The French Food Chronicles, Part 2: The Education of a Situated Eater
The cows turned the corner, looked up and hesitated, unsure about the strange crowd standing near the entrance to the barn. We were lined up with cameras and notepads like paparazzi . But there was little glamour here, just grit and mud and the impending afternoon milking. One of the farmers asked us to move back thirty feet from the entrance so that the cows wouldn’t feel threatened by our presence and could peacefully make their way into the barn. The farmers spoke to the cows, gently nudged them, encouraged. Once the cows finally ambled in, bells swinging from their necks and ringing into the grey afternoon, we followed and found that they had been ushered to their individualized milking spots. Above each station, there was a sign with the cow’s name, and the names of the cow’s parents.
We were in the Jura region, at a dairy farm owned by a professor of agriculture named Denis and his son Anael. The farm produces milk to be made into Comte cheese. Cheese can only carry the Comte label if it comes from this region and is made according to specific production guidelines—the A.O.C. guidelines, which stand for appellation d’origine controlee—that have been established by the French government. The guidelines apply to the entire production chain—from the dairy farmer to the cheese-maker to the aging cellar. They are intended to preserve and uphold a high level of quality, ensure proper care of the land, and, ultimately, help promote a certain product and sustain a certain way of life—one that is against the encroachment of industrialization.
With the cows in their respective milking spots, the more active, restless ones having had their bells removed, Denis and Anael spoke to our group about their farm. They mentioned that according to A.O.C. rules, each cow must have one hectare of grazing space (they provide each of their cows with two). They mentioned that there is a maximum amount of cereals, as opposed to grass, that can be fed to cows (they stay well below the maximum, intending to be as natural as possible). They have felt plenty of pressure from the market to increase their fertilizer use and to increase their number of cows (and by extension to increase their profits). They know that they are theoretically capable of ramping up production. But they have consistently resisted those pressures, choosing instead to focus on a small-scale, environmentally-friendly production of milk.
[pullquote_right]Think of eating Kraft American Cheese in the winter compared with in the summer. No difference.[/pullquote_right]
We peppered Anael and Denis with questions, eager to probe them about their perspectives on what they do. “Doesn’t this submission to the label guidelines dampen the creative spirit of the individual farmer to make the product he wants?” one of my classmates asked. Denis and Anael said they often hear variations of that question, and their answer is always, “No.” Their answers to all questions were in the language of collectivity, not individuality. They are part of a long heritage of Comte cheese makers, both in their family (Denis’s father farmed this land before passing it on to Denis) and in their home region of the Jura in general. They see themselves as carrying on that proud tradition, being a part of something larger than a single farm or even a single product.
Working in this historical context grounds them in a particular vision of the world and of cheese. They want the name Comte to stand for quality, and that, more than any sort of profit, is what motivates them each day and each year. They could increase production and increase profit, but not without damaging the environmental integrity of their operation and harming their employment structure, which they also consider a crucial part of the operation. Increasing production would likely mean more mechanization, which would require fewer human hands for the job. Having actual people do the work likely produces less in terms of quantity, but certainly not in terms of quality.
The A.O.C. rules make perfect sense when viewed as a reaction to the homogenizing, disruptive influence of industrialization and the pressure to grow and mechanize. Comte cheese received A.O.C. protected status in 1958, which essentially codified a way of life in the Jura and a set of production methods that were becoming increasingly archaic—local, artisanal, high-quality products with diverse tastes that depend on the season and the particular place where the animals graze.
In the face of a globalized, placeless, rootless food system, where processed industrialized products are everywhere yet seemingly come from nowhere, A.O.C. designation creates a true sense of place. The milk for the cheese can come only from within an eight-mile radius from the cheese-maker and only from a certain breed of cow, the Montbeliarde. Since when you eat Comte you eat the cheese from the cows’ milk, you literally eat the Jura region: in the summer the cows eat the grass growing on the hillside, and in the winter they eat hay. The tastes of the cheese—composed of the grass or hay of the land, the effects of the microclimate on a particular farm, the microorganisms of the area (Comte is made only with raw milk), the Montbeliarde cows that are bred specifically for Comte cheese—are thus distinctive to the region.
The A.O.C. rules articulate, and create an enforcement mechanism around the notion of terroir, a concept and worldview that does not translate easily into English. The easiest way to explain it is through an appeal to the sense of taste: imagine the taste of a cheese made from cows milk in the wintertime contrasted with cheese made from milk of the same cows in the summertime. The cheese will taste very different, since the cows were grazing on different types of grasses during the two seasons. A wintertime cheese, made when cows are inside eating locally-harvested hay, will taste crunchier and nuttier. Imagine a summertime cheese in one region of France contrasted with a summertime cheese in another French region. The tastes of the cheeses will diverge in this scenario as well, as cows are grazing on different plants in different regions. Now think of eating Kraft American Cheese in the winter compared with in the summer. No difference. Processed food is developed in such a way that we expect uniformity of taste and appearance, no matter the time nor place. The distinctiveness present in artisanal, non-industrialized cheeses across time and space, the distinctive taste of place, of a particular region’s soil—that is terroir.
We visited the marketing and publicity office of Comte, as well as a small museum that was set up next to the office as a tool to educate the public on its mission. The Comte logo, a cowbell, essentially unchanged since 1958, stands for the simplicity of the cow grazing in the field and for the fundamental role played by the cow in the whole system. In the museum stands a large grandfather clock, symbolizing the timeless nature of Comte and its long, storied history, as well as the fact that when you eat Comte, you are supposed to savor the moment, to cultivate your sense of taste so as to appreciate the unique seasonal variations present in each piece of cheese you touch.
Standing there, we sensed this measure of timelessness, this hearkening to simpler times, this pastoral ideal. We also sensed a somewhat political statement—defiance, the refusal to submit to globalizing pressures. Most importantly, though, we sensed a commitment to quality in both the production chain and the final product.
Denis insisted that, before we leave his farm, we walk out to the pasture where the cows graze. While much of the pasture consists of flat, open fields, a sizable portion is made up of hills and trees. The forest portion of the pasture in the hills provides an enormous amount of biodiversity (130 species per hectare) and reduces the need for fertilizer. Denis spoke of how this diversity ultimately leads to a diverse-tasting cheese: compared to the flatlands, the hills and trees of this pasture contain different microorganisms. Moreover—and this made Denis most proud—this pasture proves that, in their cheese-making endeavor, they treat their cows like true partners: when it rains, the cows don’t have to get cold and wet, instead, seeking shelter under the trees.
Denis paused, and we went silent, waiting as he stood there, a silhouette against the pink-striped sky and the setting sun. In the distance we heard bells ringing. He smiled and said, “Au revoir, that is all.”