Southern France in fall has proven to be very beautiful. The leaves are changing, the weather is mostly mild and the fruits and vegetables are a gorgeous mélange of autumn hues.
While the slow shift of seasons is similar to what we were used to in the U.S., the decided lack of fall marketing is quite different. The stores here aren’t filled with plastic pumpkins and silk leaves to create that perfect fall look at home. The cafes don’t hawk pumpkin drinks or pumpkin treats. There are no “pop-up” Halloween shops. In fact, if it weren’t for the changing leaves and cooler mornings, it would almost feel like summer never ended.
I’ve come to terms that this year we will not be going pumpkin picking or to any haunted houses and the only pumpkin treats we’ll get to enjoy are those I make from the ingredients I brought back from the U.S. Instead, we decided to embrace fall in France with open arms, starting with a tour of a dairy farm in Montauban.
Montauban is a gorgeous old French village about 45 minutes north of Toulouse. A group of us decided to go up there together this past weekend to have lunch and visit La Ferme du Ramier, a family-owned farm where they make their own cheese (and other dairy products).
None of us had been to Montauban yet, so we were all pleasantly surprised to discover a red-brick town perched on the bank of the Tarn River. The city is the second oldest bastide (fortified town) in southern France and dates back to 1144.
We parked and walked through the narrow streets lined with shops and restaurants to head to the place Nationale (central square). The square is lined on all four sides with arcades (17th century arches and walkways) which used to provide shelter for market traders. It was quite lovely and reminiscent of a similar square we’d seen in San Sebastian.
We grabbed lunch at one of the little restaurants on the square and took our time to enjoy the company, scenery and gorgeous day.
Unfortunately we didn’t have time to walk around and explore after lunch as we had to be at the farm by 4:00. La Ferme du Ramier offers walk-in tours only on Wednesdays and Saturdays at that time, so we didn’t want to be late.
From Montauban, we headed out into the countryside; the homes grew further apart and buildings gave way to trees and rows of grapevines turning autumn hues.
We pulled up a bit early at the farm (they started the tour promptly at 4:00), so had to wait a few minutes. Luckily there was a pen with farm animals (including a hissing goose, a fuzzy little chicken that I never could get a good picture of, a black pig and a friendly donkey) that entertained us for a bit.
It ended up being a bit less crowded than I expected (especially compared to U.S. pumpkin patches and apple orchards in the fall), but a couple more families eventually showed up. At 4:00 sharp we began our tour.
The first stop was a small barn where we were shown a movie (in French) about the farm and cheese making process. Though we understood perhaps every third word, we knew enough about cheese making to follow along.
We then went back to the pen with the farm animals, where we (and the children) were given an opportunity to pet the pig, sheep and donkey.
Next we were taken into the bigger barn on the property and were able to see all the cows. There were baby cows (just days old), teenage cows and mama cows who went on their own into the milking stalls.
The milking machines were very impressive. They are fully automated and use lasers to identify the teats and line them up with the milkers. The machines operate 24 hours a day and the cows make their way into the machines on their own.
From the milking pens, we turned around and were able to look into the room where the cheese is made.
We then went into the cheese cave where filled with floor to ceiling rows of the aging dairy product. It smelled very strongly of ammonia, so, even though I adore cheese, it was only possible to stay in the room for a few minutes.
Finally, the piece de resistance! After seeing where and how the cheese was made, it was time to taste the goods. We tried each of their four cheeses and a little bit of their fresh milk. The cheeses were all pretty tasty and ranged in firmness (mild to fairly hard) and pungency (mild to quite strong). We opted to buy a cheese of medium firmness and aroma and a Raclette (the perfect cheese for melting into gooey goodness).
Once everyone in our group had loaded up with cheese and other dairy products, we piled back into our cars and headed back into Toulouse. It was getting a bit late, so we agreed to meet up after dropping off our goodies and walk to a restaurant. For some strange reason, we were all craving burgers.