When their pages need an uplifting, warm-hearted message, New England newspaper editors often send a writer into the countryside to interview the educated homesteaders. A few are famous Boston war activists from the early '70s, but others are advertising account executives who hated the strain, or college professors who had faculty politics up to here.
In all shapes, sizes and ages, they are raising sheep in New Hampshire, running restaurants in Vermont, or operating direct mail businesses wherever the scenery is fantastic. One ex-bank executive who couldn't take the chairman of the board another day bought a lobster boat and a dozen sheep.
Karen and Bill Mitman left a big city hotel staff to raise goats and run the Squire Tarbox Inn near the Maine coast. It is one of those farmhouses that ramble all over the property -- north of Bath, Maine, then a sharp right toward the ocean and at least three switchbacks on a narrow country road that goes deep into a pine-covered wilderness.
"When people arrive for the first time, they say, 'Where the hell are we?' " Karen said, "and then they say, 'What the hell is there to do?' "
True. Those who bring tennis racquets or golf clubs have made a bad choice, but after three years of Mitman management, the clientele has regulated itself to include the kind of guest who likes day trips and a cozy home to return to in the evening -- a quick trip to the barn to see the goats, a good dinner with marvelous rolls (made with goat's milk whey), and in the morning an excellent breakfast that features coarse-grained, delicious granola to eat with sliced banana and goat's milk (or cow's milk, but they taste much the same).
Most of the interesting breakfast breads are made with goat's milk, and drinks before dinner involve various platters of goat cheese made at the Squire Tarbox Inn kitchen, and thin slices of hard salami made of goat meat from a retired Mitman goat.
What is going on here is a gentle scam, a campaign of such subtlety that only those who are tipped off know what is going on. You are being charmed with comfy beds, good food, and a house-party atmosphere. And in return you will go forth viewing goats with affection and understanding, ready to do battle for the clever animals if anyone speaks harshly about their character.
"This goat cheese is too mild," a guest said accusingly one night. But two more guests picked up their ears and gave it a try.
Good. That zesty-chevre lover was already sold, but the man from Michigan and his wife had an experience and lived through it. Who knows? They might even try goat cheese again. They did have goat milk in their breakfast coffee and paid the goats a goodbye visit before going on to the urban temptations of Ogunquit.
The Squire Tarbox Inn has taken the improvements from the 18th and 19th centuries in stride and managed to infuse the austerity with warmth and comfort. Each inch of the rambling old colonial has been converted into large comfortable guests rooms and living rooms. Most recently the hayloft was made into two doubles with a bathroom to share off a small hall.
And at the side -- a short walk from the Inn -- is a house that looks like those natural wood vacation houses designed to blend into the landscape with one soaring side to give the interior generous airiness. No candlewick spreads and pine floors here. This is the barn and those are the goats that are clamboring for attention and affection from anyone who comes to see them. It is a small herd of 13 with three kids born in the spring -- photogenic and kissable Nubian goats with rounded noses, floppy ears, and intelligent eyes full of independence.
Before you get the idea that the Squire Tarbox is a fey operation run by wild-eyed goat zealots, the Mitmans are both alumni of the Copley Plaza, one of Boston's most elegant hotels. Both are late starters in the back-to-the-land movement.
Like the sensible people that they are, the Mitmans researched homesteading thoroughly before committing themselves. "The Department of Agriculture has quantities of material on the subject," Bill said. "They tell you that you haven't a chance for survival unless you come from a farming family and even know how to fix the farm machinery yourself."
So they stuck to what they knew, found the Squire Tarbox after a three-year search and bought it to support the country life with meaning that they had in mind.
According to Bill, they ended up with goats by default. "We wanted animals with some personality. Cows are too big. Sheep have no individuality, and chickens are too dumb."
In these days of goat cheese madness, the Mitmans get a fair amount of attention from the press, pictures of attractive, open-faced Karen holding a dear little Nubian goat in her arms. It irritates them both since the message about easily digestible, naturally homogenized, low cholesterol, healthy milk falls between the lines.
"We're one of three countries in the world who don't raise goats for milk," Bill said. "Canada and Argentina are the other two, all of us with generous grazing lands for cattle."
Part of the problem is sheer bigotry. As barnyard reputations go, the goat trails closely behind the pig in perjoratives. In the black arts, it stands in for the devil and is synonymous with lust. Cartoon goats are always eating barbed wire or hats, surrounded by those wavy little lines that indicate they smell to high heaven.
"They are fastidious critters," Karen said. "One day I dropped their feed on the barn floor, which was very clean, swept it back into the feeding pan and none of them would touch it. They need good quality hay for the best milk, and only during breeding season does the male goat have an odor. People allergic to cow's milk and milk products can usually drink goat milk and eat chevre without a reaction."
One evening Karen got a call from a desperate woman in Bath who had been given the Mitman's name as a last resort. Her baby was allergic to cow's milk and every other substitute that the pediatrician could suggest. Now it was time for goat's milk.
"She arrived right after the evening milking and took home a day's supply. The next day she called to say that the baby had slept through the night for the first time."
But a goat herd is not a ticket to prosperity, no matter how much the markets are charging for chevre. One of the new goats in the Mitman barn is from a farm that didn't make it, and most breeders develop another income to support their goat habit.
"In France they make their goats pay by operating within a cooperative, a collection of farms with a strong marketing plan to sell milk and cheese under the same label," Karen said. "We can't seem to work that way in Maine. Goat milk takes on odors quickly, so the barn and animals must be kept very clean. In a cooperative, you'd have to tell a careless neighbor that you don't want his milk, and then tell him why."
It's tough, particularly for these people who have left the big city with its sleazy business tactics to lead a gentler, more humane existence.
The Mitman barn is immaculate. After all, the goats are part of the daily entertainment. Guests arrive at all hours in their white shoes or long skirts to mingle with the goat family. Wood shavings from a local lumber yard are bagged and waiting in the loft to be sprinkled on the floor. Fresh hay thickly carpets the cre ches for the kids.
Menus for dinner reflect the Mitmans' interest in healthy food. Dinner begins with a soup made from whatever is freshest in the market -- mushrooms, spinach, fruit -- and the second course is always a salad. The entree is fish or chicken and is accompanied by three vegetables prepared with imagination -- minted glazed carrots, cranberries with red cabbage, broccoli in lemon butter are typical. The dessert to prove that they aren't hidebound about food is a luscious chocolate pie.
The dining room is a few steps down from the earliest part of the house, and in the evening it is cheered by a fire in the fireplace and lighted candles on every table.
"We're open from late May to late October or whenever the leaves fall off the trees," Karen said. And then it's time to rest.
The goats, too, have a fallow period -- two months in winter when they do not manufacture milk. So everyone has a vacation.
Here are some of the inn recipes, but any dish that calls for cow's milk or cheese can be made with goat's milk -- ice creams, custards, cream soups, anything at all. MAINE BLUEBERRY NUT MUFFINS (Makes 16 muffins)
Those tiny Maine blueberries -- fresh or frozen -- are the best for muffins.
1 cup sugar
1 cup goat's milk, or substitute cow's milk
3 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled
3 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup blueberries, rinsed and picked over
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
Extra sugar for sprinkling
In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the eggs and sugar until they are combined and thickened. Add the milk and butter and beat well to mix them thoroughly. Set aside 2 tablespoons of flour to mix with the blueberries and add the remaining flour, baking powder, and salt to the batter and beat just until mixed.
Sprinkle blueberries with the flour and add them to the batter with the walnuts, folding them in with a rubber spatula.
Divide the batter among 16 greased muffin cups and sprinkle the tops with sugar. Transfer the pans to a 350-degree oven and bake the muffins for 25 minutes, or until puffed and golden.
Leave them in the pans to cool slightly and then turn out onto a rack. Serve with unsalted butter. SQUIRE TARBOX INN NUT LOAF (Makes three 9-by-5-by-3-inch loafs)
6 tablespoons butter
3 cups chopped celery
3 cups chopped onions
1 cup cooked rice
1 cup ground almonds
2 cups chopped walnuts
2 cups toasted cashews
1/4 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup sesame seeds
1/4 cup sunflower seeds
2 pounds soft goat cheese (or cottage cheese)
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons pepper
1 teaspoon blended herbs (basil, oregano)
6 beaten eggs
Melt butter in a large skillet and saute' celery and onions until tender. Combine them in a large bowl with the rice, almonds, walnuts, cashews, rolled oats, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, soft cheese, salt, pepper and herbs. Blend in the beaten eggs and pour the batter into three 9-by-5-by-3-inch buttered loaf pans. Bake in a 400-degree oven for 1 hour or until quite dark on top. Serve warm as a light entree. SQUIRE TARBOX INN POUND CAKE (16 servings)
1 cup ( 1/2 pound) soft, lactic acid cheese (goat or cream cheese)
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) softened butter
2 cups sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons lemon or vanilla extract
6 eggs, room temperature
3 cups unsifted all-purpose flour
Blend cheese and butter in an electric mixer. With the speed on high, beat in the sugar, salt and extract until light. Add eggs one at a time and beat until the batter is very light and fluffy. With the mixer on low speed, add flour and blend only until mixed. Turn into a buttered and floured 10-inch tube pan and bake 1 hour and 15 minutes at 325 degrees. Cool for 5 minutes. Invert on a rack to cool thoroughly.