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drove from Séchilienne to Gresse-en-Vercors for the 2013 festival of the blue cheese called Bleu du Vercors-Sassenage, originally made by monks back in the 14th century but now produced both commercially and by individual farms and cooperatives around Vercors.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?

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