The Goatherd Poet of Le Rove
Meet the cult figure who tends goats, writes verse and produces a Marseille culinary delicacyFeatured September 11
ANDRÉ GOUIRAN ADJUSTS HIS JAUNTY FEATHERED hat and prepares to recite one of his latest poems. He's on a deserted, windswept hilltop just 19km from Marseille, but he could be in the middle of nowhere. Here, in the arid, starkly beautiful garrigue (scrubland) of southern Provence, the midday sun blazes in a bright blue sky, the Mediterranean shimmers in the near distance and, as Gouiran declaims his ode to an olive tree, his audience bleats an appreciative accompaniment.
In fact, all the audience can do is bleat, because it is made up of 360 Le Rove goats. Gouiran is their keeper, but he's also far more: a self-proclaimed poet, novelist, singer and all-round local cult hero, in his spare time he writes verse and humorous songs praising the beauty of Provence. The rugged hills man has even released two audio CDs and written a novel on the subject. L'Or des Collines ("The Gold Of The Hills"), tells the epic saga of a dynasty of goatherds -spanning 26 centuries - and their "mad passion" for their calling. All very impressive, you may think; but the 51-year-old has an even more formidable skill. Gouiran and his wife, Marie-Ange, also produce a goats' cheese called brousse du Rove. Served only in Marseille's best restaurants - Le Petit Nice; Une Table, au Sud; Les Trois Forts and L'Epuisette - it is celebrated for its particular mellow flavour and is a highly prized delicacy.
Indeed, goats have been a fi rm fixture in the region for some time. Gouiran's breed arrived from Mesopotamia in 600BC, when Marseille was founded, and Le Rove even has a goat on its coat of arms - a mark of the fact that since the early 15th century, many local families, including Gouiran's, have kept the animals. However, since 1986, Gouiran has been the only goatherd in town. He takes his vocation very seriously. "I was a rebel, like Eric Cantona, when I was young," he says, "but later I wanted to continue my family tradition, even though sometimes it weighs heavily on my shoulders."
The goats are threatened too. In 1900 there were 4,000 in the village; today there are 4,000 in the whole of France. Because of their large, curly horns, Le Rove goats aren't happy indoors - they fi ght and the horns get damaged. However, they can tolerate extreme heat, go for hours without water and will eat dry, thorny vegetation that would otherwise allow forest fires to spread, a valuable asset in a place where the wind can gust at up to 140km an hour.
As a result, a Le Rove goat doesn't produce much milk. Gouiran - who milks his entire herd by hand - gets enough for 200 to 300 small cheeses a day, and demand always exceeds supply. So, what's so special about it? "It has a mellow, fresh perfume," he says, "with subtle hints of the garrigue, a touch of salt from the sea and a very fine texture." He likes it either as a savoury with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of sea salt, or as a dessert with acacia honey or raspberry coulis.
You won't find it outside the area, though some producers add cows' milk to eke it out. "You find forgeries everywhere," says Gouiran darkly. He is lobbying to have brousse recognised as an appellation d'origine contrôlé, so it can only be produced under strictly regulated conditions.
If you can't afford a hefty restaurant bill, you can buy brousse at two cheese shops in Marseille: Fromagerie Marrou (2 Boulevard Baille, tel: +33 (0)4 9178 1768) and Fromagerie George Bataille (25 Place Notre Dame du Mont, tel: +33 (0)4 9147 0623), or from Gouiran's home in Le Rove (17 Rue Adrien Isnardon). Or, even better, you could sample it at the annual Fête de la Chèvre, held in the village on 22 and 23 October, you'll also be able to see Gouiran in the flesh. As he does every year, he will lead his herd through town and give a speech on the beauties of brousse and the goatherd's life - this time to an audience that will be able to appreciate the poetry.