When I started this photographic trip in France I had no intention of staying in the Vallée d’Ossauor to learn the art of traditional cheese making. I was actually on my way to Spain when I decided to stop and go for a day hike.
I stumbled upon a shepherd bringing his sheep in for milking, in a lonely valley high in the Pyrénées, and my curiosity got the better of me.
I spent the afternoon with the shepherd, trying to learn what I could with my broken French. How had he come to live in a small concrete hut, miles from the nearest road, making sheep cheese?
Later in the afternoon, I walked back down to my camp, but I left with a hunger for learning more about the cheesemakers of the Valle d’Ousso.
The next day I was very fortunate to meet Daniel and his wife Rachel who had been making sheep cheese for most of their lives. They also had a woman (Nathelle) staying with them to learn their art. Fortunately, Nathelle could speak English very well and helped me a lot by translating. Nobody seemed too bothered by my bombardment with questions, in fact, they seemed to enjoy them!
In return for their generosity with their knowledge and time that morning, I offered to make lunch for everybody. Almost before I knew it, I was invited to stay the night, then another and another…
Experience of a life time
Contrary to my original plans, I ended up staying there for two weeks. But it turned out to be two of the best weeks of my life so far.
Daniel and Rachel are wonderful people with an amazing connection to the land and animals they work with. They were also both very patient and giving teachers and Nathelle was a wonderful translator and became a great friend.
Every morning we would wake up early to fetch the sheep. They would be roaming freely in the mountains that surrounded us. We just had to call for the Patou (Pyrénées mountain dog) whose job it was to look after the flock and protect them from any predators. It was a wonderfully entertaining sight to see him coming down the mountain followed by all the sheep. We would then put them into a small corral and milk all 70 of them by hand, before taking the milk into the shed to begin the cheese making process.
The Cheese making art
The morning’s milk would be mixed with the milk from the previous evening, which would have been left overnight in tanks sitting with cool mountain water running over them, there was no electricity, let alone refrigeration.
Then the milk would be heated to 42degrees Celsius before the rennet was added and the mixture was then held at that temperature until it set. The curds were broken by hand and bought together to form the infant cheese, which would be pressed into a mould and drained. Once drained, the cheese would be turned out onto a concrete shelf covered in coarse sea salt where it would spend the first few days of its life. It was on this shelf that the cheese started to form a rind and take on some of the salt. After a few days here, it would be taken down to the nearest village where it will be left with the cheese affineur.
The remaining whey was then heated to about 90 degrees and held there until it split once again, giving up its gift of fresh ricotta!
The whole process was wonderfully simple and all carried out in the most basic conditions, which have not changed for generations. Sadly I didn’t get to try any of the cheese that was made during my time with Rachel and Daniel, as it required months of aging before it was ready for eating. But I certainly ate my fair share of cheese that had been made earlier in the year, and what a treat that was, tradition and simplicity at their best!
Between two worlds
In photography, one of the big benefits of staying such a long time in a place is that people get used to you being there. They become almost immune to the camera and suddenly, you are able to capture the true feeling and spirit of what is going on around you.
Often, the most beautiful images I take are of the most simple things. I think that patience, taking time to capture the real feeling and emotion of the moment are key.
Every day I had a hard choice to make: to be a photographer or to follow my foodie instincts and get involved in the cheese making.
In the end, I think I found a nice balance! Sometimes I would set my camera aside, roll my sleeves up and help to milk the sheep or break the curds. Other days I would snap away capturing the beauty and simplicity of this traditional farming. And of course, to show my gratitude, most days I would prepare a meal for us all.
I still remember one of the most memorable meals I ever had. I made a pie from wild blueberries we collected from the mountains around us. And as a companion, fresh ricotta from the cheese making of that morning. Pure foodie heaven!
A dying art
Sadly, traditional cheese makers are disappearing fast. Regulations are getting stricter and young people are reluctant to work in this type of manual job. I feel very lucky to have been welcomed into Rachel and Daniel’s lives for this short while and to have experienced farming at its purest and least intensive form.
Have you ever experienced something like this, living an unexpected and life-changing moment? Have you had the chance to see something our children or grandchildren may not be able to? Tell me your story by commenting below. And if you enjoyed this project, let your family and friends know by sharing it on your favourite social media.
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