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.,

Chevre-0919

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.

Chevre-0913

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

DSC_0312

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.

DSC_0296

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…

 

DSC_0300

 

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?

DSC_0259

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.

 

Ready for those kids to come

This time last year was many things : a time of hurriedly getting our kidding supplies ordered, testing out our new milking stand with hugely pregnant goats (recommended by many books, but not particularly easy to accomplish when you’ve humongously pregnant goats more akin to young cows than “goat size”); pushing the many workmen still on site to please!!!! get the creamery ready for the milk to come, ditto the caves; the snow fell thick and deep through to the end of March, but somehow nothing like this year.

Continue reading

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.

Rain Stirs Memories

A view towards the Pyrenees peaks, hidden by the mist

It is remarkably damp and rainy this month. Granted, I’m more accustomed to the 300 days of sunshine in Provence. The rare weekend of pouring rain mid-fall might come dripping through a porous roof, rendering the clay rich soil of my Avignon garden muddy and heavy, potentially harming the wine harvest. Actually as I think of it, in Provence when it did rain heavily catastrophes followed, floods, washed away homes, broken dikes. Either we had too little or too much over a short, so short period of time.

Across the road from our barn in Northport.

Yet here I am in a damp world. A world that suffered droughts this summer. Apparently the sky is doing its best to compensate. The goats’ pasture is green. Not yet lush, but green and pushing up some fall grass.

It all reminds me of the Pyrenees. So lush, so green, so damp, so muddy. Where I learned so much, but where I felt chilled to the bone more often than not.

As I work on improving my skills making tommes. As I share early samples with the restaurants here in my region, I think back to where I’ve learned and tasted and sampled such cheeses.

J, my French cheese technician, the friend of a friend of a friend who took me on and helped me learn so much. He received me in his at-times cozy, at-times chilled home atop a hill behind Orthez. There with the wood fire burning in the little stove, his purring, persistent kitten on my lap, the creaking central staircase ringing out in the otherwise quiet mornings when I went down for my first cup of tea, I asked questions, I sought knowledge, explanations, details, and I ate many a good meal, ‘bien arrosé’ as we’d say with some good wine I’d brought as a thank you.

In Provence I had colleagues and friends who could show me how to make lactic cheeses, the basic chèvre, or crottin, or pélardon. A few made tommes in the springtime when they had an excess of milk and gave me my first classes in these cheeses back in 2008. Yet their primary cheese was always the little tart rounds, fresh and aged, occasionally rolled in savory leaves, or pepper, or filled with black olive tapenade. And so this is the one I know best.

In the rainy, damp, misty setting of the Pyrenees, driving up tight and winding roads, seeing those spectacular white peaks in the distance, or overlooking a magnificent valley, the tomme is king. In this land the 3-5 kilo sheeps’ milk tomme is the best known. But a few rebels choose to work with goats, and J knows them all. With his introduction I was received daily during my visits to these cheese makers. They told me more or less how they made cheese (no one will tell you exactly). They allowed me to be alongside them as they worked, and cleaned (hot water and fresh nettles from the garden for one cheese vat), molded and washed. I saw tiny operations of 30 some goats who gave barely a litre and a half per goat, no more than 300 litres in a year, and I visited large operations with over 200 goats, mostly automated feeding and milking, with large quantities of multiple cheeses in their cellars.

I saw things not to do, as well as elements to adopt. I witnessed the frustrations of mucor (also known as “poile de chat” or cat’s hair, a gray mold that is desirable on the tomme de savoie, but is a bane to all other cheeses) invading the lactic room when a cheese maker had the bad habit of working in her tomme cellar and then trapesing back through the lactic processing room, her body no doubt covered in the spoors of her salted and rubbed cheeses. As they say, it’s far easier to bring things into a cheese room than to take them back out again.

 

The Rhythms of Fall

Fall is blasting through the trees, pouring down from the skies. And with it we are winding down our milk production and slowly integrating our new does while we send encouragement in the direction of our bucks.

With the farm and creamery still in construction, the added numbers of animals (all needing to be quarantined from our herd for 14 -21 days), the need to get the breeding underway, and the desire to de-worm and get all animals into optimum health pre-pregnancy pressing upon us, we are doing something this year that we’ll likely do differently next year. Drying off the animals during the month of October, rather than end of November.

Back in France at the farms I’ve worked and interned at, the typical schedule is to breed the does in September, dry off late November, and expect the freshenings in February/early March. This is then a 10 month milking and cheese-making schedule, with a two month break for the animals during the end of their period of gestation, and the herdsmen and cheesemakers.

This rhythm also permits the person who milks the goats to see a plump and pink vulva, perhaps oozing a bit of goo, and note that 1. she’s in heat and 2. likely to be bred pretty darn quickly by the present buck, and thus to pretty accurately calculate the future freshening dates.

Right now, we’re a bit betwixt and between. We’re following the French style of putting the bucks with the does and letting them do their thing without much intervention. Putting the does one by one in with a buck is simply not practical with the numbers we’re now dealing with. But as we’re not milking every girl every day, we’re not completely certain who’s been bred yet or not. Oh, we see who’s fluttering her tail, we see the boys make efforts to climb up on them, we observe all those wonderful mating rituals of drinking pee and sniffing butts. But, till the vet returns at the end of the month with her portable sonogram… we’re not too certain if/who/when. I must confess to crossing my fingers.

Generally, I like to be in control. I like to plan the year’s calendar, anticipate what we’ll do at what point throughout the year, note the times we’ll need extra help, when there’ll be lots of milk, etc., Letting Nature run her course is rather a humbling and frustrating thing. It’s hard to be sure….

And nor is the weather properly collaborating with us. I’ve put photos from a rare sunny day here, but more typical to this month has been rain and more rain, with one splendid day to startle and delight, before returning to rain again. Am I in the Pyrenees again? (Last April it rained 29 out of 30 days that month!) I’ve reveled in the colors of fall, and even the rank scent of our bucks. And making cheese with rich fall milk is a joy.  So though there’s not much milk, what I have is beautiful. Thus I’ve made a few more tommes (not to be sampled for a few months!), another batch of crème fraîche, a day’s worth of lactics, and one more try at some camembert (but I worry a bit about these last as the space I’m experimenting in was way cold that day!).

It’s time to put all my paperwork in order, register goats, get familiar with the DHI Dairy Herd Improvement milk testing for the spring, go back through receipts and invoices for the accountants, and have all in order as we move forward to the next TO DO list. Though personally, I’m waiting for the next beautiful day to spend time in the pasture with the goats.

.

A Bit of My History

Lest there be any confusion on this point, I took last year to get up to speed to be able to run a goat farm, but I’ve been closely involved with goats for a number of years. If you’d like to go back to an earlier chapter in my life, feel free to take a look at my goat posts on my first blog: An American in Avignon : http://american-in-avignon.blogspot.com/

Living in Provence and caring both for food and the people who create it leads one into some marvelous adventures, and offered me the nearby opportunities for learning and discovering. Particularly after the world economic downturn of 2008 I chose to spend my extra “free” time learning at the shoulder of dear friends. And thus began a year of interning a day a week with one of my favorite goat cheese makers.

It was a soul-nourishing time that happened to coincide with post-divorce and a need to find deep meaning in my life over and beyond the daily routine.

I love pretty much every aspect of goats and goat cheese-making. I love the animals. I love being with them, having them nibble at my fingers, or my clothes, having them rub up against me and nuzzle me. I love their personalities, their balance of skittishness (when it comes to my dog…) and forcefulness when they wish to impose themselves and/or get to the grain trough before the others.

Being with my goat cheese makers returned me to a seasonal existence. It is part of their way of living and working to keep to the natural seasons of goats – in heat late summer to early fall, births in the late winter – all before Easter – and milk from spring through late fall. Many years I would take my children (and a few extra) to visit my friends’ farms so they could hold those newly born kids in their arms, feel their tiny beating hearts, and truly be part of the “re naissance” the re-birth of life in the spring. Their years flow through seasonal rhythms, following those of their animals, their milk cycle, and the cheeses they will make.

_

When I started actually making cheese I felt at ease in the cheese-lab – always at 70F/20C, which is such a comfortable temperature winter or summer. I loved handling the curd, discovering the persnickety twists and shifts as the season evolves. I go into a meditative trance when my hand gently stirs a low-heat tomme. Continuing as I gently press down the curds post heating to form a solid mass on the bottom of my pan, and then lifting this squishy mass out, dividing it up and gently pressing it into my molds. As one teacher said to me (most suggestively), be gentle, as you would with a man… And so at least for that moment of the day, I slow down and I permit my hands to caress and most gently, ever so doucement, handle my curds.

Amongst the first cheese experiments I did at home was whey ricotta (or brousse as we called it in Provence, or Broccio in Corsican). Claudine told me how, and would send me home with large tanks of whey from her ‘caillé doux’ (somewhat like a small camembert) and I would simmer away till I’d lifted all those curds off and gotten the small but precious yield of high protein bits.

Then I found a source for raw cow’s milk nearby Arles and started making yogurt for our bed and breakfast. The occasional over-heated curd (my methods weren’t very standardized) never got tossed, it was simply drained and salted and became whatever sort of cheese it wanted to be – and generally pretty darn good.

I loved that every mistake is simply another sort of cheese. And thus they were discovered ever so long ago.

_

Jump forward to today and the joy of more discoveries, more lessons learned, humility cultivated, and a lasting fascination with curds and whey.