RIDGEWAY, WIS. — IT all started with a goat named Angie and her kid, Gilda Radner, says Judy Borree, as she scoops out big spoonfuls of thick, creamy goat cheese from a square tub and plops them into small plastic containers.
The scene is the garage of a small farmhouse that has been converted into a tiny cheese-making operation in rural Ridgeway, Wis. The windows frame an idyllic landscape of gently rolling hills and pastures. Adorned in farm boots and white aprons, Ms. Borree and partner, Anne Topham, are busy packaging their cheeses to sell at the Saturday Farmer's Market in Madison.
They offer one reason why they gave up their jobs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison eight years ago to become owners of 20 milk-producing goats with names like Pumpernickel, Ripple, and Anemone.
"We were burned out on university life," Borree explains. "This allows us to live in a fashion that is elegantly simple."
When Borree and Topham were licensed to start their operation, called Fantome Farm, in 1984, small- and medium-size cheese farms in Wisconsin were a dying breed. Many of these farmers made cheddar cheese, and their operations were either folded into big cheese companies or squeezed out of business, says Gerd Stern, president of the American Cheese Society.
"We were really bucking the trend," Topham says. "They had not licensed a small cheese factory in Wisconsin for years."
But today in Wisconsin and all over the United States, farmers who make specialty cheeses are finding a growing market niche. "It's really exciting what is happening in the industry now," says Dan Carter, president of Dan Carter, Inc., a company in Mayville, Wis., that markets specialty cheeses nationally and internationally.
"Specialty cheeses are growing twice as fast as commodity cheeses.... Wisconsin is possibly the center of what's happening," Mr. Carter says.
Although no official definition exists for specialty cheeses, Carter defines them as cheeses that have a unique flavor or appearance, an ethnic background, that are labor-intensive to manufacture - and sell for higher prices.
Changing consumer attitudes and what Mr. Stern calls "the specialty-food revolution" have boosted the popularity of specialty cheeses. Consumers are realizing such gourmet cheeses don't have to be imported to be good, he says, and more restaurants are using regional cheese products in their dishes.
OVER the last 10 to 15 years the number of specialty cheese farmers doubled; nearly 200 now have operations throughout the US, and Stern predicts that number will double again in 10 years. Some European cheesemakers have also taken advantage of the market in the US and have set up manufacturing plants.
Examples of gourmet or specialty cheeses include such domestic varieties as brie, gorgonzola, manchego, havarti, and goat cheese - the fastest growing slice of this market.
Fantome Farm is probably the smallest cheese farm in Wisconsin if not the US, Topham says. "We're also sort of Lone Rangers out here - goats in a cow state," Borree adds, chuckling. Both say they are not in business for the money but for the quality of life.
Their career switch from academics to goat-cheese farmers started when both took a year's sabbatical and worked on Topham's father's farm in Iowa.
A visiting friend's mother from France brought them fresh goat cheese, and Topham decided to try making it, using milk from their goat. Several years went into perfecting the technique; when Topham started in 1980, goat cheese was practically unheard-of in the US (except, perhaps, for Greek feta cheese), and she had to send for an instruction book from France.
Back in Wisconsin they purchased land with a small farm 20 miles west of Madison. On a shoestring budget they built and bought the necessary equipment and brought in a pickup truck of baby goats.
Topham and Borree make four kinds of chevre - the French word for goat cheese. Much of the milk from their herd goes into a fresh chevre, which looks like a fluffy, dense ricotta. It has a creamy and mildly tangy flavor. They suggest using it in quiches, omelets, salads, pasta, on potatoes and chili, and in cheesecakes. Their other cheeses include a hockey-puck-sized firmer variety, an aged cheese, and brussels sprout-sized balls packaged in jars of olive oil and herbs.
Most of their cheese is sold at the weekly Farmer's Market that surrounds the Wisconsin Capitol building from April through October. Some specialty stores in Madison as well as restaurants there, in Milwaukee, and in Chicago are loyal patrons. Last year they started a mail-order business.
The key to good goat cheese is high-quality goat milk, Topham says. They make cheese every two days and emphasize it is a very interactive process. "It's not just a recipe," she says, while pouring a bucket of milk into a huge vat. "You have to have a feel for it. The milk is not the same day to day ... humidity, weather, time of year changes things."
Both express excitement at how fast the specialty cheese market is growing in the US. "It could mean we could have an incredible, wonderful array of cheeses just like in Europe," Topham says.
Goat cheese, like many specialty cheeses, is found mainly in gourmet shops or delis. But supermarkets are also adding more brands of domestic specialty cheeses in designated cheese shelves or islands. It sells for a premium: perhaps four times that of commercial cheeses.
Consumers are also becoming more familiar with goat cheese. Magazines are offering recipes and are helping people develop a more sophisticated palate, Borree says.
At the Farmer's Market, Topham and Borree provide samples for customers. When they first started selling it, "we ran into a lot of resistance. We had to cajole people into trying it and convince them they wouldn't drop over," says Borree. Now, she says, "people love to come and taste it."