July 5th, 2016 – It has now been about a week since my arrival back in the U.S., and about 2.5 weeks since the end of the microbiology and culture of cheese and wine course. Looking back on the two weeks we spent in Burgundy, virtually every day was filled with interesting experiences – excursions to salt mines, stables, farms, vineyards, and wine cellars – as well as lots of learning about French culture, (in my case, a decent amount of French language), microbiology, and biochemistry. Reflecting back on this two weeks, I also realized that there were many experiences that really made this trip authentic – such as visiting the wine cellar at Bouchard Père et Fils winery, visiting both small and large cheesemakers, and visiting local churches – and that I would not have been able to have many of these experiences if I were traveling alone (of if I were able to, I would not have understood the culture and significance of these experiences). Overall, this course made me realize the importance of food, both to French culture and to myself, and I feel that this course will make me take the quality and taste of my food more seriously in the future. It has also inspired me to think more about where my food comes from, and about the significance of having a group of people in one area pass down a certain traditional food over many, many years. I would highly recommend this course to anyone who enjoys food and French culture, particularly if he or she wishes to dive deeply into an authentic French experience in a short amount of time.
On June 11, 2016, I woke up around 9:00AM and made my way over to the Cluny town square to meet up with some of my classmates and to purchase a few items in the market held there every Saturday. The remainder of the day was free, so I went back to the hostel in the morning and worked on my final projects and daily log until around 2:00 PM. After that, I again walked to the town center to hear some live music and enjoy a cool drink at a café. About an hour and a half later I made my way back to the hostel (grabbing a baguette along the way), and then made myself a sandwich and a bowl of cereal (with fresh, unpasteurized milk) for lunch. After laying out in the sunny, grassy field at the hostel for a while, I went inside and added a few details to my final projects. Then I decided to go out for a run on the local walking path called the voie vert.
On June 12, 2016 (the last full day of our study abroad program), I woke up around 9:00 AM and looked over my final presentations. Then I went down to the classroom to chill the wine and warm the cheese that would be used for my presentation at 2:00 PM. Soon enough, the time arrived to give our presentations. The diversity of the cheeses and wines presented were quite staggering, and I thought that overall we did quite a good job of matching our cheeses to suitable wines. With the stress of presentations behind us, we put on some music and relaxed for the remainder of the afternoon.
On June 13, 2016, We woke up early to catch a bus to the TGV station in the nearby town of Mâcon. Once there, we said farewell to Dr. Haggblom and boarded a train to Gare de Lyon in Paris as a group. Once in Gare de Lyon, I again said farewell (this time to my fellow students) before returning to the home of a family friend in the 17th arrondisement in Paris. Later that evening I traveled to Orly to catch a plane to Prague in the Czech Republic, where I stayed with my cousin for 4 days. While I was there, I visited many of the historic sites of the city, traveling almost everywhere by foot. When I returned to Paris, I again met up with my family friends in the 17th arrondisement and stayed with them for the remaining week before my voyage home on the 25th of June.
On June 9th, 2016, we climbed aboard an 8:00 AM bus to the Jura, a legislative department of France which lies in the mountains northeast of the Burgundy region (and also the region from which the Jurassic era takes its name). Our first stop was Salins-les-bains, a medieval town which became very wealthy by extracting salt from natural saltwater springs there. We descended into the salt mine and watched a 150 year old pump (which was powered by a water wheel) work to bring brine 246 meters from the underground salt spring. After a delicious lunch nearby (including wine made from local chardonnay grapes), we made our way to a place called Montigny-les-Arsures. Here, we visited a vineyard where Louis Pasteur used to grow grapes for use in his experiments on the fermentation and preservation of wine in the mid 1800’s. Next we went to Arbois, where Pasteur grew up and spent most of his life. After checking into our hotel in Arbois, we walked a mere 200 meters to Pasteur’s former home. Inside this small, but impressive museum, everything has been kept more or less the same since Pasteur lived hear more than a century ago. Even his laboratory – complete with chemical flow hoods, sealed flasks of beef broth sterilized more than 120 years ago, and even one of his famous sterilized swan-neck flasks – still remains completely intact and virtually untouched in this museum.
After exploring Pasteur’s former home and laboratory, our group walked over to a different part of Arbois for a wine tasting. There, we sampled wines from across the Jura. First up was a Crémant rosé – a type of sparkling wine, and then a Ploussard – a grape variety with a thin red skin grown in the Jura. Next was a Savignin – a peculiar tasting wine which ages for years untouched in oak barrels, where a layer of yeast protects the wine from oxidation, and then finally a Macvin – a young, sweet wine that has been prevented from undergoing much fermentation by having brandy or Marc added to it early during the winemaking process. This was the first wine tasting where I didn’t enjoy every wine we tasted. The Crémant rosé was probably my favorite, as I found the Savignin too heavy and strong-tasting for my liking, although it did have an interesting flavor. The Ploussard was light and almost tasteless, and the Macvin was far too sweet and syrupy.
After our wine tasting we went back to the hotel to rest for a short period and then walked down the road to a local restaurant, where we had a 4-course meal as a group. Although the food was delicious, I was full by the start of course 3, so I ended up skipping course 4 (dessert). However, I did have a spoonful of ice cream from one of my classmates plates, and it was also quite delicious. After our meal we walked back to the hotel and went to bed soon thereafter.
The next day (June 10th, 2016) we woke up at 7:00AM. After a shower and a quick breakfast, we checked out of our hotel in Arbois at 8:00AM and climbed aboard the bus once more. Our next stop was the Cooperative Dairy in the town of Morbier. On our way from Arbois to Morbier we snaked through mountain roads and passed steep limestone cliffs and deep, lush valleys. We also saw a fair amount of Montbéliard cows (a special breed raised in this area to provide the milk used to make the local cheeses), particularly as we approached the Morbier dairy cooperative. After arriving at the cooperative, we watched workers add rennet to baths of milk to facilitate the curdling process. While the milk curdled, we watched a short film detailing how this dairy operates to produce about 13,000 cheese rounds a year, each of which weighs about 40 kg (88 lbs). After the curdling process and the short film were complete, we watched workers drain and press the curds in stainless steel molds.
Then, we went next door to the aging rooms, where 9000 of these 40 kg cheeses sat on wooden shelves cut from local spruce trees. Inside each aging chamber, cheeses of different ages were kept at various temperatures. In addition, some of the rooms used misters to raise the humidity to match that of a natural cave or underground cellar.
We then returned to the main building to purchase some cheeses and other items for our picnic later in the day. I bought a half kilo of 12 month old Comté cheese, a hard cheese which has a smooth, creamy texture and a complex, distinct flavor. Next we hopped into the bus once more and made our way to the village of Baume-Les-Messieurs, which is nestled within a river valley and flanked by gorgeous limestone cliffs towering hundreds of feet above the town.
At Baume-Les-Messieurs, we visited an old church and former abbey, where the man who founded the Cluny abbey has his origins. Then our group drove a short distance along the road and stopped to have a picnic near a beautiful waterfall.
On Monday, June 6th, our group prepared for another excursion. We all climbed aboard the bus at 8:30 AM to travel to the Fromagerie Gaugry (The Gaugry Cheese Factory) in Brochon, France. This impressive industrial cheese factory creates thousands of cheeses per day, including Époisses, Soumentrain, and other famous washed rind soft cheeses.
Washed rind cheeses are unique in that they are rubbed by hand with a brine, brandy, or wine solution during ripening. This process provides extra moisture to the cheese, thereby promoting the growth of bacteria such as Brevibacteria linens, which gives this cheese its characteristic orange color. After viewing the production line through glass windows, we made our way to a small dining room area where we tasted some of the cheeses that had been produced in this facility. By varying the solution they were washed in, the amount of ripening, the qualities of the milk used, and other parameters, the Fromagerie Gaugry was able to create a wide variety of cheeses with subtle flavor variations. I enjoyed the Soumantrain the most, and luckily our host remarked that this cheese is available in the United States under the name Saint-Soleil. One of the other cheeses had a consistency much like that of cream cheese, and our host mentioned it had about a 75% fat content, while others had a strong aroma reminiscent of straw or a cow barn. After tasting these cheeses, I also purchased a Sainte-Maure de Touraine AOP goat cheese to try.
After our wine tasting we made our way to a local park to have a picnic. I had a smoked salmon sandwich with cheese, onion, and lettuce, accompanied with a glass of red wine.
Next we visited the Clos de Vougeaut, a famous locality in the region of Cote de nuits (itself within the region of Burgundy) which consists of about 50 hectares of Grand Cru and Premier Cru (i.e. the first and second highest designations of French wine-producing regions, respectively) vines, which are enclosed by a stone wall (i.e. clos). This clos used to be owned by a local abbey in the early 1700’s but was sold off to local farmers after the French Revolution. Today, this land produces some of the most expensive wines in Burgundy, if not the whole world. We also viewed a nearby chateau which used to serve as a vacation home for the local Abbot. Today, it has been turned into a museum and banquet hall. In the museum section, our group looked at 18th century wine presses, and as we passed the banquet hall, Dr. Healey mentioned that an international fraternity of wine conisseurs meets here each year for a formal dinner.
Next we continued on to a nearby plot of vines to meet a local Frenchman who makes a living by plowing vineyards each spring. However, unlike most wine makers in the region, this man tills the land the old fashioned way – using a horse-drawn plow. By doing so, he was able to control the weeds that would otherwise compete with the grapevines, while also ensuring that the soil remains aerated and uncompacted. As he explained, using tractors and other machines to perform such tasks causes compaction of the soil and expels air from the soil, thereby limiting microbial growth. Using the horse drawn plow, on the other hand, results in minimal soil compaction and much less damage to the precious 50+ year old grapevines.
The next day (June 7th) was spent inside the classroom at our hostel learning about Wine Grapes, Wine making, as well as the Phylloxera aphid, powdery mildew, and other grapevine/wine pathogens. We also discussed genetically modified organisms, the role of chlorinated aromatic compounds (which Dr. Haggblom studies) in the flavor of “corked” wine (i.e. wine which has been exposed to oxygen via a compromised cork). I learned that some microbes, including fungi, can increase the toxicity of chlorinated aromatic compounds by methylating them at an aromatic hydroxyl functional group. This causes them to become much more nonpolar, allowing them to bioaccumulate in fat deposits within the body.
The following day (June 8th) was also spent inside the classroom. On this day we learned about preservatives/preservation, pickling, vinegar, salt mining and production, wastewater treatment/biogas production, whey as an aqueous biological feedstock/wastewater byproduct. I learned that some organisms are able to run the citric acid cycle in reverse (with some minor variation to bypass the irreversible steps) in order to fix CO2 into organic carbon.
On Wednesday, June 1st, we had our first full day of lecture in the classroom at our hostel. Professor Haggblom gave an in-depth lecture about the biochemistry of fermentation and detailed the various strategies microbes use to make energy in different environments. Glycolysis, the citric acid cycle, the electron transport chain, the mitochondrial hydrogen ion gradient, and various other topics were discussed in class. I learned that there are two other important glycolytic pathways in some prokaryotes in addition to the EMP/fructose(1,6)BP pathway that I normally think of as glycolysis.
The following day (June 2nd) our group took a bus trip to the city of Beaune, where there is an old domaine (A estate and associated chateau which makes and collects wine) that has an extensive wine cave. This cave, which lies below the fortified stone walls of an 18th century chateau, houses about 2 million bottles of wine. Assuming each bottle is 750mL, this would mean that there are about 1.5 million liters of wine, or just over 375,000 gallons of wine stored within this cave. Our host, named Charles, also brought us to a special room which held the private wine collection of the chateau owner. The oldest bottles of wine in this section were made in the 1830’s, and therefore are more than 150 years old. During WWII, Charles explained that this room had been concealed behind several false walls in order to protect this priceless wine from seizure by the Nazis. After walking for a while through the halls of this immense cave, we eventually made our way into a wine tasting room which was just below ground. Once we were there, we tasted six different wines, 3 red wines, and 3 white wines. Charles also mentioned that the most expensive of the white wines that we tasted, a 2011 Mersault, typically costs about 50 Euros per bottle.
After the wine tasting and cave exploration, our group walked a short distance into the town of Beaune to eat lunch. I broke of with a group of 3 others and the 4 of us had a delicious 4-course meal. First, as an entrée (meaning an appetizer in French), I was served a green salad with hot goat cheese on toasted bread. Next up was the main course, which was tender rabbit served with mixed vegetables and fried potato slices. After eating lunch, I went into a wine shop and found an interesting white wine called Saint Bris. In class, we had been told that all white wines made in Burgundy were either made with Chardonnay or Aligoté grapes, but it turns out there is one exception to this rule. On the back of the bottle it said that this wine was made in Burgundy and that it was made with Sauvignon Blanc grapes, so I asked the store clerk in French if this was indeed the case. He replied that this was the only wine in the region that used Sauvignon Blanc grapes, and I was intrigued and decided to buy it.
Soon thereafter the group climbed back into the bus and we made our way back to our hostel in Cluny. Once back, I changed into a t-shirt and shorts and went for a short run around Cluny, this time in a circuit around the main town.
The following day (June 3rd) was also spent inside the classroom. During this class we again delved deeply into the biochemistry of fermentation, with a particular emphasis this time on the fermentation of cheese. Professor Haggblom explained the various chemical reactions that give strong cheeses their characteristic odors and tastes – including deamination of amino acids, decarboxylation of amino acids and other biological molecules, and other chemicals produced by the bacteria and fungi that inhabit the rind and pâté of the cheese. He also explained how some cheeses ripen from the inside out, while others ripen from the outside in. At the end of the day, I had eaten lots of cheese and bread without doing much exercise, so I decided to go out running once again. I repeated the same loop I had done the day before, but with a slight detour near the end of the circuit. Later I went out with a small group to grab dinner at a middle eastern kebab restaurant.
On Saturday (June 4th) there was a large street market that was set up within the old abbey of Cluny. Vendors selling all kinds of goods – including fresh fruits and vegetables, prepared food, meat, cheese, clothing, and other items – set them out onto tables in the mid-morning. Our group spent a couple of hours walking from stand to stand and purchasing various items. After lunch, the open air market was dismantled and our group met up once again to go to the nearby horse stables in Cluny. Originally established as a means of breeding horses for use on the battlefield, these stables have been owned by the French government since the time of Napoleon. Today, although these horses are no longer used in battle, this property is still owned by the state and is used as a museum, equestrian arts center, and repository for rare and endangered horse breeds. As our tour guide brought us through the stables, she detailed the horse breeds and explained what each horse was bred for. Some of the horses were better suited to pulling large loads, while others were bred for high-speed racing. In either case, many of these breeds were in danger of extinction. While at the stables, we also saw an equestrian arts demonstration, in which one of the employees at the stables explained how she is able to train the horses for live shows. Working with a miniature horse named Yoki, she demonstrated the various commands that are taught to all horses which perform in live shows. Yoki was able to run in circles, back up, speed up, slow down, and perform many other actions at her command. After this demonstration, we made our way as a group back to the hostel and relaxed for a bit. Meanwhile Cluny had become alive with the students and families of the local technical school, who were having a ball gathering and gala inside the old abbey. We watched as well dressed students in tuxedos and red dresses descended upon the old abbey, and the bars and restaurants began to buzz with activity.
On Sunday, June 5th, our group had a free day to ourselves. I slept in until 10:00 AM and then the entire group went out to get omelets for brunch. I had an omelette au fromage (with cheese), with a green side salad, while others chose french fries or omelets with ham instead. Afterwards, we walked as a group to a local nature path called the voie verte. Once there, we split into 3 groups. Myself and 2 others decided to walk along the path, while 4 others decided to wait until a nearby bike rental shop opened. 2 others decided not to travel on the voie verte at all, opting instead to take a bus to a nearby chateau. Walking along the voie verte was both calming and peaceful. Along the way, we observed the scenic landscapes and diverse organisms around us, including rolling hills, burbling brooks, horses, donkeys, cows, snails, mushrooms, wildflowers, and lizards. The others passed us twice on their bikes – once when they were going in the same direction we were, and once after they had turned back to return their bikes. After that we turned around and returned to Cluny to purchase baguettes for lunch. Then we returned to the hostel and relaxed for a while. The sun also began to shine, so I decided to sit out in the grass for a while and drink some of the Saint Bris I had bought a few days earlier.