During a recent visit to the Southwest of France, we visited one of the artisan cheese makers who’s cheeses we are lucky enough to feature on our cheese board at both Le Pichet and Cafe Presse. Ferme Kukulu is located just outside of the small town of Espelette in the heart of the French Basque Countries. Our introduction to this farm was provided by our friend Olivier Boyer at Corsican Cellars, who imports the cheeses of Ferme Kukulu to Seattle.
On Visiting Farms
To me, there is no better way to really understand a product than to visit the place were it is made. Whether the product in question is cheese, hams, sausages, wine or any other artisan product, understanding how and why it tastes like it does always begins with geography. Just as the soil, the sun exposure, the elevation and the character of the country side where a wine is produced all play a role in how it finally tastes in the glass, so it is also true that all these elements have a huge part to play in the taste of a cheese. This is true, at least, for the best wines and cheeses, when the wine maker or the cheese maker works with respect to tradition and lets the flavor of his wonderful raw materials shine through.
Visiting a farm in France can be a bit of a tricky business. I have visited farms in France on many occasions, and under many different circumstances, ranging from cold call visits to visits made possible by a formal letter of introduction. Let me assure you that, despite what the promotional “cheese route” maps and local tourism offices say, just driving up to a farm and asking to see what they do is almost always awkward. Lets face it, farming is hard work that more than fills the day, and any farm large enough to have a person on staff to just deal with visitors is generally too big and industrial to be much fun to visit.
A better option is calling ahead to make sure that a visit would be welcome and well timed, although this also can be tricky depending on your French skills. If one feels comfortable enough to make the necessary arrangement in French, the results are usually gratifying. In the late ’90’s we spent a lovely afternoon at the home of a cheese maker in Rocamadour based on a nothing more than a pretty shaky phone call the day before. After a lengthy tour of the farm and cheese making facilities, we were sent on our way with a bag full of tender little goat cheese disks and tickets to the Musée de la Monnaie in nearby Bergerac, where a relative of the cheese maker, a security guard there had provided complimentary passes.
However, by far, the king of farm visits are those where someone you know, who also knows the farmer, has made a personal introduction. In this circumstance, it can be difficult to believe the warmth and generosity of the reception that one often receives. During a visit to a winemaker in Sancerre many years ago, a personal introduction from the wines American importer resulted in our being invited to a multi-course lunch after touring the vineyards and wine making facilities. With a personal introduction, ou never know exactly what to expect, but a very polite welcome is the bare minimum.
Our visit to Ferme Kukulu was scheduled at the farm-friendly hour of 9am, which meant that we would have to get an early start since the farm, nestled among the rolling foothills of the Pyrenees Atlantique, is over an hour from our house in Orthez. Morning fog meant that we arrived a few minutes late, even though we allowed plenty of time.
Our guide for the visit was Mayi, who works in the tiny office that is the brains of the operation. She welcomed us to the farm by letting us know that, until 1985, when the paved road to the farm was built, Kukulu was a “ferme isolé” or isolated farm reached only by horses, oxen and mules (or I suppose in 1985, they had 4 wheel drive vehicles?).
100 Years of Cheese Making Tradition:
The Hiriart family has made raw milk cheeses in the traditional style of the Basque Pyrenees since 1900. Madame Hiriart is currently the matriarch of the family, and she still runs the the tiny cheese shop on site.
Cheese that begins with Sheep:
A visit to any fromagerie ought to begin with the animals, as this is where the process begins. Ferme Kukulu now has about 2000 sheep, which I believe qualifies them as small to mid sized for this region. They no longer raise the local Tete Noir breed of sheep but instead favor the Lacaune breed that is native to the region where Roquefort cheese is produced, 2-3 hours distant in South-Central France.
During the period when the animals are giving milk, they are kept in barns for reasons of hygiene (to facilitate inspection and testing…a concession to the regulations of European Union hygiene rules). During this period they are fed on organic, non GMO grain and hay which is grown locally. During the rest of the year, they are allowed to feed on the grasses, herbs and flowers of the surrounding countryside.
All of their practices in regard to the raising and utilization of these sheep are geared toward respecting their health, seasonality and happiness. As the farms motto states, “A happy sheep is a sheep that reproduces and provides milk” (my translation).
The farm also has several hundred goats, and 4 or five cow, all of whom provide milk for cheeses made either in combination with sheep’s milk or on their own.
In recent years, the use of raw milk in the production of their cheeses has necessitated a major investment for Kukulu. It was necessary to install new cheese making “laboratory” to insure conformity to the strict hygiene standards set by the European Union. This modern equipment, coupled with constant independent testing of the milk and all cheese made from it at several stages during its production and aging, insures the safety of the final product. However, these practices only serve to reinforce a message that French people have known for years: high quality raw milk cheeses are not a health hazard and, on the contrary, contain beneficial bacteria that strengthen the bodies immune system.
The people at Kukulu all seemed very proud of the cheeses they make and very happy to tell us all about the process. During our visit to the cheese making laboratory, we watched the cheese maker filling molds with the still warm cheese curds from that mornings milk. When he noticed us watching, he motioned to us through the window, asking in pantomime if we would like to taste the curd. He joined us in the observation area minutes later, with a colander full of warm, sweet, sheep-y curds. At first the individual curds separated easily from the pile, but as the curds cooled they began to coagulate into a coherent mass, just as they would when the cheeses are formed.
Uniformly, the people working on the farm seemed most surprised to learn that people in Seattle are interested in and enjoy their cheeses. Exportation is a recent development for Kukulu; for people who until recently made a product that seldom traveled beyond Bordeaux, Seattle seems very far off.
The cheeses from Ferme Kukulu are featured from time to time on the cheese board at Le Pichet and Cafe Presse; these are limited production, seasonal cheeses (as is the case with many of the raw milk cheeses we offer) so it is hard to make any promises. If you do notice them when you dine with us, I hope you will share the feeling of connection with this distant artisan when you taste their cheese.