I cuddle Daisy close in my arms and, like any 2-day-old, she kicks her newborn legs and cries before settling in and resting her soft chin on my shoulder. The other infant kids in the pink and yellow painted nursery bleat softly, each one cuter than the next. I want to take one— or all— home with me, but where would I keep a goat, albeit an adorable one, in the city?
And really, why would Daisy or her nursery mate, Dahlia, want to leave Cherry Glen Farm in the lovely, rolling hills of Montgomery County, where they can suckle milk at the “lamb bar,” a wheel-shaped contraption made with milk bottles and nipples, play on the teeter-totter and stare down the guinea hens and Araucana chickens that strut around the farm? And, living in my backyard in Baltimore, it’s not likely they’d have the same opportunity to compete for the ribbons that line the nursery, hailing winners in categories such as “grand champion,” “best in breed” and, intriguingly, “best udder.” But most selfishly, I would hate for Daisy not to have the opportunity to contribute milk to my favorite local cheeses, the ones that Cherry Glen produces.
Although Cherry Glen Farm has been in the business of breeding prize-winning goats for more than 30 years, foodies know the farm better for the cheese-making side of the business, which began in 2006. “Serious breeders have really good milk,” explains Sarah Krones, the farm’s assistant at the time, who takes me on a tour of the property on a muddy spring day. When goats produce milk 365 days a year, as these animals do, says Sarah, making cheese becomes “a natural thing to do with milk.”
Since discovering it in Whole Foods several years ago, I’ve come to love Cherry Glen’s fresh ricotta, which is creamy and perfect for breakfast sprinkled with toasted walnuts and drizzled with honey, and the lemony French-style crottin, grated over pasta tossed with bitter greens. I’ve also been known to go through a good portion of the stinky soft Monocacy Ash in one sitting, shaving slice after slice and murmuring “just a little more.” So the cheese fan in me is thrilled to meet the animals behind the product.
Although Cherry Glen is home to 500 to 700 goats, the cheese-making operation is quite compact. After the goats are milked, the milk is pumped into a holding tank and immediately chilled, explains Sarah, to prevent a strong “goaty” taste from developing. Later, the milk is pasteurized in small batches and processed according to the kind of cheese it is to become. Fresh chèvre requires the addition of vegetable cultures that prompt the separation of the curds (the solids) from whey (the liquids). The cheese is then pressed to release the whey (which is spread over the farm’s fields), molded by hand into shape and set to age for 10 days in the 56-degree, 67-percent humidity atmosphere of the ripening room. The ricotta, on the other hand, needs no aging, and requires only a dose of vinegar and salt and a fair amount of stove-top cooking, straining and compressing, before it’s ready for consumption.
The process looks so deceivingly easy that I wonder aloud to Sarah as we say our goodbyes if one could make simple cheese at home. Turns out you can.
The following week, I attend a Food Enthusiast class at Baltimore International College with 15 other adults eager to learn how to turn lait into fromage. After a welcome and an invitation to nosh on a spectacular buffet created by BIC students, chef Michael Wagner asks us to divide into small groups to tackle one or two recipes for cheese. Indian paneer, ricotta, and mozzarella are among the options. I join mother and daughter Toni and Mary Beth, visiting from Bath, Pa., to make mozzarella, while Mary Beth’s daughter, Jen, teams with Clara, a local law student, to make ricotta.
We’re a little disappointed when it turns out we’ll be making our mozzarella from already prepared curds instead of starting out from milk. But after we learn that the time involved with beginning from scratch would be prohibitive for an evening class, we jump in and measure out 2 pounds of squishy white curds into a large bowl, before transferring them into a colander that we lower into a massive pot of salted water that has been heated to 160 degrees.
One of the chefs hands Mary Beth two wooden spoons and shows her how to manipulate the quickly congealing curds into a smooth, stringy mass. The cheese looks like vanilla taffy, as Mary Beth balances the curds on the spoon with seemingly expert hands. But it’s 86-year-old Toni who really impresses in the next step when she pulls and stretches the cooling cheese into a perfect round with her hands, before wrapping it in plastic and plunging it into a bowl of ice water to firm up.
“Gorgeous,” Mary Beth says. “Of course, it’s in her [Italian] blood!”
Meanwhile, Jen and Clara have begun the ricotta, dissolving citric acid in a cup of water and adding the mixture, along with some salt, to 4 gallons of whole milk in a huge pot, which they place on the industrial stove. They stir and stir and stir until, finally, the milk starts to thicken, separate into lacy patterns and bubble like hot fat before reaching the called-for 185 degrees. It smells indescribably fresh and rich, almost like vanilla.
After letting the milk mixture sit for 10 minutes, the women pour the thickened curd into a colander set over a bowl and lined with cheesecloth. Ideally it would drain for several hours, but we’re eager to try it, so chef Michael Volpe tips the soft mass into a mold and we immediately grab spoons and dig in. It tastes like custard or rice pudding without the sweetness— a little grainy, firm and beautifully creamy. “That’s fantastic,” one student swoons. “I want to, like, live in this.”
I know what she means. Truly, it’s a revelation that you can make such good cheese so easily. Of course, it’s also a little overwhelming to think that 4 gallons of milk makes only about a pound of cheese. Maybe I do need that goat, after all.
Cherry Glen cheese can be purchased locally at Whole Foods and at the Cherry Glen Farm store in Boyds, Md., open on Saturdays. Visit cherryglengoatcheese.com for more information. Baltimore International College offers a series of evening Food Enthusiast classes for adults. Visit bic.edu for more information.