Spring Nibbles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baby goats – theories…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Discovering Obsalim – a Method for observing and healing ruminants.

If you’d like to learn about my time in Avignon, my truffle market and truffle hunting adventures and more, please take a look at my other blog An American in Avignon. It was glorious to be back in France, and my truffle and foie gras courses went wonderfully. On this blog, I’ll return to my goat and cheese focus.

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When I was investigating goat herding and cheese-making years ago, I’d heard about Obsalim, a method for diagnosing various symptoms in ruminants that could be read visually, and linked to their feed. I was fascinated by this method and wanted to learn more. So, having contacted the web site and sought out the English version of the method (promised in translation for the past few years, though not yet in evidence). I wrote to the person who developed this methodology, Dr. Bruno Giboudeau, a veterinarian who’s been practicing for over 30 years. Dually trained in traditional & homeopathic veterinarian medicine, he resides in the Jura, land of Comté cheeses. In between projects as I’ve been, I thought that translating his book and method and assisting in its diffusion in the United States might be a great interim activity. I’ve done a number of translations, and, I rather do understand the subject 🙂

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Dr. Bruno got back to me when I was in France and let me know that most of his book is translated, but he’s in search of an editing house in the US and/or English speaking world to publish the English edition. We decided to meet at my house so we could discuss this possibility. In anticipation of his visit, I read his book cover to cover (which focuses on cows), and studied up on his deck of cards for goats. In fact, his system is far more than a methodology between two covers. It has been translated into a computer program, and into a very easy to use set of playing cards, one for each of the three primary ruminants: cows, goats and sheep. At this time, the cards are available in English, but not the book.

Dr. Bruno is interested in not only having his book edited and published in the US, but also training up herdsmen, dairy men and veterinarians to put his methods into their hands. To help me see how this might be done, we spent the day together visiting first a cow dairy (where I get my raw cow milk when in France) and then a goat dairy.

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Alongside the expert I observed the patterns of hair growth on the cows, the quantity and color of the deposits in the corner of their eyes, their shiny and damp noses, the consistency of the patties, that they were quite skinny & boney, the quality of the hay they were eating and the general look of the herd as a whole. We were also drawn to a couple of the cows who had severely overgrown hooves that were pointing forward akin to Moroccan slippers, rather than growing straight.

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We then took out the set of cards for cows and went through the different symptoms, pulling out those that fit that day’s observations. We added up the numbers on the bottom (a series of coefficients that are linked to protein intake and assimilation, energy intake and assimilation, & fiber intake and assimilation). When we had done this, Dr. Bruno looked at the numbers, observed that the condition the cows were in indicated that something had changed in the diet 3 weeks ago, and that there was an insufficient intake of protein at the root of their shiny noses and inconsistent hair patterns. We spoke with the Jean-Michel, the farmer and he concurred that as of 3 weeks ago he’d begun taking the cows back out onto pasture, but to a pasture that was a goodly walk away from the farm. Many had recently calved and were coming into what should have been a heavy milking period. But according to the farmer, the milk quantity wasn’t great. So what triggered their current physical state? Well, they were eating fresh spring grass, expending too much energy to get to the pasture block. And, looking at the hay they were eating, we could observe very straight and long stalks with barely developed leaves & flower buds – rich in chlorophyll and energy, but not in protein. Dr. Bruno and the farmer discussed the quality of the feed grain (from a bag, sold and delivered by a local ag salesman), the quality of the hay, and the fact that the long walk the cows took every morning and evening at this time in their milking cycle was melting the flesh off them. He suggested the farmer might compensate by upping the feed intake to compensate for the need for higher protein intake, and perhaps switch the cows to a closer pasture.

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The cows were calm and at peace otherwise. How can you judge this? well, they were eating steadily and quietly, and we were there for over 15 minutes before we observed one of them poop. When studying ruminants, you study their poop, or les bouses as we say in France. Texture, color, flecks of straw, length of the fibrous strands, and more. – Had they been stressed, we would have observed many of them relieving themselves while in the barn and on the stands. After waiting a bit longer we finally observed 4 different cows poop.  It was relatively fluid, but not watery. Dr. Bruno collected samples and put them through a strainer, we were able to observe that in fact, the cows were quite ably digesting their hay. The fluid texture was not something to worry about that day, as it was linked to their being back on pasture, and their systems adapting to the high humidity in the spring grasses after being on dry hay all winter.

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I watched while Dr. Bruno inspected the over grown hooves, discussed how the farmer might manage them, and why those particular cows had developed these. A goat person myself, I find the sheer size, weight and muddiness of cows impressive and daunting.

So, I was far more in my element when we went off to visit Nathalie outside of Paradou, at the foot of the Alpilles. I was only just meeting Nathalie. As so many of the goat people I’ve been friends with over the years have retired, I actually had to search around for someone to visit. And so I came upon Nathalie, a joyous women of Swiss descent, who clearly adores her goats and who shared with me her views and beliefs concerning goat behavior. Dr. Bruno expanded on a number of elements.

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Nathalie has a mixed herd of goats with horns – some of which were truly large. As is the way with goats, she with the greatest age and the longest horns is the queen of the herd. All differ to her. She knows the length of her horns, as do her fellow goats, who carefully leave her the space she demands. Nathalie had recently cut some horizontal slits in the walls of her barn to permit gentle air movement. She was also anticipating the births of all her primary does. She discussed goat hierarchies, redesigning her barn to take this into consideration. She leaves her bucks with her does through the spring, and all fall and winter. Removing them only in the early summer when the does began to go into heat. This permits her to care more easily for the whole herd through the winter and helps calm the herd (a bit of testosterone apparently has this effect) and prevent fights amongst the does.DSC_0058

So, there I was with my veterinarian, looking for symptoms to diagnose, but these goats were all in such good health that there was little to see beyond sleek coats, bright eyes, long smooth horns, and calm dispositions. The poops were firm little black berries as they should be, no stray bits of undigested hay in them. Nathalie said in passing, when you’ve such happy goats, the milk goes up and is better quality. Far more effective than giving them more barley

.DSC_0059So much to think about. We exchanged emails and promised to keep in touch. Then off home to digest all this information and this very full day.

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.