Chevre, the Long Way: A Book Review of GOAT SONG by Brad Kessler
REVIEW BY JENNY MOORE
Cheese made from clean raw milk (i.e., unpasteurized milk) is so good, so local and immediate, that it’s likely to ruin the taste of standard grocery-store cheese for you forever. In the United States, where buying and selling this cheese is illegal without a proper license, only certain rural farmers, assorted monks and nuns, and true slow foodies know this already: making your own raw-milk goat cheese can change your life.
It definitely changed Brad Kessler’s, a novelist turned goat farmer whose 2009 memoir Goat Song is a remarkable rumination on cheesemaking, goat farming, and the foods that still bind all of us to the soil (even if we aren’t working it). “Every raw-milk cheese is an artifact of the land,” Kessler writes. “It carries the imprint of the earth from which it came. A cheese—even a fresh chèvre—is never just a thing to put in your mouth. It’s a living piece of geography. A sense of place.”
A lyrical and insightful writer, Kessler chronicles his first years of farming in rural Vermont (after moving north from New York City), where he and his wife began to raise goats and make their own cheese. The book also explores how deeply pastoralism is woven through our collective past. Humans and goats have been collaborating in their respective kitchens since humans domesticated goats in 10,000 BC.
Along with a step-by-step account of one couple’s cheesemaking efforts, Goat Song meanders through a broad pasture of goat-related particulars. I now more fully appreciate the efficient food storage enabled by the four-stomach model. Kessler’s hilarious and cringe-worthy account of goat mating rituals is, um, memorable. Did you know that the meningeal worm can cause mass destruction, that goats traveled to America on the Mayflower, and that they bond with humans much the way dogs do? Sidebars about the yodel and hay-making made me long for a less urban existence. Perhaps best of all, Goat Song provides plenty of mouth-watering descriptions of cheese fresher than many of us have ever tasted.
“Our chèvre had as much in common with store-bought as a sun-ripened tomato plucked from a vine in August resembles one grown under lights in February,” Kessler says. This from a man who, when he wanted to make hard aged cheese, traveled to the Pyrenees to learn technique from master cheesemakers. Though the book does not list specific recipes, making a farm-fresh raw-milk chèvre a la Goat Song would read something like this:
Buy farmhouse; build barn and fence.
Acquire female goats.
Determine when the does enter standing heat.
Locate a buck.
Shepherd the buck and doe(s) in the mating process, to ensure breeding.
Feed pregnant goats steady diet of protein-rich grass, herbs, & hay (self-harvest hay if possible to guarantee quality).
Assist does as they give birth to kids.
Milk the mothers and bottle-feed the newborns. Reserve unused raw milk and chill.
Slowly warm reserved milk to chèvre–making temperature (72-86 degrees).
Add starter culture (i.e., freeze-dried bacteria) to activate the lactose, stir, and wait.
Add rennet (i.e., coagulant) to bind the solids. Maintain temp of 72 degrees for at least 12 hours.
When the solids (curds) have set, spoon into plastic molds punched with holes.
Let excess liquid (whey) drain for several more hours.
Gently tip the cheese out of the molds. Sprinkle with kosher salt and roll in chopped fresh chives or coarse-ground pepper.
Serve on fresh-baked dark bread or with wilted dandelion greens, or add a dollop on top of fried eggs and asparagus, or grilled zucchini, or fresh fruit, or pasta, or anything else you want to taste sublime.
Total Prep Time: Approx. 1 year