My all-time favorite French expression is “Oh la vache!” which strictly translated means “Oh the cow!” I believe the closest English euphemism would be “Oh my gosh!” …
Photos of Claravale Farm taken by Tana Butler of www.iheartfarms.com
When I moved to Paris two years ago to work as a cook, I did not have the same ah-ha revelation that Julia Child experienced with her first meal in Normandy. No, I went from bistro to bistro in search of something that would rival any of the restaurants in my native San Francisco. I was unwilling to compromise taste for a smoke filled patio view of the Eiffel Tower.
After several disappointing experiences in bistros serving the same badly prepared fare, I headed to the farmers' markets hoping to find seasonal and perhaps unusual heirloom produce. Mais non! The SF Ferry building easily rivals any of the best Parisian markets and Bay Area farmers’ markets are just what the name implies—farmers selling their wares. As opposed to vendors buying their produce from Rungis, the largest supermarket in the world, and reselling it.
But then it happened. On a hot summer’s day, I entered Monoprix (the French Safeway) in search of a light lunch. I chose a 4-pack of small terracotta pots filled with vanilla yogurt. I recognized the label Yoplait and thought to myself, “Hmm, I’ve never really liked Yoplait but these pots look so unusual.” When I got home I plunged my spoon into the creamy white yogurt flecked with ground vanilla pod and savored every last creamy bite. “Oh la vache! C’est bien ça! je n'ai jamais goûtée de yaourt comme ça!” (Oh the cow! It's good. I've never tasted yogurt like that!)
With the excitement of my newfound delicious milky treat I went straight back to Monoprix for more samples. I figured that if Yoplait was so good in France then Dannon had to be equally rewarding. And it was. Which led me to my next purchase of yoaurt fermier (yogurt from the farm) bottled in beautiful glass jars. The consistency of this yogurt was runny but the flavor unbeatable.“Vache, tout les yaourts sont délicieux!” (Cow, all of the yogurts are delicious!)
Thus began my love affair with French cows and one that did not stop at yogurt. Oh no! Yogurt was only the beginning. After yogurt I discovered French butter. Not to worry, I wasn’t buying sticks of butter and eating them like candy bars although there were times I wanted to!
Who knew that butter could be made with big crunchy grains of sea salt that when smeared on hot toasted baguette and served with raspberry jam created one of the most heavenly pairings on earth? Who knew that beurre sec, or ‘dry butter’ made extra flaky melt-in-your-mouth croissants? Or that beurre salé or ‘salted butter’ allowed one to sauté on high temperatures without burning it. Did I mention the sweet farm butter dotted with clots of sweet cream?
Of course no essay on the holy French cow would be complete without a nod to frommage. I’ve always been a Cow Girl Creamery loyalist and I regularly like to show my chef friends, who think all U.S. milk products taste like Velveeta, a glimpse of the California good life via their website. But one cannot ignore the divine goodness of Comté, pungent Munster, wickedly delicious triple cream Brie, or a scoop of ooey-gooey Camembert with a bowl of apple cider to wash it down. The methods for making these world famous cheeses has been handed down for generations and are strictly regulated by the A.O.C. to insure quality and tradition.
So just what is it about these French cows that provide such heavenly milk and who if anyone can match their product in Northern California? That is really the question that begs to be answered.
I posed this question to one of the chefs I cook with in Paris. The response I got was nothing less than expected: “En France les vaches du meilleurs lait parce qu'elles font l'amour toute la journée.” In other words, French cows produce the best milk because they make love all day long. Bien sur! (Of course!) Well, there you have it: good milk comes from oversexed cows. I knew there was a simple answer—and I thought all happy cows came from California.
Through research I discovered that there are at least twenty-five different dairy breeds in France and many provide milk for specific products. For instance the Simmental cow produces milk for Gruyère cheese and the Normande breed is famed for producing milk for Camembert.
In the United States we have around eleven dairy breeds and half of those breeds are dwindling in number. We rely heavily on the Holstein and Jersey breeds for our milk products. This is not altogether bad, because, both breeds are highly regarded worldwide and also used in France for a majority of dairy products. It appears that both countries have happy (I didn’t say oversexed) cows that produce tasty rich milk.
Photos of Bobolink Farms taken by Tana Butler of www.iheartfarms.com
The reality is that our milk products are different because our consumer demand is different. French people won’t eat yogurt that is loaded with gums or gelatins. However Americans will purchase yogurt (or should we say Jell-O with all the additives?) because it costs less and it’s convenient.
The French take great pride in regionally made butter and recognize that cows produce milk with different moisture content depending on the season. Grain fed cows over the winter will produce a butter that is lower in moisture and better for baking whereas butter made during the spring is creamier from green grass pasture grazing. Not all of our cows—even our organic cows—are allowed real pasture time and in some cases they will never see a blade of fresh grass ever!
As always, Northern California dairy farmers are illuminating the path to quality. Farms like Claravale, Strauss Family Creamery, Stornetta Farms, Triple C Ranch, & Robert Giacomini Dairy provide organic (local) milk for consumers and boutique cheese makers. Cowgirl Creamery, Point Reyes Cheese, and Brown Cow yogurt are just a few to benefit. Even traditional dairy farmers in California are transforming their farms in order to experiment with organic milk, cheese, and beef since it has proven to be profitable and environmentally sound.
Which brings me to my conclusion that Northern Californians and the French alike are happy consumers. Parisians might not have the choice in produce that we do in California and the small French bistros perhaps don’t have the money to support the quality that we demand in San Francisco, but both cultures are content. So logically, we all must be either making love all day long or eating fabulous dairy products. Or both? Oh la vache!