statues in there. Perhaps I'll go to mass when I come back to hike or pick mushrooms.

I do not think that Madame Petithuguenin will be here when I get back, however. Hers and several dozen other grave markers and grave sites are up for destruction and removal, due to the lack of family members to pay for ongoing upkeep. There was a war memorial in the graveyard as well, and I noticed that many families appeared to have lost six or ten men at once, though that could also be due to shared patronyms. And also that there are a lot of Italian-sounding family names around here, which Laetitia told me later is not surprising, because many Italian workers came over here in the 19th and early 20th century. We were only about 20km from the Italian border yesterday, and if I had a car I could drive into Italy from here in less than two hours.

And in another hour I would be in Turin, where I was at this time of year half a century ago, spending the night in a hotel with a chance-met Frenchman after a day-long trip via motorcycle through the Mont Blanc tunnel, a lunch of gnocchi in a roadside tavern surrounded by grapevines planted on 80-degree slopes, and a dinner of thin-crusted pizza with mozzarella and basil in a cobblestoned courtyard (this was well before the gluten and dairy issue realization).

I hope Madame Petithuguenin, born Louise Vallotton, enjoyed her life as much as I am enjoying mine.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Vegetable Substances

The monastery at Chartreuse was built in the 11th century, and the monks of the contemplative Order of Saint Bruno eventually turned their contemplation towards the subject of alcoholic beverages, like so many of their brothers in the lowlands where the hops and wheat grew for beer, or the vines trailed down the slopes leading to the wineries. In the craggy steep mountains, they found aromatic plants, some of which had interesting effects - mainly Artemesia genepi, Artemesia rupestris, and Artemisia umbelliformis. Those are among the 130 different plants that have been distilled for 400 years (speaking of the history of the production of the liquors, that is, not that the plants have been macerating for that long [although there may be a super-potent version hidden in some forgotten corner]) by the mostly-silent Pères Chartreux, with the first commercial distillery set up in 1737.

I am not sure that there's much Génépi consumed at the monastery, however, because I found it to be quite like tequila in its effect on volubility. I tried to translate the "1 tequila, 2 tequila, 3 tequila, floor" joke, which I think made it past the alcohol and language barriers. We were drinking the Génépi at room temperature, though it should have been chilled (although Jean says that makes it dangerously easy to drink). It's very sweet, with an almost unpleasant camphor-medicinal flavor at first, but once the first swallow has made everything seem like summer, the rest goes down rather smoothly.

Tomorrow I will try its more alcoholic brother, the green liquor called Chartreuse verte. The monks also make a walnut eau-de-vie, and a gentian liqueur, and fruit liqueurs from raspberries or blueberries or blackberries or black currants. Or do I mean and? Did any of this make sense? I'm going to bed now.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Un Château à Vizille

Roman soldiers likely came marching down the valley of the Romanche fairly frequently, and traces of early fortifications are under the site of the modern (relatively speaking) château in Vizille, just the other side of a mountain spur from Grenoble, and the center of the Dauphiné region that was ruled by the Counts of Albon for three hundred years, until the title and rights were sold to the king of France, Philippe VI, in 1349. The name "Dauphin" was transferred to the king's oldest son Charles, and so the eldest sons were referred to until the Revolution; it was a title similar to the British "Prince of Wales" in that respect.

The religious wars between Catholics and Protestants were particularly vicious in this region, which was traditionally Protestant. The Catholic armies occupied the château for a while, then were ousted by the Protestants again, but the Edict of Amboise in 1593 gave official control in the end to the Catholics. François de Bonne, Lord of Lesdiguières, an advisor to the king and a fairly wealthy man apparently, took over the administration of the region around the château and spent a good bit of money restoring the village, the ruins of the château, and the park, as well as working to channel the Romanche so that it wouldn't flood the area.

By the middle of the 18th century the Lesdiguières had dwindled in numbers and power, and in 1780 the château and property were sold to Claude Perier, who used the buildings as a factory for making textiles and wallpaper. The gardens were replaced by long racks of drying cloth. At the beginning of the 19th century his son Augustine added a spinning and weaving business, and all of the halls were full of highly flammable materials, something which became evident in 1825 when a fire roared through and destroyed not only all of the business, but also all of the paintings and furniture left behind by many generations of Lesdiguières. More money was spent on restoring the château once more, and this work continued under the supervision of Augustine's son Adolphe until 1866.

Although the buildings were ruined by wars and fires, they weren't destroyed during the French Revolution, because Claude Perier was one of the influential merchants who organized a meeting of the progressive nobles and churchmen, plus several hundred bankers, lawyers, and other wealthy citizens of the Dauphiné region. The meeting had been banned in Grenoble after a riot there over rising taxes and bread prices, in which royal troops shot and killed workers who were demonstrating in the streets. Some people say that this Journée des Tuiles (the rioters drove the soldiers away by throwing roof tiles at them) and the subsequent meeting at Vizille were the actual start of the French Revolution, though unrest had been growing nationwide. There is a museum of the French Revolution at the château but I didn't get to see it, because it was Tuesday and so the museum was closed, or maybe there was a visiting dignitary, or reconstruction going on. Anyway, if I have time I'd like to get back there to see the exhibits. But I am leaving in a week! The time has just flown by, the days washed away in a flood of whey.

I was at the park with Laetitia and Jean's daughter Jessyca, who strolled with me around the lake at the center of the 250-acre park and then joined me in a brief walk through the center of town. I bought postcards (which some of you may have already received, and if there's anyone else who wants a postcard from France please send me your address and I will be happy to oblige) and got some cash from an ATM (que nous appelons un DAB ici) although since I'm trading work for room and board I haven't really needed money lately. I did get a chair massage yesterday (25 euros for 1/2 hour) and bought ingredients for a Chinese-style dinner (21 euros including the bottle of good white wine), but other than the postcards, that's all I've spent in the last two weeks. If you're willing to spend 3 to 7 hours a day working on a goat dairy, the 1957 Frommer guide "Europe on 5 Dollars a Day" still has some relevance.

I sliced the leftovers from Jean's birthday dinner of beef tenderloin with mushrooms last night and heated them through with more sautéed mushrooms plus some mushroom soy sauce and a little bit of sugar, cooked down until thick; I heated up a jar of sweet-and-sour sauce to warm up cooked peeled shrimp; I stir-fried slices of two chicken breasts (the ones I didn't use for a honey-mustard chicken dinner I made a few days ago) then dumped in the juice from a can of sliced pineapple and about 2 Tbs fish sauce plus some cornstarch, and finished that off with the chopped pineapple. With leftover rice (reheated) and a bag of frozen green beans (steamed) it was a good meal, if not at all French. Well, there was the wine, and everyone but me put lots of butter on their green beans, so there's that.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

When The Mountain Falls

The Ruines de Séchilienne is (are?) not classified as a real landslide, geologically speaking, from what I understand of my hasty translation of several sites on the subject, including French Wikipedia. Instead, it's an "internal progressive rupture caused by fracturing." While this has been going on for about 10,000 years it's been a growing problem for the last 30 or so, and the government is rightfully worried that another big rockslide could dam the Romanche river, which runs along the curve of the mountain below the pile of debris. That would likely bury two villages and drown several others (including the one I'm currently living in), creating a lake that would displace about 7,000 people. Worse, the dam would then eventually break and a cascade of water would rush down the narrow valley to Grenoble and wash it away, along with the large chemical plants in the region that make chlorine and hydrogen peroxide and many other nastier compounds. There's about 50 miles of river before it reaches Mont Sec ("Dry Mountain") at the end of the Belledonne range, and the massive ice fields in the Massif des Écrins where the river starts send a lot of water down the valley; it's not a wide river, but it's fast.

Three million cubic meters of rock tumbled down in November of 2006, according to a documentary I found on line, and over a hundred million are immediately unstable. The whole of Mont Sec is full of fractures and, as you might infer from the name, there isn't much in the way of underground water sources, so apparently - and geologist Mom will either support or refute this statement - when the water from snow and rain freezes and drains each year, the whole edifices loses more and more coherence. The documentary shows the alternating layers of harder and softer rock that are sliding down, and I imagine that if a giant fist whacked the top of the mountain it would all fall apart in sections like a chocolate orange.

There used to be a town where the cone of rubble sits, but fortunately everyone was moved out in the 1980s when it became obvious that they were in danger. The road was moved over away from the bottom edge of the mountain, on the other side of the Romanche, and there's an ongoing project to move it even further away and route it through a tunnel/bridge configuration on the opposite side of the valley. Another project is to try to move the river itself by providing it with an underground passage, but that's probably not feasible; they've constructed a sort of alternate channel on the surface already, but it wouldn't make a difference if a significant landslide occurred.

Of course, since we're talking geologic time here, it's not surprising that such an event has already occurred. Séchilienne was already washed away once (at least) by floodwaters from former lakes. At the end of the 12th century a rockfall blocked the Romanche farther up the valley, where Bourg d'Oisans is now, creating a lake 11 miles long. In 1219 the rock dam broke and the lake drained and scoured the valley all the way down to Grenoble.

There are half a dozen monitors tracking the movement of the earth at the most active part of the fracturing, the Ruines de Séchilienne, which are just around the other side of the slope I see when I look out the window to the south. According to a study published in 2010, the rate of movement "has increased from 0.5 m/yr in 1996 to 1.4 m/yr in 2008" in this zone. The goat dairy isn't menaced by the rock, but it's not high enough to avoid the water should the river be dammed. And that would be a damn shame, so let's hope that the giant fist of doom does not fall any time soon.

Thursday, August 15, 2013


I have been here 10 days; I have been here always. I found it very easy to fit into the schedule here, spending my mornings culturing renneting stirring molding salting turning cheeses, and cleaning, always cleaning the forms and the table, the racks and the meshes, the buckets and ladles and floor and walls. I even enjoy the cleaning, something which will astound people who know me and the dusty disarray I'm comfortable with in my own house. But in the cheeseroom, everything must be impeccably clean, or as close as possible.

There are drawbacks, of course; today when I was scrubbing one of the trays that catches the whey that drips down from the racks of young cheeses, I sliced the top of my thumb open, which wasn't much fun at all. I'm lucky that Laetitia had antiseptic spray and bandages at hand, and also that I did all of the pressed-curd cheeses yesterday, which would have been impossible (and icky) to make with a bandaged thumb.

This is what I had planned in the beginning, this staying with people and helping them make cheese part of the day, and using the rest of the time to do freelance work and blogging and my own writing projects. I am so content these days that it tells me that this is what I should be doing, and that this particular path is one that I will be walking for a while, if all goes well.

One of the ways that I've considered making my niche is by being the house-and-cheeseroom-and-goat-sitter for small-scale producers, because they never get a vacation, if they milk their own animals. The enthusiastic responses I've had from the two cheesemakers I've worked for (both of whom want to be first on the list when I start taking clients) tells me that this is also a viable option. I need to learn more of the cheesemaking basics first, and get them in my head, so that I can step into an operation only a day or two before the owners leave. A week would be ideal if they make more than one style of cheese.

And of course, living in France is not a bad thing in and of itself, all things considered! Now that I'm spending more time talking on a daily basis, my fluency is improving, and I think after this next year of school and work I might be at a level where I can think about providing translation services. We had a woman from New Zealand visiting here the other day who didn't speak French, so I was kept busy facilitating communication on the farm and fromagerie tour.

And now? I'm taking the rest of the day off. It's a jour férié in any event, the Feast of the Assumption, and no one else is working either. Grilled steak and sausage with rice salad and fried eggplant made a lovely lunch, and now I'm going to read silly books and relax. Maybe I'll even take a nap. Life is good.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Fête du Bleu du Vercors Sassenage

Sunday afternoon, after Laetitia was done selling cheese in town and after we'd eaten lunch, we drove from Séchilienne to Gresse-en-Vercors for the 2013 festival of the blue cheese called Bleu du Vercors-Sassenage, originally made by monks back in the 14th century but now produced both commercially and by individual farms and cooperatives around Vercors. According to the AOC/AOP regulations for the cheese, only milk from cows of the Montbéliarde, Abondance, and Villarde breeds can be used, and the cows must be kept in pastures during the summer and fed only hay and grass in the winter, and all of the summer grazing and winter feed has to be within the AOC/AOP production zone. Farm-based cheesemakers are allowed to mix the previous evening's milk with the warm fresh milk from the morning, according to the old recipes, and industrial production mimics that technique by adding up to a quarter weight of raw milk to the cultured pasteurized milk. Apparently they had cheesemaking demonstrations, but we missed them. And I didn't even get to taste the cheese, because there were so many people lined up waiting to buy it.

But I did get to stroll by the animal exhibits, including the poule grise du Vercors, the "grey chicken of Vercors," which is late 19th-century crossbreed between a local black-feathered chicken of the region and an Italian grey-feathered variety called "la Cuccola" which was brought into France by itinerant workers from Italy who came to work in the charcoal-production business in the area. The original breed with its pink-tinged feet is gone now in Italy, and almost disappeared here as well, but local producers have been working for 15 years or so to bring it back. There's also a "horse of Vercors" (also called the Barraquand) which is fairly small, with a long black mane and tail, and which has been in the region since at least the Middle Ages, with concrete documentation back to the 17th century. They're hardy and used to high elevations and sparse winter grazing, and sure-footed on the narrow mountain trails that herders took to move cows between the alpages in the summer and the lower elevations in the winter. They also nearly died out towards the end of the 19th century, but the Barraquand family continued raising the breed, and now they're gaining in popularity again, especially for trail rides in the national park of Vercors.

There were demonstrations of other formerly-common aspects of life in the region, like spinning wool (from the merino sheep also imported from Italy), making charcoal, and churning butter. Dancers swung and circled in the hot sun (though the breeze was cool there on the plateau at 4,000 feet), black-maned horses pulled wooden carts full of tourists through the fields, and the alpenhorns competed with the cows to provide a musical backdrop.

"Holy cow!" or "I'll be damned" or "wow, amazing!" are several alternate ways of translating the French phrase "oh la vache!" (vache = cow; there's also a word vachement which doesn't mean "cow-like" but instead translates as "extremely/really"). And I was vachement emmerdé to not get the chance to taste the cheese at the center of the festival. The closest I got was a slightly blurry photo through the glass of the counter at which the horde was crowded, waving fistfuls of euros, and we had a date at Jean's sister's house for a quick visit and apéritif, so I had to leave.

However, there was cold champagne waiting on the shaded terrace a 15-minute drive down the mountain, and good conversation, and amazing views of the high ridge line of the mountains across the valley. I wanted to take more pictures along the route to the festival and back, especially of the rocky cliffs jutting out above the valley floors, layered wedges of stone frosted with dark green trees, but there weren't too many places to pull over, and I didn't want to be the annoying passenger requesting a photo stop every kilometer or so. I think I'll just have to buy a videocamera (yes, I have that feature on my camera but I don't think it records very long snippets) so that I can point it out the window and share the landscape with you. Or else I'll have to come back here with a rental car, and be the annoying person-driving-slowly-in-front-of-you who swerves over every kilometer or so to take pictures.

I still haven't posted any pictures of goats, have I?

Monday, August 12, 2013


So this is where I live now, for the month of August anyway, tucked into one of the many valleys at the base of the steep slopes and folds of the mountains in this region of the Alps. As I got closer to Grenoble, the train went up from the wide plains and low agricultural hills to the west and started skirting the southwest side of a valley that got progressively narrower the further east and south that we went, deeper into the bones of the range, with the flat layers of ancient rock tilted up at impossible angles, sharp ridges above green trees. Geologist Mom will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe these are thrust faults. Or caused by them. Or something like that. Sometimes the angle is so steep that the layers are vertical instead of horizontal, and they form a series of narrow sideways canyons full of shadows and leaves, or weather away into a dragon spine undulating across the top of a high ridge. Lower down, where the town and its scattering of outlying houses and farms is situated, it's much less wild. Laetitia says that there are wolves in the higher woods here, and wild boar.

Since I took my walk down into the center of town from the four-house cluster called Les Gavets for purposes of identification and postal delivery closer to noon than midnight, I didn't expect to see any wolves. I tend to spend the mornings working in the cheeseroom - I've helped with the milking, but it's more efficient to have one person doing each job, plus this way Laetitia gets to spend time with "les filles" - and then the afternoons doing computer work or odd jobs that I didn't get to in the morning. On Sunday, Laetitia was down at the main village square selling her cheeses, and I walked down to meet her and to do a little sightseeing on the way. There are hiking trails all over here, and so instead of following the long and winding road I cut off to the south and directly down - steeply down - towards town.

I'd seen a sign saying "this way to the château" but thought it might be just a large home, since this is a pretty out-of-the-way corner of the world, but discovered the ruins of a true château dating back to the 15th century instead, one that belonged to the Alleman family, including a landed knight named Jean and his son Siboud, who was the prince-évêque (which I am translating as "Lord Bishop") of Grenoble, a role that several other Allemans filled over the centuries.

Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?

It's a small town, with a bakery and a combination newspaper/cigarette shop/lottery/grocery store facing each other just off the central square on the main road where most of the houses are. There was a restaurant once, I was told, but the owners divorced and no one ever got the business going again. There's a primary school and day care, but the older children have to take the bus to Vizille. The church is well outside the center of town, which is unusual, and I think it used to be a hospital or convent, as it's a large blocky building with a more formal church-steepled front end. I plan on walking there some time, just to see what's there to see. The weather's turned hot again, and since my exploring time is post-cheeseroom jobs and therefore in the hottest part of the day, I'm not in a rush to check out the church, or follow any of the small side roads to see if they lead to walking paths. There's not much evidence, looking at the thick woods on the steep slopes right outside my window, that there are easy hikes within reach. This area seems to be a "on the way to" place, whether that's heading up to go skiing in the winter or hiking in the alpages with the cows in the summer, or visiting the Réserve naturelle nationale du lac Luitel, the first national protected nature reserve in France. The Romanche river runs down the middle of the valley, green-grey and glacial, to where it joins the Drac and then the Isère at Grenoble.

It's quiet here, and dark at night. I'm going to try to stay awake for meteor-watching tonight, since I didn't see any last night when I stuck my head out of the window at about 2am. Jean said that he saw two right after sunset, as he was smoking his last cigarette of the evening outside on the patio. I'll try that, without the cigarette. I'm not quite that French, yet.