More (goat) cheese please!

One unseasonably cold, rather wet, and ridiculously early morning last month I found myself on my way to a goat farm just outside of Middlebury, Vermont. I was headed to Twig Farm along with 25 fellow students enrolled in an artisan cheese class, to find out how a real, live goat cheese-producing farm functioned. Beyond my well-polished goat cheese eating skills, I knew very little about the actual cheese making process and I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

As we pulled into the farm, we were met with the fresh smell of coffee (thank goodness!) and goat. For those of you who haven’t smelled goat before, let me explain. The pungent odor is a mix of hay, grass, and barnyard; a potent smell that ever so gently tickles your nostrils and lingers on your clothing, hair, and hands, particularly when you’ve been cuddling baby goats, but I’ll get to that later. Arriving just before 8 a.m., we were too late to watch the milking but just in time to graze with the lady goats. We herded the goats, or rather the hungry girls herded us, to their chosen pasture where we watched them munch on early Spring flowers, fresh grass, and flecks of wood and soil. The goats never graze in a pasture for more than 8 hours in order to guarantee fresh tidbits for munching; the cheese, flavored by what the goats eat, becomes even stronger in the Spring when things are really starting to bloom. In between nibbles, the goats would come up and say hi, rubbing their heads on our jeans and cuddling up next to us – what can I say, I’m a total sucker for goats and would have played with them all day if I could have!

After seeing what the goats eat, we got to watch the actual cheese making. The fresh goat milk is pumped through pipes from the milking room into the perfectly pristine production room, where it is pooled in a vat. Once the starter culture (good bacteria that determines the final flavor and texture of the cheese) and rennet (an enzyme that coagulates the milk and causes clotting) is added, the cheese maker rather lovingly stirs the warm milk as it separates into curds, methodically circling his arm around the liquid, falling into a rhythmic motion and becoming one with his product. Watching this particular cheese maker was a pleasure; his love for the finished product became evident in the way he used his hands to feel every step of the process. Once the ideal temperature was reached, the whey – the remaining liquid after the milk was curdled and strained –  was drained out (it gets sent to a neighboring farm where it is made into delicious pig food) and the curds are shaped into squares and put into cheese cloth. Tasting the warm, amazingly fresh curd was one of the highlights of the visit, not to be outdone by aforementioned baby goats, but still an experience not to be forgotten. The flavor was creamy, rich, sweet like spring grass and warm; a flavor that reminds you of sunshine and flowers.

Once the cheese is salted, excess whey is expelled and it is tied up, it goes down into the cellar where it is aged. Stepping down into the dark cave, I was hit with nostril tingling smells and the beautiful sight of a room full of cheese in various stages of maturation. It is here where some of the cheeses are dipped into brines and “washed,” creating a semi-soft, flavorful cheese. Depending on what kind of cheese it is to become, it stays in the cave for a couple of weeks to several months, maturing into tommes, “fuzzy wheels,” “old goats,” and mixed drums.  After watching the process from start to finish, it finally came time to eat cheese and play with goats! While nibbling fresh cheese right from the cellar and sipping coffee splashed with fresh goat’s milk were highlights of an already exhilarating day, it was cuddling the five-day-old goats that was truly special.

I’ve always known, deep down, that I have an inert love of goats; they have big, beautiful eyes, silky coats and make some of the best cheese around. Picking up the baby goat that I ceremoniously named Daisy and nuzzling her little head into the crook of my neck, I knew I was sold: I need a goat. After lots of kicking and screaming (on my end, not Daisy’s) and “but I can definitely keep a goat in my fourth floor walk up studio apartment in the city!” I left the farm goat-less and with a heavy heart but laden down with delicious cheese.  I may not have been able to bring the actual goat home but watching the process of the animal ingesting food that would create a dynamic and flavorful milk that would then lovingly be churned, stirred, pressed, salted and aged into phenomenal cheese made me love each and every cheese making goat (and their cheese making counterpart!) even more!

- Mallory Cushman