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Denis Fourcade, Béarn Pasture Cheeses, France

Slow Food Presidium


I've been a shepherd since I was 13. Now I'm 27. I chose this trade for several reasons: for a love of the animals and the land and to protect the traditions of the Béarn region and my country, France. My parents weren't shepherds or farmers-my mother worked in the post office. Becoming a shepherd was a very personal choice, and even I find it hard to explain.

 

I set up my own business six years ago. In the beginning the difficulties were mostly financial, because you need about 50,000 euros to start a farm and when you're 21 it's hard to find the money, the land and the farmhouse. I had some money saved up and my parents helped me a bit, but I still had to ask for a loan from the bank. Once I got the funding, the road was all downhill.
I like this job because it's never repetitive. I like following the flocks from the moment of birth, milking, being in touch with the animals and nature. We work with living beings, not robots! And even if there are tough moments, I see them just temporary obstacles to be overcome.
My farm is in Ogeu-les-Bains, near Oloron Sainte-Marie, in Béarn. I have a flock of 260 sheep, which I keep only for their milk. All the milk that is collected in the farm is turned into raw-milk, pressed-curd cheese.


We have two distinct seasons in the farm, the summer period and the winter period. During the five months of the summer season, the sheep always live outdoors and graze in the mountains. It's a completely extensive type of farming. During the winter period, the lambs are born and for two months the sheep stay indoors with their little ones, protected from the cold. I feed them hay that I grow during the summer mountain pasturing on my 22-hectare plot.


The animals are moved in the middle of May and the end of September. I take the sheep up to 1,400 meters above sea level in the Pyrenees, in the Aspe Valley, which is along the Camino de Santiago. To get up there, we have to break the journey in two. First we take the sheep and supplies in a truck, and then when the road gets narrow, we transfer the supplies to some cars and take the flock on foot for five hours. On the way back, I walk with the sheep the whole way, from the Aspe Valley to my farm in Ogeu-les-Bains, a total of 90 kilometers in two days.
I'm not alone during this seasonal migration: 15 people and three dogs also come up. My wife, my family and friends all give me a hand, but what's most important is being together and sharing moments around the table. With them, the migration becomes a festive occasion. Do it alone? No way! It wouldn't be possible, anyway. You need different people, for example to stop the traffic when you cross a road.


And anyway it's nice to be surrounded by people. The hut up in the mountains is as big as a house, it's comfortably furnished and the big dormitory on the top floor can easily sleep 15 people.


A typical day in the mountains starts very early. I get up at 5 in the morning and go see the sheep, to make sure everything is okay. They are only milked for the first two months, then the sheep don't produce milk and I let them rest. During the first period there are two milkings a day, each for around three or four hours. The morning one is from 6 to 10, and then we make cheese for the whole morning, using the cold milk from the previous evening as well. Afterwards we fix the bells on the sheep, or add more because the ringing makes it easier to find them. In the afternoon we take turns with the flock and sometimes go into the cars to rest or eat a bit. Between 6 and 9 in the evening is the second milking, the milk is put aside for the next day and then we all eat together. Around 10 pm we all go to sleep.


I don't follow any particular philosophy of life but I try to respect the land and traditions and to unite them with modernity. That's the hardest thing, but I'm trying anyway because for me it's the only way forward. I think we have to stay true to what we are: In Béarn we have a strong identity and we have to try not to lose it.

 

  Denis Fourcade, Béarn Pasture Cheeses, France Denis Fourcade, Béarn Pasture Cheeses, France Denis Fourcade, Béarn Pasture Cheeses, France Denis Fourcade, Béarn Pasture Cheeses, France  
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