It is hard to believe that there are 400 of these blueblood goats around. But there are. The fresh air and easy conditions remind visitors of another difference between goat dairies and so many huge cow ones.
Bice employs European staff, students from agricultural colleges over on work-study programs. During evening milking, Sebastien, a Frenchman, and Henri, a Dane, clip the hoofs of a half a dozen goats as the animals are milked. The parlor has drowsy twilight charm. Goats lazily chew grain as the pump whooshes at the same rhythm as a not quite sated kid would suckle. The scent of fresh milk suffuses the place. It is pumped next door, to a cheese room, where after being pasteurized, it will be curdled by the addition of a lactic bacteria.
Whey, the water part of the milk carrying much of the lactose, will then be drained, leaving loose fresh curds. This will be ladled into molds, allowed to drain some more, then fashioned into a number of cheeses.
Redwood Hill's cheeses include a white log of young chevre, a spreading cheese. The same basic cheese, formed in a disc-shaped mold, might be coated with pepper or herbs and sold in discs. Then there are the more mature cheeses with bloomy Camembert-style rinds.
Schack introduced these cheeses locally by selling them at farmers markets about 10 years ago, but he died suddenly three years ago. Mostly it is now sold through high-end supermarkets and specialty shops, However, in Los Angeles, at Santa Monica farmers market, Schack's parents sell Redwood Hill cheeses to a faithful crowd of French expatriates most Wednesdays.
Let Them Eat Chevre
If Bice and Schack led their generation into goat breeding, Laura Chenel, a neighbor of Bice's from Sebastopol pioneered the cheese-making in California. After studying anthropology at UC Santa Cruz and Berkeley, and acquiring goats along the way (as one did), Chenel found herself with milk, and began making cheese in her kitchen.
By 1979, she had gone to France, to the Loire and Burgundy, to study French farmhouse cheese-making. Here she saw goat cheese hand-made as it had been for centuries. The milk was curdled by adding some of the previous day's whey. Barely formed, unsalted curds were then brought to the table in special perforated drainers set in pitchers, called faisselles. This brand-new cheese was then either topped with fresh berries, or salted and peppered and consumed with wine.
For the older cheeses, the ones drained in little perforated molds shaped like pyramids and pucks, then salted and left to age for a month, tradition left it to the molds impregnated in the environment to culture the cheeses, and form the bloomy rinds. This mold, observed Chenel, would begin to ripen the newly coagulated and drained cheese from the outside in. The process, called "mold-ripening," could then be subtly manipulated to create different styles of cheeses. Shapes would affect texture, hence the variety of pyramids, molehills and pucks.
The addition of ash would create yet another kind of cheese. The ash from rosemary branches burnt in farmyard kettles would be applied to the rinds to temper the acidity. The resulting ash-coated cheeses not only looked different, but matured differently and tasted different.
But these ancient processes could not be imported without updating them. Even farmhouse French cheese makers at the time were turning to new, more sterile, methods. Old whey, says Chenel, transmitted contaminants as effectively as it did the good bugs. A modern method involved adding lactic bacteria bought from a pharmaceutical company.
In the U.S., cheese-aging rooms had to be kept sterile. Mold cultures, the most typical being Penicillium candidum, were bought and applied in modern, controlled circumstances. Rosemary twig ash was replaced by deactivated charcoal purchased from medical supply companies.
After adapting the recipes in the U.S., Chenel formed Laura Chenel's Chevre in 1981. Chenel developed a specialty line that included fresh cheeses in olive oil, fresh logs of the spreadable chevre and the mold-ripened discs, ash-coated variants. There were also the hard, aged shepherds cheeses that goat farmers made to endure long trips or to see them through winter milk shortages.
None of the cheeses were well-known in America. They didn't travel well. Cheese makers compare them to fruit, because they keep ripening. If San Franciscans had tasted imported versions of these perishable cheeses before Chenel adapted the recipes for California, the chances were good that the "fruit" was rotten.
The appearance of Chenel's local, fresh cheeses created a sensation, one captured in the 1982 "Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook," which contained nine goat cheese recipes--everything from the now classic baked goat cheese with garden salad to chevre with baked garlic and peasant bread.