Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Book Reviews: 'Goat Song' and 'The Year of the Goat'

For the last six or seven years, I have avoided eating cow's-milk cheese under the mistaken assumption that they're full of lactose, and have focused on goat's- and sheep's-milk cheeses thinking that they're not. This led me to a greater appreciation for cheese made from other types of milk, and once I started working with Pat at Rivers Edge in 2006, I quickly developed an appreciation for goats as well. They're friendly, quirky animals with quizzical eyes and, I suspect, amazing senses of humor. Though I'm venturing into the world of cow's-milk cheese again, I still find myself more drawn to goats. I spent a few years renting a small house on a dairy farm in rural Washington state and had many opportunities to observe cows, and really didn't find them all that interesting. I'm not the only person to develop an interest (obsession?) with goats, either. Anyone who's seen Edward Albee's play "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?" knows just how attractive these animals can be. I don't want to own goats myself - I'm not as interested in animal husbandry as in working with milk and cheese - but if I were offered a choice between an apprenticeship involving goats and one involving cows, I'd go for the goats.

One advantage that goats have is that they're smaller, easier to handle, and hardier than cows. This makes them a popular choice with people who want to run small farms or dairies. In fact, goats have always been a popular choice; they've been a dairy and meat animal longer than any other domesticated species, and the first evidence of deliberate goat herd management has been dated at 8,000 BCE from a site in Iran. So it's not surprising that when people dream about moving back to the land, out of the city and into a slower-paced life, goats appear in the dream at some point.

The author Brad Kessler had that dream and followed it to Vermont, and wrote a book about it later, titled "Goat Song: A Seasonal Life, A Short History of Herding, and the Art of Making Cheese." It's almost as much a novel-length poem as a work of prose, an extended ode to agrarian society and the people and animals that form it. Along with his descriptions of the goats and the farm, he talks about the roots of herding and migration, nomadic and settled lifestyles. He walks with his goats all over the property, watching them browse and play, then returns to the house to make cheese. Kessler gives us all of the sometimes-gory details of raising animals, and some fairly graphic goat sex scenes (but not of the Albee variety), and intertwined with these snippets of daily life are discussions about the history of goats and cheese in literature, and the places we find evidence of the importance of the goat in human society: in the alphabet, in cave paintings, in 4,000-year-old Sumerian hymns. Ruminations about ruminants - there's a reason we use "chewing things over" as a metaphor for contemplation. A goat at rest, jaws working slowly, eyes fixed on some unknowable horizon, is the very image of thoughtfulness.

Kessler brings this same attention to detail to his descriptions of cheesemaking, and how the taste of the milk of the fresh chèvre reflects the season and the browse the goats have been getting. As his interest in cheese grows, he starts learning about, and discussing, the effects of the terroir; not just for winemakers anymore, this concept of how the local microclimate, wild fungal and bacterial spores, and soil composition affect plant and animal life is now being more widely recognized in classification of cheeses and other products. He goes to the French Pyrénées to learn how to make tomme, a traditional mountain cheese, and brings those techniques back to Vermont, where he starts making aged cheese seasonally. I enjoyed the descriptions of the cheesemaking process, and the combination of science (the milk must reach exactly this temperature, you must wait exactly that number of minutes before going to the next step) and artistry (the curd needs to just feel right). When I was reading this chapter, I truly longed to be back in the cheeseroom, absorbed in creation, focused on the transformation of milk.

Another book, "The Year of the Goat: 40,000 Miles and the Quest for the Perfect Cheese," also follows people moving from the city to the country, looking for how they might create a life with goats. Margaret Hathaway and Karl Schatz spent a year (2003) driving all over the United States, camping in their car or on sofas, meeting people from all aspects of the commercial goat world. They visited goat breeders and people who raised or bought goats for meat (goat is the most widely-eaten meat in the world, though we in the United States don't eat our proportionate share), met with cheesemakers and vendors, and visited cheese festivals and goat barbecue contests. While this book didn't draw me in as much as Kessler's did, it does provide a good overview of all of the ways that goats participate in the economy of the United States - more than most people realize, in fact. Hathaway and Schatz did end up involved with goats, and have written a second book, "Living With Goats: Everything You Need to Know to Start Your Own Backyard Herd" (which I have not read, being less interested in the nitty-goat-gritty, as I mentioned before), giving guidance to other would-be homesteaders.

Hathaway and Schatz are in Maine on Ten Apple Farm, and lead workshops in between their farm duties. Kessler is in Vermont, and his cheeses sometimes appear on restaurant tables in the area. And I'm sure there are unknown goat people in your area, making cheese or selling meat - keep your eyes open, and you might find a pair of rectangular-pupilled eyes looking back at you.


  1. Fun blog! And I love the photo of you in your hairnet! Cheers!

  2. Thanks, Zoomie! Sorry it took me so long to see this comment (new blog, wrong Blogger settings). I think I'm going to try your plum crisp recipe with the Reines-Claudes in the markets here in Tours.