A few weeks ago I wrote a dirge to the doldrums – that deepest winter time of year when all seems frozen and static except for the low hum of cabin fever and vibrations of new life’s impending arrival on the farm.
The days have gotten longer (and quite a bit warmer too!) and mother nature has done her duty. We city dwellers can’t quite feel it the same way that a cheesemaker with hundreds of baby lambs and goats baa-ing and meeh-ing out in the barn can, but we can see it at the cheese counter! All of a sudden, fresh goat cheeses – jewel-like, like budding flowers on a branch, are gleaming betwixt and between the hulking wedges of firm aged cows’ milk cheeses and stinky puddle-y washed rinds in the display case.
If you stop by Saxelby Cheesemongers this week – be sure to ask for the first goat cheeses of the season. Right now we’ve got Pearl, Lake’s Edge, and Sandy Creek –fresh from the farm! One taste of that tart, fluffy, lemony curd, and you’ll be heralding the arrival of spring on the streets of New York! (Well, that might be a bit much, but would make for a good addition to our naturally occurring sidewalk entertainment on Essex Street.)
So what actually happens on the farms to bring all of this good fresh goat cheese to our cheese counter? Lots and lots of births, that’s what. Goats and sheep are very seasonal in their breeding – they breed in the fall when the days grow shorter, and give birth in the springtime when the weather is more hospitable to kids and lambs running amok, and when the growth of fresh pasture is right around the corner to feed both kids and moms. Most of the farms that Saxelby works with follow this natural breeding cycle.
Most goats and sheep (does and ewes for you nerdy types out there) give birth to twins or triplets, meaning that a farm with 100 milkers will have between 200 to 300 babies in the spring! The next time you think about how stressed out you are because of the subway running late, your phone not working right, etc, remind yourself of the fact that at least you’re not bottle feeding 200 baby goats.
Our cheesemakers double as midwives during this time of the year – David Major of Vermont Shepherd sleeps in the barn with his sheep so that he can be at the ready to assist with births. Laini Fondiller of Lazy Lady Farm recounted some wild tales of turning around breach babies, and helping her does through difficult births. For her as for most farmers, the vet is only called in if there’s a particularly tricky situation. Michael from Twig Farm turns his garage into a nursery for the kids – there are little plywood cubicles full of fresh bedding filled with sweet smelling, affectionate kids alternately cuddling, jumping, and testing out their best head butts on one another.
After the babies are weaned from their mother’s milk (this depends from farm to farm) then the cheesemaking begins. Now for a word on spring milk – And that word is DELICIOUS. There is a waterfall of other words I could use too – rich, luscious, fatty, decadent, exquisite, transcendent, etc. Spring milk has a ton of butterfat and protein in it because it’s designed to grow kids and lambs that are strong, fatty, and hungry pretty much around the clock.
A milking doe, ewe, or cow has a lactation cycle just like we humans do. In the early days after being born, the babies need lots of nourishment, but can’t yet eat a lot because their digestive systems are just getting rolling. The mothers produce a sort of proto-milk called colostrum, which is small in terms of quantity, but incredibly high in fat. The colostrum also carries antibodies, which are passed from mother to baby to help jump-start their immune systems. Colostrum is NOT used for cheesemaking.
Just after the colostrum comes the richest and fattiest milk. This milk makes delicious cheese that is different from any made during the rest of the season, and there is a window of just a few weeks per year when cheeses are made from this milk. There is still less of it, again because babies are growing and need less. As the babies continue to grow, and the feed changes over from dry hay and grain to pasture, the milk supply goes way up, and the fat content correspondingly goes down. The mothers make more milk, but it’s not quite as decadent as those first few weeks.
Towards the end of the season (which for sheep is about 5 months, for goats about 10 months, and cows closer to 12 months) the milk production begins to dwindle again, but rises in fat and protein. By this time most of the herd is pregnant again (they get right down to business!) and the milk production drops off the closer they get to giving birth. A few months before the babies are due, the farmers will ‘dry them off’ i.e. stop milking them so that their bodies can fatten up and prepare for the next round of babies!
Stop by the shop this week to taste these first, most delicious, goat cheeses of the season! The sheep will be following suit shortly – look out for those in a month or so. That window of spring milk is already winnowing away, so be sure to snag a slice!