The powers that bleat have declared August as National Goat Cheese Month, and one of the ways you can celebrate locally is with artisan farmstead goat cheese from Alcea Rosea Farm.
After Bev Michels and her family moved to rural Templeton in 2000, she quickly embraced a bucolic lifestyle of growing organic fruits and vegetables.
Such a farm-to-table routine kept reminding her of a recent trip to France, albeit minus the tradition and flavors of freshly made local goat cheese, so Michels decided to explore making her own.
She hit the books and started talking to anyone who would answer her questions. Before long, she was enrolled in the Farmstead Cheesemaking short course at Cal Poly.
“I thought cheesemaking would be just a hobby,” she recalled. “My thought was to just make cheese for our table and maybe for some friends. I really just pictured myself like the lady in the south of France that makes cheese for the town.”
That is indeed how things started out. Michels got a goat named Merriment, starting milking it, and began making cheese. After a lot of trial and error, the cheese passed Michels’ family’s taste test, so she made it for friends and neighbors.
It passed their taste tests as well, and — long story short — now Alcea Rosea’s Farmstead Goat Cheese graces the menus of several local restaurants and is available to the public at select retail spots.
Michels hasn’t gone much beyond her original business model. True, her herd has swelled to eight La Mancha goats (selected for their intelligence and the high butterfat in their milk), but Michels still milks them all by hand twice a day, and she still personally handcrafts all the cheeses.
“I want to do as little as possible to the milk so it can do its own thing and develop on its own,” she said. As a result, the final products have nuanced differences depending on what particular time of year the goats are milked. For example, variations in feed — spring grasses versus summer hay — will affect the cheese, as will the animal’s own natural loss of fat as the milking season wanes into late fall.
The main nudge Michels provides is the introduction of cultures that cause milk to turn into cheese, and she uses a different culture for each of the three distinct cheeses she produces.
The most popular product is the fresh, spreadable goat cheese called Chèvre, available either on its own or marinated in Olea Farms olive oil and herbs grown at Alcea Rosea (Latin for “hollyhock”).
Another, Michels’ personal favorite, is Templeton Gap, a firmer cheese that’s mold-ripened for about three to six weeks. Because of their short aging times, milk for these cheeses must be pasteurized.
The third cheese — dubbed Merriment after that first goat — is firmer yet, and made in a Gouda style, right down to the red wax exterior. Because it sees a year of aging, this cheese is made from raw, unpasteurized milk. That aging also eliminates much of the tang that is associated with goat’s milk cheese.
Despite the obvious demand for her farmstead cheeses, Michels has little desire to expand her production. She observed that “I’m one of the smallest licensed cheesemakers in the country, perhaps the smallest, and I’m very lucky to get to do what I do.”