Brousse du Rove goat's cheese from ProvenceYou only need to look at the provençal landscape to understand at once why its cheese is so special.

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You won't find the lush green pastures of Normandy or the rain-drenched Basque country round here. South of the Alps, the land is arid and scrubby and goats - rather than cows or sheep - produce the milk that inspires Provence's intensely perfumed cheeses.

One of the two best cheeses made in Provence is Banon, a pungent small circular goat's cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves and tied with raffia. Click here to read about it.

The other, less well-known, provençal goat's cheese is made much further south. Brousse is produced in the area around Le Rove, a small town near the calanques along the Blue Coast west of Marseille.

Here, an unusual breed of goats thrives in the arid, starkly beautiful, windswept garrigue (scrubland) of Southern Provence, within a stone's throw of the Mediterranean and just a short drive from Marseille-Provence airport.

Le Rove goats grazing, in Le Rove, ProvenceLe Rove goats arrived in Provence from Mesopotamia in 600 BC, around the time when Marseille itself was founded: according to legend, the traders' boat was shipwrecked off the Blue Coast and the tough little goats swam to shore.

They interbred with the local species and the distinctive long, lyre-shaped horns - they can reach up to 1.20 metres / 4 feet in length - prevailed by a process of natural selection.

Le Rove goats come in a range of colours: white, black, mahogany brown, grey, or a patchwork mix of any of these. They can support extreme heat, go for hours without water and will eat just about anything - which is just as well, since this part of Provence is highly exposed to the sun, has very low rainfall and supports minimal vegetation of rosemary, thyme, lavender, gorse and prickly Mediterranean oak.

 

 

The goats love all this - even the thistles - and chomp up the dry, thorny vegetation which allows forest fires to spread. They're a valuable asset in the region, where the Mistral wind can gust at up to 140 km / 87 miles an hour and fires can spread like, well wildfire in the middle of summer.

A goat from Le RoveAs a result these goats don't produce much milk. And, because of the low yield, brousse du Rove goat's cheese is extremely rich in fat content (45%) and low in whey, or petit lait. The milk is boiled, allowed to cool slightly, then white vinegar is added to curdle it.

The curds are retrieved with a slotted spoon and poured into little individual funnels about 12cm / 5 inches long.

Originally these were made of recyclable woven wickerwork; today they're made of less glamorous, but more hygienic white plastic and the brousse is still traditionally served in them.

 

André Gouiran: the Last of the Le Rove Goatherds

The goatherd André Gouiran (pictured) and his brousse cheese featured in this article appeared in the Provence episode of Raymond Blanc's The Very Hungry Frenchman on BBC television in spring 2012.

Andre GouiranHe gets enough for just two to three hundred small cheeses a day - depending on the time of year - which his wife, Marie-Ange, makes in their kitchen.

But their brousse cheeses are a highly prized delicacy and demand always exceeds by far the supply.

"Brousse du Rove has a mellow, fresh perfume with subtle hints of the garrigue, a touch of salt from the sea, and a very fine texture," Gouiran says, in an attempt to describe the cheese's distinctive taste.

He also claims it has medicinal properties. Goat's milk is easier to digest than cow's milk, he says, as well as being more nourishing and less likely to cause allergies. Peasants traditionally gave brousse to sick children.

 

Gouiran - whose name derives from the Celtic for "eagle's beak" - takes his vocation very seriously. "It is a noble profession, a state of being, a philosophy," he says. "A sacred calling."

His current herd numbers about 360 goats, predominantly female, though there is also a single castrated male, known in local dialect as a menon or menoun, which is the mascot for the troop.

Andre Gouiran and the goats of le RoveGouiran's family has kept goats since the early 15th century, as once did every other family in Le Rove. The town even has a goat on its coat of arms and a statue of a goat straddles the little fountain in front of the town hall.

But Le Rove's closeness to Marseille almost destroyed this ancient tradition. As the city expanded, it ballooned into a commuter suburb. By the 1960s farming had been replaced by what Gouiran calls "modernism and formica".

Even Gouiran's own father had given up herding, and was working as a civil servant at the town hall. But in 1977 Gouiran père decided he wanted to return to his old vocation and André joined him two years later.

"I wanted to continue my family tradition," he explains dramatically now. "Even though sometimes it weighs heavy on my shoulders."

He represents the 17th generation of goatherds in his family and since 1986 has been the only goatherd in Le Rove, though his own two sons are following in his footsteps. In the surrounding towns and villages, there are around ten other herdsmen also making brousse.

Like their masters, the Le Rove goats are threatened too. In 1900 there were 4,000 in the town alone. Today there are 5,000 in the whole of France. They are found mainly in the south: because of their large horns, these goats aren't happy indoors - they fight, and those long horns get tangled and damaged - and don't thrive in cold climates.

They can be temperamental, especially when the Mistral wind blows up. But, as Gouiran points out, the local people get cranky then as well.

The Golden Goat FestivalGouiran milks his entire herd by hand every morning at 6am - he briefly tried a machine but soon rejected it - and spends all day with them out in the garrigue. It sounds romantic. But this is a harsh life.

Social outings are short and his time away from the goats strictly limited. At least he gets away in winter for a couple of months to his mountain house in Auvergne, while his sons take over. Then in late January the kids are born and the annual cycle starts again.

He gets frequent requests from people who like the idea of becoming a goatherd, and trained one young man who seemed keen at first but then met a woman who baulked at the lifestyle. "You need an understanding wife," Gouiran says.

He also writes poems and humorous songs praising the beauties of Provence, some of which he has recorded on two CDs. His novel, L'Or des Collines (Gold From The Hills), is set partly in 500 BC and tells the epic saga of a dynasty of goatherds and their "mad passion" for their calling over a period of 26 centuries. Another of his books is a cultural history of goat-keeping.

Insider Tip: The Golden Goat festivalGouiran, who is something of a cult figure in the area, somehow finds time to run the Golden Goat Association (La Cabro d'Or) and organises a festival in Le Rove each October.

At it, he leads his entire herd in a ceremonial procession through the middle of the town (pictured), a local dance troupe, Saboï, dressed as fauns in animal skins, performs mediaeval folk tunes and the obligatory free apéro is offered to all visitors.

Where to buy and how to eat Brousse du Rove goat's cheese

The blue-black local figs, with their supersaturated, dark-red, ultra-sweet flesh, make the perfect partner to brousse, as to other goat's cheeses. Brousse can also be served simply with other fresh fruit sugar or drizzled with orange flower water.

Brousse du Rove served with fresh raspberriesBrousse is traditionally eaten while very fresh, but Gouiran likes to keep his cheese for three to four days in order to allow the flavour to develop.

He serves it either as a savoury with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of fleur du sel from the Camargue, or as a dessert with acacia honey, a raspberry coulis or sugar and brown rum. It's also possible, he says, to dry the brousse cheese and grate it on pasta.

Real brousse du Rove is only available between March and October and you won't buy it anywhere outside the immediate area.

But some cheese-makers add cow's milk - even powdered milk - to the mix to eke it out and supermarkets sell a cheap, gelatinous, cow's milk-based product called brousse that bears only a vague relationship to the original.

 

 

"You find forgeries everywhere," says Gouiran darkly. He has been lobbying for some time to have brousse recognised as an appellation d'origine contrôlée cheese which can only be produced and marketed under strictly regulated conditions. In this case, the goats would have to spend a minimum of six hours a day grazing outdoors and not be given genetically modified feed.

Goat's cheese seller at the market in Aix en ProvenceThe real thing is served in Marseille's high-end restaurants: Le petit Nice, Une Table, au Sud, Les Trois Forts and L'Epuisette.

If you can't afford the hefty bill at any of those, you can buy brousse for a couple of €uros at high-class cheese shops in Marseille such as Fromagerie Marrou and Fromagerie Bataille.

Gouiran sells it from his own home in Le Rove and you can sometimes find it at the grocery in the nearby village of Niolon.

Other local cheese-makers can also often be found at street markets in the region such as the ones in Aix en Provence, Saint Rémy de Provence and Martigues (pictured: a stall selling brousse in Aix) though Gouiran says he doesn't do the market rounds himself.

Where to find brousse du Rove: André Gouiran, 17 rue Adrien Isnardon, 13740 Le Rove. Tel: (+33) 4 91 09 92 33.

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