Friday mornings of late have seen me striding across the dew-speckled fields to La Geyrie, a neighbouring hamlet. This is the home of Louise and Peter Dunn, organic goat farmers who moved here from England way back in 1989.
On damp mornings a misty haze swathes the yellow limestone houses of Maumasson to the west, on others the early morning sunlight glances their orange roof tiles. When I arrive, Peter or Louise will already be at the wooden shed where the goats overwinter, setting up the milking machine and cleaning out the food troughs. I change into wellies and a boiler suit and trot down the lane to the shed.
Louise and Peter have been farming goats since 1990. Other farming activities such as pigs and raspberries have come and gone but the goats have stayed. The herd, begun with 35 females and two males from the UK, has now grown to around 70. The Dunns have always farmed organically as a matter of strong principle, whether certified or not. In 2000, when the dairy they were supplying was planning organic lines, they re-registered for organic certification. The dairy was taken over and the plans disappeared in smoke but happily another dairy came along who now buy most of the Dunns’ milk for organic goats’ cheese.
Having experimented using the back bedroom in a gite as an ‘haloir’ (curing room), in 2008 the Dunns built a cheese room and gained organic certification to produce and sell their own ‘chèvre‘ (goats’ cheese). Since 2009 Louise has been selling the cheese. From the creamy, tangy ‘frais’ to the pungent, matured ‘cendrée’ with its ash-grey coating. She now sells to Biocoop in Périgueux, part of France’s largest organic retail cooperative, as well as organic food cooperatives and local markets.
Louise and Peter are considered part of the community, to the extent that Peter, with his avuncular white beard and twinkly smile, performs the rite of Santa’s gift giving ceremony every year at the ‘salle des fêtes’ (‘village hall’) in Cercles. They are ‘royalty’ among incomers, having stayed for over 20 years and made a success of it.
Peter tells me it was his experience working in Algeria for six months, where he spoke French, that made him feel comfortable about the idea of living in France. That and the property prices – when Peter first saw a property advertised in the Guardian in the mid-eighties, he thought there was a nought missing and rang to check the price. But it was as advertised and the Dunns set out on their quest for a French farm. They fell in love with La Geyrie, nestled in fields bordered by oak woods and hidden from the roads, yet only two kilometres from the village of La Tour Blanche.
In the goat shed, Peter is energetically forking hay into the feed troughs along each side of the goat pens. I take over from him and then release the goats who will be milked first, hooves clattering up the ramp to the milking stalls.
At this time of year, in the middle of kidding, every goat bears coloured markings on the hind quarters. Those with blue markings are not being milked at the moment, so they are kept in the pen, but the goats with pink markings need to go first and get more feed. The trick is to herd the goats with the same markings together so they are not missed or sent in twice.
Thor the collie dog loves to help out by yapping at the goats as they dawdle back into the barn after milking. Otherwise he lies on his belly and watches the bantam hen and her chicks adoringly, or slurps milk leftovers with the farm cats.
After milking we sit in Peter and Louise’s homely kitchen and share a croissant warmed in the Rayburn with a cup of freshly brewed tea. Louise tells me the house has changed little since they arrived, although they did have to replace the ‘charpente’ (timber roof frame) on the barn. The electrics, which were done with telephone wire, have been updated since but little else has changed.
This is what gives their two gites such character (and why they have been listed in Alastair Sawday’s self-catering guides for 12 years). One is a converted ‘pigeonnier’, which is a traditional stone built dovecote and a typical sight around Périgord.
Louise counsels me that to survive here you need to learn to “roll with the punches”. After 23 years her proudest achievement is that her two daughters, who were six and three when they arrived, have turned out so well. Louise feels that growing up as ‘foreigners’ and being bilingual has given them an edge. Both are scientists and one recently qualified as a vet in France.
As I leave, Louise hands me a round of chèvre frais and a pack of delicious organic goat meat – my booty in exchange for the milking help.