August is National Goat Cheese Month and, no matter how unlikely it might seem, there’s a booming goat cheese industry in the Main Line region. Local purveyors spend day in and day out caring for their goats so they can use the milk for sumptuous treats like cheese.
One such producer is Yellow Springs Farm in Chester Springs. Owned by husband and wife duo Al and Catherine Renzi, the pair began farming in 2001. It’s a full-time job that produces delicious results, but not without a lot of feeding, mucking and milking, making it a labor of love.
Unlike most jobs, theirs doesn’t stop on the weekend. “That’s something that probably many people in the 21st century don’t quite understand—livestock is seven days a week,” Catherine Renzi says. “[Goats] don’t know if it’s the Fourth of July or Christmas.” The finished product, however laborious, makes the work worthwhile.
The process for producing goat cheese can take anywhere from days to months and the flavors and process vary from farm to farm. Renzi says that everything from soil makeup to plants in the pasture can affect goats’ water intake and therefore their milk.
“The hay from the Midwest is different from the hay from this area; it’s different from the hay in Vermont or California, as well,” explains Renzi, whose farm has over 100 goats. “The water’s different, the pasture is different. The geology of the stone, the earth is different.” In Chester Springs, the goats drink well water with lots of iron and magnesium, standing on sandstone soil and native plants that also effect groundwater, giving their milk a decidedly Chester County infusion.
Those conditions vary considerably from a farm just 16 miles away. Another of the area’s local goat cheese purveyors is Shellbark Hollow Farm in Honey Brook. It’s owned by Pete and Jeanne Demchur, and Pete estimates he’s spent over 20 years as a cheesemaker.
He says that in addition to the effects of seasonal grazing, the breed of goat makes a big difference in the finished product. He calls cheesemaking “a combination of chemistry and cooking” that “changes per season.”
Cheesemakers aren’t completely at the mercy of their environments, though. Renzi also employs goat breeding and aging the cheeses in an old stone barn whose “microenvironment” imparts “a different … character to the cheeses than if we were to age them in a refrigerator or in a cave in Vermont.”
Each farm also adds its own culinary twist for distinctive flavors. Renzi likes to grab her seasonings from close by. Yellow Springs Farm cultivates a native plant nursery and makes a point to use many of these plants in the kitchen, including black walnuts, sycamore leaves and elderberries. The sycamore leaves serve as wrapping for their Red Leaf cheese, which is marinated in red wine.
At Shellbark, the Demchurs keep busy making cheese three to five days a week, producing between 60 and 80 pounds a day. The types of cheese range from fresh varieties that can take two to three days to make from start to finish, to ripened varieties that take weeks.
The list of tasks necessary to make a ripened hard cheese is dizzying. Demchur rattles them off methodically: It can take six to eight hours to process raw milk into wheels ready to be brined. After that, he adds heating then cultures, then cuts, stirs and finally, cooks, the curd. For days after that lengthy process, he must wash and flip the cheeses. The results are tangy and smooth reels, ready for the cheeseboard.
Mold-ripened crottin is among Shellbark’s bestsellers. Jeanne Demchur dubs them “not for the weak of heart” due to their strong flavors. Her husband acknowledges they can be too strong for some Americans, but he personally finds them appealing.
Like some of their cheeses, the Demchurs’ lifestyle isn’t for the weak of heart. Jeanne says they milk about 30 of their 75 goats twice a day, no matter the weather. Despite the sometimes-bleak conditions, they love what they do.
“Pete’s first love is the animals, and when he goes out there, they follow him around like the Pied Piper,” Jeanne says. They also enjoy taking the goats off the farm every now and then. “We’ve brought goats into Head House Farmers Market and there were people there that didn’t know what they were,” she continues.
Despite their proximity to many communities in the region, the farms themselves can go unnoticed, recognized only when their cheeses are hauled into shopping baskets at the market.
For those who want a closer look, Yellow Springs Farm opens on a few weekends throughout the year. Visitors can get a glance at the goats and taste the many cheeses on offer. Similarly, Shellbark Hollow offers tours. It needn’t be National Goat Cheese Month to appreciate these local gems.
Yellow Springs Farm will be open to the public on Sept. 2 and 3 from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Find Shellbark Hollow Farm at Chadds Ford Days on Sept. 9 and 10.