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With its Atlantic coastline, pretty seaside villages and unspoilt islands, the Charente-Maritime has been a long time favourite with those seeking sun, sea and sand. But travel inland and the Romanesque architecture, cognac producing vineyards and gallo-roman remains will capture your imagination. Find out more about the attractions in the Charente-Maritime here.

We have gathered a number of our favourite features on the Charente-Maritime below...


Say cheese! Goat's cheese production in Poitou-Charentes

Say cheese! Goat's cheese production in Poitou-Charentes

Bertrand and Monique Desjeux from Rétaud, Charente Maritime,are helping to keep the traditional Poitou-Charentes breed of goat alive, thanks to their flock of 40 chévres Poitevines...

Visitors to Poitou-Charentes have no doubt noticed that every market boasts at least one stall selling a food product that is fairly rare in Britain: goat cheese. This is hardly surprising to those who are aware that Poitou-Charentes has its own breed of goat - the chevre Poitevine, or Poitevine goat. Goat cheese, however, is not generally popular with the British, as goat farmers and cheese producers Bertrand and Monique Desjeux from the Chevrerie de Rétaud in Charente Maritime remark: "The taste for a certain cheese seems to be a question of tradition, which perhaps explains why the English don't always take to goat cheese. Those who are brave enough to taste these cheeses with their strong animal aroma tend to prefer the younger, 'fresh' types to the mature 'fromages affines'. The taste of goat cheese is very different to the traditional British cheeses, and Bertrand is convinced that you have to persist in order to appreciate goal cheese as much as the French do. "Goat products are much easier to digest because the fat globules are smaller than in cows' milk."


Bertrand is no industrial farmer: for him, being a goat farmer is much more than simply using goats to make a product in order to develop a business. " I'm neither an entrepreneur nor a salesman. which is why I've chosen not to develop what I have here. As a 'producteur fermier', I simply sell from my farm or market stall and don't get involved with supermarkets or restaurants. This means I am master of my products and don't have to adapt to consumer demands. Some people think I live on the margins of society, but this is not true: I try to be independent while staying in contact with the world in which we live. I like botany and I'm a witness to changes in the natural world, so that if certain trees disappear or the bees start to die, I can see it happening. My products are a reflection of who I am and what I do."


The farm

Bertrand keeps his 40 Poitevine goats on his 25-hectare farm, growing all the fodder necessary to feed them, and has built his cheese-making facilities in his 17th century Charentaise barn. Poitevine goats are characterised by their long, dark-brown coats and are reputed to produce high quality milk. Originating from the Melle plateau in the Deux-Sevres, this race spread throughout the region until 1920. "The goat was a poor man's cow, and every rural family had one to provide milk and cheese - a goat can give 10% of its body weigh in milk per day, so a 60kg goat will give 6 litres, " says Bertrand. In 1920, a combination of a toot-and-mouth disease outbreak that killed vast numbers of goats, and an increasing demand for milk led to goats being imported from the Alps. Today, the Poitevines produce less milk than their 'Alpine' and 'Saanen' counterparts, which have been genetically selected over the years to improve their milk production. In 1924 there were 58,000 Poitevines just in Deux-Sèvres, while today there are only 2,500 in the whole of France; the ADDCP association has been created to protect this regional heritage.


Being a goat farmer isn't everybody's choice of career, and although Bertrand had childhood ideas of being a shepherd, he studied science - which is when he met Monique. His studies over, he felt the need for adventure and travelled alone, on footand hitchhiking, from his home in the Loir-et-Cher to West Africa, and from there to East Africa and Indonesia. This was in 1971: there were no travel guides. so he progressed through contact with people,
sometimes getting into difficult situations including prison because he didn't have the necessary visas, getting lost on the Burma border and experiencing the war in Vietnam. Two years later he finished up in Australia, where he lound work as a field assistant drilling for minerals in the desert and perfected his English. He returned permanently to France almost by accident: he'd planned to come home for a holiday four years after leaving, and had a return ticket: but having met up again with Monique, who was working in a medical laboratory in La Rochelle, he decided to stay.

Starting Out

The decision to work with goats, however, was less impulsive: "lt was a process of elimination - I couldn't work in an office because I needed to be outside. on my own with nature." Once he had decided. it was essential to make his career choice work: supported by Monique, he spent a year and a half working on goat farms, followed by studying on a diploma course at Melle's goat school. He needed the diploma in order to obtain a preferential bank loan, and was one of the 20 out of the 150 candidates to be awarded the qualification. This was lollowed by a hunt for a property - it needed to be 10 hectares to qualify as professional agriculrure - and in 1980 he set up his farm with 18 Alpine goats.

To begin with. he simply produced milk milking by hand - for a cooperative. but in 1987 he made his first cheese at the kitchen sink. To see whether it was good enough to sell, he presented some at a departmental competition - and won! "We always ate goat cheese when I was a child, so I knew what taste and texture I was aiming for."

From the kitchen sink, his facilities progressed in line with the ever-demanding hygiene requirements, and now he makes a series of different cheeses during the milking season or March to December. '"The technological advances and hygiene demands have meant that the definition of a good goat cheese has changed," says Bertrand. "From a technological viewpoint, a good cheese is one with no bacteria, while for a producer it's one that has had a correct production and is therefore tasty."


Although Monique continued her job at the laboratory while Bertrand installed his goat farm, she gradually gave it up to help out Bertrand full time, dealing only with the commercialisation side while Bertrand looked after the goats and his fields of fodder, and milked twice a day. They attended a series of local markets and fairs in the area and even supplied a restaurant but soon realised that all the travelling stopped the activity being worthwhile, and the restaurant's needs were very irregular.


Towards the end of the 1990s Bertrand sold his Alpines because, although they gave good quantities of milk, he decided it was more important to keep the Poitevine race going. Nowadays he obtains 100 litres of milk per day from his flock, which makes 100 crottins or about 40 pyramides. The collection of names for goat cheese can appear to be confusing, but in fact the names · crottin, pyramide, briquette, dome and buche all correspond to the shapes - and each has a fascinating anecdote as to how the names came about.

Apart from the shape, there is also the question of controlled appellation (AOC for France and AOP for Europe). which defines the area in which the cheese must be produced and its method of fabrication, for example, the 'Chabichou de Poitou' is a local AOP.

The taste of the cheese will be different according to the producer and how he matures it: "I'm eternally dissatisfied, so I'm always searching for new maturing methods" says Bertrand. For him. the youngest cheese is très frais, which means it is only 1-3 days old. and white, with no maturing. The opposite end or the scale is the très sec which is yellower and has been matured for 2 momhs in a dark, temperature-and humidity-controlled cellar.

Certain types are covered in an edible fine ash, which changes the presentation and recalls the traditions of keeping goat cheese in buckets of ash before fridges were invented. Others have a straw in the middle, which stops the cheese crumbling apart, or are presented on a leaf. "My preference is for a 3-week-old cheese, while many of our clients prefer a fresh cheese in summer and a drier one in winter. Goat cheese connoisseurs will look for a cheese that keeps its shape and doesn't stick to a knife," says Bertrand.

There are many ways to enjoy goat cheese: Bertrand suggests mixing a fresh goat cheese either with garlic and herbs, or with strawberries or raspberries. The best cheese for a chévre chaud - slices of heated goat cheese on toast - is with a soft crottin or Chabichou. For a feuilleté au fromage - cheese enveloped in puff pastry - a mature cheese is better. Very dry cheeses can be crumbled into a salad or served with cocktail sticks as an aperitif.

And, despite the fact that most people are pleasantly surprised by the pleasing taste of goat milk, Bertrand no longer sells it at his farm. simply because of the inconvenience of having to milk a goat upon demand. "Our client's don't just come here for the cheese," says Monique. "They also like to discuss life and politics with Bertrand."

Indeed, Bertrand always takes the time to show his clients around his facilities. "It's up to us 'paysans' to show people that life in the countryside isn't necessarily the sarne as on television.'' he says. And although Bertrand and Monique currently have no regular English-speaking clients, who can say whether. after a few years of life in the Poitou region, we won't get a taste for crottins and chabis?

WORDS: Teresa Hardy PHOTOS: Courtesy of Pays de Saintonge Romane

Published in Living Poitou-Charentes in 2010  © All rights reserved