Friday, December 16, 2011

Hawaii Island Goat Dairy

"What did you do on your Hawaiian vacation?" they'll ask me when I return to Portland. "Visited a goat dairy!" I'll answer. Not the usual tourist response (though I have hiked and snorkeled and eaten papayas too) but it was definitely one of the most enjoyable mornings I've spent on the Big Island. While I know that cheesemaking is my goal, I forget - because I'm not involved in it every day, merely thinking about it - that it's also my passion. Standing beside the pens and listening to the kids blatter as they bounced around in the hay, going inside the cheeseroom and breathing in the sweet astringent odors of milk and bleach (a clean facility is essential!), and talking about cheese techniques while nibbling on fresh feta, I was perfectly happy.

I was also lucky that Dick Threlfall, the owner of Hawaii Island Goat Dairy, had time to show us around. He's working the dairy now without his wife Heather, who died this year after a long fight with cancer. She's the one who started the dairy back in 2001, something that began as a hobby with a few goats and not-quite-right cheese and grew into a business that produces top-quality chèvre and feta that's in demand by chefs all over the Hawaiian islands. Dick runs the operation now with the help of his brother-in-law Jim, three milkers, and a part-time herd manager. He uses a standard six-goat milking station made of wood and is currently milking about 60 goats.

The goats are Saanen, Toggenberg, Nubian, and various crosses between those breeds. He said he has a few two-gallon does but in general gets approximately 48 gallons per milking. The goats browse through four pastures in rotation and range up into the edges of the macadamia nut groves on this former plantation. He supplements their browse with goat feed, but as this is Hawaii the pastures are green year-round.

The new kids had recently been dehorned, and Dick was preparing to tattoo their ears the next day, while Jim took the cheese in to sell at the Waimea farmer's market. Dick sells the young males for pets or meat but doesn't slaughter them himself. The nut grove is full of feral pigs, but he doesn't kill those either, though for a while he was dumping whey out where they could get it and said they fattened up amazingly. Kalua pork, anyone?

All production is done in a compact square room with a small holding tank and pasteurizer, and there are three refrigerators fitted out with old computer tower fans as aging/storage containers. Dick had started to build an actual aging room to one side of the building, but is not using it. He repurposed a metal pig-butchering table by adding a PVC-pipe rack and uses that for his drainage table to hang the chèvre in muslin bags and drain the feta in its large rectangular forms. He also makes goat gouda, cheddar, and "Gavarti" (goat Havarti). Most of the production goes to the restaurants, but several local stores carry the cheese, and he sells out every week at the Waimea market.

We tasted the chèvre plain first; it's got a clean creamy taste, somewhat dense and slightly grainy, with almost a ricotta feel. Dick also mixes it with dill and garlic (very nice), with chipotle (cool at first, then a warm bloom of heat), and with a local basil-macadamia nut pesto (my favorite, and I need to look for bags of this pesto in the store). He also takes the chèvre and puts it in small truncated pyramid molds to drain further, then smokes those over guava wood. They're a light tan on the outside with a good fruity smoke flavor that goes deep into the cheese, which slices easily and would make an incredible pairing with fruit on a cheese plate.

The feta is fresh, not brined, and while it's got a good salty kick it's not overly salted; it's firm and creamy and (as my parents and I can attest) excellent in salad with oil-cured olives, island tomatoes, lettuce, and avocados.

I don't think that Mom and John were as enthusiastic as I was about the visit, but they humored me, and enjoyed tasting the cheeses. And it turns out that Dick's first wife lives on the southern Oregon coast where my parents do, and in fact Mom was just talking with her three days earlier via e-mail on a project they're working on together. Goat cheese brings the whole world together. I'm hoping to find more connections as I travel and talk to cheesemakers, and share techniques and strategies to make everyone more productive and successful. Dick had some very good suggestions on packaging and shipping that I'll be taking back to Oregon, and will stay in touch via e-mail with him to pass on any tips I learn in France. The cheese community is for the most part very open and generous, and since many farmstead producers have a relatively limited regional distribution, there's more of a spirit of cooperation rather than one of competition - yet another thing that attracts me to the field.

John took this picture of me and Dick standing by one of the pastures, after the rain stopped. I know I'm making kind of a goaty face, but that's appropriate, and I have decided that vanity has no place in a cheese blog, and if the one picture that was taken makes me look silly, well, that's the picture that I'll use.

While Dick's still enjoying the dairy and the goats and making cheese, he has decided to sell the property and the business. He'll continue to produce excellent cheese in the meantime, and if you're on the island of Hawai'i you should look for the cheese in local shops. Restaurant menus listing "Big Island cheese" are probably referring to his chèvre, though there is another dairy on the other side of the island near Hilo that does both chèvre and feta. The cheese is not shipped to the mainland.

As we drove down back to the main road, the goats in the pasture to the left came up to say goodbye, while the ones to the right bounded off kicking their heels up through the green grass underneath the macadamia and papaya trees, the perfect image of happy, healthy goats, their white coats shining in the sun emerging from behind the clouds. Thanks, Dick, for the tour and the samples and the chance to talk cheese in Hawai'i. I'll keep in touch.

Find out more about Hawaii Island Goat Dairy here.

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