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We've been walking for ten minutes when Genevieve turns around abruptly and shrieks at the sight of the family's beloved pet cat that's joined us in guiding the goats through a rocky mountain pass. After some fervent urging, the cat retreats homeward and we continue our walk accompanied by Genevieve's partner, her brother who is visiting and one very shaggy mountain dog. More white bear than dog, actually. So here I find myself, a city girl quickly discovering that Converse sneakers are no match for the sturdy, sensible mountain boots on these paths as I cling onto shrubs as we walk downhill and test the loose rocks a few times before committing a step.
When Provençals heard that I had the Provence Verte province (affectionately known as the backyard of Provence) on my itinerary I was met with surprise and a touch of derisive amusement. "There's nothing to see," they said. Then it's nothing I will see, I thought, popping a marzipan-sweet calisson in my mouth. I'm glad I chose to venture out here, as the charm contained in the little villages, bee farms and wineries was far removed from the Provence-experience post Peter Mayle's seminal work, you know, over-trodden by loud tourists swigging cheap rosé. It's here that I got the opportunity to meet Genevieve François, a former chef, and her partner Georges Daniel at the communal farm Chèvrerie Rocbaron, somewhere between Toulon and Brignoles, where they keep goats (amongst other animals) and make a large variety of goat's cheese. Some of the very best goat's cheese I've ever eaten.
We're sitting at the table in the kitchen of their modest home when they explain the terms of the agreement they have with the community they rent the land from. They make raw milk cheese, for sale, accept school groups on educational visits and tend the land in return for using and staying on the land. Lunch is a baked fresh goat's cheese, about a day old, covered in herbs served over a simply dressed astringent leaf salad, and then a large roasted duck. From their farm, naturally. Genevieve takes out an enormous, filled apple pie to cool from the oven, but when she brings out the platter of cheese, I know my choice has been made. Georges, who grew up on a farm making cheese, sneaks some meat to the gentle dog sitting under the bench while Genevieve shares about her very favourite creation. It's a truffle cheese, her son being in the truffle business. I breathe in the sweet scent of fresh truffles - this particular cheese is layered with the finely sliced truffles in addition to being topped with it. If ever there was a day to loosen the jean buttons and be an unashamed glutton, it was today in the company of these gracious goat farmers. That particular truffle cheese is well known in the region.
When I meet with Chef Benoît Witz at Alain Ducasse's L'Hostellerie de l'Abbaye de la Celle we speak about Chèvrerie Rocbaron, and this truffle cheese that he orders often. There are several reasons people return to a destination - friendly faces, peace and quiet, a great wine or food find. If you're happy to negotiate a little of the rustic charm that somes with simple farm living, the Provence Verte holds a number of food gems like Chèvrerie Rocbaron where you can enjoy, even if via a translator, the company of the people working with the animals and making the products themselves. I believe the term the foodies would use in this situation is 'authentic'. It's worth a turn.