Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Milky Teats

Mr. Raymond Sizaire has the most mesmerizing face I’ve seen in weeks. His forehead is scored with two deep grill marks, as if he’d been smacked twice with a red-hot shovel. Later he tells me they’re from the birthing forceps. “I weighed six kilos when I was born,” he says. “Now I’m a little more, but it’s all muscle.” He pats his belly. “Except for here!” His shoulders shake, and bellows of mirth quake the house to its rafters. Through fat lips I can see tobacco-stained teeth spaced wide enough apart to stick coins through, but it’s a solid, candid smile. Eyebrows the size of my thumbs, grizzly and renegade. And one eye is blue and kind, but the other one, well, it’s shrunken, and entirely white. No iris whatsoever, and the eyelid shrivels in on itself. He looks a little like James Beard after losing a fight with a pirate.

Simone, his wife, is slight and has limp hair a store-bought reddish brown, bags under her eyes, and eyebrows plucked so thin they are almost hairless. Her skin has the pale tone that speaks of cold, gray weather, but below her wrists her hands flush an incandescent scarlet. My grandmother had the same color palms; they share the hands of people who have spent a lot of time with hot, soapy water.

Sizaire and his wife and one of their sons, Jean-Marc, raise cows and sell milk products and meat. Their farm is named after a 2000-year-old Gallo-Roman villa across the road from their pastures, a site that has actually been peopled for 300,000 years. Jean-Marc raises one breed for milk, and Sizaire Blancs-Bleus-Belges (BBBs), a beef varietal. Jean-Marc lives in a perky brick home he built near the pastures. When I met him, he was sitting at his kitchen table with his wife, his mother-in-law, who was wearing a wig, his youngest daughter, who was wearing a mullet, and a friend with an empty plastic pitcher who’d stopped by to get some milk.

Sizaire and his wife live in the village about a mile away. To put things in context, the Pilgrims hadn’t even sailed to America when the house Sizaire lives in (and was born in) was built. When he was young (he’s three years older than my dad), the only people who had cars were the pastor, the doctor and the baker (no idea what the deal is with the baker). They’re near train tracks, but no buses came to the region until 1968, and the highway arrived in 1985.
Mr. Sizaire is a fifth-generation farmer. What about the generations before these last five? I ask. Well, he says, thoughtfully. I guess they were farmers too. Raising cows, though, is a relatively new project. The big crop in the area is potatoes, which his father, who still lives in the house, grew (as did chocolatier Edouard Béchaux’s parents, twenty miles away).
Simone is the eldest of nine children, and comes from a farming family too. We worked hard, she says. My parents were such workhorses that for years I was too ashamed to tell them that Raymond takes a fifteen-minute nap after lunch.

Sizaire and Simone met at a county fair, and married when she was twenty and he twenty-one. “C’etait la grande histoire d’amour,” he says, winking with his good eye. “It was a real love story.” I restrain myself from asking whether both eyes worked back then, but I wonder anyway. I understand what she saw in him, though. As over the day my impression of him gels I write down the adjectives: uncomplicated, passionate, sensitive, sturdy, jovial, just. I like him too. And they seem to have a simple and straightforward relationship that marries utility with respect and love. Simone stares at her husband adoringly when he talks, and Sizaire chides her gently when she puts herself down. “The work you do is important,” he tells her. “See, someone came all the way from Florida to talk to you about it!” She looks somewhat stunned. “I don’t really understand it,” she says.

Most days the Sizaires work from 7 to 7, and on Saturday nights they go out to dinner. Some farmers work from five to midnight, says Sizaire, but if you apply a little bit of smarts, that’s not necessary. He has played the trumpet for fifty-one years, and is in the village fanfare, which has performed as far away as Holland. “You have to have a hobby, or you go insane,” he says with a raise of his big hulking eyebrow. “Sing. Dance. Drink. Bowl.” His arms move like bulldozer shovels.

We sit down to lunch. He pours me a local aperitif called Maitrank made with odorant asperule (?) that we dunk a slice of orange in (oranges don’t seem that local, but the label does recommend the combination). It tastes like strong and fragrant white wine.
After we drain our glasses Simone comes out with steaming bowls of pumpkin soup. While we eat they ask me about Miami: do we spend the winter in bikinis? How frequent are hurricanes? What kind of cows do we raise? And did I vote for Bush, or Kerry? The elections are today, and everyone I meet updates me on the situation. There’s a glass bottle of cream on the table, and we ladle some into the soup.
After the soup come two pans of baked endives, wrapped in ham and gratineed, and some mashed potatoes. The endives come from here, and so do the ham and the potatoes, the latter from literally next door. The cheese comes from Switzerland, Simone thinks. It’s the only thing that comes from a store. With lunch we drink apple juice squeezed by a friend.
For dessert we have pieces of a fantastic apple tart left over from Sunday’s lunch, the lightest meringues, some macaroons, and coffee with a big lop of whipped cream that comes out of a pail. After the meal Simone takes out her cigarettes and Sizaire his cigarillos. “They say smoking is bad for you,” she says, totally straight-faced. “I don’t know about all that. Do you really think so?”

On Monday Simone makes yogurt, on Tuesday, butter. In the summer, when there’s more sun, the butter’s more golden, tastes better, and spreads more easily. While she makes butter in the winter to meet demand, for the family’s consumption she freezes the summer’s yield into large blocks and chops out chunks as she needs them.
On Wednesday she makes the flans and mousses, on Thursdays, waffles with the butter still unsold, and on Friday whatever’s missing for Saturday. Saturday’s delivery day, and Sunday’s for family.

Like Béchaux, the Sizaires are relatively lucky to live in a region where residents are prepared to pay more for produits de terroir, mostly because they can afford it. Since salaries in Luxemburg are on average twice as high as Belgium’s, two-thirds of Habay-la-Vieille’s working population commutes the ten kilometers over the border to take advantage.

According to Sizaire, things started going downhill for artisans in the dairy business after the milk quotas that the government first set in 1983. Those who had the bad luck to be small at that time weren’t allowed to expand, or the market would over-saturate and prices would fall. So what did we do? asks Sizaire. We learned di-ver-si-fi-cation. Simone started transforming milk into butter, crème fraîche, yogurt, fromage blanc, and then also began to make chocolate mousse, flan, waffles, and jam. Then we started selling other people’s products: eggs, liquors, rabbits, apple juice, ham. Now we’re like a superette on wheels!

“People are proud to buy my products,” he boasts. “J’achete chez Sizaire, they say. I’m like Moët & Chandon, or caviar.” He doesn’t care about the countryside’s gentrification, the flush of city people buying and renovating obsolete old farms. “It’s the Jaguar drivers that buy my products, you know,” he says, “not the ones in the Lada.”
Of his approximately three hundred regular clients, half stop by the house to buy their products. The other half welcomes Sizaire every Saturday, when he delivers, milkman-style, directly to their homes. “I’m like the mailman,” he says proudly. “I know them. I know their kids. I know their dog.” (I’ve never even met my mailman, I think to myself.) The milk, crème fraîche, and yogurt comes in glass bottles, which he collects and Simone refills.
When he started most of his clientele was aged. Now, they’re mostly young. “We even have two guys who live as a couple,” he says. “We always joke about it here: Who’s the man today? Who’s the woman? WA HA HA HA!” Ironically, he calls his yogurts “les petits Danone” or “Gervais,” after well-known corporate brands that themselves copied artisans when they first put out their products years ago.

Like Béchaux, Sizaire believes it isn’t enough anymore for farmers “just” to labor all day. “Today’s farmer has to be smart. Finished are the days of ‘Junior’s dumb? Doesn’t matter, he’s just taking over the farm.’ You can maybe get by if you just produce, but you won’t do well unless you’re clever about selling. Today, I’m telling you, is more about sitting down at the table with your brain.”
His attitude about the governmental intervention is far more progressive than the crotchety ostrich farmer’s. “Sure, the forms are a pain in the ass,” he says. “But I sell better when people know my product is clean and consistent.”

We take the white van and pop over to see the neighors, two prosperous brothers and a cousin who have built, around their farm, nouveau-riche brick houses of the type that you’d see at the end of a gated community cul-de-sac. We have come to see their cow-milking robot. Yes. Basically, the cows show up one by one, and a complicated series of sensors and pneumatics identifies each beast, cleans its teats, fastens milkers to them, and pumps till dry. Humans are not involved in any part of the process.

The Sizaires would like a cow-milking robot but must content themselves with machines less advanced, at least for the time being. Their milking room has two pens that each host six cows. Jean-Marc cleans the teats with a warm rag, and fastens to them a pump that looks like a big sucking spider. While he works I watch him, friendly and rosy and good-natured, talking to them as if they were slow children to be treated gently but no-nonsense, patting them down. He doesn’t give them names but recognizes each of the sixty individually and knows their idiosyncrasies; that one’s skin tends to get irritable, that one brays like a donkey until she gets milked (and she does), that one has a faulty teat. Cows are actually born with six teats, he tells me, but only four of them really work well. Sometimes they lose one to an accident or illness; occasionally, a fifth one works. If Jean-Marc has marked their leg with a green pen it means they’ve calved recently; if it’s pink, they’re being treated with antibiotics. Somewhat counterproductively, the milk from the medicated cows, set apart, is given to the calves rather than thrown out. He doesn’t think this practice will be allowed much longer, but for the time being it still is, and there’s no reason to waste milk, right?

In case you’ve ever wondered how one milks a cow: grab a teat where it meets the warm, heavy udder. Grab another. You will realize then how truly imposing a cow is. Its scruffy, dirt-clotted tail may flick towards your face, but its legs should stay firmly planted; anyway, if it kicks, its hoof will go backwards, so you’ll be safe. (This was absolutely no comfort to me.) Even if the teats have been cleaned, there will probably still be cow shit on the udder, and it will definitely get on your hand. (Even if there’s no shit on the udder, you’ll still leave covered in it. The only thing I ever touched was that teat, and I’m still finding discreet brown smears on my coat, pants, everything.)
Anyway, squeeze solidly and tug with confidence, sliding your hand down. Repeat. It’s the ring of your thumb and forefinger doing most of the work. The milk comes out in a stream thinner than expected, the thickness of a #2 pencil lead, but with enough pressure to direct. You will be tempted to direct the stream into your mouth. Very tempted. But the farmer whose cow you’re milking will laugh and tell you it’s better cold, and you’ll know that if you tried you'd spray milk all over yourself and probably him, too. It comes out really warm, steaming actually. It probably is better cold.

The talk turns to genetics. Breeders can control the fat percentage of the milk cows produce, reposition their teats, fix their hooves. And farmers can already buy sperm that’ll produce females 80% of the time, a figure that will soon become even more precise. Sizaire is very interested. I don’t know about the ethics of the whole thing, he says, but if I get a male Holstein (milk cow), I’m not going to make any money. So if someone starts selling foolproof female-producing sperm, I’ll buy it. You bet!
And mating, I learn, is the archaic way to get cows pregnant. What Sizaire does is tape a long wand to his arm, which begins with a release bulb at his elbow and ends at his finger with an eyedropper. He fills the wand with sperm from a vial (each 25 euro), sticks his arm up the cow as far as it’ll go, and pumps. It takes an average of two tries for the magic to work. I’m dying to see this done, but Sizaire won’t be inseminating for a while; it takes nine months for the cows to calf, and the family’s trying to plan a vacation next July.

I see an iron harness whose name I’m going to translate as a “calfer” (veleuse). Before C-sections on BBBs were mandatory (the beef varietal has been bred to have an ass so meaty it’s physically impossible for its cows to calf naturally), people used these contraptions to help birth. You hook one end of it to a cow’s rear end and tie chains to its calf’s forelegs, which are the first to come out. Then you turn a crank and tug, slowly and carefully, and the calf inches out. “Those are only for the most difficult births, where the calf is so big it’s really stuck,” says Sizaire. “When it’s more manageable, we just tie a rope to the legs on one end and the wall on the other, and sit on it until it gives. But gently!” He reminds me that organic cows don’t get painkillers when they calf, even during difficult births.

As a matter of fact, Sizaire thinks the organic label is a crock of shit. “I’ll shoot organics in the face!” he bellows. “They let their sick cows die rather than fix ‘em! Giving them homeopathy. My cows eat good corn and fresh grass, naturally fertilized with their own manure. But yes, they get an occasional shot.” (Later, when he asks me what my mom does for a living, I admit rather sheepishly that she’s a homeopathic doctor. We share an uncomfortable moment.)

After a while I sort of start falling into his way of thinking, or at least understanding what puts it in place. City people may find appalling the way BBBs are bred and birthed, but even when farmers care about their animals, ultimately they’re a cash crop as much as corn or cotton; farmers do what they can to feed their families, even if it means breeding disproportionately meaty cows or using sperm genetically guaranteed to produce females. (In the end farmers are only responding to the demands of the market, anyway; consumers and the government are as responsible for the BBBs as farmers.)

It’s way dark and time to go. I’ve spent nine hours in ongoing conversation with this one-eyed dairy farmer, his family, his neighbors, and his cows. The Sizaires load me up with a cardboard box of flans, mousses, yogurts, even a waffle that I scarf down on the car ride home. “T’as une bonne bouille qui bouffe bien,” (You have a good face that eats well) Sizaire tells me. “Come back anytime.” He invites me to his fanfare performance in December and tells me if he’s ever in Miami he’ll give me a call (although he’s only been on an airplane once, and hated it; “This ass stays on the ground,” he says.) He insists on driving the white van ahead of me to the highway junction so I don’t get lost, and waves me off with a flurry of honks and flashing lights. “Don’t hit any game on your way back!” he shouts out the window as I drive off into the crisp, cold darkness. “It’s hunting season.”

My turtleneck smells like cow all night, and I kind of love it. In fact, I wear it to sleep.

Tarte aux Pommes Mme Sizaire
5 c. farine
4 c. sucre
3 c. lait entire
1 c. huile, 1 c. beurre
1 oeuf
½ paquet de levure express
1 pincee sel
Verser dans un moule. Arranger les pommes dessus. Laisser 20 minutes au four. Melanger un oeuf, de la crème fraîche et du sucre vanille, et appliquer. Remettre au four 10 minutes.
Mrs Sizaire's Apple Tart
5 spoons of flour
4 spoons of sugar
3 spoons of whole milk (they use unpasteurized raw milk of course; worth seeking out, but hard to find)
1 spoon oil, 1 spoon butter (also made with raw milk)
1 raw egg
1/2 package of instant yeast
1 pinch salt
Pour into a pie tin. Arrange the apples (she didn't mention how many, but eye it) atop the mixture. Put in oven 20 minutes. Mix an egg, whipping cream (crème fraîche if you have it), vanilla extract, and dab it on top. Put back into oven 10 minutes.
NOTE: I have obviously not been able to test any of these recipes; I'm just putting them up as people give them to me, and they're often very vague, barely more than a list of ingredients. I assume you (and I) will just have to try it many times until we reach our own versions of perfection. That said, even if I never make this recipe taste good, or if I never even make it, I still love the process of asking for and receiving these recipes. Especially after learning, from a trendy relative of mine in Brussels who is in artisanal food prod., that NO ONE in the big city EVER gives out recipes. Knowing this makes driving the hundreds of km in Amelie's shit-can even more worthwhile.


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