No kidding -- US goat cheese is catching on. Home, home on the farm -- where the goats roam

It doesn't quite fit the ``Heidi'' image. The hills are here. Lush and green with rolling fields dotted with yellow buttercups, daisies, and wild purple lupine. And of course the goats, gamboling about, kicking, bleating, playing follow-the-leader up and down the hillside.

But that's where the Heidi story ends.

Letitia (Letty) Kilmoyer doesn't have a lot of time to spend daydreaming in the pastures. Raising goats is work. Hard work. Seven-days-a-week work.

``We bought the farm 13 years ago. At the time we had a garden, raised our own meat, fruit, vegetables, and even made our own cider. We were completely self-sufficent as far as food goes,'' Letty explains.

``About five years ago we expanded the goat herd and started raising them commercially for milk and cheese. As the business grew, we had to give up all the rest -- except for a few cows,'' she says, groaning as she hefts cheesecloth bags of curd onto hooks where they will hang overnight to remove excess whey.

Five years ago the United States government clamped a protectionist quota on imported hard cheeses, except those made from sheep, buffalo, and goat's milk.

The French responded by starting a massive campaign to promote their goat (ch`evre) cheese in the US. This advertising effort by the French was a tremendous boost to the small American goat cheese market.

``They actually did the advertising for us,'' says Letty. ``Since then our business has tripled.'' The herd here at Westfield Farm now consists of 31 milking does and two ornery old bucks -- Spiderman, a black Nubian, and Shasta, a white Saanen who smiles a lot.

``Saanen goats give roughly 500 pounds more milk a year than the Nubians. But the Nubians' milk is higher in butter fat. We're doing a lot of cross-breeding to get the best of both,'' says Letty, taking aim with a fly-swatter at a lone fly that managed to sneak through the screens into an otherwise immaculate work area.

Right now Letty and her husband, Bob -- a professor at Colby College -- are producing a plain, slightly salted, soft, white cheese similar to, but milder than, imported French Montrachet. They also blend the same cheese with herbs and garlic.

``We can put a cheese on the market that's a little sweeter and fresher than the French types, but imported cheese is still less expensive [to make],'' Letty says. ``They have the volume, and knowledge. Plus, much of the foreign cheese industry is subsidized.''

Overall, the Kilmoyers enjoy their business. ``It's great working with a natural product, and there really isn't a lot of pressure,'' says Letty. ``But when one of our help calls, like this morning, and says, `I was up all last night with the baby, and can't make it in today,' '' says Letty, ``the milking and cheese-mixing still have to be done. It can't wait, and so I have to do it.''

Breeders often show their fondness for their stock by giving them pet names. All 33 of the Kilmoyer goats wear collars with their names. ``We have a flower series,'' says Letty as she is gently nudged by a circling herd of affectionate does. ``That's Alyssum, and Iris. There's Lily and Lilac. Then we have the French series. Genevieve, and Jacqueline over there. And then there's Ultra Violet and her daughter Infra Red.''

Cheesemaking is relatively simple, if you know how to do it. Although goat cheese from France is made with unpasteurized milk, Letty makes hers from pasteurized milk. By federal law any cheese made from raw [unpasteurized] milk must be aged 60 days before sold.

Letty explains how their French-type cheese is made. ``After the milk is pasteurized, a goat cheese culture is added, then rennet is mixed in to set the curd. Later it is hung overnight in cheesecloth bags, then mixed. Salt and/or spices are added before it is packaged and sold.

``Goat milk is naturally homogenized,'' she says. ``The fat content is close to cow's milk, but the fat globules are smaller and more evenly dispersed. That's why goat cheese and milk freeze well.''

The making of goat cheese is decidedly on the rise in the Midwest, too. ``People start out with one or two goats for milk or cheese, then, like puppies, they keep getting more,'' says Bill Schlinsog, a dairy marketing specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture. ``Before you know it they have more milk than they can use so they sell the extra to the co-op for cheese.''

Ben Reddington, president of the Southwest Wisconsin Dairy Goat Co-op, says that most goat cheese in the Midwest area is made into a hard American-type that has a longer shelf life than the softer French-type goat cheeses. ``About 80 percent of our production goes into a Cheddar-type cheese, and about 15 percent becomes a Monterey or Jack-type.'' The co-op has approximately 18 milk suppliers, and the 125,000 pounds of cheese produced there are distributed around the country.

Mr. Reddington gets milk from various breeds, including Alpine, LaMancha, Nubians, and Saanens. ``The breed of goat is not really that important,'' he says. ``What is important is the freshness and purity of the milk.'' Baked Goat Cheese 8 ounces fresh, soft, French-type goat cheese, either plain or herbed 1 teaspoon dried parsley leaves 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves 1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs 1/4 cup virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Shape goat cheese into 4 equal patties, about 1/2-inch thick. Set to dry on paper towels for about 1/2 hour to remove excess whey.

Mix dry ingredients together. Brush patties with olive oil and pour remaining oil into shallow baking dish. Roll patties in herb/crumb mixture and lay in baking dish. Bake 10 minutes. Remove from oven and let set 5 minutes to firm and cool cheese. Baked cheese may be served on garlic croutons or in a tomato sauce with a side dish of pasta.

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