Milk quality is the result of a magic formula, and one of the formula's ingredients is the diet of the livestock who produce the milk.
Why don't we talk about "terroir" in the dairy world? Milks and cheeses are the product of the animal that produces them and human intervention, but most of all they are the product of a place, influenced by its climate, vegetation, geology and other factors.
Milk from places where the grass grows wild, the flora is rich and diversified and the animals are free to graze whatever they like will inevitably be better milk. In their natural habitat, animals will naturally eat the plants they need to stay healthy. The aromatic compounds in wild plants are fat soluble and can be transmitted to the milk through fats, and from there to the cheeses. Only whole raw milk, milked and processed directly in those places, can give cheeses these fragrances. To return to wine terminology, the beauty is that each place has its own bouquet.
The use of wild plants to feed livestock is an ancient practice. Fodder plants grow primarily in three environments:
- A meadow where the crop stays in the ground for more than a year, and is mown to feed livestock.
- A field in which the fodder crop is short-lived, usually just one year, and is alternated with other crops. As with the meadow, the fodder is mown before being fed to the livestock. The most common plants are grasses, legumes and crucifers.
- A pasture, grassland used almost exclusively for farming and herding livestock. The fodder is not mown, but is grazed directly by the animals. Mountain pastures are of particularly interest for cheesemaking.
Fodder plants can be given to the livestock fresh or dried to become hay. They can also be turned into silage and stored year-round. Making silage involves acidifying the plant mass to prevent deterioration, and is carried out in an airtight environment. Cereal plants can also be dried, becoming hay used for barn feeding during periods when the herds are far from pastures. They can also be silaged, which extends their storage life but affects the milk's sensory qualities.
It is clear that each animal has its own preferred habitat in which it produces the best milk. Goats usually eat the green parts of shrubs and adapt well to both the arid lands of the Mediterranean and Alpine pastures. Sheep and cows prefer lush green land full of grasses, herbs and flowers and their varied scents and flavors.
Here are some examples of grazing terroirs whose unique nature contributes to the distinctiveness of cheeses made there.
The Provençal Garrigue and Rove Goats
Garrigue is a type of vegetation, and along with maquis it represents the main vegetation present around the Mediterranean. Garrigue flourishes in steep, rocky, arid land and is made up of scattered shrubs, aromatic and spiny with down-covered leaves. Garrigue is more varied than maquis because the scattered shrubs leave plenty of space for other herbaceous species, both perennials and annuals.
Typical garrigue plants include heather, thyme, savory, lavender, Helichrysum, Cistus, Greek spiny spurge, juniper, rosemary and Aphyllanthes. The plants that dominate give their name to the type of garrigue. The environment is highly suited to raising goats, who graze on the shrubs and keep the vegetation (and potential wildfires) under control.
Garrigue typically covers the landscape in many parts of southern France (Provence and Languedoc-Roussillon), including the environments where Rove goats graze. A breed originally from Mesopotamia, its milk is used to make Brousse du Rove cheese. The landscape is also home to the goats used to make another famous cheese, Pélardon. The goats eat mostly hardy plants: broom and its sweet flowers, Kermes oak and other types of oak, which give the Brousse and Pélardon cheeses a unique and highly recognizable flavor.
The changing seasons bring changes to the flora available to the animals, who follow the seasonal cycle and feed on the foods necessary to keep them healthy. The seasonally changing diet also has an influence on the cheeses.
Read more about the Rove Brousse Presidium and the Pélardon Affiné Presidium
The Roccaverano Robiola Pastures
Herbaceous, shrubby and arboreal species live alongside each other in high-altitude pastures. The range of herbaceous plants comes from a number of different botanical families: grasses, legumes, umbellifers, etc. From a chemical perspective, the legumes are the most important in terms of nutrition and the characteristics they give the milk. Aromatic herbs like thyme, sage and wild mint are present in limited quantities but make a significant contribution to the sensory profile of the milk and resulting cheeses.
In addition to the herbaceous plants, shrubs and trees also grow in the high-altitude pastures, becoming an invaluable resources during periods of drought or intense cold.
The hills around Asti, in the northwestern Italian region of Piedmont, are of particular interest. A historic cheese, Roccaverano Robiola, is produced here. The cheese must be at least 50 percent goat's milk, while the remaining 50 percent can come from cows, sheep or goats. The native goat breed, the Roccaverano, has been somewhat replaced by other international breeds, but continues to be raised by a few local herders.
A study carried out in the Robiola production area showed the existence of five crus, five zones within the same geographic area differentiated by specific characteristics of terrain and vegetation. The landscape is made up mainly of varying combinations of sessile oak, Turkey oak and locust woodland and grasslands of different levels of stability and aridity. The study showed a strong correlation between Robiolas from the five different areas and the different botanical species present in those areas.
Read more about the Roccaverano Robiola Presidium
Texel Island: A Unique Interweaving of Landscapes
Texel is an island with an unusual ecology, located in the Dutch Weddenzee. It is made up mostly of dunes which are covered or uncovered depending on the tides. Over time, the land above sea level has become covered in vegetation, creating dunes that alternate with depressions, heaths, water meadows and grassland. The flora is still quite unspoilt, and includes grasses, legumes, bulbs and other plants. The plants flourish because of the mild climate and the nearby sea. The heath, in particular, can be formed by over 800 species of plants, including heather, rhododendrons and wild blueberries, which decompose to form hummus and nutrients. The soil is wet, acidic and permeable.
The main animals farmed on the island are Texel sheep. This native breed has lean, muscular meat, a characteristic that has made it popular around the world from Canada to New Zealand. This has overshadowed its milk potential and the island's cheesemaking traditions. A Presidium was established to protect the use of the breed's milk and Texelse Schapenkaas, a traditional, artisanal sheep's milk cheese with hints of the sea, fragrant with the scents of the varied vegetation.
Read more about the Texel Sheep Cheese Presidium