Cheese makers come and cheese makers go, and that's the problem that haunts Sarah Churchill, owner of Mountain Meadows Creamery in Ivy, Va. Churchill and her more than 40 goats make a mild and moldy chevre, a small brie-shaped round cheese that's chalk white on the inside and turquoise on the outside, speckled with its own special mold.
The cheese is one of two products that Churchill has developed -- she and a friend make goat-milk soap -- in order to allow her to live the sort of life she wants; in her own little hillside home near Charlottesville, tending the goats she loves so much.
There are Yarrow and Ginger, Molly and Marigold. They all know their names, and they all know the order in which Churchill milks them, morning and evening. They stand outside the small cinder-block milking parlor at the appointed hour, then hoof in four at a time.
Churchill chooses to milk the goats by hand, although she does use a machine with her two cows for milk to feed the goat kids she is raising. The kids' mothers' milk is too valuable a commodity to feed it to them, but Churchill prefers to feed them fresh cow's milk rather than powdered formula from a bag.
She makes her cheese with the same care and, by necessity, on the same small scale that she raises her animals. Twice a week, on Wednesday and Sunday, she is in the creamery building by 5 a.m., hauling buckets of milk from the holding tank into the pasteurizer to begin the cheese-making process. To suit the scale of production she envisioned -- and making 40 to 50 gallons of milk into 30 to 40 pounds of cheese a day -- she had to jerry-rig her own pasteurizer.
''Pasteurizers are funny things,'' she says, pointing to the spots where she welded hot water lines onto the holding tank she salvaged. ''You can get little ones that do about five gallons, or big ones that do 250 gallons and up. Those are for the big dairies. They aren't designed for people like me. I couldn't find anything in between.''
Attached to the remodeled pasteurizer are three thermometers, according to stae law: one measures the milk itself, one measures the air above the milk, and one on the wall, a thermometer with a pencil attached, plots on a circular graph the temperature that the pasteurizer reached over the course of the morning.
She ran into another problem of scale of production as she searched for recipes by which to make her cheese. ''There's a lot of information about how to make cheese in your kitchen,'' says Churchill, ''and there's a lot of information if you're a big producer, a Kraft. But there's nothing, literally nothing, for someone on my scale.''
So with the help of an experienced cheese maker from the area, Churchill set about testing recipes in her kitchen 1 1/2 years ago. Because every facet of the procedure is crucial to the consistent success of the cheese, it took six months to find a recipe tat turned out right.
There's the culture: Churchill bought the original ''mother culture'' from a cheese-making supply house, but now she reproduces it from week to week justas one would continue a culture of sour-dough or yogurt.
That was one lesson she learned early on. When she began making cheese, she was using store-bought buttermilk as a culture, and the cheese cntinued to come out spongy. It was ''yeasting,'' as dairy scientists call it; picking up wild yeasts from the air rather than developing preferred cultures. The problem, Churchill finally discovered, is that grocery store buttermilk is inoculated with a culture inhibitor, so it can't be used as a live source of culture.
Then there is the temperature. Churchill's little creamery building still doesn't have its own heat or cooling system. Recipes she developed during her first fall season stopped working as cold weather came along. The cheese didn't curdle and harden; it stayed soft, like lumps of cottage cheese. Space heaters finally solved the problem.
In the meantime, Churchill and her mother made the most of the cheese that stayed too soft. Using a recipe her mother had followed with cream cheese for years, they made a sort of home-style hoursin, mixing the soft cheese with butter and herbs and using it as a spread. Churchill took the spread to a craft fair and it sold more quickly than her other cheeses. It has since become a second cheese item in her line.
Then there's the mold. Churchill speaks of her old as if it's another animal living there on the farm with the goats and the cows and the rabbits and the chickens. ''I always get a big kick out of this part, but no one else seems as interested in it as I am,'' she says as she opens the cooler door to show cheeses in three stages of aging.
It's a Wednesday. The cheeses in the bottom row were put down Sunday, just three days before. They look crisp and white, like dry curds still packed tightly. Only the slightest spots of mold, jsut slightly yellower, show on their topmost surfaces.
The middle row of cheeses has been aging a week. They are shriveling their edges curving, their shapes sagging with age. A yellowish mold wrinkles over their top surfaces. ''Now that mold will get going quite happily, and then it will dry out,'' says Churchill, pointing to the 10-day-old cheese on top.
On the oldest cheese, the white mold has subsided into a background of creamy yellow. A new mold, this one a distinctive dusky turquoise, has begun to predominate. ''The molds are sort of fighting one another,'' says Churchill. ''As one dries out, another takes over. Where it comes from, I don't know. It's in this room, I don't know what its name is. It's just my mold. It makes the cheese what it is.''
Churchill's cheese does look particularly moldy. If you pick it up at the cheese shop and look beneath its handsome wrapper, you can't help noticing how the blue-green spots and the wavy yellow crust vie for a place on its surface. Its moldy apearance may well discourage some people from trying Mountain Meadows Chevre.
''It isn't a pickup item,'' says Howard Schweizer politely from his cheese & Cheer shop at 210 Seventh St. SE, the only store in Washington proper that sells Churchill's cheese (Vintage Virginia in Aleandria and Meredyth Vineyard in Middleburg sell it too).
''Can you imagine anyone picking up a cheese that looks like that in a grocery store? You have to explain it to people, and in a hurry,'' says Schweizer. He keeps room-temperature samples for people curious to taste it. Once they have, says Schweizer, many come back for more. ''It's a unique different goat cheese that is great in its own way. That blue that you see of it is inigenous to the cheese.''
Churchill herself has had to educate many customers about the safety of eating her cheeses' mold, and she gets excited about it. ''People in this country have a phobia about mold. They cut it off and throw it out. If it develops on a cheese in the refrigerator, they throw the cheese away. It's ridiculous. In Europe they go to great lengths to develop these molds. Any cheese is a result of mold, except for those awful processed cheeses.''
Despite her markedly unscientific attitude about the molds growing on her cheese, Churchill is certain that they are safe and edible. Cheese experts who have been working with her agree. ''The molds that normally grow at that. pH(degree of acidity) are safe, says William Collins, a dairy scientist now retired from Virginia Tech. Collins has worked with Churchill and other Virginia homestead cheese makers, and he hypothesizes that the mold now growing on churchill's cheese first came from sample cheese she brought into the dairy when she was developing her recipe.
Atwood Huff, a Virginia Department of Agriculture dairy inspector, conforms that samples of Churchill's cheese are tested at least 10 times a year. ''MOlds are like fingerprints. They can be identified,'' says Huff. Although the state tests do not identify the cheese's particular molds, they confirm that the molds are not among those known to be dangerous.
It's not just the mold that might put off potential customers. ''There is just something about the stigma of goats,'' says dairy inspector Huff, adding that the only legal fluid goat milk dairy in Virginia is still struggling despite half a dozen years in business.
Chevre may be a fashionable cheese in certain circles, but the greater population still has to be persuaded to eat cheese made of goat milk. Like Schweizer at his Capitol Hill shop, Churchill persuades people at local craft fairs to try a taste of her chevre. They try it and like it, despite their prejudices.
While most who try a sample like it, only certain kinds of people become regular purchasers of chevre. ''Yuppies,'' says Churchill, ''People who read a lot. People who are open-minded. People who are willing to try something new. Particularly northerners and people from California.''
For now, Churchill is just as glad that her chevre doesn't appeal to the masses. Her goat milk soap business is going strong, and she doesn't have the time, or for that matter the goat milk, to make more than 70 or 80 pounds of cheese a week. She has interested other stores in her goat cheese -- Sutton Place Gourmet says it will order some in the fall when the cheese business picks up -- but Churchill isn't sure she wold have enough to fill additional orders. Right now, she already sells all the cheese she is making.
The situation represents a common Catch-22 for homestead dairies and other small-scale food producers. The quality of the product comes from personal attention to every detail, attention that can be given only on a small scale. But the better the product, the higher the demand. How does one meet that demand without getting bigger, without expanding beyond the scale of production that ensured handmade quality in the first place?
Distribution costs add to the problem, as Sutton Place Gourmet's cheese buyer Claude Mallinger points out. He carries more than 60 goat cheeses, but only one is American: Laura Chenel's California chevre, at a price of more than $1 per ounce. Ironically, Mallinger can provide his customers with goat cheese importd from France, Italy or england at a lower price than that for goat cheese made in New York, New Jersey or Virginia. ''when you want to carry goat cheese from a person, say from New Jersey, how do you ship three boxes?'' asks Mallinger. ''It costs a lot of money. It's a problem of distribution. There are lot of people making cheese locally, but they can't ship them here.''
Gives the recent track record of neighboring cheese producers, Churchill is working against the odds. Two other homestead dairies in the Charlottesville area have started up and shut down within the last five years. Both produced high-quality cheese; both were i run by dedicated, energetic, country-loving sorts. But bother went under, not so much due to financial loss as to loss of spirit.
Seven miles from Churchill Mountain Meadows Creamery, Owie Bloemers ran Landsdale Farm. Bloemers made a flavorful Gouda using equipment and recipe acquired from Dutch cheese makers. Twenty-five miles north, in Orange, Va., Gerals Aiello produced a goat milk feta at his Bele Terrer Famrs. Bloemers and Aiello were both going strong three years ago; today, neither is making cheese.
What is it about small-scale farm productions that make them such tenuous operations?
''I think the biggest reason is just plain old burnout,'' Churchill says. She knows what she is talking about: she works about as hard as she can push it. She starts at 5 in the morning, she finishes at 9 or 10 at night. She lives alone, and can't imagine combining this schedule with demands of a family.
''When 5 p.m. rolls around, I think to myself, 'What are most people doing right now? The're going home and drinking cocktails, deciding what TV program to watch. I get out here shopping around, milking a cow, being stepped on by goats, being peed on by rabbits, being pecked on by chickens.'' It's not a glamorous life, making that glamorous product.
Hard work that it is, economic must be a factor in the short life spans of farmstead daires as well. Sarah Churchill reports that at her present rate of production, her cheese business nets $125 to $135 a month. That's less than 40 cents an hour for her labor.
"Unless you do it on a very big scale, it's made more by love," says Sutton Place's Mallinger. Love may make some tasty cheeses, but it doesn't make a living. CHEVRE-ENCRUSTED PORK ROAST (6 to 8 servings) 1 teaspoon thyme 1/4 teaspoon rosemary 4 cloves garlic, crushed or minced 1 1/2 cup bread crumbs 1 cup loosely packed crumbled chevre 2 tablespoons olive oil 4-pound lean bonless pork roast
Mix herbs, garlic, bread crumbs, cheese and olive oil with a fork or in a food processor. If bread crumbs are dry, you may need to add as much as 1/4 cup water to make the mixture moist enough to pack together.
Stating with the roast at room temperature, put it in a roasting pan and cover the top and sides with the bread crumb mixture. Roast covered at 350 degrees for about 2 hours then remove cover and roast for another 1/2 hour. Remove cover and roast for another 1/2-hour. Remove from oven and let sit about 15 minutes before serving. CHEVRE AND RICE SALAD
2 cups cooled brown rice
1/2 cup navy beans, cooled till soft but not mushy
3/4 cup cooled corn kenels
1/4 cup coarsely muneed parseley
1/4 cup onion
1 tablespoon -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
1/2 cup crumbled chevre
2 tablespoons oilve oil
4 teaspoons wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon oregano
Dash of salt
Freshly ground balck pepper
Mix all ingedients together. Toss, chill and serve on a bed of escarole or letuce. DOUBLE CHEVRE AND CRAB QUICHE (makes two 8-inch pies) FOR THE CRUST:
1 cup unbleashed flour
1/2 cup cornmeal
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup crumbled chevre
FOR THE FILLING 2/3 cup cream
11/2 cups milk
Butter for pans
2/3 cup loosely packed, crumbled chevre
1 cup crab meat
2 tablespoons minced fresh dill
Freshly ground pepper
To make the crust: Mix all ingredients together just until pastry joins together in a ball. If necessary, sprinkle with water a teaspoon at a time to get dough to proper consistency. Refrigerate about an hour.
To make the filling: Combine the cream and milk and scald it. Set it aside to cool.
Roll out dough aproximately 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick and lay in greased pie pans. Spread crumbled goat cheese in bottom. Spread crab meat on top. Sprinklw with dill and grind pepper over it. Beat eggs till frothy, then beat cooled scalded milk into them. Pour over contents of pie pans and place in 375 degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes, until crust turns golden brown. Remove from oven 10 to 15 minutes before serving. MARY CHURCHILL'S HOME-STYLED HERB-CHEESE SPREAD (Makes about 3 cups) This recipe originally called for cream cheese. It may be made instead with a very young goat cheese, called fromage blanc; a French fromage blanc is available at Sutton Place Gourmet. Please note, however, that Mountain Meadows Chevre is not a fromage blanc, but has been aged, and therefore is not an appropriate ingredients for this recipe.
1/2 cup butter, salted or unsalted
2 cups fromage blanc OR 2
8-ounce package cream cheese
2 garlic cloves, crushed or finely minced
1 teaspoon salt (use only 1/2
teaspoon if using salted butter)
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon thyme
1 teaspoon marjoram
1 teaspoon dill
1 teaspoon basil
1 teaspoon chervil
Let butter and cream cheese come to room temeprature. Mix all ingredients together. Refrigerate overnight. Take out at least an hour before serving. Serve as dip or spread.