Transforming milk to chèvre with the help of some inspiring local goat herders
PHOTOGRAPHY BY PATRICK TREGENZA
Jordan Champagne making chèvre
“He was the first
person I ever met
who actually spoke
goat. As we walked
with the goats, he
called when they
drifted too far and
they would bleat back
to him, as if in
When I was a new mother, I hung clothes out on a line in the full sun to dry. The quiet would sometimes be broken by a shrill cry and I would run inside, thinking I had heard my young baby crying as he awoke from his nap. I would bolt at top speed and then halt as I neared the room, slowly peeking in to see my baby sleeping happily in peaceful silence.
The noise I had heard was the neighbor’s goats in the distance. Their call was indiscernible from the noise my baby made when he wanted to alert me that he was done with his nap. We bought raw goat milk by the quart from these neighbors who had a tiny herd of goats. It was wonderful when they would go out of town and ask us to milk their goats, because in exchange we could keep all of the milk. We happily agreed, but the goats produced way too much milk for us to drink.
Around this same time I met a woman named Lynn Selness at an apple cider pressing party at our home in Aromas. We harvested apples from a local abandoned orchard and invited friends over for a weekend of pressing cider. Lynn came with apples, 10 gallon-sized glass bottles and a lot of energy. She immediately got down to business and I was impressed.
I soon learned she had her own herd of goats and sold goat milk and cheese; she taught me how to make goat cheese that day as we pressed fresh apple cider. Lynn was a busy woman raising a bunch of children in addition to the goats, and I found her recipe to be simple and delicious, just the way I like it. Her recipe started my journey of making my own chèvre every time our neighbors went out of town.
Years later, I met a man named Charlie Cascio. We had heard legends about him and had visited the famous redwood tree in Big Sur named “Charlie’s Tree,” where he was said to have lived in a large natural cavity for two years. When we first met Charlie, he was living at his Sweetwater Farm in Palo Colorado Canyon, where he tended olive and fruit orchards, raised vegetables and kept bees as well as goats.
Charlie Cascio with his goats
Charlie was herding his goats along the dirt road when we drove up, and we hopped out to take a walk with him. He was the first person I ever met who actually spoke goat. As we walked with the goats, he called when they drifted too far and they would bleat back to him, as if in conversation. It was remarkable.
We received a tour of his milking shed and homestead, and Charlie taught me his style of making goat cheese. Charlie, who was the head chef at the Esalen Institute from 1998 through 2004, is a perfectionist in the kitchen, and he also makes a variety of aged hard cheeses. I was impressed by his passion for quality although his technique was a little more complicated and precise than I was used to.
Charlie’s homestead in the canyon burned in the Soberanes Fire in 2016. He and his goats took shelter in his cheese cave as the fire tore through; his goats were taken in temporarily by another goat herder while he considered the future. At this point Charlie was at a crossroads as he was faced with either rebuilding or relocating. Chef Tim Wood at Carmel Valley Ranch was a long-time friend and buyer of Charlie’s hard cheeses, featuring them on his menu. He wanted to offer any help he could to Charlie, so he suggested the goats take up residence right on the ranch where guests could enjoy seeing directly where the cheese comes from. It was a wonderful solution and the goats are happily adjusting to life on the ranch!
The main difference between Lynn’s and Charlie’s cheese is that Charlie adds a flavorboosting enzyme called Flora Danica and is more exact with his temperatures and times.
The end results are completely comparable, and I think it has to do with a matter of personality and preference. I love them both!
Jordan Champagne is the co-owner and founder of Happy Girl Kitchen Co.
She has a passion for preserving the local, organic harvest and loves sharing
her secrets at workshops she teaches in Pacific Grove and in Oakland.