When I left the U.S. in July of 2014 my intention was to complete a Master’s degree in Ethnology. In all honesty, my main motivation in selecting a program so far from home was the timid, curly-haired farmer who spoke to me passionately about animal welfare and local food systems. I wanted to continue my education but I also wanted to see where this new relationship could lead.
I figured I would spend two years studying, returning home for the summers, while gradually getting to know this paysan through occasional weekend visits to the farm.
Fast forward two and a half years. We are now married, our ceremony held beneath the shade of his apple orchard, and we are expecting our first child, a baby boy who will arrive just as the farm springs back into life with the warming March weather. Things have changed quickly and in a small space of time. As I sometimes point out to Fañch, there are few things from my pre-France time that I do regularly today and vice versa.
Before getting on that plane I had never milked a cow, I never used to spend Sunday’s sitting along the shore of the great Atlantic ocean, I never used to watch calves leaping around in a barn of fresh straw while coming to give me big sandpaper-tongue kisses, and I had certainly never spent the day transforming milk into cheese. At the same time, I no longer spend Saturday nights in crowded concert venues, I don’t spend hours in front of my computer alternately working on homework and watching Netflix, I no longer go for bundled up walks through the snow, and I can no longer spend an afternoon browsing a large bookstore full of books in English.
During these last two and a half years I have spent a lot of time reflecting on this and struggling to find my place in this new world. When the idea was brought forth of me making cheese it instantly peaked my interest but did not spur in me the usual 0 to 100 enthusiasm that has always marked my various ventures. It was so unlike anything I had ever done that while I could envision one day working in my pristine lab at the farm, I did not have anything to instantly latch on to in order to launch my project.
When I wanted to be a doctor I volunteered at a hospital and shadowed doctors. When radio became my passion I listened to as much music as I could and arranged interviews with musicians. When I wanted to return to France I applied for all the programs and scholarships I could. But all I had at the beginning of this new adventure were a couple cheese-making books that might as well have been written in another language.
During this last year and a half, since we first started talking about making cheese at Fern Island Farm, I had a lot of doubts. Yet something kept tugging at me, this idea felt right and I knew that if I could get through the confusing early stages it could become a fulfilling project. So last year, when the opportunity arose, I began to study with a friend and local cheese maker. Every week I would join her in her lab to watch how she transformed the milk from her sheep into delicious dairy products. From the start she pushed me to try out each step of the process and encouraged me to take over on my own within months. Six months into my “internship” she would leave me to my work while she attended to other work on the farm.
Every week my confidence increased and I began to see that I was capable of pursuing this project. For the last few weeks I even brought milk from our farm so that we could taste our very own Fern Island Farm cheese and butter. As I crouched next to the heating tank and stirred the gradually forming curd, I watched as the milk from our cows transformed into a new product. I could, now more than ever, imagine my future in this world of rennet and whey, of fermentation and aging.
The last step was to wait. The cheeses I prepared in December and January needed to age before I would know for sure if I had succeeded. During this time I was preoccupied with other work, ultrasounds, and midwife visits. I thought of my cheese often, wondering how they were aging in my friend’s cheese cellar. Then a few weeks ago we prepared a place here at the farm where they could finish their aging process. Now that they were here and under my control I suddenly felt the pressure return. Despite it being my first foray into this complicated world of chemical reactions and measuring acidity, I wanted it to be a success. I wanted to start out on a positive note.
So two weeks ago, when I chose the most advanced looking one from the group, wrapped it in paper and brought it to our home, I prepared myself for disappointment while simultaneously crossing all my fingers and toes for a good tasting cheese. Fañch and I finished dinner and then I took the parcel, unwrapped the paper, and placed the wheel of tomme on the cutting board. I started by cutting it in half and paused before pulling the two sides apart for the initial glance.
The color was good, first sigh of relief. The rind was thin, second sigh of relief. And it smelled appetizing, first hesitant smile. We cut off a piece and took it to the table, taking our time to trim off the rind and look a little closer at my handiwork. Then we each took a slice and took the first taste. Instant relief and pride flooded through me. It tasted good. It tasted good enough that I wanted a second bite. Fañch looked at me and smiled wide, his eyes full of excitement and pride. And then I started to cry.
I was completely caught off guard by my reaction. I had not realized how much pressure I had put on myself to succeed in this first attempt. All those months of doubt, of wondering if I would ever be able to pursue something so drastically different from anything I had ever done, had paid off. It was by no means perfect, there are things I want to change and improve, but it was good.
Months had led up to that moment and the taste of what the future could have in store for me was overwhelming. These next few months my attention will be focused elsewhere (only a few more weeks until baby Guillou’s arrival!) but next autumn we will start construction on Fern Island Farm’s very own cheese lab. With this first success under my belt I know that even if the next ten attempts are failures I am capable somewhere deep down to make a cheese that people want to eat! So here is to many more first tastes!