Magical Cheese Making at Dancing Goat Dairy
PHOTO BY ADAM DETOUR
Pure joy radiates from Erin Bligh when she talks about her treasured goats and the journey that led her to build a goat dairy on the North Shore of Massachusetts last year. The 2010 Union College graduate lives in Newbury, Massachusetts and runs her dairy in the same town. As a double major in Political Science and French, Erin assumed that after graduation she’d follow in the footsteps of her parents and land an office job in the corporate world. Her involvement with a school environmental group, fondness for a farmers market near the college, and lessons learned during a semester spent in France, however, led her in a different direction, far from a desk.
While at Union, Erin was deeply involved in an environmental awareness group called Ozone House. The Ozone community, Erin says, revolutionized how she thought about the world. At the house, she was surrounded by a group of progressive young people with different backgrounds eager to promote sustainable living and rethink American consumption. The experience convinced Erin that she could make a difference in the world. Over the next four years, she became more and more involved with Ozone’s programs, eventually landing a voting seat on the house council.
Part of Ozone House’s mission was to encourage the school community to patronize the local farmers market in Schenectady, New York. Erin describes Schenectady’s farmers market as “stunning” and full of vendors who take pride in seeing the creation of a product from start to finish. Her initial interest in the market was as a vegetarian committed to decreasing her carbon footprint by eating locally and seasonally. A transformative semester spent in France’s local-food-centered culture both deepened and broadened that interest. “In France,” Erin says, “wholesome food is almost religious. It’s really a cultural focus and point of pride, and is an integral part of their cultural identity.” Immersion in that environment, she says, was the genesis of her appreciation for artisan-crafted food.
After returning from France, Erin spent more and more time at the Schenectady farmers market, learning about the people who ran it as well as its vendors. She became increasingly familiar with, and curious about, the local food movement from a consumer’s perspective. It wasn’t, however, until a sheep farming friend suggested that she consider volunteering on a farm (similar to WWOOFing) that she thought about working in the field. Erin had applied for post graduate work with political activism groups, but her friend convinced her to try farming while waiting to hear back about the jobs. Thinking back to an “aha moment” when her French host mother introduced her to stinky cheeses such as Gorgonzola, Roquefort, and footy washed rind cheeses (including Taleggio and Reblochon), she scouted farming opportunities involving cheese.
Award-winning dairy farm Consider Bardwell in West Pawlet, Vermont offered Erin a three month kidding internship where she would help birth the farm’s baby goats. Erin grins when she tells me that her family dropped her off thinking that the internship was more of an ecotourism stint rather than a new way of life. They fully expected that she’d call them asking to be picked up before the three months was over. That didn’t happen, and before long Erin was learning cheesemaking at the farm. One of her instructors was the farm’s then head cheesemaker Peter Dixon (founder of Vermont’s Parish Hill Creamery), who she refers to as “the big cheese of the Northeast artisan cheese movement and a pretty special dude.” The other was Leslie Goff, now Consider Bardwell’s head cheesemaker. Erin’s primary responsibility was for the dairy’s seasonal, French-style soft chèvre Mettowee. She also assisted with the making and aging of their hard, naturalrind raw milk cheeses.
When her internship finished, Erin returned home and began working at Tendercrop Farm in Newbury as a farm hand for owner Matt Kozazcki. There, she learned the “nitty gritty” of farming by taking care of chickens, working in the pig barn, farrowing sows, and planting. She also tended to her two beloved kid goat does, Bonnie and Kipper (both Oberhasli Nubian crosses), which were a parting gift from Consider Bardwell Farm. She also volunteered at Appleton Farms in Ipswich where she further developed her cheesemaking skills.
After about a year working at Tendercrop, Erin began breeding does on the farm and milking them by hand with the goal of eventually making cheese. She experimented with different techniques and perfected her recipes using friends and family as beta testers. Certain cheeses “speak” to different cheesemakers, Erin explains. She credits her experiences in particular with Peter and Linda at Consider Bardwell Farm which allowed her to explore a wide variety of cheeses and find her own niche. Making cheese is an art form as well as a magical chemical process, she explains, where a minute literally can make a difference.
In July of 2014, she decided to take the plunge into cheesemaking as a business rather than a hobby. She began the process of finding financing to construct her cheesemaking facility, and obtaining required regulatory approvals to wholesale and retail her products. This spring she received those approvals and opened for business. Her herd has grown and now includes 30 goats: 14 milkers, 2 bucks, and 14 dry doelings (who will join the milking herd next year.)
Dancing Goats Dairy’s cheesemaking facility includes a pasture plus a building that houses the goats, a milking parlor, a milk house, a cheese room, a viewing room, and a small retail space. Goats with kids are milked in groups (now by bucket, not hand) in the milking parlor twice a day, 12 hours apart, from March until November or December. The milking equipment is cleaned thoroughly and sanitized after each milking to ensure the cleanest, purest milk. Buckets of fresh milk are brought into the milk house where they are chilled in a bulk tank for up to two days. Slowly and gently, so as not to damage the whole milk fat particles, the milk is pumped over to a 36-gallon Dutch made custom cheese vat. There, the milk is pasteurized at 145° for 30 minutes, then cooled to approximately 90°. That’s the ideal temperature to add a starter culture and allow it to grow, thereby changing the milk’s lactose (milk sugar) into lactic acid. This acidification process changes the acidity level of the milk and starts turning it from a liquid into a solid.
After the starter culture has flourished to the right level, rennet is added to further encourage the milk to solidify (coagulation). While many traditional cheesemakers use calf rennet, Erin uses microbial rennet, making her cheeses suitable for vegetarians. The time it takes for the milk to reach the desired level of firmness after the introduction of the rennet is called the flocculation time. This depends on many factors including the rennet strength, temperature of the milk, acid level achieved by the starter culture, and the quality and age of the milk. Erin notes that “interestingly, since the quality of the milk changes throughout the milking season, and protein and fat levels will decrease later in the season, the cheesemaker needs to adjust the flocculation time constantly throughout the season based on what the animals are eating even if they are making the same style of cheese each time."
When the milk reaches the appropriate level of coagulation, the curds are cut which further encourages them to expel liquid (whey). Generally, the smaller the curds are cut, the harder the resulting cheese will be. Soft cheeses are barely cut, retaining a high amount of moisture. Harder cheeses, such as Tomme, are cut into a very fine texture and also are slowly and gently cooked, allowing them to further drop moisture. The curds are then transferred into their draining vessels. Once the curds have been separated from the whey, the cheese is salted. Salt adds flavor and acts as a preservative for the harder cheeses. It also helps a natural rind to form on the cheese. Erin uses a combination of dry salting and brining to brine her cheeses.
At this point, whipped chèvre will be mixed with herbs, spices or other flavorings and packed into eight ounce deli containers. Ladled chèvre will be removed from their molds and the resulting buttons will be either coated in herbs or directly wrapped in cheese paper for sale. The aged cheeses, once removed from their molds and salted, will ripen in aging caves for anywhere from a month to a year. The ripening process, and the care given to the cheese during this time, is referred to as affinage. During this time, the temperature and humidity of the cave or room where the cheese ages is closely monitored. An affineur (caretaker of the aging cheese) knows how to treat each cheese so it develops the proper flavor and texture. The affineur makes minor adjustments to the ripening time based on the size of the cheese wheel, cave conditions, and a variety of other factors. When the cheeses reach the optimum point of maturity, they are removed from the cave, cut, wrapped and brought to sale at market so that the consumers taste them at their peak of perfection.
The time is ripe, Erin feels, for her to begin her business here in Massachusetts. She explains, “The area has this wonderful up and coming food movement. So many of the people I’ve spoken to as I’ve been growing my farm have been so thrilled by the influx of small, boutique and artisan makers like myself building their businesses here. They’ve expressed their budding desire to seek out more wholesome, sustainable, lovingly made products and I feel like we help to give them a community where they can do so.” Customers’ interest in obtaining food directly from the producer, she says, is now catching up with artisan producers’ desire to make that food.
Collaboration with other local food producers is a big part of Erin’s game plan as she grows her business. In particular, local jam producer doves & figs produces the jam for one of her chèvres and her brew washedrind cheese is washed with cider and beer made by local boutique brewers. As she explains, “The North Shore has a great community of local makers. To be able to take an extremely local product and then collaborate with other local vendors who are just as passionate about their products and sourcing local as I am just makes it that much better. Another great aspect of working with other local makers is that by collaborating and supporting each other we get a lot more visibility and interest in the local food movement as a whole. When there is more interest in buying local in the community as a whole, we all thrive."
Currently Dancing Goats Dairy makes various flavors of its creamy and silky chèvre, including sea salt, cracked black pepper, garlic and herb, chive, fig, seasonal jam, lemon poppy seed and everything bagel. Additionally, Erin makes a cocoa rubbed Tomme with a very delicate, slightly nutty saltiness and subtle notes of dark stout. She also makes a mild and savory brew washed rind cheese reminiscent of Réblochon or Tallegio. She’s considering buying cow and sheep milk from herds off the farm and making it into artisan mixed milk cheeses on the premises. Cows milk cheeses are planned for next year. One of her long term goals is to perfect an extra aged goat milk Gouda. In addition to its cheeses, Dancing Goats Dairy also makes Cajeta, a delectable and not too sweet liquid caramel sauce similar to Dolce de Leche as well as goat milk soaps in various scents.
Dancing Goats Dairy cheeses, Cajeta and soap are sold at their farm store located at 41R Parker Street in Newbury, MA, where farm tours of the grounds and cheesemaking facility are available by appointment. Their cheeses can be purchased at several local farmers markets and stores, including the Newburyport Farmer’s Market and Tendercrop Farm’s two locations, in Newburyport, MA and Dover, NH.
For a complete list of places to purchase Dancing Goats Dairy products, visit dancinggoatsdairy.com
This story appeared in the Summer 2015 issue.