Many years ago I won my Girl Guides’ dairymaid badge. To earn it I had to milk a cow by hand and assist in a dairy parlour. So when random holiday googling revealed that the world’s largest dairy museum was to be found in France, all that remained was to mould our summer plans around a visit. Lactopôle, Cité du Lait (as it is called) is located in Laval on the Mayenne river and that has a cycle path, so I was able to sell the holiday as a cycling adventure rather than a museum pilgrimage.
One day in 1933, André Besnier collected 35 litres of milk and made 17 camemberts, they sold and he made more. So popular where his cheeses that he set up a factory. By 1968 his son had not only expanded the business but come up with the President brand. Now the company is the world’s largest dairy group with factories in over sixty countries. In the UK they own Rachel’s Organic. The original factory now houses the museum. You start your visit with a tour that takes in every step in the production of camembert, from the arrival of milk to the final wrapping of the cheese.
Not content with making vast quantities of cheese, Monsieur Besnier set about assembling a collection of all things dairy. Milk churns, butter churns, butter pats, cheese labels and even a formula one racing car sponsored by Parmalat (the Italian dairy business now owned by Lactalis). All of this is lovingly displayed in the next section of Lactopôle. Who knew that so many different types of butter churn existed?
You end your tour with tasting some of the many cheeses made by the company before emerging into the shop where you can buy said cheese. Lactopôle is one of those places that insist you take a tour. They do do tours in English but you need to plan ahead. We just arrived and tagged along with a French tour, they gave us an English translation to read and that was fine.
While we were in Laval we stayed at the Manoir de Rouessé, a formerly grand house that is being lovingly restored by its owners. It has turrets and winding staircases perfect for the Junior CW’s. More about our cycling tour later.
18 rue Adolphe Beck, Laval, France
Open: Daily in the summer holidays
Admission: Adult €10, Family ticket €25