FROM INSIDE the barn come the low, sensual murmurs of mother goats buldging toward birth. It's kidding time at Belle Terre Farms in Orange, Va. Kidding time means miking time, and milking time means the start of another season of making feta cheese.
"We're the only large goat-milk feta cheese producer in the country," claims Gerald Aiello, owner of Belle Terre Farms. "And we're tiny."
Four times a week Aiello draws milk from his holding tank, which contains 800 pounds or 100 gallons, and cooks it into feta: tangy, firm, white and creamy, salty, rich, with that pleasing bite from goat's milk.
"I've had people trace me down to tell me it's the best feta cheese they've ever had," Aiello says proudly.
What's his secret?
It all begins with the goats--26 broad-bellied, earnest-looking Nubian milkers. The kind of goats with random speckles and bassett-hound ears. The breed prized for their high-volume milk production and for the high butterfat in their milk. It was for the love of these animals that Aiello and his wife, Suzanne, three or four years back began to seek financial incentives for keeping them. The couple believes they've found one now in their feta cheese.
Goatkeeping is a family affair for the Aiellos. Daughters Jessica, 11, and Amy, 9, trek out to the barn with their parents each day before 6 a.m. The girls lead docile does onto the milking stand while their parents feed baby goats in the barn. Since the mother goats' milk brings 20 cents a pound ($1.60 a gallon) when made into feta, the Belle Terre babies drink a powdered milk formula instead. And they seem to thrive on it.
By 8 o'clock the girls are off to school, and Suzanne is opening the doors of her physical therapy practice in downtown Orange. Aiello is back home, getting down to the business of turning goat milk into feta cheese.
He's a handy man, an ex-academician, a physicist. His little cheese dairy shines as an example of do-it-yourself ingenuity. Aiello first built the roomy, sunlit barn where the goats munch on hay all day long. He then rebuilt the adjoining cinderblock building to health department specifications, reshaping secondhand equipment to meet his cheese-making needs.
The radio plays a Chopin e'tude. "A Clockwork Orange" lies, half-read, on the desk. Inside the steamy cheese-making room, Aiello is piping milk into the stainless-steel cooking vat, which measures 3-by-3-by-3 feet. Hot water fills its hollow sides like a giant double boiler, and the milk inside slowly heats toward a temperature of 86 degrees Fahrenheit. He checks the temperature, adjusts the dials.
To the milk he adds a starter--a commercially prepared combination of enzymes and bacteria that transforms lactose to lactic acid, which gives a cheese its bite. Soon thereafter, he adds rennet.
Gentle cooking turns the milk into a soft white pudding within half an hour. The curds begin visibly to separate from the whey. Once the milk "puddings up," Aiello cuts clean through it with a curd cutter, a set of wire-thin blades strung parallel an inch apart. He draws the cutter through the curd lengthwise, then crisscrosses back, creating inch-square cubes. The more surfaces he creates, the cheese-maker explains, the quicker the curd cooks and the more whey escapes. Eventually Aiello opens the drain at the bottom of the vat and drains out all the whey, leaving the vat looking like a giant-scale tub of cottage cheese. The curds feel squishy and they taste like sweet cream.
"Now I turn the curds over as if they were already blocks of cheese," demonstrates Aiello, cutting the matted curds into six-inch squares and flipping them over. "This gets the curds to exude more whey, and gets them to knit together."
By now it's lunchtime, but first he feeds the baby goats again. Keeping up with the hunger of 30-plus squirmy growing kids takes a lot of time during early kidding season. But by the time they are a month old, they munch hay and nibble grain, and their four-times-daily requirement for milk begins to slack off.
By 2 o'clock the curds have knitted together well. Now the basic production of the cheese is over. Suzanne arrives home in time to help with packing the cheese into jars. The two swing into a homey rhythm, despite the ribbing when one falls behind the other.
Aiello packs chunks and slices of the curd, now firmer and slightly acidic in flavor, into sterilized jars. Suzanne then tops the jars with salt water. They cover and label them, stamp them with the date of production, and set them into the 40-degree cooler to age for the 60 days required for any unpasteurized milk product going to market.
Making the feta requires most of a full day's work, but compared to recipes for most other cheeses, this one is rather simple. The cooking temperature is lower than that of many cheeses. The curds are drained, but never need rinsing. The cheese gains shape just by sitting flat in the vat; no molds or presses are required. And it ages right in the jars that end up on the supermarket shelf.
For all these reasons, feta is a good candidate for home cheese-making. In fact, it was in experiments at home that Aiello tested his recipe before he set about making feta cheese to sell.
"This cheese-making process is all self-taught," he says. "And I did the self-teaching in the kitchen."
Though he gladly shares his kitchen-scale recipe for feta, the Belle Terre cheesemaker hints at two major reasons why your stove-top feta won't match his.
First, there's the starter. The kitchen recipe calls for buttermilk, which is cultured with bacteria similar to those available from cheese-makers' supply houses--similar, but not the same, and the difference between one bacterial culture and another makes quite a difference in the flavor of the cheese, Aiello says.
And then, of course, there are the goats. You can't compare a cheese made from pasteurized, processed, supermarket cow's milk with a cheese made from unpasteurized, fresh milk from a prized Nubian herd.
Goat's milk, as a matter of fact, makes the Belle Terre Farms' feta different from most other fetas on the market.
"The greatest majority of feta cheese consumed in this country is made out of cow's milk," says Harry Magafan of Alpha Food Distributors in Landover, Md.
Magafan, a Greek, specializes in Greek foods for restaurants. Magafan knows his feta. He recently visited Belle Terre Farms and gave its cheese a try; eating it is the only way one can fairly judge it, according to Greek tradition--put a thick slab of feta on a thick slice of bread.
"I'd say Mr. Aiello's feta is very good," Magafan concluded. "The original feta cheese is made out of goat's milk. Mr. Aiello doesn't have anything but goats, and so his feta is 100 percent goat's milk. It's just like the difference between beef and veal."
The food distributor explained that goat's milk feta comes in bulk to this country from the Balkan countries. Any Danish feta, he said, is made from cow's milk, and isn't quite up to snuff. And any American feta not labeled "goat milk" is a cow's milk product, too. As far as he knows, Aiello is the only American producer of a goat's milk feta.
So until a supply of fresh, raw goat's milk hits your neighborhood market, you may be better off buying feta cheese.
But if you're really insistent on making the finest feta, you might consider buying a Belle Terre Farms baby goat.
And therein lies another story.
HOMEMADE FETA CHEESE (Makes about 1 pound) 1 gallon whole milk 1/3 cup cultured buttermilk 1 rennet tablet (not junket) Cold water and salt
To heat milk, immerse one large pan in an even larger one so that water encircles the pan holding milk. Set inner pan on an inverted plate or canning rack so that its bottom does not receive direct heat. You will need a thermometer that measures in the 80- to 100-degree range. Keep monitoring the water bath as well as the heating milk. The water bath can rise 2 to 5 degrees above the desired temperature, but no higher. A gas or wood stove will allow the best control over the temperature. You will find that since water retains heat so readily, once you have attained the temperature and wish to hold it for awhile, it's best to shut off the heat altogether, wrap a towel over the pan and cover it. Temperature is of the essence in cheese-making. If the milk and culture reaches 100 degrees or over, you've killed the required bacteria and might as well start over with new milk and buttermilk.
Slowly heat 1 gallon of milk to 86 degrees. Add buttermilk and gently stir. Hold at 86 degrees for one hour. Dissolve one rennet tablet in 1/4 cup of cold water. Add the solution to the milk. Stir gently for one minute, then allow the milk to sit undisturbed for about half an hour, still at a constant 86 degrees. The curd is adequately firm when you see it separating from the edge of the pan and when a finger inserted makes a distinct break. It should feel like soft Jell-O.
Cut the curd crosswise with a sharp knife into half-inch cubes. Let it rest for 10 minutes. Then stir very gently and gradually, for more than one hour, and raise the temperature of the curd to 95 degrees. (Suggestion: Turn heat on the lowest setting possible. Monitor water bath until it reaches 92 or 93 degrees; then shut heat off and cover pan with towel.) As the curds slowly cook, gently stir them every 10 minutes, being careful not to break them up.
After an hour of slow cooking, drain whey off curds by pouring through a colander. (Don't discard the whey--use it in baking or feed it to dogs, cats, chickens.) Let the curds knit together by allowing to sit and drain in colander one hour. Then cut into convenient-sized blocks and turn; let drain another half hour. Curd may be salted at this time.
Pack curd in a sterilized quart jar. Prepare a brine of 2 cups water and 2 tablespoons salt. Pack curd into jar, then pour brine over it. Seal with an enamel-lined canning lid. Let the jar sit in the refrigerator at least two weeks. The longer it ages, the better it gets in taste and texture.
SPINACH PIE (4 servings) 6 tablespoons butter 1 onion, chopped Salt and pepper 1/4 teasoon nutmeg 2 teaspoons dill, minced 1 pound spinach, washed and chopped 2 eggs 1/2 pound (approximately 1 cup) feta cheese 6 or 8 sheets of phyllo pastry 1 tablespoon olive oil
Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large frying pan. Gently fry onion in it. Add salt, pepper, nutmeg and dill. Slowly add chopped spinach, stirring to moisten. Cover to simmer and wilt leaves slightly, then remove from heat. In a bowl, beat eggs lightly. Crumble feta into beaten eggs. Melt remaining butter. Spread a 9-by-9-inch baking pan with olive oil. Layer 3 or 4 phyllo sheets in pan, spreading each sheet with melted butter. Quickly toss spinach into egg and cheese, then spoon on top of phyllo. Layer remaining phyllo in pan, again spreading each new layer with melted butter, and tuck edges under to form a smooth top crust. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 45 minutes, until golden brown.
CHEESE PIE (4 servings) 1 onion 3 cloves garlic 3 tablespoons olive oil Up to 1/4 teaspoon each basil, sage, oregano 3 tablespoons butter 4 eggs 3/4 pound feta (approximately 1 1/2 cups) 6 or 8 sheets of phyllo pastry
Lightly brown chopped onion and crushed garlic in 2 tablespoons olive oil. Crumble herbs in as onion sizzles. Melt butter in small pan. Spread 9-by-9-inch baking pan with 1 tablespoon olive oil. In a bowl, beat 4 eggs lightly, then crumble feta into them. Toss the cooked onions and garlic into egg and cheese mixture. Spread phyllo in pan, sheet by sheet, brushing each with melted butter, until half the phyllo leaves are used. Spoon in cheese mixture. Then layer on remaining phyllo leaves, again spreading each with melted butter and tucking edges under to form a smooth surface. Bake at 350 degrees 30 to 45 minutes, until golden brown.