photo of goat

Farm Taste, Technology and Terroir

By Anne Topham

I believe that Judy and I were "doing" terroir long before we knew the word or were familiar with the concept. Looking back, now, over our experience, I find that for me terroir means having a sense of place and belonging to that place, knowing who I am and what I am about, and finally, establishing and maintaining connections-- to the land, the animals,and the people to whom we hand our cheese each week at the Farmers' Market.

Judy and I were living in Iowa when we got our first goat and I began trying to make cheese from all the milk she produced. When we decided to find our own farm, make goat cheese from the milk of our own goats, and hand that cheese directly to people who would buy it -- it never really occurred to us to stay in Iowa. Our roots were in Wisconsin: Wisconsin, with its tradition of dairying and cheesemaking, Madison with an established farmers' market, Madison with the University and the Steenbock library on the Ag campus--and of course both of us had lived in Madison for 20 years so our primary supports and connections were here. We began with a deep sense of place, in many ways, at many levels.

We began our search for a place to implement our vision, our dream. Once we looked at a farm just a few miles from the Mississipi river--it was beautiful, it had lots of the features we were looking for (for example, we had decided we could build a barn or a house but not both), but the Mississippi simply felt too far from our center, from all our supports. After that, we drew a circle around Madison, including everything within about 50 miles. and continued our search.

We looked and drove and called realtors. We looked and drove and searched. We saw many places that would have been suitable; we saw many places that in retrospect would have been more practical -- for one thing, some had a dairy barn waiting to be used, some even had a few level spots on them! But we finally chose a place which spoke to our hearts, and to our eyes -- 50 acres in the driftless area of southwest Wisconsin -- a place high on a hill from which we could look out on the hills and valleys surrounding us, where we could see the weather coming from the west.

We had the roof and the poles put up for a barn. Judy built the milk house with a hammer in one hand and a book in the other. We sided it all with lumber from an old barn we helped take down on my dad's farm in Iowa -- 400 miles away. We remodeled our 20x20 garage into a cheeserie -- it seemed too small and modest to be called a licensed dairy plant, although that is what it legally became. Friends came out and helped, my family shook their heads in disbelief while cheering from afar and coming to help when they could. We worked from before first light until after last light.

And always throughout those long and tiring days, we could look up and out upon the land before and around us. The place itself nurtured us and helped us keep going -- even as it tried and tested us with its rocky,clay soil, its lack of level ground to build on.

We consulted with the Wisconsin Ag Dept to do everything in keeping with the myriad laws and regulations governing the production of milk and cheese. No one in recent memory had done what we wanted to do, on such a small scale. We talked to Darrold Murray in the Dept. -- he understood what we wanted to do; he remembered when small dairy plants dotted the State. He advised us and helped us find small equipment. He expressed belief in what we wanted to do. He connected us to the older and close to vanishing tradition of small cheese factories, located at crossroads throughout Wisconsin.

When a local fellow came to level a spot for our barn, he expressed interest in what we were planning to do -- and asked for a sample of the cheese I was making in the kitchen until the cheeserie was finished. He tasted it, pronounced it quite fine, and asked for some to take home for his kids to try -- explaining that he would just put it on the table and not tell them it was goat cheese. Wisconsin folks certainly do like cheese and happily consume a lot of the local products. However, at that time, fresh cheese made from goat milk was definitely not part of their tradition, nor was it a familiar taste!

When we finally got our license and could legally take the cheese to the Dane county Farmers' Market on the Capitol Square in Madison, we encountered resistance and suspicion from more people than we had imagined. However, many of them were willing to try the cheese if we joked with them, cajouled, pleaded . . . we thought that if they tried the cheese, they would buy it. Fortunately that was true. And of course, because of the University, there were many people who came to the market who had tasted french-style goat cheese and were delighted to find that they could now get fresh, locally-made chevre.

Without the Farmers' Market in Madison, I don't think we would have had a chance of making a go of it. We wanted to sell the cheese locally and get it to people as quickly as possible after making it. I still wanted to make a round of ripened goat cheese like the first one I had tasted. However, necessity being the mother that it is, by the time we got our license, we desperately needed to sell cheese and make some money. And we began to realize that the freshness of our cheese was something that no imported French cheese could compete with.

At the Market, we tried to teach people about the cheese: we took recipes and made suggestions for its use. We traded cheese for any new recipes customers brought us. We also tried to teach people about goats -- we took pictures of the goats, pictures of the new kids born each year, we answered questions about how we milked them and what equipment we used (and because this is a dairy state, the questions were often both knowledgeable and detailed), we spoke about how smart the goats are, we told stories about our adventures with the goats. I found myself answering questions from people, men mostly, who had made cheese in one of the many factories in WI. I spoke about the long, slow, gentle, 3-day process to make the fresh cheese -- explaining the connection to our model of the French farmhouse cheeses -- and the difference between this cheese and a cheddar, a brick or a Swiss.

And we learned from our customers as much, perhaps more, than they learned from us. We thought we were making a gourmet, French-style goat cheese--and we were. But we also learned that this fresh cheese made from goat milk was close to the common cheese made in Israel. Customers explained to us that our cheese was similar to the cheese made in Afghanistan by the nomadic people and to the cheese found only up in the mountains in Puerto Rico.

Customers would also report, too much salt last week -- and I would return to the cheesrie to measure ever more carefully. Some asked for a drier, harder cheese; some asked for "That French cheese with the ash on it" -- and always I did my best to respond. Whenever I made something new, customers responded by tasting and shaping each different attempt.

And kids who come to the market with their parents have grown up tasting and eating a locally produced goat cheese. I think of one family in particular -- almost every week, they appear: 2 boys and a girl accompanied by their parents. When they first tasted the cheese, the kids could hardly reach the table to dip into the samples offered. Now, the three of them push up to the table and begin dipping into the soft cheese, arguing and discussing which 2 of the cheeses to choose that week. In between tastes, I inquire about their swimming and soccer activities. Other parents stop to report that their kids have now left home to start college in distant places, that they are going to visit, and must buy cheese to take along.

After all these years, I still haven't made that lovely ripened cheese I originally wanted to do. We haven't built a cave yet. However, what we have done is build a network of connections: to this place and to the people who buy and eat our cheese. A network of connections which continues to nuture, support and sustain me. And the people who come every week to the Farmers' Market have a connection to our farm, to the goats, and to the work of my hands.