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.


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.


Day 1 making cheese (2009)

Memories of my first day milking and learning how to make cheese with Aurelie back in St Martin de Crau in Provence, back in 2009:

I arrived early this morning to be able to spend a bit of time with Isabelle and Paul Pierre and their family before joining Aurelie (their former intern, now the resident goat-cheese maker) for the morning milking, la traite. Isabelle has just finished five days of chemo, and is clearly exhausted and much affected by this most recent round of treatments. I’d thought she was on more paliative care now, but, I suppose it is difficult for an oncologist to not wish to do the utmost with his arsenal at hand. I hope she’ll be better when I visit next week. Her weariness is deeply visible in her eyes, and in the hesitancy with which she approaches breakfast: coffee or chocolate, bread or no, jam, and which flavor. In each case her husband encourages, suggests, does for. He waits a bit, but sees that if she’s not nudged towards a choice, she’ll simply shut down and stop. She’s mentally in and out, almost mini-naps with her eyes open. As she puts it her head is dans la pâté.

And yet amidst this moment of sickness and family intimacy, I’ve been welcomed to share, to learn, to participate. I tell little stories, but keep them short. I’m attentive to her level of energy, and seek a smile or two, but go no further. It is more aptly a time for quiet and simply being together.

When the sound of Aurelie’s arrival reaches the kitchen, I clean my coffee cup and walk the short trip from the kitchen to the barn to watch and most importantly, to do. Aurelie is relaxed with me, at ease and pleased that I’m eager to get in and mettre mes mains à la pâte” as we say here (“get your hands dirty” is the closest equivalent in English). I’ve watched so many times, but had never laid my hands upon the milking machines, nor the teats aka mammary glands aka breasts, called mammelles here.

The first gesture of the morning is to prepare the small mangers with yummy feed. Today it is organic corn, but normally, there is a blend of soaked corn and soaked and sprouted barley. ¾ of a coffee tin is put into each manger. Then the goats are allowed to come up to feed. They are all waiting, in their pecking order. As with many animals there is a world of hierarchy amongst the goats. The first goes up the ramp, all the way to the furthest manger (the only one open to her) and puts her head down to eat, triggering the mechanism that locks her in. The next follows suit, and the next, etc.,

The next movement is to do a quick squirt of each teat to remove the premier jet, putting it into a bowl that the dogs will enjoy. Then, the clean and prepped milking suction cups (jetters) are attached to the teats. There is space for 12 goats at a time to feed, and 4 sets of suction cups. To each her turn. Aurelie massages the warm, firm teats to help the goats with let-down. The younger goats often release their milk slowly, whereas some of the older seemed to have double the milk. Teats come in all shapes and sizes, but those of these goats were all-in-all pretty easy to place into the cups. I had memories (doesn’t every mother?) of massaging my painfully full breasts to send milk flowing into Jonas’ mouth when he was a newborn – he was a particularly bad nurser. In any case, touching and handling these goat teats felt normal and quite pleasant. Beyond helping in the milking, the goat cheese maker/shepherd also does this to better know his/her goats, with all their individual quirks. For instance, spotting a cyst requires knowing what the normal teat felt like before the cyst appeared. It is good to learn to distinguish the firmness that is a sign of full milk ducts, or simply lumpy bumps, or something to worry about etc.,

Aurelie is using the system and structure designed by Paul Pierre and Isabelle when they set up their business here twenty two years’ ago. With their design and architectural backgrounds, Isabelle and Paul Pierre were creative and original, yet observant of known-methods. The plumbing, the flow from barn to milking station to barn, a system for soaking and subsequently straining the barley. This all takes place in the barn.

The fresh milk is then transferred to the dairy on a small trolley where it is put through a strainer into 15 litre bins. These are placed on shelves made of 1 ½ in PVC (rows of 2). Into the full bins of fresh goats’ milk — that she did not cool down — Aurelie puts an eye dropper of rennit (6-7 drops per litre), and a ladel-full of whey from an earlier batch.

The dairy is kept at 20C (68F) and the now treated milk will sit for three days and ferment gently till the curdle is nicely taken. When ‘ready’ the curdle will be a solid mass amidst a clear liquid, with a fuzzy white skim on the surface.

My next job is to remove day-old cheeses from their molds and place them on stainless steel racks – as neatly as I can, leaving a minimum of thumb prints, rubbing off a minimum of cheese, and–as my skill-level permits–place them in neatly staggered rows. I did my best,… and gratefully, Aurelie is a very patient teacher.

While I was handling these more solid of cheeses, Aurelie was flipping out and returning to the molds the far softer and more humid cheeses from the evening before. (Goats are most often milked twice daily, and so the cheese-making can occur twice daily).

I moved my firmer cheeses to the de-humidifying room, and the molds to their large baskets to be first doused in a bath of acide de soude, and then into the dishwasher. We then hosed down and cleaned off the two meter by one meter stainless, pitched, draining trays upon which we put the cheese molds. These drain directly into open plumbing, and down the drain. In some farms, the whey and small milk solids collected in this manner are fed to pigs – a source of protein-rich liquid for their feed. Yet another example of the intelligence and non-waste possible on small, multi-animal family farms. However here, there are no pigs, and thus the whey is treated as gray water, dispersed through the septic system.

Once our sliding trays are cleaned (there are 6, but this being August, we’re nearly at the end of the season, and are using only 4), we set up the cleaned molds (those that have chilled) in rows of 5 x 6. Upon these we place the stainless curd distributor that permits the filling of many molds at once. Aurelie takes a large quart/litre sized cup and uses it to ladle the curd from the bin into the molds. However first, she has gently poured out and brushed off the excess whey and the white fuzz (the natural Geo – surface mold that grows in her make room) atop. Her cheeses will be milder in flavor if she does not include this. With a squeegee, we finish filling through the grid – filling the molds to nearly over-flow. A couple minutes’ wait is required as the curd descends, the whey already escaping through the holes of the molds, and then we transfer the grid to the next batch of 30 molds. And so on.

This morning, August 23, we milked 36 goats and made 130 cheeses with the three-day-old curd. We filled three 15 litre bins fully, and a fourth perhaps 7/8 or 5/6 full of fresh milk. Yesterday’s milk, alongside (but distinctly placed apart) the milk from the day before yesterday are quietly fermenting away.

Immediately after the milking we cleaned and rinsed the suction cups and tubes (with a specially designed flushing/cleaning machine to which we hooked them up in the kitchen), followed by the molds, bins, etc., A last gesture is to spray down and squeegee the terra cotta tile floor. Aurelie has prepared her containers of cheese that she distributes Monday in weekly crates of fresh, local produce organized by a local AMAP (farmers’ coop).

There were three of us, and two hours later, we’re free to be off to other projects. Not so bad, eh?

The most sensual of cheeses

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Making cheese is sensual. No doubt that’s why I’ve fallen in love with this ancient craft. All my senses are needed and used as I follow the rhythms of a cheese make. Though you may find recipes with careful and precise instructions to follow, the best cheese makers know that there is no one recipe for cheese: There is knowledge and experience, awareness of daily and seasonal shifts in milk quality, and the ability to adjust, trouble-shoot, and adapt. Rather than follow a set of absolutes, the cheese maker is attuned to each cheese’s temperature(s), texture(s), and timing.

Take Camembert, perhaps the king of sensuality (if not the king of cheeses, the crown of which belongs — depending on the person in question — to Roquefort or Cantal). We start this cheese at a deliciously warm temperature, and to hold and nurture this warmth, we bring the room up to a toasty 80F.

The milk comes gushing out of the pasteurizer (yes, this being the United States, we pasteurize), warm and sweet. We add tart and acidic whey from our lactic cheese-make of the day before, and either yogurt or thermophile cultures, along with the surface cultures to develop that classic white rind.

And then we wait. This is the period called “maturation”. The milk is acidifying, slowly or quickly, and cooling to our ideal temperature to add the rennet. This is a delicate moment that must be attended to. If it cools too quickly, it won’t acidify correctly and we’ll have problems. If it stays too hot it could acidify too fast and we’ll lose control of the cheese make. Stringy and over-acidified curd could be the result, which then leads to inconsistent cheese sizing, and difficult ladling and, well, not what you want.

So I check the pH and I check the temperature, and, having made this cheese many, many times now, I work off my experience and take a coffee break, check in on the caves, clean up the lactic processing room, and of course scrub down and rinse the pasteurizing vat. Camembert takes time. More time than hard cheeses, less time than lactic. It has its laws that we must follow.

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Patience and care pay off. The milk acidifies perfectly and at the perfect temperature we add the rennet.

Rennet is the naturally produced enzyme which breaks down milk. We obtain it from baby ruminants before they are weaned from drinking milk (think calves, kid, lambs).

I love the tale that Mario Battali told in one of his articles (which one?) on the origins of cheese. The hypothesis is that a long, long time ago a hunter roasted a whole young ruminant (kid, faun? lamb?) and discovered a lovely gelled milk product in the intestines. In fact, when I met Mario the other day he described a classic Italian peasant dish called (????) that serves up inch long pieces of lamb (or kid) intestines filled with curdled milk (quite similar to ricotta) and simmered in sauce like small ravioli. He promised that we might make this dish together one day (can I hold him to that promise? Wouldn’t that be grand!).

Add the rennet. Wait. Check for the Floculation point. Pay attention. Calculate. Wait. Observe. Get ready. Cut. Move around. Cut. Remove whey. Wait. Cut. Move around. Remove Whey. Wait. Check for texture. Observe. Ready? Ladle. Wait. Flip. Wait. Flip. Go home to rest and come back the next day. Flip. Salt. Wait. Flip. Salt. Wait. Observe. Is the rind beginning? Is it beginning to look a bit fuzzy? Time for the caves. Do I wrap them before or after they head to the caves? Hmmmm.

Camembert belongs to the family of “pâtes molles” – soft paste, or more prosaically, runny cheese. As I’ve learned, many factors contribute to that uniquely gooey texture of a ripened camembert. And slowly, I’m gaining the skills to manage and predict this most wonderful behavior that comes from the gentle breakdown of the proteins and fat in the cheese encouraged by that most white of rinds.

To help make these decisions we test the milk solids before cheese make – protein and fat content – are they high? Are they consistent with the past few weeks? What is the ratio of one to the other? Colleagues who’ve been making cheese for decades simply taste the milk, feel it in their fingers and on their tongue, and they just know. Their senses speak to them, but they are also aided by their knowledge of the seasons and the pastures their herds feast upon. All contribute to milk quality. I am learning the variations of milk quality and how they coincide with time on pasture, rainy days, post-kidding wearies and more.

I never expected to make camemberts when I first made goat cheese in Provence. When you tell a French friend that you’re interested in goats, this is the last cheese that will come to mind. And frequently I’ve encountered doubtful and surprised friends and colleagues. Truly? a goat camembert? Yes, gooey and delicate. Reminiscent, if also very different from its French cousin. Time to make some of my favorite multi-grain bread to go with it.


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.

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!”.


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.


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.