Going for goat cheese
May/June 2011 California Country magazine
Story by Jennifer Harrison
Photos by Paolo Vescia and Matt Salvo
Chèvre and feta with a taste of farming history
It's 3:15 a.m. in Cottonwood, a picturesque town in Tehama County, and Deneane Ashcraft prepares for her day. Her home: North Valley Farms. Her passion: making farmstead goat cheese.
"We are following a farm model that you would have seen many years ago, where all the food comes from the land you live on," she said.
This return to the past is no accident. Both Deneane and her husband Mark are sixth-generation California farmers, with roots in agriculture that date back hundreds of years. Deneane's side first settled in Sonoma County in 1850 and ran a dairy, raised beef and grew hay. They were pioneers who survived on the food they farmed. And this love of sustainable living was passed on.
Deneane and Mark Ashcraft of North Valley Farms Chèvre in Tehama County escort some of their 60 goats through the pasture. Deneane said the goats are "the stars of the show."
"I grew up farming," she said. "I had the exposure at a young age and it ignited a fire—an interest in animals and milk."
Mark's family settled in San Mateo County in the 1800s, where they farmed and were involved in merchant trades. The family legacy can still be seen on Half Moon Bay's Main Street—at Cunha's Country Store, a grocery founded by Mark's grandfather in 1920.
"The store was family founded and operated until my mother recently sold it," Mark said. "She worked there into her late 70s and I worked there growing up."
A goat steps onto the milking platform.
Upon marrying, Deneane and Mark carried on the farming tradition and purchased their Cottonwood property: 60 acres of bare land in the northern tip of the Sacramento Valley. While they both had full-time careers—Deneane as an elementary schoolteacher and Mark with the California Department of Food and Agriculture (where he still works in the Animal Health Branch)—they also managed to breed and raise purebred Angus cattle.
As unlikely as it may sound, raising cattle led to making goat cheese.
"We purchased a small group of goats to provide milk for calves needing it, such as a twin or a calf a cow rejected," Deneane explained.
The Ashcrafts were smitten with the goats' gregarious personalities and, before they knew it, added more goats to their farm.
"We were impressed with the milk-to-feed ratio of the goats and ease of cleanup relative to their housing, as well as the low impact they had on our pastureland," she said.
Soon there was a lot of goat's milk, and Deneane figured she'd better use it.
"I started making cheese in my kitchen for our household," she said. "We really liked it and friends liked it."
Mark tends the land.
During the next 10 years, the Ashcrafts thoughtfully planned how to someday own and operate a commercial creamery and started buying the necessary tools.
"The garage was stuffed to the rafters with dairy equipment and the cars were parked outside," Deneane said with a laugh. "When visitors would view the collection in the garage, I would say, 'It all fits together somehow and makes a dairy.'"
Today, a herd of 60 dairy goats roams freely on the Ashcrafts' certified organic pastureland. And each animal's health and welfare remains top priority.
"We know them on a first-name basis," Mark said, citing Rebecca, Snake, Boomer, Tita (the naughtiest of the bunch) and Dufus, to name just a few.
"Goats naturally live in family groups and form alliances," Deneane explained. "That is how they live here, out on the pasture like you would have seen hundreds of years ago."
Deneane is a full-time dairy producer and cheese maker, while product marketing falls to Mark. He also maintains the pastures and develops the farm's own hay, which is used as feed.
Deneane makes cheese: scooping out the curd; hanging the curd to drain the remaining whey; and wrapping and labeling herbed chèvre.
North Valley Farms Chèvre Inc. specializes in chèvre (the French word for "goat" that also means "goat cheese" in everyday food lingo). Unlike firmer varieties, their chèvre is a light, soft cheese that resembles cream cheese. It is made plain or with herbs such as dill, herbes de Provence and garlic. North Valley also makes feta cheese, a harder, brined curd cheese.
All the cheese is farmstead, meaning it is produced from the milk of the farm's own goats and is made onsite at the farm's creamery. The cheese is also artisan, which speaks to the method of making the cheese by hand. Deneane does it all with little outside help—thus, her 3:15 a.m. wake-up call each day.
"The cheese making has a life of its own," she said. "It's a humbling experience."
Humbling because of the pure effort it takes. Upon waking, Deneane turns the lights on in the goat barn to prepare the animals for milking, which starts at 4:30 a.m. and ends around 6:45 a.m. when the goats are let out to pasture. Hours of cheese making follow and the day winds down at dinnertime, but Deneane often finds herself back in the cheese room after the meal. Cheese making here is an intricate, step-by-step process and small batches are made by hand with limited mechanical help.
Goat milk production is seasonal, with the greatest flow of milk occurring in the warm months. During peak season—April through August—cheese is made daily. The end result is 10,000 pounds of goat cheese a year. The product is sold at Northern California specialty markets, farmers markets and on the couple's website (www.northvalleyfarms.com). It has garnered several state and national awards, including prizes from the California State Fair Cheese Competition, the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest and the American Cheese Society Contest.
Chef Michael Tuohy uses the Ashcrafts' goat cheese at his Sacramento restaurant.
Goat cheese has a distinctive and tart flavor that can be linked, in part, to the fatty acids in goat's milk that differ from cow's milk. It's that flavor that caught the taste buds of a chef 150 miles away.
"I met them under the freeway in Sacramento!" joked Michael Tuohy, executive chef of Grange, a farm-to-table restaurant in Sacramento.
Tuohy, who is known for using fresh, local ingredients from small farms, frequents the popular Sacramento farmers market held in a parking lot under a freeway overpass. It was there he came upon the Ashcrafts' booth.
"I noticed they had a photo album with pictures of goats in the pasture. They seemed to be doing all the right things," the chef said, referring to their ranching practices. As soon as he tasted the cheese, he was sold.
"We were really surprised. We didn't know who he was and he kept coming back," Mark recalled.
"We thought he was a nice sort of fellow who knew something about food," added Deneane.
Yes, Tuohy knows something about food. The 31-year veteran of the restaurant business was opening a new restaurant and wanted the freshest ingredients possible. He was also looking for a goat cheese maker.
"Chèvre is delicate, tangy and incredibly fresh," the chef said.
Grange uses 20 pounds of North Valley Farms chèvre a week. Tuohy adds it to marinated beet salads and uses the herbed chèvre alongside a grilled flatbread. The cheese arrives every Friday, straight from the farm.
"I love dealing with the farmer," he said. "You can't get any fresher unless you were there getting it directly from the goat."
Naturally, it goes back to the goat.
"It all starts with the goats on the grass," Deneane said. And the family history of homestead farming lives on.
Jennifer Harrison is a reporter in Davis. She can be reached email@example.com.
For more information about Grange Restaurant, visit www.grangesacramento.com.
Cheese making 101
Cheese is an ancient food, with speculation that it was first made sometime between 8000 B.C. and 3000 B.C. One thing is certain: Making cheese is a multistep process. Here's how North Valley Farms Chèvre makes its chèvre and feta:
Step 1: Milking
Goats enter a milking parlor to be milked. During peak milking season (April-August), goats are milked twice a day. Each goat produces between 1 and 2 gallons of milk a day.
Step 2: Filtering
Milk goes through a filter and then through a plate cooler, where it is chilled. It is then pumped into a bulk cooling tank, where it is stored until cheese making.
Step 3: Pasteurizing
Milk is transferred into a pasteurizer, where it is pasteurized at 146 degrees for 30 minutes and then cooled. If making fresh chèvre, a vegetarian enzyme is used as a coagulant. The batch then sits for 12 to 15 hours.
Step 4: Separating
The milk separates into a solid mass (curd) and whey (liquid portion). The curd is ladled out of the vat into cheesecloth and hung for several hours to drain remaining whey.
Processing then depends on the type of cheese:
- For chèvre: The bags are taken down and the curd is salted and then sold plain or seasoned.
- For feta: The curds are "hooped" into traditional feta basket molds where they drain. They are then removed from the molds and put into a saline/salt brine and aged for 1 to 2 months.
Step 5: Wrap it up!
In this final step, the cheese is wrapped and labeled.