La Ferme de Carrus

Words and Images by Augustus Farmer

Jean-Baptiste Gaschard is a character. He pours more of the sweet syrupy wine produced from his friend’s Muscat vineyard lower down this valley, which sits high in the Corbières, watched over by the snowcapped Pyrénées and left alone by most people. We sit and talk. The French love to talk. It’s all radio here effectively. Talking stops traffic. Blocks checkouts. Slows down life.

Jean-Baptiste is the goat-cheese maker over the hill from my little dead-end village. He and his sister Claire Gaschard own the Ferme de Carrus. He’s kind of a big fish in a small way, a face around here. The tracks into the pine forests all over these hills have hidden away the good, the bad and the interesting for generations. This is a haven, where goats roam free and a guy and his sis make cheese like their parents did before them — by hand in small batches — that they sell to some people but not to others.

Sitting by his fire, dogs huffing outside the door at wild sanglier [boar] in the vineyards as a warm breeze from the living room window breathes life into the dying embers, we talk about the day we met, that time he jumped over the wall with a chainsaw and felled my problem tree, the tree he had heard was interrupting morning-croissant-terrace bliss. On the mantelpiece opposite, he still has the whisky I brought him back from Scotland to say thanks, and I regularly eat the cheese he supplies to say thanks for the whisky…and on it goes.

I love the stories of the cheese. The “if and how and why” of it all. The accidental discoveries. The applied science in harmony with the pure nature of what he does. Leaning back — Muscat in glass, in hand, on lips — he tells of a cool spring here this year, with strong rosemary and thyme for his goats. A cheese dictated to by nature. He tells of how delicate the cheese is. The soft, white pucks, vulnerable in their infancy until they can form a protective layer, will take on any intrusive aromas. Perfume, cigarettes, a rogue Camembert, outside influence is banned in the fromagerie I have come to know across the yard.

Twice a day they make cheese here, less in summer, less still in autumn. People travel for this cheese, not famous perhaps but known. It’s only found at a handful of shops and travelling markets in the region. Only sold to people that share the philosophies of this place in the hills. That is so French. There is talk of restaurateurs sending friends of friends to buy cheese under cover so they can put Fromage de Chèvre de Carrus on their menus. Another rumor has it: a local vineyard forged the percentage labels (downward) on a vintage to slip under a tax bracket, only to have a sizeable order returned by a customer once it had been tested and found to be incorrect on arrival in Germany. If anything summed up both nations in one local tale, that perhaps was it.

More wine will mean a walk down the hill at twilight. No matter. Perhaps beautiful. Adventure comes this way. Jean-Baptiste pours, laughs, tells more fables. I don’t care how animated they seem; this is a raison d’être, right here, right now. The small stonewalled room flickers orange and white from fire and candle. Glasses chink and corks pop and plug. He explains how a flat fromage came about. The fat, the all-important lifeblood of this food, sinks to the bottom of a tall goat’s cheese so they realized you should have a flat disc for the best taste throughout. Experiment and discovery are recalled as this room of last orders listens with focused gaze as hand gesture and facial expression relive histories. Artisanal thinking learned, reasons understood. Big cheeses in the north where they can be stored, small cheeses for the Mediterranean climes to be eaten fresh in the vineyards. Here, even now, tradition defies fridge.

Stories of his family’s presence around here bounce around the room. They are woven into this community. Landlords, farmers, custodians of the culture. Tonight I learn it was they that created the sculpture trail on the next hillside. Things undertaken for people. Kind acts, interesting expressions, leftfield thinking. Goats and cheese and outsider art and long hikes in the evening sun. Walks of discovery, punctuated by fromage and wine and new bread. From the outside looking in: cliché. From the inside looking around: all I could wish for.

Here, in the South of France, conversation is king. This is a pretty philosophical nation. The French are highly socialized. Philosophy is studied at school. All that talk means something. Down here, away from so much, connected to so little but perhaps just enough for me, I ponder and paraphrase. Cheese. Wine. Talk. Pick three.

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For more on the cheese: come for a ride, I’ll take you up there.

For more on their sculpture trail: www.sentiersculpturel.com

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