Growing oil

De ferme en ferme is a nationwide programme of farm visits, and last fall I went to visit a couple of farms in the Montagne Noire, a fair drive from Saint-Chinian.  This year, a new network of farms, much closer to home, opened their doors to visitors.  I went to see two of them on September 10.

First I’ll tell you about my visit to Top Fruits, which was one of the farms I visited that day.  The farm is run by Jim and Sarah Pearce, who – no surprise after reading their name – are from Britain!  If the name isn’t a total giveaway, then the double-decker bus may be!! 🙂

Jim and Sarah started their ‘pick-your-own’ farm well over 10 years ago – they have a great selection of fruit and vegetables.  I’d known about the farm for years, but had never stopped to have a look.  I visited in the afternoon, and the crowds had gotten there before me.  The farm had more or less been stripped bare of ripe fruit!!  All the same, it was impressive to wander around the farm and see the rows upon rows of fruit trees (apricots, peaches, nectarines) and the greenhouses with tidy rows of tomatoes and aubergines!  I’ll be back next year, once the fruit season has started!!

My main visit of the day was Les Roumanisses, near Mailhac, where Nicolas Albert grows aromatic plants.

Nicolas started the farm in 2010, without a background in agriculture, but with plenty of passion and dedication!  Seven years later, this passion was still evident as he was showing visitors around the farm!

Our visit started in the polytunnel, which is the plant nursery where all the new plants are grown.  Nicolas grows all plants on site, and the farm is completely organic!

A large number of different types of herbs are grown at Les Roumanisses.  Here is a selection:

Nicolas had gone to a lot of trouble, providing labels and descriptions for a large number of different plants!

After the greenhouse, he showed us some of the machinery he uses.  Because of the fact that his farm is very unusual in this area, he’s had to make do with and adapt the machines he’s been able to buy.

Nicolas distills essential oils from the plants he grows and harvests on site.  The still had been set up and was ready to be demonstrated with lavender flowers.

The lavender had been harvested earlier in the year, and since Nicolas was still awaiting delivery of his new (larger) still, it had been dried.

The lavender had to be loaded into a large canister that looked a little like a milk churn.

Once full, the lid was screwed on, the canister was fixed in place and connected to the steam boiler and the condenser.

Here it is all ready, with Nicolas explaining how the process was going to work:

The glass container on the table is a separator, which will separate the essential oil from the distilled water.  The distilled water is collected in the large blue container.

Here we are, all ready and waiting for the steam to do its work!

After a little while, steam started to come out of the pipe at the bottom of the condensing unit (on the right), and soon after that the liquid started to flow!!  The smell was wonderful!!

In the picture below you can see the separation of oil and distilled water:

It was fascinating to watch!!  When I think of all the lavender flowers I have mulched in my garden over the years….  Perhaps I should invest in a little still of my own??  Nicolas had a very dinky copper model in his shop:

The shop was very busy during my visit, so it was not possible to get any decent pictures of the products.  Les Roumanisses offers about 10 different essential oils and 16 different flower waters.  The Flower water is the distilled water from the distillation process, which carries a lot of the fragrance of the plant. All the products are available from the on-line shop, from the farm, or from one of the local stockists.

I finished my visit with a lovely glass of chilled rosé wine – cheers!

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Open farm Sunday

During the early part of last year, I came across an event called De Ferme en Ferme, which translates to ‘from farm to farm’, and which takes place in farming areas all over France at various times of the year!  I managed to pick up a leaflet for last year’s fall edition of the event, and found that some of the farms were not all that far from Saint-Chinian, relatively speaking 🙂 .

I set my eyes on visiting a farm called Le Rodier, up in the mountains between Saint-Pons-de-Thomieres and Mazamet.  The day started a little misty and overcast, and as I drove up the mountain, the tops of the trees started to disappear into the fog. The farm is in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by meadows and trees.

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As I walked from the car park to the farm I passed this magnificent mushroom, its top as big as my hand!  I don’t know many mushrooms, but I do know this one is edible.

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Le Rodier is run as a dairy farm by Marie and her husband Sebastien, and Marie’s parents, Martine and Jean-Louis.  The farm has been owned by successive generations of Marie’s family for 100 years!  Marie and Sebastien had careers in law and finance, but when Martine and Jean-Louis began to look at possible retirement, Marie and Sebastien decided that they would carry on the family’s farming tradition!  With lots of enthusiasm they re-trained and became expert cheese makers and farmers!

They farm an area of 70 hectares (70,000 square metres or 173 acres), either as pasture or to produce hay and cereal feed for their 45 cows.  The cows are called Brune des Alpes, and they are out on the pasture from the end of winter until the first snow, producing a total of 270,000 litres of milk during the course of the year.  60,000 litres of that milk are used for cheese production on the farm, the rest is sold to a dairy.

Sebastian had set up a display of various equipment used for the production of their cheeses.  For hygiene reasons, a visit to the dairy itself was not possible.

Before I had a chance to visit the shop, Martine took a group of us to see the cows!  On the way we passed the hay barn – they had certainly made hay while the sun had shone!!

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The cow shed was large and spacious, and very clean-smelling!  I remembered that sweet smell from when I went as a child to a farm in the neighbourhood to get fresh milk.  Most of the time I would be allowed to visit the cows as they were being milked!

There weren’t many cows about, most of them were out grazing.  The ones in the barn were about to give birth, or had very recently given birth.

Here are the calves:  the one on the right had been born the day before!

The milking parlour was our next stop – the cows walk in at one end of the parlour and line up with their rear ends towards the pit, where the milking machinery is located.  Once they have been milked they walk out the other end of the parlour and back into the barn – all very organised and efficient.

Martine was a wonderful guide, and she communicated her passion for her work and her animals so well – it was a privilege being able to spend time with her!

Finally to the shop, where Sebastien was busy serving customers.  The range was relatively small compared to what you would find in a cheese shop, but for a small family business it was impressive!

On the top shelf there was faisselle (cheese curds), butter, creme fraiche and fromage blanc.

On the second shelf there was half a blue cheese (left), and three trays of frisquet, a fresh cheese much like goats cheese, either as is or with various ‘coatings’ such as herbs, pepper or paprika.

The third shelf held desserts 🙂 : Creme caramel, chocolate cream, rice pudding with caramel, and plain rice pudding!

Finally, on the bottom shelf were bottles of fresh raw = unpasteurized milk, and some camembert.

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The firmer cheeses are the ones made in the large moulds, which Sebastien had on show outside.

The Pastural is the softest of them – 18 litres of milk are needed for one cheese.  For the blue cheese to the right, 20 litres of milk are required.  The large cheese towards the right is called Rodal and it is made from 120 litres of milk!  On the very right of the picture you see part of a tomme – during the cheesemaking process, the curds are pressed with a weight, resulting in a firmer cheese, made from 40 litres of milk.

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Sebastien was happy to let me taste the various cheeses, and I came away with a lovely selection AND some fresh milk!

On the way back I caught a glimpse of the cows in one of the fields.

I must confess that the cheeses from Le Rodier were not a new discovery for me – Marie and Sebastien come to the little market in Agel (circuit court) every other Thursday.  But it was wonderful to visit their farm, and to meet Marie’s mother!  In case you are wondering, Marie’s father was there also, but he was busy with another group, so I did not get a chance to meet him.  If you want to experience this farm yourself, the farm shop is open every Saturday from 10am to 6pm, and you can of course buy the cheeses every other Thursday in Agel from 5pm to 7pm.

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