Couple 'Delight' in Making Artisan Goat Cheese

6/15/2013 7:00 AM
By Rick Hemphill Maryland Correspondent

SHARPSBURG, Md. — There is nothing quite like the light-hearted maa’s of goat kids as they jockey for position around feeding time. Their breeds can be easy to spot as some of their ears perk up in anticipation of attention and dinner, while the long droopy ears of others tell a different lineage tale, but with no less rambunctious enthusiasm. Their mothers provide the milk for Spriggs Delight Farmstead artisan cheeses, which are every bit as unique and flavorful as the goat cheeses of Greece and France.

“I went on a trip to France,” said Joyce Powell, the owner and creator of Spriggs Delight in Sharpsburg, Md. “And there I fell in love with the goat cheeses I found. There were nothing like those here in the U.S. and I knew I wanted to make that kind of cheese.

“I was told by many, many people that you can’t make cheese in the United States that tastes as good as the cheese you can get in France because they don’t pasteurize their milk,” she said with a smile creeping across her face. “I don’t believe that, and I can’t tell the difference. It depends on how you make the cheese and the culture you use. All my cultures are from France and I get them from a Wisconsin connection to there.

“Our rennet is a vegetable rennet, and all our molds and things come from France,” she added. “It took me a long time to find the right formula to make it taste the way I wanted it to taste and that is the French cheese.”

Spriggs Delight is a small family operation Joyce Powell runs with her husband, Roger, who oversees the daily feeding and milking of their 60 goats in addition to the general farm work on their 47 acres. “We have 7 acres of hay that we round bale but we end up buying most of our hay and all of our feed,” Joyce Powell said, with the knowledge of how much effort it takes to keep the bulk tank full of milk.

“We make about 400 pounds of cheese per week,” she said, reflecting on how fast things have grown since she started in 2008. “It gets to be less than that in the late fall and we dry off our does for two months each winter prior to kidding.

“Our biggest selling cheese is chevre. Then would be feta and we sell as much tomme, Camembert and the valencay as we can make,” she added. “Ricotta, is not really cheese I guess but we make that along with blue cheese. The Tomme has to be aged four months and the blue cheese about six weeks.”

Goats are a relatively recent addition to her life. “I was raised on a dairy farm but we didn’t have any goats,” she said as a bit of emotion crept into her voice. “I never cared about the cows as I do the goats and I prefer the goats. They are friendly and have such great personalities that they are a joy to be around. The little kids are so adorable. If you made a soft cheese with cow’s milk it wouldn’t have the flavor or be as unique as you get with goat’s milk.”

The farm was not set up for goats or milking and the Powells had to do a lot of modifications to get the certification to milk. “We built the milking parlor inside the old stone barn with the glazed tile,” Joyce Powell explained. “Then we built the building that houses the bulk tank and cheese preparation rooms. We put the milk tank in there and then built the room around it so when the milk tank fails it will have to be cut up to be taken out of there.”

She initially started with six goats and made cheese in her kitchen.

“I made all different kinds of cheese and decided which ones I liked to do the best,” she said. “I practiced with 10 gallons of goat’s milk per day till I got them right. I gave an awful lot of cheese away but it was fun and I really enjoyed it.

“Finding and picking the cultures took a very long time and until I got the flavors for the chevres right, the number of goats grew to 30,” she added. “I thought that 30 goats would be the most we would ever need and now we milk 60.”

The Powells have registered Alpines, a few Nubians and quite a few Nubian/Alpine crosses.

“I like the Alpines because they give the most milk and they are, I think, healthier,” Joyce Powell said. “The Nubians are supposed to have a higher milk butterfat content but I haven’t found that to be true as I have had Alpines with higher. I got the Nubians to up the butterfat for our blue cheese as the higher the butterfat the better the cheese.

“I found that our crosses retain at least as high butterfat as the Nubians,” she added. “I also like the short hair on the Nubians and most of the crosses retain the shorter hair. I don’t like to clip all the hair on the Alpines all the time.”

It’s in making the cheese where Joyce Powell said she has the most fun because she never knows how it’s going to turn out.

“I made all the cheeses for the first three years of our operation. Each batch we make starts with 62 gallons of milk and with our equipment we can only make one kind of cheese at a time,” she said. “I’m not able to do as much now and the only person I taught to make our cheeses is my daughter, Jill Little. She does a great job making all the cheese.

“I do most of the wrapping of the Camemberts and valencays. I paint a vegetable ash on the outside of the valencay cheese,” she added. “The pine ash is mixed with water into a real fine soot. I paint that on right after the cheese comes out of the mold and is salted. It is the same cheese as the Camembert but the mold changes the character of the cheese. It drains differently and has to be flipped six times. I will be down here sometimes at 11 p.m. flipping the cheese.”

Of course none of the cheese could be made without animals that can produce a good amount of milk.

“You want milk when you are raising a dairy animal so you want goats that give high milk production. It is better if a doe gives an adequate amount of milk for a long time as opposed to one that gives a lot of milk at first but then tapers off quickly,” she said. “When I get a goat that gives a gallon a day straight through till fall then that is a goat I want. I breed for milk production and I try to use a buck that comes from a good line.”

But making these artisan cheeses is not without its challenges.

“You are not going to make the money you think you will,” she said. “It would seem that if you sell your cheese for $32 a pound you ought to be making a lot of money but the reality is that after we buy all our feed, vet bills, packaging, labels, etc., your costs keep rising.

“The labels and the packaging can’t get too far ahead as they change the rules on what has to be on the product,” she added. “We printed our own labels for awhile and then the printer broke down, so now we buy our labels online and they are waterproof and it allows us to change them quite often.”

Having said that though, the Powells say they have little trouble finding buyers for their cheeses. The couple sell at five farmers markets already but hope to expand production in order to sell at more markets in the future.

“We don’t have any problems selling. We are making it today and selling it quickly at farmers markets,” Joyce Powell said. “We would like to sell it here at the store but we are in a out-of-the-way place. We will be vending at a new market in Baltimore shortly and we have several restaurants there that buy our valencay and Camembert.

“We sell the chevre within three weeks of making it. The ricotta is best the very day you make it and we don’t keep that for more than a week.”

And even though their customers give them rave reviews, the couple like to shake things up from time to time.

“We change what we are doing from time to time,” Joyce Powell said. “We don’t make all the same cheeses all the time but we make very good cheese. We find that customers who are here from France or Greece tell me that our cheese is the best they have had since they were back home. It makes it worthwhile to hear that.

“My only regret is that I started too late to begin this adventure,” she added. “I think for someone younger this is a wonderful thing to do. It keeps you busy and you don’t have to have very much land. “The goats keep you smiling.”

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