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Spring Nibbles

Spring is here, sort of. This being Michigan, a common vision is a pile by the door of muck boots (or wellies), clogs, sneakers and flip flops. I’m never quite sure what to wear when I get up till I sample the chilly (or warm) air with my nose barometer (rather pointy and apt in this capacity). It is a given, that mornings are friskier than mid-day. Or, normally this is so. So I pull on my goat jeans (a might sprinkled in a day or two’s milk and dust), a long sleeved shirt and a couple sweaters – with the option of removing layers as needed. The rare morning calls for a hat and scarf, such as today, May 15th!!!

Yes, there was snow on the ground when I got up. SNOW! Then it sleeted tiny white pellets, a sprinkle of rain, and now the sun is shining gloriously. In France we would call it une journée de giboulée IMG_1004

But back to the goats. The mini-herd is currently comprised of five adult females and their nine offspring, five doelings and four bucklings. The last will be heading off to friends soon to be nourished through to fall, and then to fill their freezer. The kids came in two batches, one cluster in early April – predominantly does – and the second cluster three weeks later, on a full moon, 24 hours after an atmospheric shift to cooler, misty weather – predominantly bucks. As my dear Isabelle told me so many years ago now, generally by the end of a kidding season, you’ve nearly even numbers of girls to boys. And so it is.

Since early May the short goat walks have become long days on pasture. The pasture isn’t particularly lush or rich here – in fact a good chunk of it is on sandy land where clearly the past owners scraped up the top soil and sold it off. But there is sufficient greenery to put out two strands of flexible electric fencing, and keep them there for 6-7 hours, nourishing them enough to lower hay costs. They are moved daily.

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DSC_0167.JPGDSC_0184.JPGMoms are the best teachers for what is edible, as well as a naturally curious and sampling nature. Water is now a drinking option as well, though mother’s milk when within reach is often sought.

DSC_0158.JPGTime permitting, after a day on green grasses, a walk through the woods is in order, exploring what tempts. In this, the spring season, that list includes: young maple leaves, young beach leaves (and the smaller leafy treeish bush beneath it – reminds me of huckleberry leaves, though far taller), and ground cover plants including this one, Dutchman’s breeches. IMG_0983

IMG_1022IMG_1018There’s another single waxy green leaf they nip at in passing, pushing up through the ground beneath the firs, in the same spots where later in the summer there’ll be a lush crop of poison ivy. IMG_1013

They are avoiding these spottled trout lilies and in general the trillium blossoms (though a kid will nip a white flower or two with no ill effects). Wild leeks are only barely poking their heads up, they may or may not go for them.IMG_136720080420TrilliumTrees_730x5835645194348_f63fec694c

With freshening season now safely behind us, as well as high winter and the hard labor of barn-cleanout (3 days, 27 man hours), these once docile does are now lithe and powerful, determined and focused. They know where the grain is stored, they are most adept at slipping between legs and pushing out into the aisle when we enter to refill water buckets, etc., Winter was strenuous only in the refilling and carrying of water buckets. Spring is physical in a completely different way.

In their current temporary digs the physical systems are lacking, eg. no specific post-milking area; a make-shift kids’ pen of old pallets that requires daily tweaking.

It is time to start weaning the kids from their mothers, or at least separate them at night so a decent quantity of milk can be collected in the morning. But without the requisite structural elements, success is still a wistful concept. Amused as I am to find them happily with their moms in the morning, I sigh when I remember the care with which we’d locked them in the night before. I’m in one of those moments where I know what is needed, but must be patient with what is there.

Baby goats – theories…

DSC_0078  Well it’s spring, and that means baby animal season, and in my case, baby goats, kids. I’ve been caring for a mini-herd this year, and have relished the time and space to observe them, to test theories, and to learn.

DSC_0087Following my Provence colleagues’ recommendations on feeding regimens, we stopped graining the does during their gestation, feeding them top quality hay with a high blend of alfalfa, ample amounts of mineral-rich kelp, and a cap-full of organic cider vinegar in their water. As often as was possible through the winter, they were taken out for walks, guided to fallen oak and maple trees where they quickly dispatched the dried leaves, and to pines and firs with branches and needles within reach.

As the season progressed, and their bellies enlarged, no longer were they up on their hind legs going for the high branches. So I would bend the branches down to them. Their caretaker, their shepherd.

They were put back on a very small amount of grain – 1/2 1/2 barley and a non GMO goat blend – three weeks before they were due to freshen. Currently, they get 1 cup a day, of the blended grains and kelp.

So far, they’ve freshened without difficulty, all are healthy, coats, hooves, eyes, energy. In tip top shape. They’re not fat, but then again, I don’t seek for them to be. I want the coats sleek and shiny and their eyes clear, their step light.

DSC_0046As I was advising colleagues out East, seeking sources for their starter herd of doelings, I learned – after calling and writing to over 20 colleagues on the East Coast and in the Mid-West –  that the vast majority of those whose herds freshened in March had bucks. “It was a buck year,” they all said. They couldn’t even fill the advance orders for doelings they’d received.

Contrarily, the does I’ve been caring for, as well as does from a friend’s herd nearby, have been throwing girls. But these have all freshened in April. As of April 1st (or thereabouts), I believe there’s been a shift.

DSC_0066This convergence of events always gets me thinking about elements we don’t normally take into account in our rational/scientific world. Many herd managers, aiming to limit the intense and stressful period of kidding, do their utmost to have their does come into heat together and kid around the same time. And, in areas where winters are rough, we aim to kid in March. (Back in Provence, it was more typical to aim for a February kidding season).

To cluster births we keep the earliest born – in general, their mothers came into heat quickly, and thus, their easy fertility proven, are desirable. We also use teaser bucks – getting the hormones flowing in the does and bringing them into heat by putting a good smelly yet sterile buck in with them, before presenting them to the chosen stud. And we work with a ratio of 20 does to one buck. And divide our herds into sub groups. Light therapy, and hormone therapy are not unheard of, particularly for those working with Artificial Insemination.

DSC_0035I prefer the low tech option, simply putting the buck with the does – calculating out five months for when I could imagine being able to care for babies, when having milk makes sense, observing the best cheese sales’ periods – , leaving him with them for a couple of months, and trusting him to do his work. Colleagues back in Provence, with herds of 45 – 70 goats – would have only one buck for the older does, and a yearling for the year’s new additions. One buck can certainly work his way through a large herd, but it will take him longer, and perhaps this is desirable.

Isabelle used to tell me that by the end of kidding season, there were nearly equal numbers of doe to buck kids. Often, a season would start out dominated by one sex, and then finish up with many of the other. “Nature is perfect” she would say.

DSC_0089And so, this brings me back to my current theory. Between the “buck year” of my colleagues and my plethora of does, we had a powerful shift in lunar cycles. The full moon of Easter. And, five months ago, when all these does were bred, then too there was a shifting of lunar cycles. Before that full moon it was a dominant buck period, after it has been a dominant doe.

So, going forward? is this information/theory helpful? I believe straddling two cycles would assure a good number of does, even if it did mean extending the kidding season for the farmer. It’s time to study the moon and work with it to time breeding and kidding. I believe I’ve at least one colleague who’d be open to working on this project with me.

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Truffles, Foie Gras and a Week of Decadence in Provence

Winter is on the horizon. Not to fear. This has a special meaning to me:

– a break from making cheese &

– a trip back to my home in Avignon.

While there, I’ll be offering a course on Truffle hunting, Preparing your own Duck Confit and Foie Gras, and Exploring the decadent joys of Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines and great Chocolates in my former (and on-going) role as a cooking teacher and culinary tour guide in Provence.

With chef Erick Vedel at my side to guide us through the varied preparations – think foie gras mi-cuit, smoked magret de canard, duck-fat fried potatoes, truffle risotto, truffle omelettes, and truffled home-made pasta…..,

One week of glorious winter foodie decadence in Provence,

January 24-January 31

Early morning truffle markets, Provençal language murmurring softly as the transactions flow from seller to buyer. Anywhere from 250Euros a kilo up to 800Euros a kilo depending on demand, quality and quantity. What will this season bring? Luckily for those who accompany me late winter is the best time for black truffles.

A little known fact is that Christmas and New Year’s are times when truffle prices are pushed way up for the festive holiday diners, but in fact, the truffles are rarely at their best. The knowledgeable gourmet awaits late winter, when the air is still chilly, but the sun is out, the ground a tad firm but not soaked with early spring rains. It is the moment the truffles come into their peak flavor, and often, the prices have lowered due to less demand.

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I can still take a few more people with me. Our favorite local B&B in Avignon, run by lovely Béatrice still has room as does my touring vehicle and kitchen. The Euro to US Dollar rate has been favorable to the Dollar this year, so I’ve been able to lower the price per person to: $2975 all inclusive, or a special 10% discount for 2 who travel together: $5355.

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So, come farce your fresh fowl with truffles. Take the grater, and the chunky truffle and shave as much as you like over your lightly poached eggs with still warm brioche on your plate. This is your time to indulge!

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We’ll join our master truffler as he heads through a grove of twisted black oak trees, following an eager and excited dog seeking out that elusive yet potent scent. A happy yelp, quick digging with his strong front paws, and out comes a black nugget of flavor. The potent aroma of the truffle invades the dirt surrounding it, and wafts up to you standing close by.

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To accompany our feasts and travails we’ll taste some of the great wines of the Southern Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Vacquéyras… We’ll spend a morning at multiple wineries savoring a vertical tasting of these grenache heavy blends. Strawberry jam? Russian leather? smooth and fruity? spicy and dense? chewy tannins? a touch of barnyard? herby Garrigue notes? These and more may come to you as we swirl, sniff, and swoosh in our mouths. And as I’m driving, just enjoy. No need to spit.

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And to enliven conversation and share our feasts I’ll invite some of my favorite artisans to join us at the table.

Oh it’s going to be a wonderful and special week. And likely the last time for a good long while that I’ll be able to offer these tours. Once I start my next creamery, I’ll not be able to get back to Provence for more than a couple weeks here and there. So, if you’re tempted (and I hope you are!) this is the time to book your tickets (during the least expensive period of the year) and come !!! Looking forward to hearing from you: Winter Truffle Tour 2016

Many Little Steps to an Award

IMG_9009So many moments of learning, creativity and serendipity come into the creation of a cheese.

Take the Idyll Gris, aka Grand Gris, aka Layered Ash Cake as an example. FYI the version with Provence Style Black Olive Tapenade  won 3rd place in the All Milks Flavor Added category at the American Cheese Society 2014 annual conference awards in Sacramento, CA. This is a big field — think of all the flavored Goudas out there! – so we are super proud and beaming at this honor.IMG_1587

In its first incarnation it was a large lactic cheese made on a whim and aged with a creamy white rind. At that time, beautiful and runny and delicious as it was, I offered it to a favorite local chef for his restaurant, (Chef Myles at Trattoria Stella here in Traverse City) and we baptized it the Grand Blanc.

Along the way, Hélène Tormo advised me on how to work with our molds (designed for hard cheese) when using lactic curd, so that the curd drained properly and smoothly.

I then started experimenting with ash, and took this relatively short but large and runny cheese the next step, aging it to a silvery perfection. Thus, the Grand Gris.

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Many in the cheese world have seen the lovely Humboldt Fog from Cypress Groves – a lactic goat cheese with a perfect black line of ash in its middle. I chose to do something similar, but in a very artisanal, imperfect and artsy way. The result was a lovely bright white curd with a silvery, gray rind, and a dramatic bleeding black center – unevenly spread across the middle.

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I made one or so of these cheeses every two weeks, and they became a regular item on the chef’s cheese menu. Occasionally I would experiment with how I handled the curd, how large/high I made the cheese. It ages completely differently depending on size and depth. So this was fun for the palate.

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And then I got to thinking of possible variations on this theme. Back when I lived in Provence my children’s father would make a marvelous black olive tapenade. This became a house staple, somewhat like mustard or ketchup in another’s house.

Isabelle Laguitton, my much adored early “all things goat” mentor, used to make a number of little stuffed cheeses for restaurants, and one in particular she would stuff with tapenade. She did it very carefully, smoothing the rind so that nothing spilled out, and the rind grew over the cut edge, hiding the evidence of the hidden savory layer inside. She told me that these two flavors (tart lactic goat cheese and black olive tapenade) went so well together as they are both fermented, and something happens when you marry them, they meld into an elegant unit, each supporting the other, but neither dominating.

Happily, my fellow culinary spirit Rose Hollander makes superb tapenade.

Hence, the next and final step was clearly before me – putting a layer of tapenade rather than a simple layer of ash between my two layers of lactic cheese. The first one went out to restaurants – and rather surprised Chef Myles as he’d been expecting our classic Black and White version. (In those early experimenting days, I didn’t always label each lovely silvery round). The response was positive and encouraging. Onward.

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Thus, last fall, as I mulled with my assistant Melissa over which cheeses we would submit to American Cheese Society competition, I kept coming back to this combination, and the elegant presentation of the layer cake. Yes, many others have done something that had a similar presentation (another colleague had won an award a preceding year for a layer of paprika through the middle, quite lovely). But after all, how many ways can you incorporate outside flavors into a cheese? It’s either mixed in, or on the surface rind, or in the middle.

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In this photo you see the 3 variations we’ve been making this year: Sundried Tomato Pesto, Wild Leek Pesto and Black Olive Tapenade. Together with Melissa, I worked towards this goal – making this cheese weekly, in double and triple batches so that we’d have a perfect one, perfectly ripened to send off for the competition. I wrapped this fragile round carefully and lovingly, sent it off, and… the night of the awards I received that glorious text “we’ve won! 3rd Place for Idyll Gris! And a photo of the ribbon. Yeah!!!

So Much to Tell — Thank you Claudine

So much to write about. I’ve really let time get away. But then can’t I deny I’ve been hugely busy. Babies have been born, more aptly called kids. Enormous bellies and distended udders have released over 25 pounds of flesh and bone and a gallon of colostrum. Imagine carrying all that! We could nearly hear those joints creaking.

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Today’s total is 37, but there are more to come. Still four does to kid of the 28 who were bred.

But for two who’d been bred before we purchased them, our does seemed to carefully time the arrivals of their little ones to the appearance of Claudine Espigue, my very dear and supremely competent and generous goat cheese maker from Provence. For many who visited me in my last incarnation as a tour guide of culinary and wine delights in Provence, you may remember her and her wonderful cheeses. Well, she has just sold her herd and retired, in time to be able to make the trip across the Atlantic to assist and coach us as our does kidded.

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Somehow, amidst all the confusion of the fall breeding season, we were able to collect our gestation estimates and get her here all the way from St Martin de Crau just at the right time. I picked her up at the TC airport at 11pm on Sunday night and Monday at 5AM we received our first of a dozen calls to come that a kid was on his way. In fact that first one went quite well. A doe of two years birthed two beautiful bucks (one I very much want to keep for future breeding). Image

Over the next week and a few that Claudine was at my side we were called in at 3AM, midnight, 9:30pm, 7AM, noon… from our beds, from a friend’s house, from the creamery (where we’d begun to play with milk and whey). Each of our team got a chance to work with Claudine by their side. We had a few very difficult births, a couple even had sad endings (two still born boys). Yet having the experience of a life-time and the calm presence and great humor of Claudine alongside us  transformed those moments from terrifying to profound learning.

With the help of some dear friends who invited us over, her time here was not only work – Claudine is now quite convinced that Michigan harbors some superb cooks, fantastic local cuisine, beautiful homes and pretty darn good wines. She’s discovered the joys of Muck boots, walking atop an iced over beach, jeep rides along a snowy bluff, and daily snow storms. Her cooking lit up my home and warmed our tummies. Where did she get all that energy to cook when I was perpetually pooped from all those short nights?

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It is now two weeks since she returned to a far warmer corner of this world (and far greener, no doubt she’s eating asparagus and strawberries as I write this!). From fifteen kids at her departure the number has more than doubled. Each member of the team has had his or her moment of glory and we’ve a pen full of the most beautiful kids as proof.

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With the kids comes milking the does. And with the milk of the does comes making cheese. And with the kids comes the need to feed them on a punctual and regular basis. And with all this comes lots of things to keep clean, be they swept, shoveled, power-washed or scrubbed. And with that making of cheese comes cleaning molds and pasteurizing and washing and turning and flipping and tweaking all those wonderful cheese caves we’ve put in our creamery. Image

Thank you Claudine for helping me inaugurate our creamery with your cheese skills and flavors. And thank you to so many for this very very full and fruitful kidding season. It is our first with our full herd together, our new team in place, and our building pretty much ready to roll. Onward and upward.

What do they eat?

One of the great joys of spending time with farm animals is to simply observe them. There are many enumerations of  the herdsman working intently as he/she leans on a fence post at the edge of a field.

IMG_0472Observing is one of those passive/active activities that has led to discoveries and knowledge forever after in the history of man. We use such marvelous adjectives as “astute” with “observation,” and “careful, thoughtful, patient.” Putting myself into this role gives me a chance to be present, out of my head, into a universe of basic and complex weaving.

In my Waldorf Teachers’ training we gave a Western philosopher, writer, scientist, humanist’s name to this way of looking at the world. Goethe. In his treatises on color, sight and plants he offered up tremendous learning through observation without judgement, prejudice or anticipation.

And so, when I walk with goats in the woods and pasture, I observe. It is fall. What are they eating? When? What do they prefer? Where do they roam if I stand still?

IMG_0508Heading out from the barn in the morning, when the dew is still on the grass, we go to the woods first. Hungrily they nip at the lower Beech leaves, the Sugar Maple saplings along the ground, and the packets of Oak leaves, recently dropped from the majestic trunks beside us, brought down by the weight of the acorns and the West wind blowing through. Beech is preferred to Maple. Oak is sought out and leads them further from my side.

IMG_0470And then, as we move further into the woods, we come across a long needled fir (Douglas?) and they gobble up the needles, the tender branch points, and stay there for as long as I permit, reveling in the resinous virtues of the pine. Intellectually, I remember that pine has antibiotic properties, and what else? I will seek further into the vitamins, minerals, and more that these different plants carry at this time of year. I imagine the cooling of the weather is also bringing out sugary flavors, as it does in our root vegetables.

Heading closer to the pasture, we come across thickets of golden rod, already gone to fluffy seed heads. They nibble the yellowing leaves, standing there at ease reaching for these plants that are just below head height.

Grass and low growing plants are not desirable in the morning hours. They don’t like the dew. They avoid eating wet plants in general. And you’ll never have an easier time getting them back to the barn than on a rainy day! Fair weather friends they are.

IMG_0516For those who dislike the invasive Autumn Olive, goats are your ideal pet. They will nibble leaves, tender shoots, and completely strip a tree in minutes. I find these on the edge between woods and orchard, along the dirt roads, by a friend’s tennis court.

I’d been told that they’d eat Poison Ivy. And yes, I’ve seen them nibble it a bit. But either it’s not a favorite, or they prefer it young and tender in the spring. In any case, they’re not making much of a dent on the lush growths of it that I bring them to, preferring the leaves of the nearby beech, fir and maple.

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Clipping with Goats

I’m heading off to help a friend trim back hooves on their goats tomorrow. Once you’ve a skill in your hands, it must be used. Thus, reprinting this old post from my past life in Provence seems apt. Six years ago in September 2009 – another time, another place, but always, my faithful dog Filou by my side.

I ran a bit late this morning — somehow, cleaning up breakfast after the kids, kneading the bread for a second rising, and?? brushing my teeth? just took more time than they should have. Thus I wasn’t out the door till a full 30 minutes after my kids were off to school with the neighbors. But, with minimal traffic, I was at the farm within 45-50 minutes. Filou on the passenger seat, we drove through the morning mist. We, along with our fellow drivers, had our night-lights on, the fog was so thick. For the first time in three months we’d had a serious rain storm. All night long the rain had come down — happily rather gently. The local farmers, vintners included, are relieved and pleased. So here I was driving along on this cold and misty morning. Where had summer gone?

Ah, summer went south. Once I’d crossed the Alpilles from St. Rémy de Provence to the Vallée des Baux I was greeted by sunlight. Rather akin to passing from Germany to Italy in the summer. One second to the next I was out of the mist and into bright sunlight with shadows from the trees lining the road rolling away before me in a pattern of strips of varying density.

At the farm Aurelie was clipping hooves. While the goats were held still by their manger, and the young intern (then me) worked the milking pumps, she carefully went at the over-grown hoof nails. She explained and showed me the patterns, textures and colors of the goat hooves. I didn’t take a hand to the clippers, but I was able to get at least a visual understanding of the operation. Aurelie regularly goes through the herd — never all at one go — to keep their hooves healthy and groomed. I remember cleaning horses’ hooves when I was a kid; there are similarities, but where with the larger animal you have a hook to clean out the cavities, the goats’ hooves are not concave, nor do they have metal shoes, simply horn-like nails that grow and curve under, potentially digging into the more tender pink area. Aurelie has a sure hand, and went at the task with ease and familiarity. I could see, though, that this is the one part of a goat’s body that is relatively filthy; clipping only the over-grown nails could be a bit difficult. As when I clip and trim Filou’s claws, I just might nick a goat too closely, earning a kick (where Filou might try to nip me). I’ll watch for awhile more before attempting this.

Back in the laboratory all the milk went through the filters and into the containers. I went right to work flipping the two day-old cheeses, and made another attempt at flipping the one day-old ones back into their molds. I haven’t truly got the hang of it yet. I’ll photograph Aurelie in detail next week. At this moment I’ve a way of doing it that sort of works, but where I might dent the cheeses slightly on a side. Ideally, I barely touch them, tipping them out onto the tips of my fingers, using my thumb to flip them, and place them back into the mold nicely, upside down. However, more often than not, they land on their side, get mushed, I tap and shift them, tip them back out and try again. The end result is not particularly aesthetic, to put it the least. Aurelie has the patience of a saint. But, I would very much like to get these gestures down and into my hands/fingers. Isabelle says I simply need to sacrifice perhaps 3 or 4 cheeses and work at it all morning till it comes. There’s a way to do it, and my approximate style isn’t it.

As I flipped out the two day-olds, I felt that they were every weight and height under the sun. And I remembered Isabelle and Paul Pierre emphasizing that with time and experience you learn to judge the density of the curd and make consistent cheeses. Goat cheeses are sold by the piece, not by weight. As such, if she’s charging 1E40 per cheese, on some she is losing money, and on others, clients are being jipped. Not good. This is truly part of the art. Making cheese that is pleasant to eat is not too difficult. But making cheeses that are consistently of the same size, texture, salinity… this is where the master shows himself. Practice, tasting, keeping track, taking notes, being attentive. And yes, having the goal of achieving these standards.

One of the benefits of having a cave d’affinage to age your cheeses — at 10C, a good 6 degrees above refrigerator temperature — is that it allows you to offer multiple possibilties to your clients. Aurelie set herself to preparing a few of these in attractive trays for a friend’s wedding. From fresh to five weeks’ aged, rolled in savory, filled with a mixture of mustard grains, hot pepper flakes, ground peppers and whey, filled with tapenade… Even though you fill the fresh cheeses (i.e. 4-5 day old) by preference, once filled, they can continue to age and evolve, and depending on what you’ve put in them, their flavors will evolve differently. Aurelie showed me the trick of smoothing the side of the cheese once she put the two halves back together. In a couple days, a crust will form and no one will be the wiser that she’d filled this cheese (though we did put a dab of the filling on top of it to mark it), and they’d marvel and the seeming impossibility of it. That whey moistens the ground mixture contributes to the evolving ferments. Tapenade is also made from a fermented product — salt-cured olives — provoking a different evolution; and even the crumbled savory leaves will give their touch to the cheese. To that end, we tasted a forgotten experiment: fresh cheeses that had been rolled in savory and left in the cave d’affinage for over two months. They looked rather scary, but they were soft and oozing a lovely creamy interior…hmmmm??? Wow! They had a sharpness, a bite, and intensity, and they were wonderful. Made from raw milk, kept at 10 degrees, the natural yeast and bacteria were slightly altered by the savory, producing a marvelous end product. Nice experiment, and no, it didn’t kill us. Good bacteria is a good thing.

As I came out of the lab, Paul Pierre was just beginning to ready lunch for himself and Isabelle, but also for a cousin, Isabelle’s 90 year old mother, Marie, their daughter, Fred, her companion, and Shabi, their 8 month old son. It was a large family affair. Gratefully, I was included, and as such, immediately got to work on the crust for the tarte tatin that Isabelle had begun. Once this was done, I cleaned the salad, chopped some tomatoes, made the dressing, and in general, tried to be helpful. My only contribution this week was the pear compote I’d made the night before with all the kids — something better adapted to Shabi’s diet than to the adults. But that was fine by me and them. But another loaf of my no-salt multi-grain bread would be appreciated for next Thursday.

The meal was lively and nourishing, ending of course with a cheese course. Have you ever seen an 8 month old teething on hard goat cheese? Now, this would be hard to imagine in a country where we aren’t allowed to work with raw milk, and thus 5 weeks’ aged could only be found on a black market… or as contraband. But imagine, the strength of flavor, the snapping density, the hard interior that melts in contact with the gnawing gums. And, he loved it! Toss out those vache qui rit, those plastic little Baby Bells, and got forbid Cheesewiz! Real cheese, correctly aged, for real kids. And you can’t beat it as a source of calcium and easily digested protein.

Working with Colleagues

I do love making cheese with my fellow cheese makers. And this year has been a rich one in this arena. It is in sharing a colleague’s space and working along side that I am gifted with the chance to take my own knowledge – both technical and tactile – reinforce it, expand it, and in some instances, transform it into words and guidance for future reference. I also learn and learn and learn. The chance for a cheese maker to improve her trade is always deeply appreciated. When you’ve your own farm and your own cheese to make, these chances are nearly impossible. There’s just too much to do. And, as the day I might be in this position again is a bit far off, I am reveling in the opportunities offered through visiting colleagues and lending a friendly hand. IMG_0333

I got the chance this summer to work with a colleague who has beautiful organic, fully-pastured, cows’ milk. A first for me since the days of my schooling back in Haute Provence. Oh how I wish he were close to my home so I could get a regular supply of this milk!IMG_0356

Before my visit, I’d never made Gouda (though I had experimented with washed curd cheeses), nor had I worked with skim milk, and nor had I ever made cheddar. Hence I had lots to learn. I admired the creamery set-up, particularly the gravity feed from the bulk tank to the cheese vat, and the simplicity & functionality of the space. Clearly intelligent thought and a barrel-full of mechanical skills went into the design. Not to mention a lot of personal sweat equity.

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I’m also convinced that the sex of the person who invented certain cheeses becomes glaringly obvious when you attempt to make them. I’m accustomed to making delicate little goat cheeses, easy and light to flip, requiring a delicate touch. I’ve also made my share of camemberts – pleasantly curdled at body temperature, then brought to room temperature, easy to flip, requiring some handling, but nothing strenuous.

I’ve also made pressed tommes, but have kept to wheels 9lbs and under. I feel a bit stronger and more capable when I make these – lifting, flipping, pressing, etc., But really, handling a dozen rounds of 8-9lbs is equivalent to doing perhaps 10 push-ups daily. Nothing to snort at, but nor is it required that I sweat buckets and be strong as an ox.

Now, consider big glorious Alpine cheeses such as Gruyère and Comté. Check out these videos of the cheese maker (and his wife on occasion) working over the steaming vat, bringing the temperature up to 130F, scooping up all the tight little curds in one large cheese cloth, then (often with the help of a hook and pulley, and in a few cases, a very strong wife) transferring that mass to a mold, creating a finished cheese of 80 lbs and 3 feet in diameter. I call this a manly cheese.IMG_0380

I feel even more so about cheddar. Particularly when you do the full cheddaring process by hand without a handy little cheddaring machine, nor an automated turning paddle. Wow. I can cut curd. I can flip large cakes of curd. And to a certain extent I can flip piles of large cakes of curd. But I was completely beaten by the weight of the piles of cheddared and salted curds. Watching my colleague stir, turn, pile, and more. I just had to stand back and admire the crazy masochistic mind that created this wonder of a cheese. I feel that going forward, I will deeply appreciate and enjoy tasting the art of my colleagues, while I keep to my straightforward uncooked pressed cheeses, aka tommes des Pyrenées and others in a similar style.IMG_0388

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Honing skills as I teach

One of the more interesting aspects of consulting is simply being in another colleague’s space, adapting to their methods and organization while sharing ideas and new possibilities. While I tweak the make sheets for the fresh bloomy rind cheeses and test out possibilities for their future blue and semi-soft washed rind cheeses I am concurrently learning more about full-time pasturing goats in the South Eastern United States.

Pasturing ruminants seems like a no-brainer, but it is actually one of the more complicated and frustrating choices a cheese-maker can make. As I look back at my teachers and colleagues in France, it is not for nothing that so many of the Provence-based goat cheese makers opted for a system “hors-sol” meaning that they permitted their goats ample time outdoors, but fed them  hay, whose quality they knew and could control, rather than pasture.

Pasture is an ever changing feed source. Depending on what you’ve planted, and your patterns of rotation on your land, your animals are pretty much getting a different diet weekly. In the early spring it is high in moisture, and quickly digested. It might then come to a peak of nutritional value when it just begins to bud, yet still has plenty of good green foliage. And then it might pass peak, and go to seed. The goats might then prefer the leaves, or seek out any tender leafy plants growing down below. Maybe there is plantain, or clover, or dandelion greens. Or maybe not. Hot days will dry the green stalks faster. Wet days will first of all cause your goats to want to hide out in shelter, wrestling and fighting for the best spots, and encourage various parasites to climb further up those stalks than their normal limit of about 4 inches from the ground (where there are water & dew droplets, there can be parasites).

There is serious skill in managing grass. And books cannot teach you everything, as each farm, each plot of soil, each year’s weather, are variables to be learned over time.

As ruminants create milk by transforming what they eat, we as cheese makers are manipulating an ever shifting primary ingredient. And, so it has been this past week. We’ve had a dramatic moment of inverting solids, when the fat content drops below the protein, and both have fallen from their brief post-kidding high. We must completely adjust the cheese make to adapt to this new reality.

Cheese making is one of those arts where you hear many a prosaic statement. “If it works, don’t change a thing;” and then, “just when it all is working smoothly, it changes overnight.”

I’m pleased to be here from the beginning of the milk season, when the solids were high, through to this point in the inversion, and on for another 5 weeks. In this way, I’m able to offer this creamery various options to manage cheese-makes through the different phases of their milk.

When I reflect back to my experience with my French advisers and consultants, they rarely stayed with me longer than three weeks. Just enough to get a plan of action with the quality of milk I had during their stay. And then, a month later, I was emailing them frantically with my shifting curd, seeking advice for how to return it to the beautiful, smooth texture of our early results.a perfect curd

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Needless to say, I’m grateful for the alacrity of their responses, and for the experience my years of cheese-making have given me. Though in Michigan, as our goats received at least half their nourishment in hay throughout the year, pasturing during the day, but compensating for most nutritional deficiencies at the  manger, the seasonal shift occurred in a less dramatic fashion than I am witnessing here.

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Meantime, some of our earlier cheese experiments are ripening. In particular a lovely cross between a Morbier and Reblochon, with ash in the middle and a beer & brine washed rind. It is now coming into its own at 5 weeks of age. The texture is softening, and there’s a lovely mouth feel. The rind has a nice balance of pungency and bite. It is aptly titled the Rowdy Gentleman.

The first batch of blues have been wrapped, the second will be wrapped today. They are bluing wonderfully. I can’t wait till they ripen further. A minimum of two months will be required for these, and perhaps more. We shall see.

Fall 2009 – Day two making cheese

This is a reprinting of an earlier blog post I put on my first blog, An American in Avignon. I am going back to my roots, where and when and with whom I first learned to make goat cheese.

The milking part is pleasant, warm, clean and easy — or relatively so. Goats are clean and intelligent animals. From what I’ve seen of cow dairies, there is no comparison. To put it simply, tales of being shat upon, or filthy teats at a cow dairy are not exaggerations. Plus they are large and cumbersome animals, cows. Sheep, I’m told are not the brightest. Should your lands flood, goats will find the high land, climb a stair well or a tree, what-have-you. But sheep will simply baaaa and drown. So, here I am amidst a range of goats of different ages and races, and what a pleasure it is. They leap quickly into place for their feed and milking. They make room for you to put the jetter suction cups on their teats. No kicking, relatively minimal farting, and perfectly at ease with the handling and manipulation of our hands upon them. The milk flows quickly and smoothly — numerous hygienic measures are followed sensibly and not onerously — and a short hour later, we’ve milked all 36 and are ready to head to the dairy.

Before milking, the goats are given some fresh hay to start their rumens churning. Then they munch away on their grain while they are milked, and afterwards they head out to the pasture, or back to eat more hay in the manger. Salt & mineral licks are on the walls in the barn. We milk till the teats are softened and supple, but even then, if we hand-milked there would be more. So, you stop before they are completely milked out.

Today I helped flip and return to the molds the cheeses poured into their molds yesterday morning, and already flipped once yesterday evening. I didn’t maul them too badly, and after a hundred or so, the gesture began coming naturally. As with any repetitive gesture, be relaxed. Tension makes everything worse.

We then moved onto the tiny cheeses — much appreciated by restaurants and makers of toasted goat cheese salads. Again, we had a metal guide curd distributor for 90 molds. However, we had to place these 90 molds on the stainless draining tray before placing the guide on top. Getting the spacing right is a skill to hone, with in each instance a bit of fiddling and putting back in order required. With these guides, you can practically dump your curd on top and simple smooth it around into the molds. I tried to do it a bit more elegantly than this, but truly…

Then our clean up, prepping cheeses in paper for selling to Aurelie’s various clients, and back out the door. Tonight, we’ll turn the tiny little cheeses I filled today. As there are 580 or so, I should get some good practice with that flipping wrist action.

Meantime, Filou got a nasty little weed in his paw — what the locals call espégao, or folle avoine — resembling a tiny shaft of wheat. It is pointy and akin to an arrow, it wants to go in, further and further, and is terribly difficult to remove. He has had these twice in the past years in his ears, but this time it is between his toes. Shepherds are good people to bring sick dogs to. Aurelie helped me remove a bit of the points of this nasty thing, and to disinfect the wound. But, 24 hours later, he is still limping and the wound is weeping. The verdict is to keep disinfecting, and let the wound abscess to push out what is clearly still inside. If we’ve not accomplished this by tomorrow, I do have a veterinarian beside my home in Avignon and will see if he can help.

Mon brave chien accompanies me nearly everywhere, lying so calmly at my feet (or at the feet of the head of the household). He enjoys the goat barn and has made friends with the resident mama cat who’s a master huntress of rats, rabbits, mice and more. However, when I disappear into the dairy for an hour or more, he whines at the door, not accustomed to my abandoning him in this manner. Perhaps he’ll get accustomed to this just like his mistress?