A couple of years back, Saveur magazine dedicated an entire issue to cheese. I settled into my reading chair and quickly became entranced with stories of small artisan cheese producers who had shaken off the big-city entrapments to spend their days crafting cheeses from milk they had personally coaxed from all sorts of beasts. I did my best to convince my husband that the life of a dairy farmer was what we had been searching for. We could ditch our nine-to-five, nose-to-the-grindstone corporate enslavements and really get our hands dirty. We would live a simple life full of goats and curds and occasional inspections from the Dairy Board. It would be a Utopian exercise that would somehow lead us to self-actualization. He remains unconvinced to this day.After visiting South Mountain Dairy in Edgewood and speaking with several other dairy farmers, I came to the conclusion that his instincts were right. Cheese-making isn’t for wimps.
New Mexico is the eighth-largest cheese producer in the country and boasts more than 172 dairies. Although all of New Mexico’s dairies are family-owned, most are enormous establishments with herds counting more than 1,000 animals. Milk and cheese production is generally handled elsewhere by cooperatives. That’s all fine and well, but what about my romantic, and perhaps misguided, idea of cheese-makers who have their fingers in every step of production?They’re out there. Slowly but surely, small-scale dairy farms are making their mark on New Mexico’s cheese industry. Those committed to crafting farmstead cheeses—cheeses that go from animal to finished product on the same piece of property—are a motley crew who got into the business for reasons that range from love to chance.Donna Lockridge and Marge Petersen of South Mountain Dairy just needed a way to keep the weeds down on their property. They were also in the market for a pet. A couple of goats seemed to fit the bill, which snowballed into a herd that topped 40—and that’s just the girls. The dairy evolved out of necessity. “Making the cheese to sell is the only way we’re able to keep the girls,” says Donna. “Even still, we barely make enough to cover their feed.”Desert Skies Creamery of Williamsburg was the result of 9-year-old Chance Carter’s hobby. “My son raised goats for a 4-H project and we decided to try making cheese with the milk,” says Ken Carter, father of Chance (now 22). Making cheese was simply the best solution to the problem of too much milk. Coonridge Organic Goat Cheese Dairy roughs it in the high country of Pie Town, adhering to strict organic requirements that pale in comparison to the environmental principles brought on by location and philosophy. Their goats enjoy a type of free-range life that few other captive animals do. Meanwhile, the humans catch rain water and solar energy to meet their most basic survival needs. “Gee, how many catch phrases can I use?," Nancy Coonridge wonders. "Sustainable, humane, predator friendly. But really, we are [a farmstead dairy] because we want a natural life for our goats and their guardian dogs, plus an authentic life for ourselves.” High-quality organic goat cheese is the mortar that holds those ideals together.
From Udder to Cheddar
Turning milk into cheese is fairly straightforward, as I learned when the ladies of South Mountain walked me through the process. After milking, the dairy is sent to a pasteurizer where it’s gently heated to kill off harmful bacteria. Back at the farm, the pasteurized milk is curdled with the aid of a starter culture and an enzyme called rennet. Then it’s cut with a tool that resembles a slotted paddle, which helps to separate the solid curd from the liquid whey. The curd is collected and hung in cheesecloth to allow the remaining whey to drain off. “Attention to detail is important," says Donna. "It has to be rote. If one step gets misplaced …” Marge jumps in, “Then you lose your milk for the day!”Donna and Marge save the whey for their neighbor, Lenny, who uses it to make slop for his pigs. In turn, Lenny gives them a pig in trade. (Now that’s the sort of neighborly quid pro quo I had in mind when I was dreaming of packing it all in for the simple life.)At this point, the type of cheese dictates what happens next. The curd may be packed into molds (for havarti), brined, aged or marinated (for feta).
That’s not all. Each step also has to adhere to regulations in order for the dairy to maintain its Grade A license. "A" status requires submitting to regular inspections by the Dairy Board and testing the dairy’s milk and cheese to confirm all products meet federal standards. To make the grade, the dairy carefully regulates conditions in its cheese-making facility with professional equipment—and a substantial investment.“It cost a lot more than I thought it would,” Donna says of their start-up expenses.Although the equipment is pricey, Marge feels her milking machine was worth it. After hand-milking a particularly stubborn goat for two weeks, she uttered those famous words that are heard at least once during every relationship: “Get rid of the goat or buy me a milking machine.” Ten thousand dollars later both their relationship and the goats are much happier.
Onto Your Table
Once the cheese is made it’s sent off for sale—and still more difficulties arise. The small cheese-maker is plagued by distribution problems. Getting cheese to stores and restaurants requires a refrigerated truck. It’s also necessary to have enough product to meet large orders. Because of these issues, most of New Mexico’s small cheese-makers sell their wares at farmers markets and fairs.Marketing can also be a problem. Advertising costs money that most small producers simply don’t have. South Mountain Dairy and Coonridge Dairy use the Internet to fill in the blanks, with websites that double as virtual storefronts and tools for educating consumers about their products. Others, such as Acosta Farm of Deming, have developed unique marketing strategies. Acosta Farm produces asadero—a semi-soft Mexican cheese made from cow’s milk—which is sold at wine festivals and other events. But the Acostas don’t just sell cheese. They make green chile quesadillas with it. Manny Acosta holds up a package of his asadero and points to his family’s name on the label. “This is what sets us apart," he says with pride. "The only we reason we do this [sell quesadillas] is to tell people about the cheese.”Judging by the lines at the last wine festival in Las Cruces, they’re on to something.The Acostas and their peers of small cheese-makers in New Mexico are a special breed. They face hard work and near constant difficulties. But not one of the people I spoke with would willingly give up their animals or the opportunity to introduce people to farmstead foods. They believe that mass-produced cheese simply can’t offer the quality that lovingly raised animals and attention to detail bring to the table. In the end, the local curd they make reflects their own New Mexican spirit: rich, tender and just a little nutty.
New Mexico Flavor
New Mexico’s Farmstead Cheese Producers
Acosta Farm (Deming)A fabulous cow’s milk asadero cheese that melts like a dream and pairs perfectly with green chile. E-mail email@example.com for details.Coonridge Organic Goat Cheese Dairy (Pie Town)High altitude living results in 100-percent organic, spreadable goat cheeses sold in 7.5 ounce jars, available in 16 different flavors. Shop online at www.coonridge.com.Desert Skies Creamery (Williamsburg)This father-son team turns out spreadable goat cheeses in several flavors like chipotle and Mediterranean, as well as asadero, queso blanco and, soon, blue cheese. Call (505)740-1489 for more information.South Mountain Dairy (Edgewood)The girls make several varieties of chevre, feta and havarti. They are open for tours on Saturdays. For more information and directions, visit www.lafarmita.com.
Courtesy of South Mountain Dairy
Lizette, one of “the girls” at South Mountain Dairy, produces milk for a variety of goat cheeses.