The burgeoning local food movement usually seeks to bring the farm to the table. But the Goat Lady Dairy brings the table to the farm.
Several times a month, for most of the year, the North Carolina dairy opens its barn doors to about 50 people who register in advance for a $60-per-person “dining adventure”: a five-course, locally inspired meal showcasing the dairy’s multiple varieties of goat cheese. We signed up partly for the food and partly for the goats, and neither disappointed.
The Goat Lady is tucked away in the rolling hills of Climax, N.C., about a five-hour drive from Washington in the west-central part of the state. (It can be tough to find: Our car’s GPS unit said “turn left” at the same instant the smartphone said “turn right.”) But eventually we pulled up at its red barn and joined the crowd on the porch for a glass of wine with a side of environmental education.
“We do not do this because this is a handy-dandy, simple, easy way to make a living,” dairy owner Steve Tate told our group. Instead, he said, “We discovered that when you change a person’s relationship to food, you change them and the world together.”
Tate started the evening with a short history of his family’s involvement in the goat business. He and his late sister Ginnie, who grew up in rural Illinois, had “regular jobs” but yearned to get back to the land and connect customers with local food. Together with Steve’s wife, Lee, they bought an abandoned tobacco farm in the mid-1980s and moved in with Ginnie’s goat, Nubie, whose presence led curious neighbors to dub her owner “the goat lady.”
The dairy launched in 1995 with a herd of goats that were milked on the premises. Over time, the Tates began to specialize in cheesemaking, and they now purchase both cow and goat milk from neighboring farms and produce cheese that is sold in North Carolina and 10 other states.
The barn where the meals are served is plain but cozy, with folk art paintings of goats lining one wall. As a foursome, we had our own table, but smaller groups were assigned to larger tables. We later peeked through the windows that overlook the cheesemaking operation and saw the spreadable cheese draining in a long row of hanging cheesecloths.
Tate still keeps a small herd. Most are full-grown, but he handed out baby goats to members of the delighted crowd, who cradled the all-white kids while their companions took photos. Even at just a few weeks old, the goats are surprisingly heavy, and they were passed from one person to another to a chorus of “ooohs” and “aahs.”
As his guests bonded with the goats, Tate told us that, despite the growing popularity of goat cheese, the animals are by no means a guaranteed moneymaker. “You can sell goat cheese for a year just on the story,” he said. “But the second year, you had better make good goat cheese.”
On that score, the dairy does itself proud. Its most heralded product is Smoky Mountain Round, dried and lightly smoked over applewood, which took first place at the 2012 American Cheese Society’s competition. The dinner cheese course also included spreadable goat cheese in assorted flavors: roasted red pepper, orange-and-fig and “triple heat.” And there’s a chevre log — air-dried to give it a more intense taste.
The rest of the menu, determined a few days in advance based on what’s fresh, combines local and international influences. After the cheeses and a salad came a cold borscht that we recognized as Polish chlodnik. The deep red of the beets is lightened with a crème fraîche, turning it a glorious pink. Pulled pork, a North Carolina staple, was accompanied by a garlicky chimichurri that holds its own against anything from Argentina.
Dessert included more goat cheese, this time atop a toasted pound cake slathered with a blueberry reduction. As a final touch, the servers brought out chocolate goat-cheese truffles — a bit much, judging from the number of uneaten ones left at meal’s end, but a nice show of Southern hospitality.
A trickle of arrivals from the North is diversifying the folksy charms of Asheboro, a former mill town of about 26,000. The most popular local haunt is the Flying Pig, the first place in town to sell beer (the county was dry until 2008, hence the bar-and-restaurant’s name). Four Saints, a craft brewery, is scheduled to open in early 2015.
Although the Goat Lady experience was what drew us to the area, Asheboro, 15 miles south of Climax, offers other diversions. The North Carolina Zoo houses more than 1,600 animals along its five miles of shaded pathways. Nearby are the North Carolina Aviation Museum Hall of Fame, filled with vintage biplanes and other ancient aircraft, and the American Classic Motorcycle Museum, featuring an extensive assemblage of Harley-Davidsons.
Bia’s Gourmet Hardware was started by a couple who met at Rodeo Bar & Grill, New York’s recently closed honky-tonk. Its menu features a delectable pear-, pancetta- and sage-stuffed pork chop along with lobster, salmon and steaks. The Table draws long lines on weekend mornings for such fare as caramelized brioche French toast with almonds, cherries and shaved white chocolate. For a more basic meal, there’s Mike’s Chicago Dog (And More!), which does an authentic version of the Windy City weenie — poppy seed bun, pickle spear and all.
We also spent a few happy hours wandering the numerous antique malls downtown, which offer the usual hodgepodge of items — fireplace surrounds and rusting soft-drink signs amid Star Trek action figures. One of the most browse-worthy is Collector’s Antique Mall, which sits in a former department store and later expanded into a supermarket next door. It covers 35,000 square feet and boasts almost 100 dealers.
But our lingering memory is of the chirping of bullfrogs at the Goat Lady under the light of far more stars than we’ll ever see in Washington. It was too dark to bid farewell to the goats, but if they ate as well as we did, surely they were happy, too.
Chuck McCutcheon is a freelance writer and editor in Washington; Liisa Ecola, his wife, is a transportation policy researcher who really likes goats.
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Asheboro, N.C., is about 330 miles southwest of Washington.
Asheboro has several chain hotels, including Comfort Inn, Fairfield Inn & Suites, Hampton Inn and Holiday Inn Express & Suites. Double room rates from $75.
3531 Jess Hackett Rd., Climax
Dinners are generally offered one weekend per month on Friday and Saturday nights. Reservations can be made through the dairy’s Web site.
103 Worth St., Asheboro
139 S. Church St., Asheboro
Stylish farmhouse bakery and coffee shop. Breakfast from $4.95.
North Carolina Zoo
4401 Zoo Pkwy., Asheboro
Open every day except Christmas. Adults $12, children $8.
2222 Pilots View Rd, Asheboro
Open Thursday-Sunday. Adults $10, seniors $8, under 18 $5.
American Classic Motorcycle Museum
1170 U.S. Hwy. 64 W., Asheboro
Collector’s Antique Mall
211 Sunset Ave., Asheboro
Open Monday-Thursday 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sunday 1 p.m.-5 p.m.
— C.M, L.E.