The life of a cheesemaker extraordinaire by Andrea Ratuski

The life of a cheesemaker extraordinaire 1Claudine Vigier owner of La fromagerie du Comtat shares her love affair with cheese and the magic behind an award-winning artisan.


We are overwhelmed by the heady aromas as we enter La Fromagerie du Comtat in the centre of Carpentras, the boutique decorated festively with milk jugs. We are in the heart of the Vaucluse, with the white-capped Mont Ventoux looming in the distance. The glass cases in the shop are loaded with every type of local goat cheese imaginable, aged comté from the mountains, fragrant blue cheeses.


The life of a cheesemaker extraordinaire 2This is the domain of Claudine Vigier-Barthélemy who in 2009 was voted best cheesemaker in France.

“The heart of my craft is selecting the cheese, aging it and transforming it,” she says, her broad smile winning me over immediately.


Beneath the tiny shop is a cellar where she ages her cheese. (There is also a cellar for the special wines she sells). There she washes a nutty Beaufort mountain cheese with a mix of water and salt, enhanced by aromatic herbs. She ages a blue- veined Fourme des Dentelles de Montmirail with Muscat wine from nearby Baume-de- Venise. During winter she inserts slivers of black truffles (tuber melanosporum) from nearby Mont Ventoux, into a woody and resiny Vacherin de Mont d’Or.


Locals and visitors from afar come to taste the special cheeses she ages from around the country as well as the goat cheeses chosen from just around the corner.


"We really have a signature on our cheese!" she says. Vigier claims she was destined to be a cheesemaker. "It wasn’t me who chose my vocation, I’m just naturally called towards milk and the making of cheese," she explains.


Her father was also a passionate cheesemaker and the young Claudine enjoyed spending Sundays with him. Whenever he offered her a taste and saw her smile, it gave him great pleasure. It was about sharing, eating well and good times. "I keep that memory of him, it’s brilliant!" she says.


Her grandparents were cheesemakers and she recalls helping out by filling pails of milk. She found the transformation to cheese mysterious and enticing.


Also sharing a touching story about her mother, who was born near Mont Ventoux, very prematurely, during the war. She was so tiny, she was placed in a shoebox filled with cotton, placed near their three goats, for warmth. And because she was so premature she was fed goat’s milk. Miraculously, she survived.


"One could say my mother was saved by the goat!" she says. "Then I was born to dedicate my life to say thank you for that. It was thanks to the goat milk that we are all here — my mother, me, voila. I pay homage emblematically every day to milk," she says.


Vigier also insists that the Vaucluse has absolutely the best terroir in all of France for making goat cheese, fromage de chèvre. Herds of goats roam in the garrigue, that scrubby landscape full of wild herbs, where they feast on a huge variety of plants, giving the cheese its complexity. Cheese is made traditionally, following the natural cycle of the animals and of the seasons. The animals are given no hormones and they let nature take its course.


Her boutique displays goat cheeses in all stages of ripeness, some absolutely fresh, some oozing unctuously, some coated in herbs or ash, some hard and crusty, good for grating on salads.


Remaining dedicated to her base in Carpentras. "These are my origins, my culture. When I was young I came to the market in Carpentras. I grew up with the rhythm of the seasons, the rhythm of the harvest." Just like the goats.


During her brief "holidays" she enjoys spending time with colleagues making cheese, such as gruyère, digging her hands in, meeting the people, being in contact with the animals, understanding the magic of the cheese she sells.


"It’s made by people who have such passion that they reinforce my own." "I’ve really dedicated my life to cheese. When I touch it I feel something that fulfills me." And like her father, for Vigier, it’s all a part of sharing, eating well and good times.


La Fromagerie du Comtat
23 Place Maurice Charretier
84200 Carpentras