Tasty cheese made with milk from local goats

October 02, 2002|By ROB KASPER

AS A LONGTIME proponent of supporting your local livestock, I was delighted the other night to feast on goat cheese that not only was remarkably good, but also was produced from milk drawn from Maryland goats.

The milk for the cheese had been provided by 41 goats -- 30 Nubian and 11 Saanen -- who are Maryland residents. The goats dwell at FireFly Farms Organic Inc., a 130-acre spread in Bittinger in Garrett County. The farm is run by Mike Koch and Pablo Solanet, two young professionals who are part of the trend toward artisan cheese-making that we wrote about on this page last week.

In August, FireFly Farms Mountain Top Bleu won first prize at an annual competition held by the American Cheese Society. This meant that this cheese had been measured against all other aged blue cheese made from goat milk, and had been declared the best in the land.

Moreover, another FireFly cheese, Merry Goat Round, also won an award. It finished third in the category that was open to all aged cheeses in America made with goat milk.

These awards came as a surprise to Koch and Solanet, who have been making cheese for a little more than a year. Koch still splits his time between the farm and his day job as a marketing executive for Fannie Mae in Washington. Solanet, who was a pastry chef in a Washington-area restaurant, now lives on the farm, making cheese and watching over the goat herd. When I spoke with Solanet last week on the telephone, I could hear goats calling in the background. "Those are the kids," he said. "They want my attention."

I met the two nouveau cheese makers a few weeks ago at Combalou, the restaurant side of the combination retail and wholesale cheese-dispensing operation at Calvert and Read streets run by Jack Fromberg. It was a Friday night, and the two cheese makers had driven their SUV into Baltimore carrying their Weimaraners, Austin and Axel, as well as samples of their three goat cheeses, Mountain Top Bleu, Merry Goat Round and Allegheny Chevre.

They left the dogs in the SUV, and brought the sample cheeses into the restaurant. "In France," Fromberg noted, "you could bring the dogs in, too, but not here."

As Fromberg and I tasted the samples, we took turns peppering the cheese makers with questions. I wanted to know why, among all the paths of life open to them, they had chosen to live with goats.

Solanet replied that the rural life had appealed to him from boyhood. A native of Argentina, he regularly visited a family farm in Veronica, outside Buenos Aires. "I liked the farm and the animals," he said, but he admitted that the goats have proven to be a handful. They are born, he has discovered, at all hours of the day and night, and sometimes the newborns need help learning the basics, such as how to eat.

Solanet and Koch get some help from Ron and Beth Brenneman, their neighbors and business partners who own a herd of dairy cattle and who milk the goats.

Koch said he was drawn to goat cheese because "I loved to eat it." After examining and then dismissing the ideas of growing herbs or raising honeybees on the farm, he settled on making goat cheese. The precision of the process appealed to Koch, who had minored in chemistry when he was a student at the College of William and Mary.

"You look for a recipe and when you get it right, you do it exactly the same way each time," Koch said, summing up his take of the process.

Fromberg questioned the cheese makers about procedures and bacteria. How long, he asked, had the blue cheese been aged? The answer came back: five weeks at temperatures ranging between 50 degrees and 55 degrees, with humidity between 80 percent and 85 percent.

Had the milk been pasteurized? Fromberg asked. Yes, came the reply, at 161 degrees for 15 seconds, but soon a new machine that pasteurizes the milk at a lower temperature, 145 degrees for 30 minutes, would be used.

Fromberg and the cheese makers also discussed the fight, described in the Aug. 19 issue of the New Yorker, between some artisan cheese makers and federal health officials over cheeses made from so-called raw milk, which has not be pasteurized. The officials contend cheese made from raw milk must be aged at least 60 days to be safe, if it can be safely made at all. Yet some cheese lovers disagree.

Led by Mother Noella Marcellio, a nun working on a doctorate in microbiology who makes cheese at the Benedictine Cloister of the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Conn., the raw-milk contingent argues that the cheese-making process often does a better job than pasteurization of keeping harmful bacteria under control.

They contend that raw-milk cheeses, especially those aged 60 days, should be allowed to flourish in America as they do in Europe. In addition, they say a cheese made from raw milk has distinct flavor and aroma.

Fromberg said he thought he could sniff out the difference between a cheese made from raw milk and one made from pasteurized milk. "You get a nose for it," he said.

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