Many Little Steps to an Award

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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.


Kids and more kids


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.


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…




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?


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.

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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 :

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.