It was a cold Monday morning, overcast and threatening rain as I peddled across the Loire River. The town wasn’t quite awake yet, but I was on my way to the train station where I would board another two trains to take me to my destination.
I was going about it a bit blind. For my final paper, I have to visit the towns that make the famous AOC goat cheeses of the Région Centre: Valençay, Saint Maure de Touraine, Selles-sur-Cher and Pouligny de Saint Pierre. One of them wasn’t accessible by train, another took three trains, so I took a stab in the dark and decided that my first visit would be an easy one. I’d go to Selles-Sur-Cher and have a look around.
Selles-sur-Cher is both a cheese and a town. The town is situated on the River Cher (like the singer), a tributary of the Loire. It’s major claim to fame is its cheese and a very small château that is part of the Châteaux de la Vallée de Loire, though not as famous as its cousins Blois, Amboise, Chenoncaux etc.
Selles-sur-Cher the cheese is made from goats’ milk and was given appellation status in 19.. It’s round, it’s short, it’s a soft cheese, recognizable for the wood-fire ash sprinkled around it before the aging process.
I was off to discover what I could first hand, taking nothing more than one of the winery’s old bikes and a vague idea of where I was going and what I might find when I got there.
Despite France’s obsession with cheese – no two are alike – the towns where these cheeses were first produced and named after are often nothing more than small villages surrounded by farms and in this case, goats. Selles-sur-Cher claims to have 3,000 inhabitants, and the town center has little more than a few pharmacies, bars and restaurants.
And one massive church for such a little place.
On the Monday I arrived, right around noon, I expected to find at least a few people out, on their way to lunch or returning to their homes after running some errands. But the streets were near deserted. I hopped off my bike and walked around the town square. I noticed that the few other bikes parked next to the bar were not secured by a chain or any lock. That’s the kind of world I had entered into – a place where everyone knows everyone because there’s so few people to know.
Needless to say, nothing was open. Not only had I arrived at lunch time, Sundays and
Mondays in France tend to be the unofficial weekend for commercial activities unless you’re in a big city like Paris or Lyon. I had been half expecting this, but it was still a shock to experience just how quiet these rural villages can get when they aren’t expecting visitors.
I found an open pizzeria for lunch. Nothing extraordinary, but it was indoors and they offered a pizza with Selles-sur-Cher the cheese on top. The servers inspected me closely when I pulled up on my bike. Who was this strange woman, all alone, with a distinct and ear-splitting American accent?
Other customers wandered in, most from the town. A couple pulled up on their bikes. By the look of their clothes and their gear they were tourists taking a detour from the Loire à Vélo – a bike trail that takes people from one end of the Loire to the other with convenient detours to gastronomical centers and cultural points of interest along the way. I was happy to no longer be an object of fascination; the servers were occupied by talking with their friends, though still attentive and the pizza wasn’t half bad. But the wine by the glass was a Côtes du Rhône. Côte du Rhône? In the middle of Centre? Where’s my Pinot Noir and Pineau d’Aunis?
After lunch, I took a look at the Tourism Office, which was supposed to open at 2. I parked my bike by the river, and found a bench by some ducks. Who were immediately interested in seeing what I had in my bag.
I texted my husband to tell him if I didn’t make it back to Saumur and he never heard from me again, that he’d find my bones by the ducks on the River Cher.
He wrote back saying he’d send the cats to my rescue.
But did I mention how cold it was? I was cold. Freezing. Shaking. Wishing I had brought gloves and a hat, even with a belly full of pizza and wine. So I got up from my seat, unlocked my bike and toured around the city until the Tourism Office opened.
When they finally did, 15 minutes late (I was about to give up and go home) the woman gave me a bit of the information I needed for my research, which sadly wasn’t much given the size and attractiveness of the village, and then happened to mention there were two Producteurs de Fromage Selles-sur-Cher only 4km from the center of the village. One was closed on Mondays, but the other was open and according to her map, fairly easy to find.
I excitedly took the offered maps, pamphlets and cheese information, shoved them into my backpack and started off to the outskirts of nowhere.
Nothing but me, the fields, and the sky. And some trucks.
Easy to find yes. But she failed to mention the massive hill that I had to huff my way up, legs burning, bike creaking, in order to get there. The farm of Noël Péré was quiet when I arrived, with no sign of activity. It was nothing more than two buildings and a house across the road. I poked my head inside one of the buildings and the dark brown eyes of a bunch of goats , interrupted during their lunch stared back at me. When a dog started barking, alerting his owner to an intruder, I wondered if I should stay or if I should head back… I had arrived without any warning and there was no reason for anyone to expect me.
As I was about to get on my bike, a woman greeted me from the house. Though she wasn’t expecting me and said she had to leave for an appointment soon, she took the time to tell me a little about the farm, the goats and the cheese. I left with just enough information to help my project along and a block of Selles-sur-Cher goat cheese direct from the farm.
There’s something special about a cheese made from a local producer. There’s an extra creaminess to the texture and a freshness to the taste that supermarket cheese just don’t have. While it might make a few people cringe to say that you can taste the goat, that taste is there. The grass the goats have fed on is in the milk and the milk doesn’t travel very far – just across a road – to be made into cheese. And when it’s a smaller production, the fromagier can really concentrate on perfection. This Selles-sur-Cher had a wonderful dense, yet soft texture and a nutty flavor and its freshness was delightful with a green salad.
That was the end of my day-trip. I rode back to the train station, through the little town on my way, noting that though the sun had come out, the streets remained empty. All in all it was a five-hour trip – due to SNCF’s inability to be on time – and I thought to myself as I waited at the tiny train station, “This was a long way to go for some cheese.”