In the Company of Goats
Perfect pairings at Pure Luck
2015 marks the Year of the Goat, which, according to the Chinese zodiac, is a year dedicated to a clever, perseverant breed of people who are gentle yet strong, quiet yet opinionated. And, while those born in the Year of the Goat tend to thrive in groups, it is not because they are overly extroverted or attention-seeking, but rather intuitively social and nurturing.
Walking through the barns at Pure Luck Farm & Dairy, this description comes as no surprise. Clusters of the 85 Nubian and Alpine goats (and crossbreeds of the two) who live on the farm calmly approach me, tilting their bearded chins and gazing up at me inquisitively.
Amelia Sweethardt, the head of operations at Pure Luck, recalls last February's brutally cold weather. "Sometimes, when we'd have a baby born ... at night, we just brought it home. And I'm not a big fan of having animals in my house because the farm is gross in a lot of ways, but they would spend the night here and got their first milk from us. And a lot of those creatures never forgot it. They may have had only one night here, but they are still the first ones to come to us."
Sweethardt grew up on the very same land in Dripping Springs, milking the goats and working the soil with her sisters. Her mother, Sara Sweetser Bolton, bought the 11 acres in 1979, and Pure Luck was one of the first farms to be recognized by the Texas Department of Agriculture as a certified organic farm. They originally grew produce, culinary herbs, and cut flowers, which they sold at their own farmstead and to buyers such as Whole Foods Market.
After making highly well-received goat cheese for her friends and family for years, Sweetser decided to start a Grade A goat dairy. Sweethardt began making goat cheese with her mom when she was 20 years old, learning as she went, and helping to form recipes which have gone on to win Pure Luck 15 years of accolades from annual American Cheese Society competitions.
When Bolton passed away in 2005, Sweethardt and her husband Ben took over operations at the farm and dairy. Her sister Gitana acts as vice president, and sisters Claire and Hope also continue to work at the farm in various capacities. While they continue to grow culinary herbs, the dairy remains the main focus. Together, they preserve their mom's legacy by continuing her tradition of crafting delicious artisan cheese made according to the highest standards.
With years of experience making cheese under her belt, Sweethardt sought out a formal education, studying at the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese (VIAC) at the University of Vermont in Burlington and making a pilgrimage to Spain to learn from Catalan cheese guru Enric Canut.
Pure Luck produces eight varieties of cheese: four types of chèvre (plain, cracked black pepper, Anaheim red chile, and mixed herb), as well as feta, June's Joy, Hopelessly Bleu, and Saint Maure. "The recipes have been tweaked," says Sweethardt, "and continue to be adjusted as our cheesemaking continues to improve." However, operations at Pure Luck remain essentially the same as they always have, with few changes being made.
"I got new equipment, so I made it easier for us to produce that cheese well," she says. "We could expand. We've even looked at that because we have some equipment that would make it easier to pay the bills if we expanded. As much as we love the goats and we would love to keep all of them and more, we have to tell ourselves no more – for the sake of quality and the sake of peace of mind." She says their family came up with a motto long ago, which they continue to uphold: "Do less, better."
Cheesemaking classes are another one of Bolton's establishments that continue to carry on. It was in 2000 that Bolton and Gretchen Stolfo, a longtime cheesemaker at Pure Luck, came up with the idea of offering classes to the public in the wintertime when production was low. "It was a success, the idea stuck, and we've been doing them ever since," says Sweethardt. "I find that it is a great way to bring people out to our farm with us and teach them about two of my favorite subjects – cheese and goats!"
This spring will bring some exciting changes to the dairy, as they begin renovations in March on a 1949 house which was moved to the property from the Arroyo Seco neighborhood, just north of Koenig. This added space will serve as a small cheese shop and tasting room, as well as allow them to expand their educational programming. Expect to see offerings such as cheese pairings, regular tours of the land (where visitors can experience milking a goat), and more one-day classes and weekend-long workshops in chèvre, feta, ricotta, and more.
Sweethardt looks forward to celebrating Pure Luck's 20th anniversary at the new cheese house in September. Until then, she is still running occasional one-day feta classes out of the house on the property. When I attended one last month, about a dozen other hopeful cheesemakers and I gathered in Sweethardt's dining room space, where the furniture had been removed and replaced with tall countertop work stations. Artwork made by Sweethardt's children brightened the refrigerator, and she served us coffee and tea in precious little Yogurt Saint Benoît ceramic crocks. And Sweethardt's demeanor was just as warm and welcoming.
"Today we will be making beautiful feta cheese using milk from the goats here on the farm," she begins. "If you went home and got another milk, it might also make beautiful cheese. But the point is, this is a snapshot in time. This is a recipe for today, right here in this house, with this temperature." She went on to explain all the variables that affect the outcome of cheese. "The environment counts incredibly. The dish you're using counts. ... It's not by the clock and it's not by the recipe. You make changes as you go." (Similarly, Pure Luck Dairy adjusts their technique throughout the year as the seasons change.)
Sweethardt breaks down the process to us, simply to start, beginning with the importance of starting with the highest-quality milk. Then, "we do the things we do to turn it from a sweet milk to a tart, tangy cheese with nice texture," she says. "So we basically ferment it using a starter culture ... then we use a coagulant [rennet] to coagulate the curds and separate the curd from the whey. And what the curd ends up being is fat and protein – it's the solids. The whey we feed back to our goats."
Someone asks Sweethardt if she ever cooks with the whey and her face breaks into a grin. "I really just make cheese, try to answer emails, eat a cookie, drink a beer, go to bed! I have a lot of dreams, and I notice I hardly ever reach them because I'm busy doing those things!"
A wave of laughter sweeps through the room and then the questions begin – if the same ingredients can be used for various cheeses, what exactly makes this one feta? "Basically it's the treatment of your milk," she says. "It's what culture you're using, what temperature you're working at, how much coagulant you're using and how you treat the curds."
Sweethardt gives a detailed account of how the same milk, culture, and coagulant can become drastically different cheeses (Gouda vs. feta) by adjusting temperatures, rennet amounts, and techniques. When she finishes, the class is collectively awestruck, and she breaks into sunny laughter which fills the room. "I know!" she says. "It's really fun stuff!"
She circles around the room as we follow each step, guiding us as we craft our own rounds of feta. In between steps, we break for lunch on the porch and even shake up our own homemade butter using cow's milk.
Back inside, as we finish draining the whey from our cheese, someone asks Sweethardt if she has a favorite goat. "We all have our favorites," she answers, pointing to the photo of hers, named Charlotte, on her wall. "Goats who are favorites are rotten – they're spoiled!" she says with a knowing smile. In addition to the dairy goats, Sweethardt also keeps two curly-haired Angora goats in her backyard as pets.
"They are just the ultimate goat," she says, describing their favorite game of peering in the house windows before jumping up and pacing along the porch railings. "I really love how mischievous they are. There is never a dull moment in the company of goats!"