In Marseille, Head to the High Rises to Get Your Cheese Fix

In Marseille, Head to the High Rises to Get Your Cheese Fix

I’d been given a mysterious cheese tip: a true dairy delicacy was said to exist in the heart of the housing projects, in the northern neighborhoods of Marseille.
December 31, 2015, 9:00pm

Brousse cheese was born in Provence, and the Lubéron region has its banon. In the Bouches-du-Rhône department, however—where I happen to live—good cheese is about as rare as fans of Paris Saint-Germain. Luckily, I'd been given a mysterious cheese tip: a true dairy delicacy was said to exist in the heart of the projects, in the northern neighborhoods of Marseille.

Urban legend has it that over there, at the foot of the high-rises, there is a farm, and that around this farm there are cows and goats that graze quasi-freely. All of this, supposedly, on a small patch of greenery in an unlikely setting. That was enough for me—and it's how I found myself, with my casein receptors on high alert, heading on an expedition to a neighborhood that tends to get press coverage for its drug busts rather than its specialty cheese.

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The Tour des Pins farm, in the Merlan neighborhood. All photos by the author.

Once I got there, I met Marie Maurage on her 15-acre organic farm, nudged in between the hills and the grey buildings that stretch out as far as the eye can see. Marie is a kind of asphalt agriculturist, who lives a farm life on city time. I barely got the time to meet Jojoba (her faithful companion) before I was swept up in the whirlwind of her hectic schedule. It was 10 AM, time to ladle the cheese by hand without a minute to spare. Marie works at a nonstop pace, producing around 2,400 cheeses per month all on her own. "Take off your shoes and find a place to sit. You can ask me questions and after that we'll have lunch. I prepared a small selection of my cheeses for you," she explains, putting forth the cardinal rule of life on a farm: effort before reward.

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Marie produces more than 2,400 cow and goat cheeses per month, all ladled by hand.

Despite her easygoing appearance, her big blue eyes, and her playful laugh, Marie is strong as nails. As one can imagine, it takes a good amount of courage to decide to move here alone.

"The first time I set foot on this farm, I thought it was extraordinary, and incredibly lush and green. Until then, I'd thought of the northern neighborhoods as shriveled-up land," she recalls with a smile. And she's right: it smells like hay, the chickens are cackling, the geese are grooming their feathers, and the cows are grazing. It's easy to forget that we're in the shadows of public housing towers. Agricultural production stands out like a UFO in these surroundings, where one's eyes struggle to establish a perspective among the vertical architecture. Yet Marie has found one with her 15 green acres, where goats and cows roam practically free. The Tour des Pins farm had been city property since the 1980s. Marie took it over less than a year ago with a long list of projects in mind, and a strong will to do something positive in this neighborhood, where new initiatives are usually difficult to launch.

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"My friends were really surprised, even skeptical, when I told them I wanted to set up shop in Marseille… It was a far cry from my previous life, where I managed a farm in Briançon [in the Hautes-Alpes]. I looked more like Heidi then, perched up in the mountains! I'll admit that it's an improbable project in an improbable city—but that contrast is what I like about it."

I want everyone to be able to eat well and to eat organic. You shouldn't have to eat a bunch of crap just because you're poor.

She sought out this kind of diversity here, in a city she describes as "culturally rich," where she has since come into contact with kids who are discovering—in some cases for the first time—what dairy production entails. They learn how to perform various activities on the farm.

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Cows and goats that help you see beyond the metal bars: This is Marie's main objective.

"This farm is here for the children! I want to show them that there's more than just concrete outside their home. Nonetheless, this will remain a real farming operation—I'm not going to turn it into a zoo where people come to pet caged animals!" With her little green lung, Marie hopes to breathe new life into her neighborhood, and show the rest of the city that it's possible to spread a positive message and revitalize neighborhoods that are so often the target of negative remarks. A return to nature and to simple values can help lighten the load of stress that these children experience in their daily lives: "They leave here with the newfound discovery that it's possible to eat differently. I want everyone to be able to eat well and to eat organic. You shouldn't have to eat a bunch of crap just because you're poor! In fact, those rich bobos piss me off!"

It's sending a positive message, and showing that we can evolve and do things differently, no matter how 'rough' the neighborhood supposedly is.

After ladling her cheeses and cleaning up her workspace, Marie invites me to have lunch together at her place, in a house located right above the farm. "Make yourself comfortable. In fact, go ahead and get the salad ready and set the table while I change clothes," she tells me, staying true to that "effort/reward" dynamic. The breaks in her work day are rare, sacred times, and it's as though she used my visit as a good opportunity to delegate a few of her daily chores—which is fine with me, considering how tasty our meal is looking.

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The livestock includes 40 goats and three dairy cows, including two Jersey cattle.

At the table, where we share a meal of home-grown vegetables accompanied by her own cheeses, she tells me about the hardships of agricultural life, and the difficulties she's had in finding qualified personnel to help her. She also briefly discusses her personal life as a "lifelong activist." "Organic farming is a global vision of life," she says while describing her lifestyle.

As a matter of fact, several times a week she puts on her militant hat. She heads the Organic Association of Provence, which promotes local organic agriculture and the farm-to-table movement. "The two go hand-in-hand. If you're only eating local, then you're supporting farmers in your region rather than starving others on the other side of the planet, and that's great—but you're not doing anything for the environment!"

Yet ever since I landed in this green oasis nestled in an urban landscape (read: a polluted landscape), I can't stop asking myself: How can agriculture produced in the middle of a city possibly be organic?

"So just because you live in a city, you can't farm organic? Atmospheric pollution exists everywhere! In Briançon, we would see big black clouds coming in from Turin and there was no wind to chase them away!" Marie retorts, a bit annoyed. "We've been feeding such crap to city-dwellers that now, whenever there's a product that actually lists its provenance, they're all over it." The demand is there, and is constantly growing, as evidenced by the steady increase of organic farms, CSAs, and farmer's markets.

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"There's a million things to do in Marseille, with all the undeveloped farmland, all this cultural wealth… We could lead by example and turn the city into a model of food sovereignty." Marie seems to have fought her whole life for the right to healthy, sustainably produced food. "Doing this here, in these neighborhoods, sends a positive message: It's about showing that we can evolve and do things differently, no matter how 'rough' the neighborhood supposedly is."

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Marie could probably move mountains by the strength of her convictions, but her project will still need others' support. That said, when you consider that she's already having an impact on young minds with her cheese production alone—in an isolated place where we've sequestered entire populations—something tells me she's on the right track.

Marie's delicious cheeses can be purchased at the pedagogical farm of the Tour des Pins, 2 traverse Cade, 13014 Marseille. Telephone : 04 91 63 26 68. This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in October, 2015.