Photo of the milk machine in Chalon-sur-Saone, Place de l'Obelisque near McDonalds.

            What's black, brown and white and moos when you push the buttton? One of my favorite food landmarks in Chalon-sur-Saone --it's the automatic milk distributor in the center of town.  The machine is near the Obelisk commemorating the 1778 construction of the Burgundy Canal du Centre. The milk is creamy and smells delicious. This is the real thing: whole, raw milk, straight from the cow to the spigot. It's fresh, it's fun and it's locally-produced with a delivery system that is sustainable, ecological and economical. I take this milk in my morning coffee, and this milk makes the very best vanilla custard I've ever tasted.--I'll share my recipe below. At first I was afraid to drink raw milk without boiling it first, but my son downed glasses of it with no ill effects. (This is why I had kids--to test my food for toxins.) A liter of milk costs 1 euro, roughly 50% cheaper than supermarket milk. Here is a video of my husband and kids buying the milk--it's a festive outing and kids love it.

go to milk machine video on Facebook

            Last week I accidentally met one of the two owners of the magical milk machine. He lives less than 4 miles from this distributor, and he fills it every morning with fresh milk. He sells an average of 100 liters per day between the two machines he manages. Last Friday I took my clean empty glass bottle and headed for my machine.  When I arrived, there was an older couple fiddling with the controls, looking frustrated. They told me they had put in a euro coin but nothing happened. I proceeded to try all the usual tricks, pushing buttons, banging like Fonzi on the "Happy Days" juke box, and finally adding my own euro coin, thinking it would push theirs down and start the process. Finally I gave up and called the mobile number listed on the machine "In case of breakdown call Fabien or Bruno".  Fabien answered on the second ring, and after I explained our predicament, he told me he'd be there in "five minutes."  I should have translated that to the French "as soon as I can." 15 minutes later, I knew many interesting facts about the gentleman sharing my vigil and his companion.  He was born in France of Polish immigrants. He had been  a soldier in Algeria and a coal mining superviser in Montceau, a town 30 minutes west of Chalon. His daughter got married last year to a policeman.  His wife died five years ago. This was the first time he tried to buy milk from a machine, and he was deeply disappointed.  He seemed skeptical when I told him I had been using this machine for years without a problem.

            "It figures," he said, "Just my luck."  He had some sort of difficulty with his car registration at the sous-prefecture today, so he felt he was having a run of misfortune.  I thought to myself that a war veteran and retired coal miner probably knew more than me about runs of misfortune. He had a short exchange in Polish with his pretty blond companion. 

            He glanced at his watch and sighed, and announced, "No one is coming, I'm not waiting anymore." Perhaps years of disillusionment with authority had given him a bad feeling for private enterprise. Maybe he didn't trust someone who would sell milk from a machine, as if they were ashamed to look you in the face. I begged him to stay a few minutes more.  I was afraid it would look suspicious if I was here all by myself. I whipped out my cell phone and called Fabien back, but got his brother, Bruno.

            "Fabien's on his way, he'll be there any minute," he said. I glanced at my companions and thanked Bruno.

            "He's held up in traffic,"  I said, "He should be here any minute now." I could see my companions were dubious, and they waved their hands in dismissal, evidently thinking me naive to believe that excuse. 

            "They're not coming, he probably forgot and just left now." I sighed, thinking that 'Solidarność' was indeed a remnant of the past. I'm American and gullible,  and even more importantly, I'm from Wisconsin, the dairy state, so I defended the farmer.  

            "I'm sure he just got delayed," I said. "The traffic from Lux, where the farm is located, is really bad right now due to a highway construction project," My companions shook their heads at my inexperience, and urged me to go home, not to waste my time. I had better things to do, they told me. I shook my head and held up my bottle stubbornly.

            "I put my euro in that machine, I want my milk!"  The man pressed a coin in my hand, and gave me his empty bottle.  

            "Go home, it's cold! Come back later!"  He was sweet, but I was obstinate.

            "I want to stay here and make sure the machine gets repaired," I said, "someone has to be here to testify and to make sure nobody else loses a euro."

            They refused to take back their euro, and smiled and waved at me as they walked away. Sure enough, not even 5 minutes later, along came a white van with a photo print of the milk machine emblazoned across the side. It pulled right up on the sidewalk adjacent to the machine. The milk cavalry was here! Beaming a huge smile, a small, energetic young man hopped out of the car and came over to shake my hand and apologize.  

            "Traffic was terrible!" He was in a hurry, and walked straight to the machine, whipping out keys and deftly opening the entire front panel on the machine like a carnival ride. I watched as he tinkered with the mechanism over the coin collection box. He removed several small copper coins that had clogged up the gears. He didn't grumble, but listened as I told the story of my companions dropping in a euro, my trying to help, and their insistance in leaving me.

            Fabien told me the machine has never really broken down, but he's had problems occasionally with the coin slot getting clogged when instructions were not followed and users inserted light copper coins or even plastic tokens. The machine is also equipped to take payment with a special USB key which is sold alongside the clean, empty bottles. I prefer the satisfaction of dropping my euro coin in the slot, because it reminds me of those giant gumball machines I yearned after when I was a kid.

            Soon the machine was unclogged and working. Suddenly I had a strange feeling and I looked up,  spotting my companions pulling up right beside us in a red car.  I indicated the empty parking spot next to the machine, motioning for them to pull over and get their milk.  They smiled but pointed straight ahead; they didn't want to stop.  The light turned red so they halted, and I ran up to the car window as the gentleman rolled down his window.  I indicated the farmer and told them the machine was working.  Did they want some milk?  I could get them a bottle if they'd just wait 2 minutes. 

            "No thanks, we'll try again next time." he said.  He accepted the euro and the bottle reluctantly.  

            "The machine was clogged with tiny copper coins," I explained, "people don't read the instructions."  My companions waved and smiled; perhaps they still thought me an utter idiot. That's okay. I was filled with the happy thrill of the machine working again, and satisfied that my innocent faith in farmers and new technology was justified.

            I filled my bottle, listened as the machine mooed and felt at peace with the universe.

Video of Bruno Boireau and his cows!

Vanilla Pouring Custard 

--serve this instead of whipped cream with any dessert

1 liter whole milk

1/2 split vanilla bean

3 egg yolks

1 whole egg

1 tsp cornstarch

1/3 cup sugar

1/4 tsp salt

Better if made 24 hours ahead.  This can be a tricky preparation, so read the instructions completely before starting and be prepared to watch over and stir continuously while it cooks.

Pour the milk in a saucepan and add half vanilla bean split down the length.  Heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally.  When the milk is steaming but not boiling, turn off the heat and remove from the burner.  Cover to keep hot.

Mix the salt, sugar and cornstarch in a mixing bowl.  The cornstarch works as a thermal buffer to prevent the proteins in the eggs from cooking too quickly, and will help you keep the sauce smooth as it cooks. Add the eggs to the sugar mixture and whisk or beat briskly for 5 minutes, until the mixutre becomes foamy and turns a light lemony color.  

While continuously whisking the eggs,  pour a stream of hot milk over the mixture. The gradual heat and constant movement will firm the proteins without destroying them, so the eggs don't curdle.

Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and turn the heat to medium. Settle yourself in for 15-20 minutes of constant stirring. An instant read thermometer is helpful. Heat the mixture to 77°C or 170°F while stirring.  It will feel 'too hot' to the touch, but not boiling. Remove from the heat quickly when it reaches temperature. Visually it will begin to coat a spoon like English double cream.  If you're nervous, fill a bowl or sink with cold water in case you need to suddenly cool the mixture. If you see it getting thick, plunge the pan in cold water to stop the cooking.

Chill the pouring custard in a nice pitcher for 12 hours at least, and serve over cake or pie as you would whipped cream.