(Friday, Dayton, WA) A short side trip to Monteillet Fromagerie turned into a magnificent day spent helping (in a tiny, tiny way) to care for newborn lambs. Thursday evening, a nasty hailstorm tore through the Dayton area and Joan and Pierre-Louis Monteillet lost a few babies, while still others had been traumatized, along with their mothers, by the sudden cold snap. (more, with adorable pictures after the jump)...
Cheese doesn't begin with milk. It starts here and now, when the birthing begins. I thought about putting a picture of a bunch of ewes, their placenta-stained udders, afterbirths still swinging, right after the jump. It's the unglamorous side of farm life all the "farm to table" dinners and Sunday markets in the world can't show you. It ain't no petting zoo, and anything involving animal husbandry is difficult, back breaking work for a farmer who must keep the pen clean, relay hay, feed the flock, and also tend to the pigs and chickens on the property. The series of tiny ordeals that we witnessed in one day, Joan and Pierre-Louis--along with all other farms dealing with animals--must endure for weeks. Think of the hardest job you've ever had and know that you are still a big wimp compared to these farmers.
During birthing season, ewes are brought in to the barn to birth, and you've got to make sure that the mothers bond with their babies. The difference between the sheep and goats were astounding, and the sentiment behind the word "sheepish" became all too clear. Goats seem to come out ready to suckle and party. Little lambs sometimes have to be nursed, prodded and all but forced to the teat. This can take a chunk of time. Other duties pile up. We got to help feed twins who were so tiny, like little Chihuahuas, because more competition in the womb leads for harder birth and smaller, needier babies.
But one poor little thing really had it bad. His mother had been stuck just inside the birthing barn, in the mud, all night, and all three of his siblings died. The Monteillets' excellent apprentice Jackie, and her pre-med brother Joe had worked on the little guy all morning, and we helped feed him and warm him all day. His mother was shut down and he was... He had hypothermia at least and barely a will to live, made all the more complex when anthropomorphized by us city girls because he's a boy. (Little boys on the farm are only good for one thing.) Even so, these little lambs spent the night in the house with a watchful sheep dog to warm up, given every chance to live. I would never be able to walk that fine line between caring for the flock and letting one go, even if it was only destined for the spit. (update: All runts are A-OK!)
Stopping by on Saturday for eggs and cheese, and to check in on the little runts, we pulled up next to a car of grumpy people, obviously disappointed the tasting room was closed. Joan was so gracious, and invited them in to the birthing barn, explaining that they only have aged cheeses this time of year, the most important season for the farm. The group looked nonplussed, until they saw a mother licking goo off an hour old baby. Then they looked grossed out. Joan brought out both of the hard cheeses on offer right now, a beautiful, almost crystallized Sauveterre, 100% sheep and a sheep/goat blend, Causse Noir, as nutty and creamy as a fine Frenchie. The people grunted their way through the tasting and left without buying a thing. Such is life on the farm.
But for the Monteillets, you can see that each bah and every squeal is worth it.