The four of us settled onto a row of straw bales as the lights dimmed and the projector flickered to life. The face of a cow filled the screen, its tongue snaking from nostril to nostril.
‘Yuk,’ said Alex, yet to be convinced as to why the excursion might be fun.
The camera zoomed out, revealing a blossom-laden orchard. A voiceover commenced, telling of an ancient connection between land and taste, and of recipes passed down the generations. The camera soared over rolling valleys, pastures and a picnicking family unwrapping a cheese. I nudged Alex as the camera alighted on the face of a freckled adolescent gorging on Livarot. Alex pursed her lips. ‘It’s an advert, Dad.’ The film cut to a young farmer couple who supplied the fromagerie with milk. Fresh faced, they expressed delight bordering on rapture at being part of the process that produced this most auspicious of creations, revered by cheese lovers worldwide. It was one of the first to have its production values enshrined in appellation law, the voiceover continued. Flowing as smoothly as Brie on a warm day, the voice recounted how Livarot had to come exclusively from the low-yielding Normandie cattle breed; how the cheeses had to be washed regularly in brine to promote the specific bacteria responsible for its flavour; and how the five reed bands encircling the cheese – earning it the nickname ‘Le Colonel’ – were grown at the dairy. As I digested each morsel of information, my appreciation deepened.
I blinked into the light as we left the screening room, exiting into a courtyard surrounded by timber buildings authentically matching the fromagerie’s label, at its centre a vintage Citroen van, immaculate with early twentieth century livery proclaiming Le village Fromager. The seed of a thought formed. I turned to Pam. ‘The fromagerie doesn’t have any cows!’
‘No, it doesn’t,’ she concurred, unsure what to make of my statement.
‘Well, nor do we!’
‘Well, we could buy milk and make cheese!’
She exhaled deeply. ‘So you’re saying the fact that we haven’t got something is a good starting point for a business?’
‘What I’m saying is that to make cheese you don’t have to be a farmer.’
‘But you probably have to know how to make cheese.’
‘Learning would be the fun part!’
‘You might need a dairy?’
‘We’d build one!’
‘Well, we can work that out. What do you think? We both love cheese, we’ve used it at our events for years and… well, we both love cheese!’
‘I don’t think so; it would be a huge undertaking.’
‘Nothing worthwhile is easy. If it was everyone would be doing it.’
Pam motioned to the door of the dairy room. ‘Shall we get on with the tour?’
I persevered. ‘What do you think?’
A veteran collaborator of over twenty years in my schemes of varying levels of success, Pam smiled, ‘I think it’s a good idea,’ she said with a tone of benevolence usually reserved for comforting the mentally infirm. She took my hand. ‘Come on, let’s go.’ Oscar pushed at the dairy door and it swung open, expelling a gust of cool air. We stepped into a sealed corridor fifty yards long, suspended above a vast dairy floor below.
'Robots!' Oscar said, pressing his face to the window. We joined him and watched as milk-basins, deep enough to carry a cow, entered the dairy by conveyor at one end and snaked from side to side, tended to by robotic arms with hoses, stirrers, gauges, and one pair lunging into them with blades, each narrowly missing one another. I pictured a new ending for a 007 movie, the protagonist in milk-soaked tuxedo struggling with his bindings as they drew ever nearer. I looked across at Pam. I didn’t need to ask what she was thinking. The scale of the scene precluded any further discussion on the topic of cheesemaking.
We walked on, past where the newly moulded cheeses were plucked from the conveyor, flipped, and placed on a trolley, manhandled for the first time as they were wheeled away for ageing. We entered another corridor, this one overlooking legions of racks of maturing cheeses. I began to consider the sheer size of the operation when Oscar called out from the far set of doors.
‘Can we taste it now, Dad?’
Alex peeled off towards the accessories section of the gift shop as we made for the tasting counter. ‘See if they’ve any cheese perfume,’ I called, and received the exasperated look beloved of men with pre-teenage daughters.
The assistant behind the tasting counter launched into her patter as we tasted our way through their range. They made all four of the region’s Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) cheeses: Neufchâtel, Pont-l’Évêque, Camembert, and the fromagerie’s speciality and the one we’d seen in production: Livarot. It was the greater complexity of the last, a washed-rind cheese matured to a pungency many found off-putting, that I wanted to know more about.
‘How much Livarot do you make?’I asked the assistant.
‘About a tonne,’ she said.
I frowned, thinking it must be more than a tonne per year.
‘A day,’ she clarified, handing me a slice on a napkin.
‘How much milk is that?’
‘Well, about ten litres of milk makes a kilo of cheese, so that’s ten thousand litres.’
‘That’s a lot of cows!’
‘Yes monsieur, definitely a lot,’ she said, then left us to serve another visitor. Although from the same fromagerie, the cheese was younger than the one I’d tasted in the village, less ripe, but delicious nonetheless.
A fan of strong cheese, Pam nodded as she sampled. ‘Lovely. It would have been nice to make something like this.’
‘We still could,’ I said. ‘Why don’t we do something on an artisan level? If they can make cheese this good on this scale, surely we could do something interesting in smaller quantities?’ I went across to the counter assistant. ‘How many Livarot producers are there?’ ‘There are five I believe, monsieur.’
‘And how much do they make?’
‘I do not know, some a little more than us, some a little less maybe.’
‘Are there any small producers?’
‘No monsieur,’ she said, ‘not since the European Union laws became involved in our cheeses.’
Later that evening, as Pam grilled slices of Livarot and placed them on on a bean salad, I typed ‘environmental health legislation’ and ‘cheese’ into the search bar on my phone. I hoped that the assistant’s comment might have been influenced by reading the French equivalent of the Daily Mail. However, it didn’t take much longer than the plates to reach the table for me to deduce that the regulatory requirements for making cheese were beyond anyone without the funds to employ a team of microbiologists. The girl at the fromagerie was probably right: legislation had killed the artisans.
‘There’ll be something else we can do,’ I said, digging a fork into the beans.