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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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.

Consulting, Advising, Learning

IMG_0047 A tangle of gorgeous spring blossoms catch my eye as I go out for my evening walk/run in a warm, slightly humid, and ever so lovely place. I’m a world away from the cold, snowy North. And also a world away from my two sons and my four-footed house pets. I’m ‘down South’ with a colleague, to consult and advise throughout this spring.

As I structure the abundance of cheese and goat knowledge I’ve absorbed over the years, a phrase that I’ve read and heard scrolls through my thoughts. So I looked it up (it and many variants) on Google recently,

“They can take everything from you, but they can never take what you’ve learned, they can’t take the experiences you’ve gained from living your life. Those are yours forever.”

In its original iteration, it was written by a survivor of the Holocaust and quotes extraordinary advice from his mother. But many many people have adopted this wise thought stressing the profound importance and value of education and knowledge. And, being in a position of looking forward towards new projects, the depths and riches of what I own inside myself, the power of all that I’ve collected in living a many layered and challenging life is reassuring indeed.

At this moment, I am tapping into my years of research, questioning and questing — my knowledge. And I am doing this to fulfill my role as a consultant, here to share, teach and advise a colleague.

On this exquisite spring day I’m headed to the creamery. The lab coat I wear when ladling makes it all but impossible to not feel the tenderness of my freshly sun-burned arms, a tactile reminder of my  afternoon of plunking copper boluses down the throats (and avoiding some pretty darned sharp back teeth!) of a number of this farm’s pastured herd of goats. Most of the does have freshened and there are about 80 does milking twice daily. In another two weeks we should have the full herd on the stands – including the two mothers photographed below who kidded out on pasture this morning.

IMG_0055My son Leo and I road-tripped down here to arrive on April 1st (he’s since gone back to Michigan for high school). Our descent was timed for the first cheese makes. And, now that the creamery is up and running, the first priority is to get the fresh soft cheeses out to the eagerly awaiting clients, something my colleague already does very beautifully.

As I observe and question, I see where I might suggest techniques to lower the quantity of expensive freeze-dried cultures used here. It would also be possible to adjust the measuring tools for the cheese makes and offer methods to tweak and refine.  I move slowly, not hastily. In my role as consultant, observing and listening is vitally important, equally on a level with advising.

I’m here at a key moment. They’re building a wonderful new aging structure with two large caves, due to be done soon. At which point we will gear up the development and refinement (some great experiments have already been done) of hard cheeses and blues. I look forward to assisting in the balancing and adjusting of the cave atmospheres, sharing my hard-earned knowledge and experience. Caves are complex to master — my colleagues around the world will agree — and I am here to shorten the learning curve. But, mastery is a too powerful word. I would be more apt to say dance, or collaboration. The best caves live and breath and the cheese maker learns to work with his/her caves; how best to encourage & facilitate the good, and limit the bad.

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Much lies before us, and day by day, I take notes & make lists, and see where my knowledge can be of use.

My kids’ dad used to say that his quest in life was to share his knowledge and discoveries. It is a privilege to learn & to integrate the complexities of an art such as cheese making (or in his case Provençale Cuisine).

And in sharing and teaching, I solidify my own knowledge while offering it up to an esteemed colleague.

We all win.

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Always questioning

Photo by AprilJoyPhoto

Photo by AprilJoyPhoto

What an incredible few years this has been, and what an education! In the summer of 2011 I offered my assistance and services for perhaps a year, just enough to get a goat farm into existence and to make the first batch of cheeses. That then bloomed into 18 months (a tad more realistic) and then to over two years.

My mandate is coming to an end. I am ready to pursue new projects. But wow, looking back, I get frissons all over from all that we’ve accomplished, all that I’ve been able to contribute, and all that I now hold in me as knowledge and profound, deeply lived learning.

Back in October 2011 I was asked to design a creamery. And so, with the assistance of my colleagues I did. That original design was offered to the architects that winter, and they took it and ran with it. Throughout the design and construction process I was kept in the loop, tweaking flow, materials, equipment, and interior climate conditions. My job was to assure the organization of the cheese processing – from milking parlor onward – and convey what I was learning in France from my farmstead cheese technicians to the architects, who then communicated to the local engineering firm, who then translated this information into plans.

When I arrived on site July 2012, the ground had just been broken for the creamery’s construction. The farm had 13 goats in milk, and a dozen doe kids from that year’s kidding. We were in discussion with the Ag inspector for our future licenses, but also to be sure our buildings were in keeping with the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance and all state and federal laws concerning a dairy operation.

When not on the computer, the phone, or playing with milk, I investigated our local market(s), to see how we would fit as a new presence in the local community. Experimenting with the milk of those first goats I visited restaurants and shops, and dropped off samples. I chatted with the local chefs, interested in what they would like to see from a local goat cheese maker. Going further, I visited cheese cases, ordered cheese from colleagues by mail, and checked out labels, pricing, and styles of cheese available. I went wine tasting and checked out what was offered to nibble alongside. I ordered books and magazines and started establishing a farm library on goats, goat care, goat buildings, goat cheese, dairy, farm management, organic gardening, organic animal husbandry… etc.,

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Photo by AprilJoyPhoto

With the first herdsmen on hand, and those who’ve been hired since, I’ve discussed and taught goat care, shared techniques, preferences, and rhythms from my Provence colleagues. Adapting my knowledge from France to the US, I spent time questioning feed mills, looking at goat rations – those readily available, and those that might be custom-made. I sought out possible collaborators, questioned MOSA (the official Organic listings), and started making a list of all the possible sources for minerals, goat care needs, medical needs, equipment, etc., Coming from France, and entering a new business for all involved in our farm, building this list of vendors and resources has been an ongoing project.

We passed the winter, and entered kidding season with Claudine from Provence at our side. While our four herdsmen took turns spending the night at the farm, baby monitors by their beds, Claudine and I would be back at my house, feeding my own children and putting them to bed, and remaining on call. I believe I timed it, from the moment I got a call (be it at 2AM, 4AM or Midnight) it took Claudine and I but 7 minutes to leap out of bed, pull on snow pants over our jammies and dash over to the farm to help guide, teach and manage the kiddings.

April 2013 the creamery was given its official license to sell cheese. And so, out to the markets, out to the restaurants, over to the various shops. What joy to start getting our cheeses into the mouths and onto the tables of so many eager and pleased clients and colleagues. The spring flowed quickly into the summer, and to my second American Cheese Conference – this time as a cheese maker, not just a hopeful one. And our first award!!!

It’s been a rocket ship of a ride. So much to learn, so many hurdles to leap, our share of glitches and worries, And yet, each time something goes off or akilter, it is a chance to acquire knowledge. Each strange batch of cheese, funky curd and other is to be analyzed and picked apart. And in so doing, another step in the process is better understood.

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Photo by AprilJoyPhoto

As I look towards the future, I’m continuing to hone my craft. At this very moment I am in France studying Cheese Affinage with the Academie Opus Caseus at Mons Fromager outside of Lyon. Cave design, care for cheeses, sensory analysis, and more – skills that require years of study and use to master, skills that work alongside the cheese make to create truly good cheese — I am passionately going deeper into this world of lactic fermentation.

With a bit more time on my hands, I will return to France this winter for the months of January and February and dig back into my roots there offering culinary courses and tours with truffle hunts, making foie gras & visiting and wine-tasting at Châteauneuf-du-Pape… many of my former haunts and favored activities. If you’d like to join me or know a friend who would, the details are on my web site : Cuisineprovencale.com.

This is a work in progress… (as is much of life, n’est-ce pas?)

What Cheese to Make?

IMG_2515In a world where one country can propose over 246 different kinds of cheese (as spoketh De Gaulle), how does one decide what cheeses to make? There are multiple options and few limitations in today’s world, but all those different cheeses came about due to quite clear and delineated limitations.

Why are the alpine cheeses made so large and so dense? How glorious to enjoy those aged, nutty flavors and crumbly, crystal filled textures.

And what about tender fresh chèvre? How did they come about?

Creamy and decadent camembert, brie and vacherin, or stinky meunster and époisses.

Natural gray rinds, or sticky orange ones?

If I were to work in France I would make the cheese of the region, whatever it would be, as there simply wouldn’t be much of a market for someone who bucks the local trends. A teacher of mine tried to make camembert style cheese in the Pyrenees, and found he could barely make a living. Colleagues in Provence make some hard cheeses from their goat milk in early spring, when there’s an abundance of milk, and the tourist season has yet to take off. But as soon as the market picks up, they’re making their classic little pélardons and crottins.

As an American cheese maker, there’s not much local cheese tradition to fall back on. There’s a definite local preference for hard cheeses; cheddar and gouda being the best known and most frequently appreciated. But, I don’t think I’m here to make what is familiar, or rather not necessarily.

Thus, how to choose? Well, you could say, as I’m working with goat milk, that limits my options. Yes, the best known goat cheese is the fresh, creamy and slightly acidic white cheese, great for spreading, blending, baking. But in fact, goat milk can be used for any cheese (practically) that you can make with cow’s milk. The fat globules are smaller and more fragile in goat milk, so not every recipe will be as successful, and the handling of the milk is of the utmost importance. But, that said, you can always try, taste the results, and then decide.

So back to decisions and options. The French break down the cheese world in a few standard categories:

les lactiques – these are your creamy fresh cheeses that have a somewhat ‘yogurty’ bite, easily spread on your toast – crottins, pélardons, cabécous, St Félicien, St Marcellin, St. André triple cream. These cheeses are generally eaten young, even just a couple of days old. They are fragile, don’t travel well, have a short shelf life, but have a high yield for the cheese maker, and thus as long as there’s a market nearby, it’s a great style to make. Anyone who’s visited Provence markets and noted the abundance of fresh little chèvres crottins or pélardons can see the proof of this. All the local goat cheese makers work with these styles. It keeps their lives simple, keeps their yield at its highest (the only thing higher is yogurt), and permits them to work consistently and to earn steadily throughout the season and the years. One of the extra boons to this style is that if it is aged dry and hard (which is possible), it can keep for a very long time and still be enjoyed.

les pâtes molles – this is the soft cheese family that includes the bloomy rinds: brie, camembert, as well as the washed rinds: reblochon, époisses, meunster.  This is a fragile and short shelf life cheese. It takes generally 3-4 weeks to mature, and once at its peak, should find a home and a cheese plate relatively quickly. Whereas an aged lactic cheese above can be grated on salads, or brought on a hike  – an old soft bloomy or washed rind cheese goes terribly ammoniac and over-runny. Once past peak, a camembert’s life is short and over. But consider the home of the Brie: the department Seine et Marne which makes up a portion of the Ile de France, best known for its lovely city, Paris, home of kings, beloved of kings, and proximity to the wealth of Champagne. Brie has been made and eaten by an abundance of high dignitaries for centuries. It travels across oceans today, but traditionally, it didn’t need to travel far to be consumed, and to enrich its makers. And, if you’ve ever spent time in these regions, you’ll note the high rain fall, the dark and damp winters, the effects of river valleys. High humidity, damp and cold but not freezing temperatures… sounds like a perfect cave to me.

les pâtes préssées non-cuites – these are pressed cheeses that are not heated particularly high during cheese make (generally under 40C or 100F) including the tommes des Pyrénées, morbier, raclette, tomme de Savoie. These cheeses have a longer shelf life than the pâtes molles, upwards of 3-6 months. They are often washed rind, occasionally natural rind. They are soft but not runny, easily and cleanly cut with a knife, but great for melting over a baked potato. Their yield is lower than the lactics (5:1) and the pâtes molles (7:1), at an average of 10:1. These cheeses are generally made in manageable sizes – 2-5 kilos, 5-15lbs. A great family cheese, ideal for transporting mid-length distances. Not usually found over 6 months old, but occasional batches can be tasted  – some bite back, some are fantastic.

les pâtes préssées cuites – these are the cheeses that are brought to a high temperature, the curd cut as small as possible (rice grains), and pressed with heavy weights. Imagine where they came and come from : the high hills of summer, a shepherd or more surrounded by his cows, taking advantage of the wonderful grazing areas, but far far away from town, market, family. Living in the alps, summers are short, winters are long. Milk is abundant and lower in fat when the grass is green. Thus, this cheese evolved to use up a lot of milk, put it into as compact a shape as possible, made to age for upwards of a year, and so cover the food needs of the family throughout the harsh winters. 35 gallons of milk will yield 20 lbs of cheese. 130 litres for under 10 kilos. Which may lose 15% its weight over the months of aging. A yield ratio of approximately 13:1. It is a glorious cheese. Delicious, designed to last a long long while, salty and crumbly, dense and nourishing.

And so, what do I make here? In this land with a great summer filled with outdoor markets, awesome restaurants, a short spring, stunning fall, and very cold and (for this poor girl from Provence) overly long winter? Well, in the spring, I start with tommes of the Pâte préssée non-cuite variety – smaller tommes designed to ripen for the summer market. Then I get busy on fresh for the local restaurants and specialty markets – fresh in tubs, fresh in delicate forms such as crottins, logs and pélardons. And then I begin my pâte molle, the camembert. I start small with this cheese, careful of its short shelf life, and desirous of finding a home for every cheese I make. I know that the local market will pick up in May and June when the weather improves. It will take off like a rocket when the Fourth of July arrives. Thus, the camembert being one of my most popular cheeses, I’ll adjust my cheese makes to have enough (I hope) for our summer visitors.

Late summer, I’ll start making tommes again, most likely of the pâte préssées cuites variety in larger sizes that will age over the fall and be ready for Christmas. The fall milk will be likewise managed into large rounds that can age through the winter, and perhaps even to next summer.

No doubt, this being the United States, where it seems anything is possible, the above cheese-make calendar will evolve and adapt. The challenges will always be there, and I’m looking forward to making the best possible cheeses I can.

Kids and more kids

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Goats are funny and wonderful animals. They learn very very quickly. And amongst the things they can learn is to rely heavily upon their herdsmen. If you give too much, if you’re too present, if you’re too helpful… they’ll get into the habit of letting you do all the work. You occasionally get a doe mom who just stops pushing, waiting for someone to help her put that kid into this world. So, you need to be there, yet resist the urge to intervene. But when you’ve a doe who’s done all the hard work of getting a kid’s head out of her and then she just stops to rest, but keeps moving around, even possibly hitting that head agains the wall of her box….. Well, we do just jump in and help out then, holding her still, and getting that little one out of her and under her nose so she can clean it off and show it some love.

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Clearly our feeding regimen and many sunny winter walks with the goats has paid off. They are in top health, even after this terribly long winter being mostly indoors with pasture time still off in the distance. Oh there are a couple with a bit of scraggly hair and some rough patches on their backs. But nothing that some spring sunshine and fresh browse outside won’t cure quickly enough. Now, if only winter would finally cease and permit some greenery to appear…

 

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I do love being around our does and their little kids. This is a time when the does are particularly affectionate and quick to nuzzle and come up for a scratch on the head. The kids play, leap, climb and tumble, often atop their mom’s who lounge patiently on the straw. We’ve left the kids with their moms for these first couple of weeks and so we get the crazy sight of multiple kids going after the teats of one of the more patient does. They still do prefer their moms, but you get the feeling that some does just have a bit more maternal instinct than others, and the kids sense it. Depending on when you look into the barn, you’ll catch them in one of four stages : going after a teat, napping in clusters and piles of kids, standing on their hind legs to reach the hay in the feeder, or climbing/leaping/playing. But then again, those are the four stages of many a life, no?

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Kids in the barn means milk in the creamery. Our new milking stands are getting a workout. It took the design skills of 5 of us, tweaking, brainstorming, testing, to get to the final set up. But it works like a charm. The goats have learned to manage it very quickly. They still want to go backwards on occasion (as they did last year), but that’s manageable. Milking is now a vastly more efficient act. IMG_3632

Our first cheeses are rolling out – literally logs and rounds and tubs. Smooth, creamy, lovely. I love this time of the year when it’s all just ramping up, one step at a time.

 

Absorbing Technique in stages

Interning is completely different from going to school. On the one hand you don’t necessarily get the detailed explanation of why, but on the other hand you participate, touch, and experience the daily rhythms and flow.

I’ve had weeks of cheese classes focused on soft/bloomy and washed rind cheeses (i.e. camembert, reblochon, vacherin, pérail) and tommes, pressed cheeses both ‘uncooked’ which means not heating them higher than about 40C/104F, and often no more than 35C/95F, and ‘cooked’ which are heated beyond 65C/149F. In these classes we discussed Ph and acidity, the basic structure of milk proteins and the concept of coagulation. We covered every possible disaster and what caused it, and I received some crucial basic recipes to play with. Alongside the other students I made multiple cheeses each day, checking the Ph and acidity regularly, learning how to follow their curves and evolution. I’ve notes and booklets from these classes to which I refer when double-checking, seeking, or when I feel like trying something different to see what the results will be.

Not everything I heard and did sank in on the first try. And so going back to these notes is essential. Each time I understand just a bit more – the more I experiment on my own, the more I’m able to glean from their teachings and their concise texts.

School is intellectual, dense, and in this case it is over time that I am absorbing all that was conveyed to me.

Internships are tactile, can span weeks or months, and stress one’s ability to learn like a sponge, through all the senses. Rarely is everything explained as oftentimes, the person you’re with doesn’t have the detailed explanation in their head. They’re doing what works, what has always worked, and respect their craft enough to not neglect it or insert bad habits. When with someone who’s never had a problem or an ‘incident’ as friends would put it, well then, they don’t need to address it.  I’d never seen a Ph meter or acidometer till I went to school. Nor had I ever seen a “testing” corner in my cheese makers’ labs. They simply made cheese daily, carefully, following set rhythms, attentive to all the moments in the process, as they did every day for their entire career. A key phrase for every cheese maker “if it’s working, don’t change a thing!”.

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So why their cheeses were good, why they did each step, well, they had some explanations, but so much is just attributed to the quality of their milk and the good bacteria and yeasts that had taken up residence in their cheese labs.  You learn to pay attention to all the non-verbal clues.

My fingers learned, and my skin, and my nose, and my eyes and my tongue. My hands can flip cheeses in and out of molds with ease and speed, having done so thousands of times now. As the old adage goes, it’s like riding a bike (or kneading bread in my case). My skin knows the temperature a cheese lab should be, and the texture a lactic or bloomy rind curd should feel like on my palm and in my fingers. My eyes know the color of whey, my nose the scent of a room full of drying and setting crottins (lactic), my mouth the taste of ‘good whey’, one day old curd, one week cheese, 1 month cheese, a good amount of salt, too little salt – particularly for fresh chèvre, aka lactic cheeses. I find myself as giddy and pleased when I’ve a ‘beautiful curd’ as Claudine (I can still hear her coo “quel jolie caillé!”. When it’s “perfect” i.e. smooth, solid, firm, tart, and lightly yellow green (very mildly so, I assure you) whey is floating atop it, I am filled with pride and pleasure. My skills at ladling curd have been observed and adjusted — a not so simple repetitive motion. I am following in the footsteps of people who’ve been there beside me, taught me, encouraged me to absorb, as I worked alongside them.

a perfect curd

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As I have experimented this summer and fall with the milk of our 13 goats this all comes back to me. But I also have a powerful realization of where I need to fill in the gaps in my education. Most specifically, aging tommes and camemberts. I’ve worked so much with fresh chèvres, spent weeks with Provençale cheese makers and so have the rhythms and needs of these cheeses as part of their heritage and gift to me. But, for the tommes and camemberts I was not (as yet) able to spend more than a day at each farm. I’ve watched the fabrication of the cheeses (and feel pretty confident at this level), but I wasn’t there to work in the cellars daily, attending to the aging and refining of the cheeses. My senses need attuning to this most particular art of cheese making. Something impossible to do at cheese class: A standing joke at cheese school was the pitiful state of their aging cellars as no one was there to care for the students’ experiments and bring them to their peak. Once our creamery is finished, and with it our three aging cellars, I will have the conditions to facilitate this mastery.  However, I deeply feel that my senses need to ‘know’ more.

Thankfully I am heading to France this winter for a month. This is the perfect time to continue my education in my preferred form. I will of course get on the phone to my technicians and advisors and discuss cheese aging and the general laws and quirks of ‘affinage’. But, more importantly, I will go to the great cheese shop run by a maître fromagier in the city of Nîmes where I’ll be. His son is known to my friends there, and I’m going to do my charming best to negotiate a couple weeks of interning alongside him. It will be post Christmas rush, when sales will be slow and the cheeses on hand needing daily attention, not simply to be packaged as quickly as possible for the long lines of holiday traffic.

It is time to move on to the next stage of my apprenticeship and learning. First you learn how to care for the animals: to feed, house, heal, and keep them healthy and stress-free; then you learn how to milk them. With the best quality milk in hand you learn how to transform it into cheese. And then, when all these primordial steps are part of you, you learn to age and refine to perfection.

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Giving Thanks

As I went to the farm today and spent my morning transforming the last of this year’s milk, washing the tommes made this fall, I gave thanks. When I visited our truly beautiful and affectionate goats (may they all be pregnant!), filling their water buckets and receiving their nibbles, I gave thanks. And as I drove back to my house in a driving, cold wind filled with sleet and snow, I gave thanks.

At this time last year I was scheduling a trip to the Pyrenees to help design this structure. I had not yet told many people (other than my goat cheese makers) what I was up to. It was all in the planning, and all far into the future.  We didn’t know yet where we were going to live, if the boys would be okay with the shift of worlds and schools. I hadn’t yet broken the news to their father. The planning stages that would need to happen to move a family of 3 plus dog across an ocean and into a different language and culture had only just begun to manifest.

And here we are, in the midst of an incredible and beautiful project. With my boys by my side, I’m learning,  growing, and creating.

I’m grateful to explore and develop this goat farm, from the choice of animals, to the experiments with cheese, caramel, ricotta and… It is one thing to learn and to study and to think a project. It is far more enriching to actually make it all happen and work with it from the beginning through its many stages of completion. A project such as this has the potential to grow and evolve throughout its existence. We’ll get the buildings built, we’ll get the first does and bucks of our herd, we’ll make our first selection of cheeses. And then all these will continue to evolve, to be tweaked, to be adapted to our needs and to the markets we end up supplying and reacting to.

I am grateful for the many teachers I’ve had: The cheese-makers I befriended so long ago in Provence, who first taught me and shared this passion.  The technicians who’ve helped me take this traditional knowledge and skill to a more intellectual comprehension of what I’m actually doing and trying to do — and who are there to answer my questions and help me work through problems in, ahem, camemberts that are most terribly temperamental.

I’m very lucky. I know it. And so I sit and grow in the positions of manager, visionary and cheese-maker. Thank you all of you.

Are they or Aren’t they?

Well, we’re still not too certain which of our does are pregnant, and which not. It’s imperative that we have milk in the spring. So, we want all the does pregnant (c’est à dire pleine), and ideally kidding within the same month. We’ve been letting nature do her thing, and maybe we’re mostly set. But…. that doubt is still there. The vet is coming next week to either calm our fears or push us to try the alternative. So, we’ll be looking into AI (artificial insemination) and thus are now doing the research to invest in the necessary equipment, cold storage (liquid nitrogen) etc., to do so. An exciting new step.

One of the people we bought a few of our beautiful new goats from is strongly encouraging us – he also knows someone who has quite a number of straws of excellent quality semen from one of the best breeders of the past couple decades. With these we could do some very interesting breeding in the future, moving towards specific results over and beyond milk quality.

Is this necessary for a goat dairy? Not absolutely. But being able to AI our does when we know they’re ready to breed would be a useful skill to acquire.

Meantime, as I left the farm tonight having put my tomme into the brine and salted my camemberts, I stopped by to visit the goats and just spend time with them. Our star buck  was doing a dance with one of our beautiful new triplets. He nudged her against the fence, and she wagged her tale happily. He pushed her against the wall, and she simply stayed by him, in his touch and space. A couple of our Saanens tried to nuzzle him away from her, and even tried to come between them. But he made his intentions clear and they moved out of his range. It took awhile, but the dance did finally peak in his mounting her not once but twice. It goes so quickly, you’re not certain that it could be enough. But maybe…  In any case, he’s certainly on the job.

November at the Farm

I’m doing what my friends in Provence did throughout the years they made goat cheese. I’m going for a walk amidst the chestnut trees (in this case a Chinese variety rather than of the Cévennes) at a neighboring organic farm, picking up the prettiest leaves that have fallen to the ground. I’ve been out twice now for the leaves. Once with my boys, once with a friend who’s visiting from France.

It’s such a pleasant way to spend time, it rather feels like playing hooky. But, we’re gathering leaves that can be found only at this time of year to use next spring, summer and fall on our bûches, or fresh goat cheese logs.

Thus, a few pleasant hours beneath the trees, where deer browse and gracefully pass through, followed by a few hours dunking the leaves into boiling water then laying them out to dry and flatten before putting them into bags and into the freezer.  One of many things we’ll do ahead of time to be ready for the spring milk.

We’ve dried off most of the herd this past month, keeping only 4 in milk so I could continue to make some cheese. Now that we’re tasting what I made this summer and loving it, it’s really hard to close up shop for the winter. The tommes we made have come out really well. Some of the small ones were a bit too salty — something to be careful about in the future — but the larger ones (3-5lbs) have been quite pleasant. Some we washed in diluted brine, some with a local hard cider, and I’m going to experiment with a local winery’s bubbly wine (Larry Mawby’s Crémant) with the tomme I made this morning, and the tomme I’ll make next week.

Another pleasant surprise was tasting a cheese made in the style of somewhere between a camembert and a reblochon, but with a twist. The twist permitted an aging time that can exceed (though not by much) 60 days. It was strong, yes, but good with no off flavors and a rich and firm creamy texture. I’ve started another batch with that technique, and I suppose we’ll know by Christmas how it turns out. Patience and careful note-taking are key.