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A Brief Introduction to Cheese

As part of the growth of our little farm, we are preparing to add three goats to our menagerie in the spring. To make sure we are ready for this next step, I have been busily taking all of the goat related classes I can find, and reading up on goats and their care.

While it will be awhile before we collect any milk, the story of cheese is always intriguing. Cheese can trace its place on the kitchen table back more than 4,000 years to a legend about an Arabian merchant. The merchant was traveling across a desert with milk stored in his sheep skin satchel strapped to the back of his horse or camel. In the hot desert sun the milk reacted with the rennet in the sheep’s skin and separated into curds and whey. The merchant, who had planned to drink the milk that evening, was happy to find that the whey quenched his thirst instead, and the curd was delicious and filling.

There are more than 500 types of cheese currently recognized by the International Diary Federation. These types range from soft brie to crumbling feta, flaky parmesan to noxious blue, moist mozzarella to holey swiss, and so many in between. Cheese from goat’s milk is primarily chevre, although other types can be made using the milk of goats.

Goat cheese has a reputation as having a peculiarly barnyard flavor to it. You may be surprised to learn that it does not have to. The “goatie” flavor is common from farms which keep a buck, or male goat, who have a pungent odor that flavors the cheese. Not keeping a buck (neutered males, or whethers, do not have the same smell) will make a more clean tasting cheese, as will practicing routine cleanliness. Restaurants actually seek out more “goatie” tasting chèvre because they know that is what their patrons expect from goat cheese.

Keeping goats or cows locally and making your own milk and cheese is also an important step to take to help preserve our general health and the health of our livestock. According to the book Milk by Anne Mendelson the commercial production of milk has seen dramatic changes in the past fifty years. The number of dairy cows in America in 1950 was 18 million, and today there are only 9 million. However the amount of milk produced by this shrinking number of cattle has gone from 120 billion pounds in the 1950s to 177 billion pounds today. There are several reasons for this odd statitisic, none of them particularly good for the dairy cows.

One reason is genetic propensity: cows and other livestock have been continually bred to promote traits of milk production. This is done through the “culling” of less productive cows or does (as well as 100% of males). We also have streamlined our methods of getting milk from an animal, a process which now is largely mechanical. This stress on more and more milk is largely due to the expectation of the consumer, who is used to being able to have easy access to fresh milk.

Like so many things on the farm, getting your own milk and creating your own cheese helps you to realize the worth of what you put upon your table. Not only do you know exactly what is in the food you are eating, but you know every step of the process from well before milking begins. And you can also enjoy an ancient foodstuff that has nourished civilization for thousands of years.


Special thanks to Sunflower Farm for a wonderful class. All images are of Sunflower Farm goats.

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