Cheesemaking Blues Give Whey to Better Days

Recently I sent a photograph of my front porch smothered by a sweet autumn clematis to my friend Doris. She remarked about the stunning tangle of flowers and then added, "I see that you have a French-blue door. It reminds me of the ones I saw in Brittany."

Having never been to France, I had not known of the colorful connection when I painted my door blue. The capriciousness of it tickled me. I had chosen a French blue the year that I learned to make chevre.

Cheesemaking is a skill I cultivated when my husband and I shared a Guernsey cow with four other back-to-the-land families. The arrangement was superb: Each family milked one day a week, and we rotated the weekend chores. Four or five gallons of milk a day provided us with butter and enough milk to curdle and age as Gouda or bleu cheese.

Most of the cheese turned out well. Sadly, the other families drifted back to the city, the cow was sold, and my husband and I transferred our affections to dairy goats.

I assumed I would continue making cheese from our excess milk. Yet time after time I would set rounds of cheese to age in our root cellar, only to bring them forth while holding my nose. They smelled like a billy and tasted like we were gnawing on goat hair. I would fling the rotten cheeses over the fence to the chicken yard and watch the hens devour the cheese. Thankfully, the foul flavor never affected their egg production.

At last I gave up, and for several years I made only an instant ricotta. I'd question other homesteaders about their attempts with making goat cheese, but could not unearth any secrets.

THEN last year a new friend recommended two books on making goat cheese. One, by a fellow Michigander, explained the subtle differences between cow's milk and goat's milk. The other was written by an order of nuns in Montreal and it enhanced my understanding of chevre and soft-ripened goat cheese.

Out came my white enamel pot and dairy thermometer. I meticulously followed each minute detail. I felt like an alchemist as I incubated a special culture for starting the cheese and carefully measured drops of rennet.

I set the pot on a counter near my wood cook stove and waited. The next morning I peeked under the lid and - vol! - chevre! I ladled the soft, sweet curd into the required perforated plastic molds and watched the whey drain. Garlic was minced and added to a mixture of thyme, parsley, and chervil, which I sprinkled into the molds.

After that first success, my family grew nonchalant about the racks of chevre draining in the refrigerator. We heaped the creamy curd onto our salads and sandwiches, along with other fresh garden produce. I gave containers of chevre to friends and brought bowls of the soft cheese to potluck suppers.

My confidence waxed stronger, so I attempted Cheddar, mozzarella, and Colby cheese. We all held our breath when I sliced through the first round of Cheddar and exposed a mellow cheese that tasted and smelled like Cheddar. But of all the cheeses, it was the chevre that reigned over the abundant dairy days of summer.

During the waning days of fall our milk supply dwindled, and the goats went dry. I perused goat-supply catalogs throughout the winter months and watched my does grow broader.

Now, as the chickadee sings its spring call, my blue door swings open and slams behind me as I carry my milk bucket to the barn. The baby goats gambol in their kid pen, and I listen to the tinkle of the goat bells as the does amble in from the greening pasture. A pot of chevre curdles in the kitchen, and soon we shall taste the first riches of spring.

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