At home in Massachusetts our dealer provides high quality product to feed our addiction. A year ago, the state government clamped down on our dealer and ordered her, in the typical legal manner of never using one word when two words meaning the same thing can be employed, “to cease and desist” from what it claimed were her illegal activities or face prosecution. What had been an under-the-table business morphed into an under-another-table-under-the-first-table operation. We continued to get good stuff. But what to do in France, where we had no connections and the law was murky? We gave ourselves a month to find a solution. We could last that long going without, we predicted. It took about six weeks to score, but score we did. Here’s what happened.
But first, a clarification. Sure, we both may have inhaled in the Sixties (that’s Harvey’s age, not a reference to any particular decade), but our serious addiction is to raw, unprocessed, unpasteurized, unhomogenized, straight-from-the-udder-to-the-glass milk. White gold. Vin de bovine. Moo juice. Cream on top. In glass bottles. Milk in which after Bossie gets in the clover in the field, the milk tastes clovery. There is a cohort of true-milk believers at home, people with an almost religious zealotry about the benefits of drinking what they call “real milk” and the harmful effects of what they call “dead milk,” milk that has been pasteurized to kill evil bacteria but in the process also kills beneficial bacteria. We’ve been drinking real milk for years. Sure, we could justify it by citing how we’ve avoided typhoid, beri beri, jaundice and lyme disease since we started on raw milk, so it must be helping us, but there is a simpler explanation. Harvey, who advocated for consumers when the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture tried to even further restrict access to raw milk, was quoted in the Boston Globe as explaining why he drank raw milk. “Its like having ice cream for breakfast,” he said.
The food safety laws in the European Union concerning unpasteurized milk are murky. Raw milk cheeses are permitted, under certain safety conditions. Raw milk sales laws vary from country to country. You don’t see raw milk in food stores. Almost all milk, in fact, is sold in a form we don’t see at all at home, unrefrigerated, ultra-processed into a form that lasts forever, more or less. We can usually find what to us would be normal, refrigerated – but pasteurized – milk hidden away in the store. But raw milk, never.
Until today. We’ve entered a new canal, the Canal des Ardennes, heading west along the northern border of France, south of Belgium. Just north of where we are the Battle of the Bulge, the last German offensive of World War II, was fought. Patton’s tanks crossed this canal to relieve surrounded U.S. paratroopers. Villages are farther apart. And we are rarely our of sight of a cow. Sandra continues her bovine census of France.
We tied up last night in Malmy, a town with a handful of residents, a thousand-year-old Roman church and a top flight restaurant, where the special of the evening was a word we hesitated to translate, “pigeon.” We woke to a chilly downpour. But we had our first guests on board, John and Linda from Portland, Maine. Linda had been a classmate of Sandra’s at language school in November. Morning meant breakfast and breakfast, of course, meant croissants. Harvey donned his raincoat and trudged down the road into the village, searching for the boulangerie.
Alas, Malmy had but four houses, a magnificent church, and the fancy restaurant, which was actually in the next village, Chemery-sur-Bar. None of the five residents were on the street. That is, until, like an apparition from a Tale of Two Cities, an old woman trudged through the downpour, a woman who Central Casting would have produced for the role of “peasant.” She stared at Harvey, who was neither Jacques nor Pierre, the two men who lived in town. Then she smiled and greeted him with a cheery bonjour. He offered what seemed to him to be a perfectly phrased question as to whether there was a possibility that this magnificent and beautiful village, which boasted such an ancient church and was located near a restaurant of international renown, might possibility contain a boulangerie. She looked confused and replied with our best known response, “je ne vous comprends pas,” meaning, “I don’t understand you.” All was lost, alas.
But wait, all was not lost. In her gnarled hand she grasped the handle of a metal pail. A white towel covered the pail, protecting its content from the rain. Could it be? Harvey asked, pointing, to offer a substitute means of communication, “is that milk?” “De cour,” of course, she replied, pulling aside the towel and revealing the real stuff. “C’est le lait cru?” Is that raw milk? “he asked. “Oui,” she said, in a friendly and warming manner. This was becoming an interesting, or at least, odd conversation. She walked toward her house and opened the door. Harvey followed. “Where can one buy raw milk?” he asked, or at least thought he asked. This caused an oddly puzzled expression to cross her face. Was this man an imbecile, she may have thought. Why is he bothering me, perhaps. “A la ferme,” she mumbled.
Now, this could have several meanings. She might have said that Harvey’s thighs were firm and she was inviting him in for a glass of milk. More likely, however, “ferme” was a farm, and only an imbecile would think milk came from someplace other than a farm. That this second meaning was what she’d said was made more probable when she pointed down the road, where a house and a barn – and a tractor – were located. This was big. This could be the score. He thanked her.
Harvey returned to the barge, sans croissants, but loaded with news. Sandra responded with passion, donning her own rain gear and, joined by Linda, trotted to the farm. She knocked on the door and was met by a burly man she’d spoken with the evening before, as he sat on his tractor. Can we buy milk, she asked. Of course, he answered and invited them into the kitchen, where his wife was at the table, a table that was what our “French Farmhouse Reproduction Table” from Crate & Barrell had been reproduced from, a table whose top was butter smooth from who-knew how many generations of meals. Discussion followed. Sandra and the woman walked to the dairy barn, where the cows had just been milked. Empty 2-liter plastic bottled water bottles were stacked on a shelf. The woman took two bottles and dipped them into a tub of milk, filling them. She handed the bottles to Sandra and asked if she wanted any eggs. Bien sur, of course. The chickens were shushed aside and two dozen eggs were produced. They returned to the kitchen, where the farmer was showing Linda photos of their son, who worked on a nearby farm. Overlooking them from the wall was the mounted head of a tusked wild boar. The farmer proudly explained how he’d shot the boar. The head was on the wall. Three-hundred pounds of boar bacon was in the larder.
Back on the barge, the eggs were fried for our breakfast and we toasted our success with glasses of lait cru, real milk. Later that morning, we motored past the farm and received a big wave from the door.
Encounters like this happen constantly. They are the true adventure.