Top | Features

Cheese seasons

(article, Mark Scarbrough)

[%adInjectionSettings noInject=true] [%pageBreakSettings nobreak=true] 

For years, my partner Bruce and I had wanted to write the first-ever all-goat book. When we initially broached the subject with the powers that be, we were met with silent stares. Later, with laughs — which is still not good news. And then, with smirks — which, in this business, is akin to cracking open the door.

Finally, we hit the North American culinary scene at the right moment, with the right publisher willing to take a chance on our idea and publish our latest cookbook: Goat: Meat, Milk, Cheese.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Chèvre."]

For about a year, while we were testing recipes and writing away, we lived in something like goaty bliss. Frankly, we’ve always loved this meat, and now we got to toss cheese and milk on top of it. What’s more, we took some time to travel and experience firsthand the American goat business. From ice-cream makers to ranchers, it was an astounding array, much of it under the radar of the average meat-cheese-and-milk-loving American. 

We learned many important goaty lessons along the way. For example: Don’t get near the attack llamas who oversee the herds on many farms. For another: Don’t try to keep up with the farmers when you’ve just tested your way through a hundred recipes and haven’t seen a treadmill in eons. And finally: Don’t get in the way of those big bags of cheese curds. Because you’re going to get smacked, fall down, or both.

When people make cheese, things get slick. All the fat trapped in the whey and water has to go somewhere when it leaves the casein-laced curds behind. Some of it ends up on the floor. Much of it, in fact.

Which is how I ended up on my butt in front of Chuck Hellmer, the general manager at the Haystack Mountain chèvre-making facility in Longmont, Colorado.

[%image cheesebags float=left width=400 caption="Eighty-pound bags of cheese curds."]

I didn’t think I had anything to fear. A chèvre facility? You picture frolicking baby goats and patchouli-scented workers. It’s not exactly an abattoir. Sure, the floor was shellacked slick with the creamy fat. And sure, the huge bags of curds were stacked in the middle of said floor. But who was going to be lugging those behemoths around? The place was staffed by women. Thin women. Wisps.

Soon enough, Jackie Chang, a willowy Chinese woman, pushed passed me, grabbed an 80-pound bag, slung it over her shoulder, and swung it around toward me.

She missed. Because I was already down. I’d been smacked by cheese curds and my own insidious brand of sexism.

“Happens all the time,” I heard her say.

I’ll bet.

[%image racks float=right width=400 caption="Bags of draining cheese curds."]

Cheese-making is about dehydration. Those 80-pound curd bags sit around until they become 15-pounders, losing almost 65 pounds of whey and water before they're done. As I said, much of that liquid winds up on the floor, treacherously underfoot.

Back in Hellmer’s cinder-block office, we listened to the story of the creamery as someone went on slapping bags together on the other side of the wall. Haystack began in the mid-1980s with about 120 goats on six acres down by Boulder. Soon enough, the old supply-and-demand problem appeared, with demand for the cheese outstripping the herd's milk supply. 

So Haystack began outsourcing its milk production, landing a contract at a correctional facility down in Canyon City. The prison tended the goats to keep the creamery in milk.

“Consistency is also a problem,” Hellmer said. “We have to make sure that what we get is in line with what we’ve gotten.”

As with all the dairies we visited while researching the book, Hellmer's was just one voice in a steady refrain. American customers demand consistency and repetition, even from artisanal makers. If Haystack chèvre is creamy and floral one day, it had better be so the next. The struggle of the business is to create the same product again and again. 

[%image cheeselogs float=left width=400 caption="If a chèvre is creamy and floral one day, the market demands that it had better be so the next."]

But with artisanal products, the difference is what you're paying for. Fine goat cheeses are seasonal, after all, the product of what the goats are eating throughout the year: hay and silage in winter, weeds and grasses in summer.

“Don’t you wish you could be inconsistent?” I asked Hellmer.

He nodded, then thought better of it. “The market is unrelenting,” he sighed.

As we discovered at Haystack and many other places, chèvre-makers are unrelenting, too. Even when they slip in their own inconsistency. After more talk, we stepped into the employee lounge to taste a bit of Red Cloud, a rind-washed aged cheese made from raw milk. It's a sophisticated delight that, I imagine, would be best with a sweet Riesling.

“It’s tasting a little grassier right now, but . . .” Hellmer said, before catching himself.

We all laughed. Because we know the drill: The market demands consistency, while the cheese demands other things. 


h1.Featured recipes


Perhaps that’s the best reason to keep trying goat cheeses from around the world: the surprise. The taste of today is not the taste of tomorrow. And in a world of blathering sameness, that’s some of the best news we can offer up in our goaty tome. 

Besides the fact that someone can actually get over his own brand of sexism. On his butt, usually.

p(bio). Mark Scarbrough writes cookbooks with Bruce Weinstein; Goat is their 18th cookbook. They also blog at Real Food Has Curves.

cheeselogs, l

cheesebags, l

racks, l

reference-image, l