This was a pursuit that began seven years ago. I was in Italy with my gal pals, Ellen and Jennifer, the latter of whom's copious research uncovered a woman nestled in the hills surrounding Sienna who created insanely addictive goat cheese. The "goat cheese lady," as we affectionately called her, eluded us for several hours as we weaved about those breathtaking hills.
We never made it to that mysterious cheese wonder, but we never forgot it, either.
Fast forward to August 2006. Jennifer and I are airborne en route to Raleigh, North Carolina. The time had come to close the circle on our goat cheese lady.
Our destination, The Inn at Celebrity Dairy, is a dual-functioning B&B and working dairy farm located in rural Chatham County. Branded by a bejeweled spokesgoat named Gloria, this enterprise rests on 300 acres of land shaded by 200-year-old oak trees. It churns out 20,000 pounds of cheese a year that is marketed locally through farmers markets, stores and restaurants.
Upon arrival, we hurriedly settled into our quarters, Hattie Mae's Room. Do my eyes deceive? Two girlish twin beds instantly spun me like a top back into childhood. I was giddy.
We joined Brit and Fleming, the Inn's energetic and eclectic husband-and-wife owners, for lively conversation and a taste of their freshly made Serendipity goat cheese spread on homegrown juicy figs. If you've never eaten a fresh fig, as I hadn't, please do.
Properly cheesed-up in this land of many goats (64 to be exact), we took a few light steps from the Inn to the "Goat Hilton," where the goats were working it.
In advance of our trip I suggested to Brit that we'd like to participate in milking the goats. Naively, I assumed this meant sitting on a stool and filling a weathered metal pal with milk. Apparently, technology has advanced the goat-milking world. Bullocks!
While the pumping machines did their business, we socialized with the likes of Alice Waters, Liza Minnelli and Uma Thurman. Remember, this is a celebrity dairy and these goats are divas, but friendly ones at that—they playfully nibbled on our fingers with their front teeth. It tickled.
Rising well rested, we were ripe for our cheese-making tutorial. Enter Celebrity Dairy's master cheese maker, the spry, soft-spoken, sharp (no pun intended) and all-cheese knowing Whitney May.
Here again, we were a bit off on our expectations, as we weren't actually able to partake in making the cheese (food preparation regulations or some hooey). But, Whitney astutely walked us through the process, allowing us to visualize the metamorphosis of juice from the goat's labor into palate-pleasing fromage.
Cheese-making season lasts about 10 months. Goats are milked from mid-February to mid-December. After the fresh goat milk is pasteurized and set with rennet (a substance that curdles the milk) and culture, Whitney dips the curd into muslin bags that separate the curds and whey. Wait, that's not just a song?
The whey drains for eight to 12 hours, leaving the curd to stand-alone. The water-downed whey gets fed to the goats—waste not, want not.
The curd lands in the mixer and is sprinkled with salt to balance the flavor and extend the cheese shelf life. A bit more than a pound of cheese goes into making one rolled log. The weave-like texture of rolled logs is achieved by rolling on cross-stitch mats.
While this sounds simple, it's an exact process that requires a delicate hand to perfectly manipulate the cheese into market-ready logs. After a night's rest (for Whitney and the logs), she coats the logs in various herbs; take your pick of Currituck (curry), Party (parsley, basil, chives and onion) and Asian Luv (sesame seeds, ginger and garlic). To prevent breaking, the herbed logs are cut with dental floss. How clever.
Thoroughly informed, Jennifer and I left Whitney feeling much more connected to and appreciative of those who lovingly and diligently create the foods we love.
North Carolina may not be Tuscany. And, no, our hands never wrapped around a goat's teat or mingled in curds and whey. But for Jennifer and I, this was a rustic adventure ripe with welcoming, passionate and talented folks who've carved their own paths while bringing joyful flavors to others.
Cheese, goats and miles of country roads. We've come full circle.
Chicago has no shortage of markets, gourmet food shops and restaurants offering diverse selections of cheese. But what's your cheese IQ? Under the expert tutelage of Chef Stef at Provenance Food & Wine, it can only go up by participating in "Cheese 101" on Tuesday, October 24. If you're feeling particularly cheesy, learn how to create your own by visiting www.cheesemaking.com, which sells got dummy-proof kits.