Keepin' It Local
By Karin Edmondson
Fresh chèvre from Painted Goat Farm in Garrattsville. Photo by Karin Edmondson
Painted Goat Farm. Photo by Karin Edmondson
Some of the new 2008 baby goats at Painted Goat Farm. Photo by Karin Edmondson
The French are on intimate terms with cheese. Take it from Julia Child: “We had an excellent cremerie … on the side counters stood the cheese—boxes of Camembert, large hunks of Cantal and wheels of Brie in various stages of ripeness … . Madame was a whiz at judging the ripeness of cheese. If you asked for a Camembert, she would cock an eyebrow and asked at what time you wished to serve it: would you be eating it at lunch today, or at dinner tonight, or would you be enjoying it few days hence? Once you had answered, she’d open several boxes, press each cheese intently with her thumbs, take a big sniff and voilà—she’d hand you just the right one.” (Child, Julia. My Life in France. New York: Anchor Books: Random House, 2007.) Cheese, a wondrous thing, is beloved by almost all and there are superstitions about those who lack culinary propensity for cheese—that these folks might be suspect. In this country, cow’s milk is the most common source of cheese; however, abroad, milk from goats, camels, sheep and yak replace bovine lactose with tasty results whether rustic wheel of farmers cheese or sophisticated soft-ripened pyramid or button.
We can thank the French for introducing this country to goat cheese—or chèvre—in those little white rolled logs. Widely available now in supermarkets and in restaurants usually accompanied by frisée or mesclun on the salad menu, chèvre is nicely entrenched in a certain sort of bistro, casual American dining. My first introduction to a cheese cave occurred at Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro on East 32nd Street between Park Avenue South and Madison Avenue in New York. Artisanal takes cheese seriously, even constructing a cheese cave: “a temperature and humidity controlled room, where a number of the world’s finest artisanally-made cheeses are aged to optimum ripeness and peak flavor.” As much as I recall from New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc-saturated dinners there, the “cave” is glass enclosed and is able to seat a table of four for an exclusive chef’s cheese tasting menu. Most traditional cheese caves—like the ones located in the village of Roquefort, France—are actually just that: caves whose walls have, over time, developed mold, the spores of which bind to the cheese to impart the discernible and utterly “of the place” ripening. The mold is actually called Penicillium roqueforti. Roquefort cannot be produced anywhere else but in the town of Roquefort. Like the Penicillium roqueforti, genuine Roquefort is distinctly endemic to place.
Today, when a cheese producer mentions a cave, it can mean most anything from a refrigerated basement to a refrigerator. Painted Goat Farm in Garrattsville, New York has the real thing: two poured concrete cheese caves architecturally reminiscent of gothic underground chambers located twelve feet below ground. This cheese cave might be the only one of its kind in the United States and it exists right here, in Otsego County.
Painted Goat Farm
“You can accomplish quite a lot with a hammer and nails,” says Ilyssa Berg, the maker of farmstead artisan goat’s milk cheese at Painted Goat Farm, a testament to this statement. Ilyssa and her husband, Javier Flores, built the structure that houses the underground cheese cave, the ground floor milking parlor and cheese facility and their private living space on the second floor. “The electricity and plumbing took months because I was literally reading books on plumbing and how to wire up a house.” The two goat barns—one large and the other exclusively for young goats—were built by Ilyssa and Javier as well. Ilyssa recalls how she felt “totally scared after we purchased the property in October 2006. I asked: ‘What do we do now?’ and Javier said: ‘Now we work.’” And work the couple did. Two days later, they hiked onto their new 100 acre plot of land, pitched a tent, and so began their dream. They built and lived in a one room no-utilities cabin for the winter of 2006 while they built the other structures and the temporary fencing—essential to contain curious, intelligent goats. They began with a herd of 26 goats—“we didn’t want to start off slow, we wanted to be in cheese production right away”—that produced thirty mewling, crying babies almost all at once the winter/spring of 2007. “We had eight crying babies in boxes in our cabin,” says Javier, smiling at the memory. When they take me into the goat milking room, I am able to hold in my arms one of the three 3-day-old Nubian goats—unbearably soft and warm and utterly disarming when she swivels her head up to look at me directly in my eyes.
The couple met in Ecuador when Ilyssa was completing a master’s degree in Ecological Anthropology. Javier, a farmer himself, hails from an isolated region of the Andes Mountains and a traditional family of Ecuadorian peasant farmers. “His role now is the goat herder and building manager,” says Ilyssa. “85-90% of the population in Ecuador are farmers. The countryside is a lively, active community.” Initially, the couple planned on settling in Ecuador but “there wasn’t much innovation and no one was very interested in cheese making. Here in the United States there is so much going on with food and farm issues right now.” The couple actively started planning their new life in farming in March 2006 by starting the first of three short-term (2 month) internships at Murray’s Cheese in Manhattan, then at small scale artisan cheese makers in North Carolina and Vermont. October of 2006 until August of 2007 was spent living in the aforementioned one-room cabin, constructing the farm and obtaining licensing. Essentially, the farm was built and active within a ten month period. Methodical and practical right down to how large a herd they want to max out at—80 goats—and how much space each goat needed to thrive, they drew up square footage maps, barn plans, a narrative and an estimate—an entire business plan. Ilyssa and Javier also visited and spoke with over 20 small farmers and cheese producers, including Stone and Thistle Farm in East Meredith and Sherman Hill Farmstead in Franklin.
There are two general types of cheese—fresh and aged. Fresh cheeses, which are unripened and meant to be eaten within a few days of production, include chèvre, mozzarella, ricotta and cottage cheese. Aged cheeses have more categories. Soft or mold ripened—such as brie or camembert—develop a layer of mold on the outside and ripen from the outside in. Then there are the hard and semi-hard aged cheeses like cheddar and Gouda that ripen from the inside out. Third in the aged cheese category are the washed rind cheeses like Limburger and Muenster, which are bathed or brushed with salt solutions, cider, wine, or other liquids to promote a colorful, usually orange, rind of ripening bacteria and yeasts that control mold growth and impart a strong, deep flavor in the cheese. Blue cheeses such as Roquefort and Gorgonzola are considered a category unto themselves.
Ilyssa, the primary cheese maker, wants to specialize in aged cheese: cave aged, soft ripened in the French style. “The fresh chèvre I make right now really supports our long term goal of the aged cheese.” Painted Goat currently has five varieties of chèvre: plain, that is “soft and spreadable with a light creamy texture, a rich buttery taste and a hint of fresh sourness;” rosemary and fig chèvre, a lovely sweet herbal mixture perfect on toast or crackers or just decadently nibbled from out of the container; a pine nut and pesto chèvre; a four color cracked peppercorn button, and a fresh dill button. These varieties were available when I visited, but by the time this article appears, the aged cheeses should be ready for purchase. Cave aging usually takes two to six weeks for soft-ripened cheese, but can take up to two to six months for washed and semi-hard cheeses. The aged cheeses include a brine aged feta, milky and less salty than most feta; Esperanza, a smooth, moist, dense paste that melts in your mouth, softening and becoming slightly runny with age, milky and aromatic, slightly fruity and mushroomy; Picasso’s Palette natural rind cheese, a dense fudgy paste with a concentration of nutty, milky and dried apricot flavors and a high note of lemon to balance it out, and Cabrita mold ripened, feisty looking wrinkled little buttons that are actually quite tame. Ilyssa is currently working on a brie-style cheese (traditionally only made from cow’s milk) that would be in 3-4 pound wheels! She hopes to have this new product ready in May or June.
There are forty goats milking this year. The goat herd is a mix of Nubians, Alpines and LaManchas. Nubians have hugely floppy ears—quite adorable—and yield milk that is very high in fat, which is useful in making a high quality, creamy cheese. Ilyssa and Javier rotate the goats through their 100 acres of different pasture, shrub and forest land according to a modified Management Intensive Grazing practice that maintains optimum pasture and animal health. The couple strongly believes in sustainable farming and stewardship of the land and animals. “It doesn’t just improve the health of the farm and animals, but makes great cheese that is healthy and you can taste the difference.” They let the goats out to forage or take them for hour-long walks—a practice they feel honors the goat’s natural behavior and the goats do what they do best. “Goats are not like cows,” explains Javier. “They like to walk and eat and walk.” Pasture and forest isn’t depleted by over-grazing and goats receive a diet of fresh forage every day. In the winter, the goats are fed hay and whole unprocessed grains along with a goat salad bar (“I operate on the principle that they know what they need”) of essential minerals: sea kelp, red mineral salt, copper, sulfur, dolomite and baking soda. Ilyssa explains: “All the cheese we make is fundamentally ‘Catskill grown’ and original. Cheese (a living thing), especially farmstead and artisan, is by its nature a food that will be different from place to place and cheese maker to cheese maker—even if you are making the same cheese as someone else. It’s not like planting a certain tomato variety, which will be that variety no matter where it’s grown. There are so many variables that go into the milk and making the cheese that make them unique. Milk has live bacterial cultures and so does the cheese and everything the animals eat and the environment in which they are raised affects the milk and then carries through in the cheese. This becomes more pronounced as a cheese is aged and if it is fresh (i.e. raw) milk. The methods we use to grow our milk and make the cheese really try to enhance the terroir (place of origin) of our cheese—the hilly grazing, the natural cave environment, the natural lactic bacteria, endemic molds, the way I handle the curd and the cheese, etc. Even so, I am looking forward to creating a style of cheese that stands out to me and in the marketplace and will be seen as something special to the region.”
When Ilyssa and Javier show me the cheese cave—a concrete wonder—twelve feet below the surface frost line, Ilyssa shows me how she must turn the cheese every day by hand. Sans gloves. Turning the cheese allows the cheese to receive air—and thus produce mold on each side. Ilyssa’s touch—gentle pats—aids in spreading the mold spores around. “Cheese creates warmth, so it needs fresh air. There is a cool, even temperature and high moisture content in cheese caves—ideal situations for creating mold.” The concrete cheese caves are brand spanking new—no mold creeping along walls yet—but moisture droplets are evident as they cling precipitously to walls. There is an intake vent for fresh air from outside and an outtake vent to relieve the stale air.
Painted Goat Farm is located at 371 Mittedorf Road in Garrattsville, New York. For more information, call 607 321 3191 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Painted Goat will be at the Cooperstown Farmers Market every Saturday from May through December of 2008. Painted Goat products are available at Cooperstown Natural Foods, Danny’s, Alex and Ika’s, and the Otesaga Hotel in Cooperstown; Jewett’s Cheese Shop in Earlville; Solstice Whole Foods in Norwich; Homestead in New Berlin; It’s All Good and the Rose and Kettle in Cherry Valley; Mother Earth and Café Tamayo in Saugerties; Good Cheap Food in Delhi; Todaro’s and Bistro Brie and Bordeaux in Windham; Last Chance Cheese in Tannersville; Market Basket in Margaretville, and the Fresh Harvest Café in Hunter Village Square (map) in Hunter.