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The Goat Cheese Revolutionaries

The Chabots have turned the ideals of Paris '68 into something delicious.

April 24, 2002|JONATHAN KANDELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

VALENSOLE, France — The heart of Haute-Provence isn't chic. Peter Mayle hasn't lived here, the International Herald Tribune doesn't list local villas for summer rentals and no cultural festivals are staged anywhere close by. But on the high, arid, wind-swept plateau between the Mediterranean and the Alps, about a 90-minute drive northeast of Marseille, the French revolt of 1968 has made its last stand and, perhaps, achieved its most enduring legacy: the creation of wonderful goat cheeses, many of them rescued from oblivion.

When the massive street demonstrations in Paris more than three decades ago failed to spark a permanent upheaval, a cadre of left-wing activists retreated to Haute-Provence to become goat-cheese makers. It took Gallic genius to discover profound links between revolution and gastronomy and to bridge the gap between ideology and pragmatism. Land in Haute-Provence was cheap, and goat herding seemed easy (just send the animals out to pasture and plot revolution, these Paris intellectuals figured). And the market for goat cheese seemed inexhaustible.

If a socialist utopia could not yet be achieved in the cosmopolitan cities, perhaps it could be carefully nurtured in the isolated countryside, where communal life appeared more plausible in closer proximity to nature.

For most of these back-to-the-land idealists, the romance ended after only a few years. Goat herding and cheese making are a lot harder than they imagined. But among those who succeeded are Charles and Simone Chabot, goat-cheese makers par excellence whose products are bought by the finest restaurateurs. They had an advantage over many of their ideological peers because they were born into peasant families--Charles in Haute-Provence, Simone in nearby Savoie--and grew up with a deep knowledge of farm life that wasn't eroded despite almost 20 years spent in cities.

I first heard about the Chabots some years ago at La Bastide de Moustiers, a restaurant owned by Alain Ducasse, whose establishments in Paris and Monaco have each been awarded three stars by Michelin. The several courses of my lunch at La Bastide, an inn bordering a lake in Haute-Provence, were excellent. But it was the platter of local cheeses that I found most memorable. They included a banon--creamy as a ripe Camembert at its core, with a thick, moldy crust, wrapped in a chestnut leaf--and a tomme a l'ancienne, drier, but just as rich and properly aged.

The real shock for me was to discover they were goat cheeses. Normally I avoid goat cheese, having experienced too many cheaper varieties with an ammonia-like aftertaste. Yet these cheeses were ravishing. Lighter than any cow or sheep banon or tomme I had ever eaten, they actually left a trace of sweetness on my palate.

When I asked the maitre d' for more details on these cheeses, he told me about the Chabots and mentioned that their farm was only 40 minutes west. I took down this useful information and determined to someday seek them out. Last spring I finally made the journey, and it wasn't a moment too soon. Only a few months later, the Chabots, who are preparing to retire, sold their goat herd. For now they continue to produce cheese from milk purchased from neighbors.

Getting to the Chabots' farm, La Petite Colle ("the little hill," in local Provencal dialect), is a gratifying if difficult drive, along a road that winds past fragrant lavender fields and then up through thickly forested hills with glimpses far below of the tranquil Durance River and the medieval market town of Manosque on the water's edge.

Finally, at 600 feet, the terrain levels to a plateau, which last spring was an abnormally lush green after a rare week of rains. The fields are mostly sainfoin, a hybrid of rye and wheat that is the mainstay of the goats' diet. But there are also patches of wild plants and stands of oak, juniper and olive trees. The Chabots' property occupied no more than 50 acres, but they had the permission of neighbors to graze their 100 goats on fallow land nearby.

It was early evening when I reached the end of the dirt road in front of the cheese workshop, where the Chabots and their four employees were hosing down the floors and closing up for the day. Charles and Simone invited me into their adjoining residence, a converted 16th century farmhouse built on a slope. Its bottom level, once a stable, is now an ample living room with a fireplace large enough to roast an entire goat. (May the Chabots forgive the blasphemy!) Above the mantel is a Picasso drawing of a satyr looking like--what else?--a goat.

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