Less than an hour from Calais, but deep in the belly of rural France in the lovely Seven Valleys lives a cheese producer. She is famous in these parts for the delicious goats milk cheese she makes and organic bread that she bakes in her authentic wood oven…
Valerie Magniez is an artisan cheese producer – some call her the goat lady.
On her little farm in the village of Hesmond, Valerie’s goats outnumber the people. As you drive along the little country roads that lead to the village, you may pass a tractor or two, a few cars perhaps but this “ville tranquille” as it is known, is rarely lively. Unless, that is, it is one of the days when Valerie bakes bread. Then you will find to your astonishment that the single main road of the town is packed full of cars and bikes as locals and tourists alike head for the farm. They are here to buy the organic country bread that goes so perfectly with the fresh goats milk cheese that the goat lady makes daily. Rumour has it that she uses a 400 year old live yeast mix though when I asked she did not confirm or deny.
I have eaten a lot of cheese in my time, I am in fact considered a bit of a cheesaholic. I have never though had cheese quite like the goat lady’s; when fresh it is a little sour, creamy, and so completely delectable it is seductive and quite addictive. I don’t know if it is because when I buy it from the farm I can never resist going into the Gothic looking chevrerie that Valerie and her husband built especially for the goats. Or perhaps it is the fresh herbs she keeps at the counter and sprinkles on request when she wraps the individual cheeses.
Valerie encourages the interaction between goat and human and these beasts are more like friendly dogs, curious and keen to engage your attention. The goats are only kept for milking (except for the big male known as “l’Amoreuse”) and Valerie does that all by hand. She also keeps two Jersey cows as some of the cheese she makes requires a blend of two milks.
When I told the goat lady how much I loved her cheese she invited me to come and help her one morning. She works at a frantic pace and I found myself running alongside her from the barn to the kitchens accompanied by a tiny kitten and several chickens. Somehow along the way I managed to don a fetching plastic hat, jacket and booties to suit hygiene requirements.
In the little kitchen where the cheese magic occurs, Valerie showed me the buckets of milk she had collected. The thick and creamy liquid is filtered and left to separate, salt is added and some has cows milk mixed in. When she gauges the time is right – usually never more than two days from the time of milking, the unctuous juice is poured into moulds. Everything is by hand and the only machine I saw in the whole process was the fridge.
Valerie told me she does this every single day of the week; she never takes a holiday but says she is happy because this is her “passion”. She is typical of the local artisans of the area who grow organic heirloom vegetables, breed snails, make wine and cider, bread and cakes, beer and pies. This is a secret foodie’s paradise this place, with much to discover.
As the goat lady talks, she squeezes and gropes the cheese curds, pours, stirs, tops up the moulds, turns older moulds over, fills yet more. Everything is done at a fierce pace.
There are heart shaped cheeses, pyramids, cylinders and plain rounds – “grand boules and petite boules”; some have extra salt rubbed on.
This cheese is made with love and I think that this might be what makes it so unusually delicious, so stand out different that one taste and you’re hooked.
On Friday afternoons you can watch the bread being made and children are encouraged to join in.
Stay close by at Valerie’s fantasy get away from it all gite (top photo). No electricity, no phone (though there are gas cooking facilities). Live life as it was in the old days in the most beautiful little French country cottage alongside a bubbling brook.
The Goat Lady’s Farm
The farm shop stocks the cheese which ranges from straight from the mould to 28 days old though rarely does it get that far. Valerie says that most customers (me included) like the cheese really fresh. There is also a tiny epicerie on site which stocks organic local produce such as fruit, vegetables and meat as well as exotic items such as Japanese Miso soup and organic Egyptian figs. Address: 28 rue Embry, 62990 Hesmond, France