Following a formal introduction to affineur Pascal Beillevaire, Ihsan selected a variety of Pascal’s cheeses for import to the US. He had a good feeling because Pascal had deep roots in the farming world but was also a clear-headed businessman. That first import was a way to test the waters of a new relationship to determine whether the products were at the consistent level of quality that our customers demand. We were excited with the first few orders as they included cheeses we had not seen in a long time – all of which arrived in perfect condition. Cheeses such as Dome St. Estephe (aka Taupiniere), Charolais and Trois Laits among many others.
The Beillevaire business is an active part of the community of Machecoul and the surrounding area of the Pays de la Loire and is deeply connected to Pascal’s roots. In fact, the dairy is located only 6km from Pascal’s family farm “La Vacheresse” where Pascal was born.
Pascal began working on his parents’ dairy farm as a young boy. When selling family milk and cream at local market places, he quickly discovered a passion for the trade and for the products themselves. From the age of 17, Pascal has worked tirelessly to develop what is now a broad offering of dairy products under the Pascal Beillevaire brand including fresh milk, cream, butter, yogurt, crème fraîche, mousses and cheese. All of these products are made using raw milk that is brought to the dairy twice each day from local farms all within 10km of the dairy. When the milk arrives at the dairy, it is still warm from the cow at the perfect temperature to begin production.
Following the success with his own dairy products, Pascal decided to expand his operation to include affinage – the art of aging cheeses. His approach is entirely consistent with his roots as he works closely with small farmhouse or ‘fermier’ producers who send their young cheeses to him in order to be carefully aged and sold both within Europe and now to their U.S. customers. In choosing to pursue these farmhouse cheeses, he is actively contributing to the maintenance of an important rural artisan trade and helping to preserve ancestral know-how. Today, 200 producers send more than 400 cheeses to the ripening caves of Pascal Bellevaire. We were able to tour the aging rooms at the dairy and we were thoroughly impressed with both the efficiency of the operation and the care that went into each case of cheese as it was received from the farm and transferred to the appropriate aging room. Seeing all that goes into the process of aging reminded us just how much artistry goes into what the French call affinage.
We were lucky enough to visit Pascal’s dairy in the small town of Machecoul located in the Western Loire valley just south of Nantes in the department of Loire-Atlantique.
Driving through the marshy environs of Machecoul known as the Marais we immediately recognized the agricultural character of the region as we passed both pasture and field on our way to Pascal’s dairy. The fields of native grasses and flora offered up a wonderful bounty of grazing for the cows of the region – and we were looking forward to tasting cheeses made from their milk.
When we arrived at the dairy, our amazingly gracious hosts presented us with a complete selection of their products for a tasting. Of course, we had to taste every last one of them – including each flavor of yogurt and mousse. What came across more than anything else was the amazing freshness of each product. When we tasted the raw milk from the bottle, and then tasted their butter, yogurt, mousse and crème fraîche, we were impressed with simple, clean flavors common to all of them. While it may seem far fetched to some, what we tasted was the goût de terroir or ‘flavor of the place’ in each product. One treat we became particularly fond of during our visit is called Crème Nantaise: a decadent mixture of raw cream, egg whites and a touch of sugar whipped to an airy consistency which gives a seductively light feel on the palate despite its ingredients.
Pascal Beillevaire also produces two cheeses: Machecoulais and Mojette. Machecoulais is named for the company’s hometown and Mojette is named after, and formed into the shape of, a bean that is traditionally grown in the region. Both cheeses are made using the fresh cow’s milk that is delivered twice daily to the dairy. We were able to see the careful process of production used to make these cheeses and we were able to taste each from fresh milk, to developed curd to perfectly aged cheese. As we walked along and watched each step, we were struck by the well-planned arrangement of the rooms used in the production as well as the cleanliness evident at every turn.
Selecting our cheese
Part of the reason for our visit was to choose the cheeses (out of 400!) that we would order on a regular basis from Pascal. In order to do this, we had to taste. At any given opportunity, be it in the morning with our coffee, the afternoon with our lunch, the evening with our wine or at night with our dinner, we inspected, smelled, squished and tasted cheese after cheese – taking notes all the while so that we would be able to keep track of the amazing array.
Each cheese we tasted impressed us with its own distinct characteristics. In a typical sitting, we might taste cheeses from the Loire Valley, Provence, Auvergne, Normandy and Aquitaine all of which were perfectly aged for our enjoyment. Those days of tasting were actually hard work, but it’s the type of work you never want to give up.
The day before we left, we were able to visit two of the farms that provide Beillevaire with the milk for his products. The first was a large open farm where the cows sleep on waterbeds. While this may sound strange, it is something that is not unheard of in a dairy farm and is of the same mindset as playing music in the milking parlor whether classical or Dolly Parton to keep the cows as comfortable and unstressed as possible. The thinking goes that the more comfortable the cow, the greater the quantity and some say quality of the milk.
The rest of his operation made use of the latest technology, where each cow had an electronic ID tag that was recognized by the feeding machines to give them a specific quantity and mix of food. The milking parlor was a model of efficiency where just one person was needed to milk more than 20 cows at a time.
The other farm we visited was the farm where Pascal worked as a boy. This farm, called La Vacheresse is one of the farms that provide the dairy with organic milk. Here, the operation was decidedly low-tech with one man (and his dog) taking care of the day’s activities from feeding, to milking to cleaning with the only machines being the milker and a tractor. When we first walked in to the barn, we all noted the difference in smell from the other farm. While both farms had the typical cow and manure smells, La Vache Reste had the distinct (and pleasant) smell of fresh hay: the primary food source at the farm instead of the grain mixture at the other farm.
Throughout our trip, we were consistently impressed with Beillevaire’s efficient operation and perhaps more importantly, we were impressed with the knowledge and passion that each of the people we met with had for the products they produce. We are pleased to be able to bring wonderful farmhouse cheeses from Beillevaire to the U.S. — cheeses such as Charolais, Bleu de Bocage, Mille Trous de l’Ariège, Vendeen Bichonne, Tomme de Chèvre au Muscadet and Trois Laits among many others.