Tuesday, February 26, 2013

How to Make Cheese in Just 10 Easy Steps

So.  You like, no you love, cheese.  I mean, for someone like you, cheese has become its own dietary planet, a new group within your food pyramid.  It's not enough that cheese is accessible just about anywhere you would purchase normal groceries.  It's not enough that all of the hard, tedious work has been done for you by people who studied in the French Alps, people who walked in mountains with goats, who took chemistry to understand the science of cheese.  For you, it's not about perfection, it's about turning one thing into something else right there at home.  Perhaps you also sniff at the shiny packages in the cheese aisle.  "It can't be that hard," you shrug.  After all, it's just adding some culture to some milk, applying heat.  Stirring a little.  A child could do that.  Without understanding that you are being an over-confident smart-ass, you try to make some cheese.  And the truth is, actually, it really is incredibly easy.

Step 1: Get milk.  Or maybe you've got milk?  Where's that milk from?  Did you buy it at the supermarket?  If yes, then it's pasteurized.  Is it ultra pasteurized?  IT IS?!  Turns out that it's not so easy to make cheese from that stuff.  So you should probably do what I did, in an effort to be more straightforward about the process, in an effort to bypass the hassle of tracking down some low-heat pastuerized or raw milk - I just bought a goat.  Easy, right?

Step 2: Get a goat/cow.  Depending on the age of the animal, you might need to prepare yourself to wait just a bit longer than expected for cheese.  I decided to take the very long route in order to save some cash.  I bought baby goats for almost nothing from a dairy.  It wasn't until after making this affordable purchase that I came to understand the exorbitant cost of feeding baby goats.  You can bypass this step, however, by purchasing an adult animal that's already full of milk.  Voila!  You're nearly there with home cheese making!  This is also an appropriate time to scratch your head and re-consider whether it's time to just go ahead and buy some of that store bought milk.  Nah.  Too easy.

Step 3: (Skip this step if you went ahead and got the adult animal).  Raise the goat/cow.  This will lead to months worth of anecdotes related to animal escapes, animal illness, general animal care, animals dancing atop vehicles, animals ruining gardens, animals falling asleep in your lap, you falling in love with the animals.  It's likely that almost a year has now passed since the time you first decided to make cheese.  As you pull the goat off the car, ask yourself, is this still worth all the trouble?  (*Note: there is still no cheese).

Step 4: Breed the animal.  This is tricky.  It might require that you get another animal just to breed the cheese-producing animal.  Once you are confident the deed is done, step back and eye your goat/cow suspiciously for a month or two.  Is anything going on in there?  When you are certain something is, in fact, going on in there, then it's time to get excited because you are now finally much closer to cheese.

Step 5: Purchase cheese books and equipment.  I recommend buying only one or two books and then relying on the internet for the rest.  All of the basic equipment can be purchased at places like Target, and the exotic, fancy stuff can be found online at various cheese stores like Getculture.com.  At around this time you'll want to start reading some of those cheese books.  It may quickly become evident that cheesemaking is perhaps more of a science than art.  Or maybe it's more of an art than science?  You consider buying barometers and building a dairy room in order to control temperature, humidity, and mold spore growth.  You wring your hands over the possibility that cheese making might not be your bag.  In fact, after two chapters of the book, you start to resent cheese making.  You tear open a little log of cheese purchased from the store and start nervous-eating.  Hey, that cheese is pretty good, was relatively cheap, and already made!  Why in the world would you make your own cheese?!  What were you thinking?  Your thoughts are probably interrupted at this time by frantic bleating from outside.  Something is wrong with the goat/cow.  Sounds like a baby goat/cow might be coming.

Step 6: Deliver a baby goat/cow.  It's pretty much as easy as it sounds.  Unless it isn't, in which case you should go ahead and plan for the worst.  Bring into the barn with you towels, latex gloves, iodine, a cell phone with the number for a farm vet, and a small flask of something to calm the nerves.  Your nerves, not the animal's nerves, just to be clear.  Prepare yourself for some gory moments, some scary moments, and then some really delightful moments and keep your eye on the prize: cheese!  (Wait, didn't step 5 convince us that we don't want to make cheese?!).  Oops, too late. 

Step 7:  Wait a week.  Yep.  All that anxious time building pastures, raising animals, reading about the wonders and mysteries of cheese making, and now you have to wait some more?  Calm down, what's another week?  The first week, the milk is no good for cheese making since it's full of sticky, high protein stuff called colostrum that the baby animal truly does need more than you, no matter how strong your addiction to cheese.  Really.

Step 8: Milk the animal.  It's not advisable to milk your animal in its natural habitat (pasture), which is sometimes called "field-milking."  Field milking can lead to all kinds of pitfalls unless you're working with a well-trained animal.  During that year you waited (im)patiently for cheese, you hopefully wrangled/cajoled/bribed someone into building you a proper milk stand or milking stanchion.  Lure your darling animal into the stand using something delicious.  We use grain and alfalfa.  It works 80% of the time.  Grab the shiny milking pail that you probably purchased one year ago, along with the goat/cow, and finally put it to good use.  Attempt to procure milk from the animal in whichever way you were taught, or googled, or You Tubed, or learned growing up (lucky!).  Prepare to dodge a hoof.  Prepare for the shiny milk pail to accidentally become a hoof rest or a goat boot.  Re-adjust your strategy and gently pull the animal towards you.  Look down into your now manure-encrusted milk pail where less than 1/4 cup of soiled milk has pooled.  Weep quietly into the side of the animal.  Release her back into the pasture.  Try again tomorrow.  Go to bed and dream of cheese.

Step 9: Gather the milk.  It's now been probably about three weeks since those babies were born.  You've been kicked in the face, stomped in the hand, peed on, screamed at, and drenched with rogue sprays of milk.  Somehow you stopped resenting the animal and the animal stopped resenting you.  You now have a fridge full of milk.  Pull out the stainless cheese making pot purchased a year ago when you bought the milking pail, around when you bought the animal.  Pull out all of the cheese making accoutrements you've accumulated for just this moment.  This might include your little cheese book, some rennet (to make the whey separate from the milk), the culture, a thermometer, a slotted spoon.  Read directions; follow them exactly or follow them loosely.  Unleash your natural talent, bowing your head over the milk there in the pot.  It took some guts to get here, no matter how that cheese ends up tasting.  Heat, stir, sprinkle, cover with cloth, peek in at the curd.  Try to wipe that smile off your face.

Step 10: Taste your cheese.  It's probably been about three days now since step 9.  A few more things happened, if you followed those directions at all.  Probably you cut some curd, you stirred the curd, you scooped and drained it.  Probably all of the little plants near your front door and some of the other animals benefited from the cheese by-products, if you were kind enough to pour whey over their food.  Go to the pantry and open a box of crackers, pour a glass of wine.  Smear the fresh cheese onto the cracker.  Take a bite.  So, what do you think?  Is cheese making art or chemistry?  More chemistry than art?  Does it matter?  Because you realize, in that first bite, catching the movement of your goats/cows out of the window: it's neither.  There's a little magic there in that cheese.  Just magic.  And it's really as simple as that.

*NOTE:  You can bypass most of steps 2-9, stopping briefly on step 5, if you go ahead and buy stuff from the store - either the milk or the cheese.  But what's the fun in that?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Farm Hands

My day job makes daily milking impossible.  That is to say: it makes it impossible if I choose to abide by natural sleep patterns and such.  Today, I needed to be south of Houston before 10am making a morning milking completely out of the question unless waking somewhere around 4am in order to squeeze in the chore, then a little self-grooming, time enough for some coffee and toast before the 3 hour drive into the big city.  By the time I arrived, I'd just completed the solitary journey from here to there.  It's a distance that cuts through piney woods and rolling prairie and, in some places, the blue bonnets have started rising up out of this confused late-winter soil.  I stopped at Hruska's bakery/gas station in Ellinger for a box of kolaches (it's unforgivable to pass through Czech country without buying some) and leaned against the car while I filled the tank, chewed on a poppy seed kolache just when a weathered rancher stepped out of a busted old farm truck.  He looked sturdy as oak but his back was so gnarled from wear that he leaned sideways.  His leather face considered me for a full second before he nodded his head; the twitch of a smile flickered before he shuffled on inside.  The way his legs bowed, I'd guess he spent the better parts of his life on horseback, and as his pearl snap shirt fluttered against stained jeans, one quick hand reached back to tuck it in.  I caught sight of his hand then, so deeply lined, grime caked in the nail bed, trimmed down to the quick.  It was skin that had baked in the sun, been cut up and bitten.  A good, strong, storied hand.

The click of a full tank knocked me out of a reverie.  Popped the rest of the pastry in my mouth, wiped hands on my skirt and got back in the car.  By the time I reached the meeting, everyone was already arranged around a table, pressed neatly and ready for a day of polite discussions.  I went around for introductions ("Hi y'all, how are yeeeww?"), shaking hands, saying hello.  The women tapped manicured fingers against the table or used them to tap out texts into phones.  Most of the men were equally well-groomed.  Inspecting my own hands I realized how dirty they probably appear to strangers.  My dry skin is cracked from constant washing but there's still places where the dirt grinds in and stains the creases.  No matter my vigilance, a faint black line fills each nail bed.  The nails themselves are kept trimmed close now because of milking, since I think it's just rude to milk an animal with fingernails.  Each hand currently has wounds healing.  One is from an unfortunate tangle with mesquite, but the other?  There's no telling.  As long as the hand works, then it's not worth further discussion.

But I did worry momentarily today, whether the state of my hands would somehow be noticed, such a stark juxtaposition against my clothes, my makeup.  I shook hands timidly at first and then thought, aw hell, let them see.  Let people ask, let me tell them the truth about how the other half of me lives.  I sat in the meeting for four hours, discussing policy, rules, regulations, but my mind was back in Ellinger.  If only I had walked up to the man I saw outside Hruska's.  If only I had met his eye, introduced myself, shook his hand.  If I follow you, where would we go?  Can I borrow your hat and perch there on the back of your truck?  I can help you feed the cows, if that's where you're headed.  I can stand out in the field and watch this storm come in, pray for rain with you over the oat seeds just sowed.  We can sip coffee and eat kolaches in the pasture, talk grain and hay prices.  And you can read me stories from your hands, or teach me something that they know about mending fences.

It's not that my day job is bad work; it is actually fairly exceptional.  But it's not really my work, anymore.  Answering phone calls and facilitating meetings feels silly compared to the important job of tending the animals, sitting on the milk stand at sunrise, carrying the pail inside, turning the milk into food.  The past few weeks were deeply exhausting.  Emotionally.  Physically.  At the meeting today I stared at my hands, turned them over - palm down then palm up - looking for new lines, seeing if scars have emerged yet from this recent chapter here.  After being dormant so long, these hands delivered a goat, trimmed hooves, milked (milked, milked), carried babies, rescued hens, and dug a grave for one of my dearest animals.  Do those stories tell there, somewhere?  Are they etched across my face, yet?  Will years of this life make me stoic and hard or strong and sassy?  At what point can I no longer keep the day work separate from the farm - a feeling that is a pressure building, like a dam just before breaking, me pushing against it with all my strength.

Someday, I hope "professional development" will mean introducing myself to ranchers outside bakeries in small towns.  I hope that jumping into the back of a truck for a drive out to the barn will represent more of a "growth opportunity" then a distraction.  I hope day dreams on long drives to meetings become less fiction, more biography.  Does anyone know how to write that story?     

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Too! Much! Cute!

*Thanks again for the video, Cheryl!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Be brave

Pearl was acting funny yesterday morning.  She seemed to be "off her feed" as farm-y people call it, a very literal way to say she wasn't eating.  I watched her dip her face into the food a few times, fake a bite and then let grain sort of dribble out of her mouth before she wandered slowly into the woods.  This behavior combined with the fact that her udder had doubled in size the day before made me certain that something was brewing.  Jeremy's mother had already planned a visit in the morning and just as she drove up, I led Pearl from the woods and into the kidding pen.  Just in case.  With the luck I've been having lately, however, I knew there was a good chance nothing would happen and I had been duped again.  As always, time would tell.

We sat in the pen with Pearl for over an hour talking.  Cheryl perched on the edge of a hay bale, I sat on the ground, leaning against the barn.  Chickens crowed, dogs barked, the cow mooed.  We talked about public school accountability since we both work in education and care about these sorts of things.  It was a welcome distraction from the elephant in the room, which was actually just the little goat lying on her side next to me.  By yesterday morning I no longer had the emotional capital necessary for any more drama and was hoping desperately things would go according to all the pictures from my numerous goat books.

Pearl started pushing at 11:45 and by 12:15, one little baby was born - a girl - Bee.  She delivered without any help from us and immediately started acting maternal, something that completely shocked me as I always suspected Pearl would abandon her babies.  She only barely tolerates me and has never had any use or concern for other goats.  For five months I've been preparing myself for taking care of Pearl's rejected babies.  Her behavior was, therefore, completely unexpected.  After cleaning Bee and helping her stand, it was clear there was another one coming and Pearl laid back down, acting much more strained this time.  After a few minutes of inspecting her nether regions we both agreed that what seemed to be emerging was not, in fact, the little hoof and nose that we were expecting.  Was that an ear?  The side of a head?  Please don't be a tail, I whispered audibly enough that Cheryl responded, "Surely not, that must be an ear."  With one more push, a tail, bottom and two tucked up legs were clearly visible.  Pearl jumped to her feet and let out a terrible scream.  She started walking away from us, a baby goat's bottom hanging from her backside.  Next to a c-section situation, breech was up there on my list of Top Five Worst Case Scenarios, and I literally heard ringing sounds blare in my head.  Without much thought or memory of advice, I grabbed latex gloves and reached in with both hands, sweeping my fingers in to find the legs that were tucked up.  I hooked them with a finger and pulled back gently.  They easily fell straight out just as Pearl fell back on her side.  "Pull it!" Cheryl urged from behind.  Pull it?  How hard?  Would that kill Pearl? Would that kill the baby?  Could I just go please take a nap?  Who needs a drink?

I suddenly remembered vividly a passage read in a book.  Breech babies often have lungs filled with fluid and a greater chance of death if they're not pulled immediately.  That gave me enough courage to grab and pull without further consideration.  An enormous baby boy came out and lay still, even after I cleaned his face, nose and mouth.  Grabbing his hind legs, I stood up and gently hung him upside down, swinging him side to side, nowhere confident enough to spin in a circle (I've seen pictures.  It's very acrobatic).  Within seconds he started to cough and wake up.   He was breathing.  I handed him over to Pearl and she took care of the rest.

We sat in the barn with them for much longer.  An hour? 3 hours?  I don't remember.  At some point we stumbled inside for iced tea and snacks.  By the time Cheryl went home it was already time for evening chores, followed by a quick shower to clean off the afterbirth, smack my face a few times, put on some mascara, blow dry my hair.  I had dinner plans.  I'd be damned if I was going to miss out on a glass of wine and gossip because of the baby goats.  Before driving away, I stopped by the pen one more time to make sure Pearl still understood she was a mother and had not reverted back to her old goat-hating-self.  She called out softly to me and stood up, the placenta I'd been waiting to see fell out with a loud and gory, "plop."  Then (do you have a weak stomach?) she began to eat it.  I sighed.  Heavily.  I was wearing a silk tunic, non-farm jeans, nice boots.  For the first time in almost a week, I had on lipstick.  Sparkly earrings.  I needed one night to be clean and well-fed, and the only thing now standing between me and a tiramisu was a pile of placenta.  Despite the lack of gloves I stomped into the pasture, through two gates, into the pen, reached down, grabbed the pile, tossed it into a paper bag, disposed of the bag, walked inside, cleaned my hands, applied one more coat of lipstick, brushed my hair, got in the car.  I went to dinner.  I thought about the goats the entire time.  Upon returning, I changed back into farm clothes and sat in the barn with the babies for a full hour before going to bed.  I slept very well last night.

I hear from some of you sometimes, but I know there's even more of you reading.  For some, this blog may be little more than easy voyeurism, a keyhole perspective into the strange lives some of us lead.  I accept that - I encourage it.  Welcome! For others, these stories are a little like unraveling small mysteries - at least that's how it was for me way back when I started poking around the blogosphere out of morbid curiosity or wanderlust or however you want to frame it.  I read those stories looking for a little courage, searching for someone else who looked just like me, who had figured it all out, who had all of the answers and possibly downloadable instructions for how to get from the desk job to the pasture.  I'd pay for a set of construction plans to build that life - was it out there in someone else's story?

The truth is, actually, no, it's not.  If you're here looking for instructions, I do not have them for you.  I hope you come here because you like the stories or the pictures.  I hope you come here because you're curious or weighing your own options, dipping a toe in or diving.  I don't have any answers but can offer more encouragement then could fill the interwebs and can give one piece of advice with absolute certainty: No matter where you are now or where you aim to be, if you're starting with a chicken or a tomato plant, if you're shooting for what seems attainable or what feels impossible - be brave.  Understand there are no maps for where you're headed, and go ahead anyway.   

*Thank you Cheryl for the video.  And the company.

So God Made a Farmer

Can you watch this without crying?

Me neither:


I like the quiet hush when the sun sets and the crickets come out singing songs about summer.  I like a big porch with a chair where the cat curls and paws at passing dog tails, "pat pat pat" as they lope by towards the smell of adventure that lives down in the grass and bushes.  I prefer the scent of dusty hay where the animals sleep, the musk of livestock fur that's weathered rain and ice and deep, searing heat.  I prefer the colors green and blue and brown and yellow, the four basic points on the seasonal compass.  I barter in food and grain.  I'll trade each and every Saturday night downtown for 10 minutes at the round bale where the black birds perch to consider their prospects.  I find some mild weather and iced tea, a hot bath and bourbon will heal most of what ails.  I see your commercials to whiten my teeth, to smooth my skin, to coif my hair, to smell artificial and lovely, to make a more perfect version of myself, but I clean up with soap and water, rinse hands in the trough, paint my nails with broken egg yolk, wash my face with lye and milk.  A ponytail and stained jeans.  Deodorant and chapstick. Worn out boots and barn floors.  The sunrays that filter down just where the dust particles float suspended, then swirl and fall gracefully onto the back of a slumbering goat, curled up beside me - that is what can't be bought or bottled.  Untwining hay and lifting new baby animals with these two hands I've carried around so long, finally working after all these years; that confidence isn't lurking in a beautiful dress and makeup.  I look better in this skin.