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Monday, August 24, 2020

Get Your Goat!

A CHEF WHO WAS TEACHING ME to make bread regarded my kneading practice with dismay. I was using the opportunity to inflict imaginary violent revenge on my enemies, accompanying my pulls and punches with angry mutterings. “Never put hate into your food,” the chef advised. “If you want to get love out of it, you have to put love into it.”

Photo by B.A. Nilsson
I’ve never seen this better exemplified than at Nettle Meadow Sanctuary Farm and Cheese Company, a peaceful rural complex just outside Johnsburg, NY, in the southeastern Adirondacks. A variety of buildings inhabit its 50 acres, with a variety of animals to go with them. You may come for the cheese – it’s sold in a small retail space on the property, which you’ll visit while masked and practicing proper distancing – but you’ll be tempted to stay for the animals. Because most of the non-human population comprises animals being tended because of injury or age.

This wasn’t the mission when Lorraine Lambiase and Sheila Flanagan bought the place in 2005. At that time, they were making goat’s-milk cheese in California, and both were full-time lawyers. “We were living in Oakland,” says Lambiase, “where we had a third of an acre – which out there is huge – and we bought four Nigerian Dwarf goats. One of them was milking, and we were able to make tiny batches of cheese.”
They found this farm on the internet. “We cashed in our retirements and everything, and drove cross-country with those four goats of ours. We hit all of the rest stops along the way. On the last leg of the journey, driving through Pennsylvania, we realized we were too exhausted to go on. So we found a seedy hotel. It was connected to a bar, and the bar was busy. At about 3 AM, I had to milk our goat, so I’m out in the parking lot as a man stumbled out of the bar, took a look at us, said, “Is that a goat!?” and lurched away. We’re guessing that nobody believed whatever story he told the next day.”

The farm came with 30 milking goats, so their cheese production increased. And the dilemma of what to do with an animal once its perceived usefulness had finished, which is why the farm has become a rescue sanctuary. “We have retired animals, rescue animals – some of the newest arrivals are rescues from Sprout Creek Farm,” Lambiase explains, referring to an educational farm in Poughkeepsie that was forced to close in May because of a loss of funding. “And some rescue creatures come in very odd ways. For example, we found a pigeon that had a band on its leg. I got in touch with the National Pigeon Association and found the owner’s name – but the owner never answered us. So we built this aviary, and we acquired another pigeon to keep this one company.”

We’re standing by a tall, screened-in structure in which a pair of pigeons is tucked under an upper eave, avoiding the direct, hot glare of the sun. Lambiase explains that the weather has sent most of the animals under shelter, so we’re peering through the pens and into the barns as we tour.

Photo by B.A. Nilsson
“We have many differently abled creatures here,” she says, showing us a goat barn. “One of the goats slid under a building’s foundation in the middle of winter and was stuck there for twenty minutes. He lost a leg as a result. We named him Frosty. Frosty lives with Whoops, a ram whose birth we didn’t expect, hence the name. Crabcakes was one of a set of triplets, and was born with constricted tendons. Goats are so stoic. They don’t ever show the pain.” She pauses to take in the verdant view, then says, “Whenever I feel overwhelmed by anything, I take a walk to remind myself why I am doing this.”

We arrive at another structure that she explains is “kind of a bachelor pad for rescue horses. One is in his mid-30s! Sometimes it’s a heartbreak, helping these animals to the end of life.” At another structure we meet two of the retired sheep, named Doc Holliday and Dimitri. “And here is Lucy, a pot-bellied pig who lives with Pauline, a rescue turkey. Over here is Hamilton, a large black rescue pig. He came from a teenager who thought it would be fun to have a pet pig and tried to keep him in an apartment on a third-floor walkup. Hamilton lives with two blind sheep – Moxie and Wrinkles – who lost their sight because of a cobalt deficiency in their mother’s feed.” It’s an impressive ark of animals being tended, also including rescue ducks, one of whom has a broken wing, and rooster named Rumpole.

The largest and most impressive barn, she tells us, was built in 1903, and had been abandoned for fifty years. “Boys who played in the barn shot holes through the roof, so there was a lot to repair. We were lucky to find a master carpenter to restore it for us – although it took us seven years to convince the bank to give us another mortgage to pay for it. The upper floor is now a public area. Before the pandemic, we offered it for concerts and weddings and things like that. I hope we’ll be able to open again before long.”

The property has been run as a farm since 1792. “For many years it was the Meadowbrook Stock Farm, known for its horses.” It was a 400-acre complex as the 19th century dawned; changes of ownership over the decades caused parcels to be sold until what was left fell dormant by the 1900s. It acquired new owners and a new name – the name that remains – in 1976, when those owners began making goat cheese on the premises. That’s the farm that Lambiase and Flanagan purchased in 2005.

With the ongoing expansion of the rescue-animal population, it has become more expedient to farm out part of the farm’s operation, as Flanagan tells us. “Our cows are partnered with families in the Johnstown area, with no more than ten cows on a farm of at least 30 acres. The goats have been distributed among some Amish farms in the Amsterdam area. We want to be sure they have room. We have our animals on five goat farms, three sheep farms, and two, almost three, cow farms. We’ll be adding our sixth and seventh goat farms this fall.”

Photo by B.A. Nilsson
The milk is collected six times a week, and the cheese continues to be made on the Nettle Meadow premises, although current health considerations kept us out of the facility. “We send most of our cheese to a cold-storage warehouse in Long island City, and from there it gets trucked all over the country.” They had tried direct marketing for a while, Flanagan told us, “but it’s very labor-intensive, with a low profit margin. But since Covid, people have been asking us to sell online, so we got a store up on the website. Sales had dropped more than 75 percent, so it’s been very helpful to have that. And we’ve got it going a lot more smoothly now.”

Their process of learning has been entirely hands-on over the years. “We started by making cheese from Nigerian Dwarf goats, which have the highest butterfat content. We made fresh chevre to start, and branched out from there. We read books, practice, read some more – it’s grown from that.”

They recently purchased a large building in Lake Luzerne in which they opened a retail shop for their cheese, and they’re moving the cheesemaking operation there as soon as all of the construction and health-department hurdles are past. “There are so many agencies that have to approve this that we’re hoping we might have the production in place by the end of the year,” Lambiase says. Flanagan adds that between recipes and food-safety regulations, they have 35 binders of such information.

The current pandemic has thrown its own challenges their way, but Flanagan is hopeful. “After Covid – and there will be an ‘after Covid’ – I hope we don’t go back to the same thing. I hope we’ll remain more mindful of one another. There’s a lot that we can do if just we slow down.”

Chances are you’ve already heard of Nettle Meadow cheeses. They’re sold by shops like Murray’s, a Manhattan institution; chances are that they’re in your local natural-foods store. And they’ve been racking up the awards as well. They won the 2020 Good Food Award for their Kunik, which also garnered a Silver Sofi in 2019. Also that year, Sappy Ewe took first prize at the U.S. Cheese Championships, while Kunik and Simply Sheep placed second. That’s also when Briar Summit won a second place award at the American Cheese Society. And the cheeses won nine national and international awards the year before that.

Bloomy rind cheeses dominate the catalogue; these are the kind, like brie, that ripen from the outside and then to be creamy within. We sampled a number of these, beginning with Kunik, their triple-crème wheel crafted from a mixture of goat’s milk and cow cream. It has a spectacularly creamy texture with enough of a tang in its flavor to put you in mind of a good, soft brie. And the persistent after-taste reveals a sweetness lurking within.

Sappy Ewe starts with sheep and cow curds coated with an Adirondack maple reduction that then spend time ripening in the farm’s aging cave. The unique dark coating is an edible pine black ash that also flavors the ripening process. This semi-hard cheese has a flavor that sneaks up on you as it warms in the mouth, and even as that flavor eases away, the maple persists.

There’s nothing but sheep’s milk in the Simply Sheep, which gets tugged towards tanginess (in its rind, at least) from the thistle rennet with which it’s curdled. It’s very creamy, and challenged your palate with a subtle tug-of-flavor between rind and the buttery interior. Yet it stood up to the savory breadstuffs we tossed its way.

Briar Summit is a three-animal cheese, but the goat milk, cow milk, sheep milk, and cow cream are infused with raspberry tea before getting a bloomy-rind finish. It’s packaged as an attractive little pyramid and sports a very firm texture and sparkling flavor. It’s more of a tongue-tickler than a mouth-filler, especially as the raspberry flavor peeks through.

Another three-beast cheese is Three Sisters, combining, as it does, sheep, goat, and cow milks. (And it was a 2012 American Cheese Society’s Mixed-Milk Open Category winner as well as a fourth-place finisher at the U.S. Cheese Championships in 2017.) We found a pleasing balance between its crumbly texture and fresh, alert flavor with the sweetness that comes from fresh and charmingly nutty after-taste.

Washed-rind cheeses typically receive a curing bath of brine or another flavoring agent; in the case of Nettle Meadow’s Amber Kunik, it’s washed in Adirondack Ale and Adirondack Whiskey, giving it a deeper, more pungent flavor than its creamy cousin, and a denser texture. It’s a mouth-filling bite that pairs so nicely with a steely Prosecco that half of the bottle was gone before I realized I had to move on and taste others.

Those being two soft, spreadable cheeses. Fromage frais, according to French legislation, is an “unripened cheese that underwent a mostly lactic fermentation,” and still contains a live culture. Its very close cousin, fromage blanc, is a fresh cheese in which the fermentation has stopped.

Nettle Meadow offers a Honey Lavender fromage blanc the tasting of which is like standing in a lavender patch watching the bees work the flowers. Sure, you can spread it on a cracker or something, but it’s pretty addictive straight out of the container. Likewise their fromage frais, flavored with fig and honey. That one’s a cheerful dessert cheese that goes nicely with a few sips of port.

There are more cheeses available, described on the farm’s website, which invites you to shop for them at the Lake Luzerne store or at the farm itself – and, of course, at the many retail outlets with the wisdom to carry their product.

And there’s no question, to my mind or palate, that the farm’s love of its animals shines through in the cheese. As Lambiase puts it, “We would never treat our animals as ‘things.’ Every one of them has a name. I can tell you which one’s milk is in a particular cup of cheese.”

–, 20 August 2020

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