In Boulder, Colorado, a pastoral plot of land sits on the north side of town, facing one of the city’s busiest roads. It’s called Long’s Gardens, and it’s a 25-acre plot that’s been actively farmed for nearly 100 years. A portion of the land is leased to two nonprofit organizations—Growing Gardens and Mountain Flower Urban Goat Dairy (Mountain Flower).
On a recent summer morning, I joined chef-turned-goat-farmer Michael Montgomery at a shaded picnic table on the four acres leased to Mountain Flower. I was interested in learning more about the dairy, the inspiration behind it, and some helpful cheese-making tips. Michael is the dairy’s co-director, working with Taber Ward who founded the organization in 2012.
About Mountain Flower
Mountain Flower provides raw goat milk to about 100 lucky families. Additional customers are currently waitlisted because the demand far outstrips the supply, and the dairy’s production and inventory levels vary throughout the year. Michael explains, “A lot of it has to do with the length of the day, so on the longest days of the year, we have more milk, which means we can give more milk to humans. We also give a lot of our milk to the young goats. The kids get milk for up to three months, which is a lot of milk.”
However, Mountain Flower works to do much more than provide milk to 100 families. “[We were] founded as a demonstration micro dairy. Taber founded it with this idea of providing the community with a transparent model of farming, animal husbandry, and land stewardship,” Michael tells me. In service to this mission, Mountain Flower offers summer camps for children, where, according to Michael, the youngsters “get over the whole getting dirty thing… . At first, they’re scared to walk in the pens because there’s goat poop on the ground. But, by the end of five days here, they’re generally into it and getting dirty and not washing their hands every five minutes.” Michael and Taber also do outreach programs in schools and offer up the goats for use in therapy programs for people with special needs. Cheese-making and fiber arts workshops for adults are also available. Michael says, “We basically try to provide as much education surrounding goats as we possibly can.” Michael and Taber are even training a few of the goats to become pack animals for hiking and backpacking.
Chef to Farmer
Michael took a bit of time to explain his own journey from chef to goat farmer. After several years as a cook in Chicago restaurants, he moved to Boulder to teach at the Culinary School of the Rockies, which is now the Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Though goat farming is a relatively new endeavor for Michael, cheese making is not. He was first introduced to the art in culinary school and practiced it often in the busy Chicago restaurants where he worked. Making fresh cheeses like ricotta and chèvre for his restaurant patrons, Michael became quickly skilled in the discipline. However, it was his work with the Culinary School of the Rockies—which had a strong farm-to-table program—that really sparked his interest in cultivating his fresh ingredients. “I met some really cool farmers and decided then that I wanted to learn how to grow vegetables,” he recounts. Michael interned at Growing Gardens, where he farmed and taught cooking classes before moving on to Mountain Flower. Here, he progressed from apprentice to his current role as farm director.
Over the years, Michael’s perspective on the basic ingredient in cheese—milk—has changed. Previously, he took for granted that the resource was so readily available in the restaurants where he created his cheeses. But now he values it more and never wastes it. “I just have so much appreciation for what it takes to produce milk. Of course, a lot of that is animal appreciation, but a lot of it is also the humans surrounding the animals. It’s a really hard job!” he says. “I used to make a lot of mistakes early on in cheese making and I’d think, ‘Oh, it’s just milk,’ but now it’s devastating to me and I try to figure out anything I can possibly do with it…Now, I would never just throw it away.”
When I ask Michael what inspires him about working at Mountain Flower, he responds, “First of all, coming to this farm to work every day is just magical. It’s my favorite place to be. I love being here because it’s right in the city, and there’s something about the cars buzzing by.” But there’s more: “This whole idea of being responsible stewards of the land is important. It makes me feel good that we’re all using this 25 acres as much possible, but we’re treating it with the utmost respect.” He adds, “The whole notion of animal husbandry and treating the animals with respect and teaching people how to treat the animals correctly is huge.”
For Michael and Taber, this is all part of building a more robust local food system, something they’re passionate about. “That’s the biggest thing, because I still think we’re far from having a strong local food system. I feel really proud on the days I see people come and pick up their milk—[people] who value the product and value where it comes from…It’s a really clean product that could otherwise be sketchy. Raw milk a liability, and we often think, ‘Do we want to continue to do raw milk, since this is a lot of work?’ We wonder if we should just hook up a machine and pasteurize it all and call it a day, but regardless of how we expand and what we do, we’ll always offer raw milk.”
Tips for Aspiring Cheese Makers
Michael wanted to share some tips with all of you, to help you on your own cheese-making adventure.
- Fresh cheeses first. Michael recommends beginning your learning process with a fresh cheese like ricotta, which he claims takes only 15 minutes to make. He contends that starting with a complex aged cheese could be discouraging, and he notes that making ricotta allows you to clearly see the separation of curds and whey—what’s known as a “clean break.” When you get a clean break, you’ve successfully separated all the curd that you possibly can from the whey. He also says that a nice thing about making ricotta is that you can clearly see what’s happening because it’s made on the stovetop and there is heat involved. “For a lot of other cheeses, there’s a longer, slower process on your countertop that is harder to observe.” A cheese like ricotta is also an excellent place to start because you don’t need a lot of ingredients—just milk, lemon, and salt. You’ll also want a good thermometer (more on that below). For some ricotta inspiration, see Michael’s recipe below. He’s confident that you’ll be so pleased with the ricotta-making—and eating—experience that you’ll want to learn more.
- Start with the moo. “Goat milk is probably trickier to start with than cow milk because it’s a little more sensitive to heat; it doesn’t like to get as hot if you’re cooking it,” Michael tells me. “It’s naturally homogenized, so it’s a little more difficult to get all the fat out of the milk, because it doesn’t naturally separate.” The good news for novice cheese makers is that cow’s milk is easier to work with and less expensive to buy.
- Your milk needn’t be raw, but it shouldn’t be ultrapasteurized. Michael relates, “I love to use raw milk for raw cheese, but if you’re cooking it, you’re going to be pasteurizing it anyway.” That said, Michael advises against making cheese with ultrapasteurized milk, the process that “damages basically every single living bacteria, stripping out every enzyme that’s beneficial.” Instead, he suggests buying organic milk that has been simply pasteurized, a process that happens at a lower temperature than ultrapasteurization does.
- Next, give chèvre a try. Once you’re comfortable with ricotta and you understand the curd/whey separation process, Michael suggests giving chèvre a try. He explains, “You could always try something like chèvre if you’re using goat because that’s a really simple cheese. It requires the addition of rennet and cultures, and you have to buy some butter muslin (see the next tip), but that’s all you really need.” It’s important to note that when you’re using goat milk instead of cow’s milk, you always lower the temperature by about 3 degrees [Fahrenheit (F)] because it’s more sensitive to heat.
- Get the right supplies. After you’ve moved beyond ricotta, it may be time to purchase a few key tools and supplies. To begin, you’ll want some butter muslin, which is different from plain old muslin. Michael gives more details, “It’s a finer weave, which means it holds back more of the curd, because you never want to lose any of the curd.” I asked Michael for some sourcing tips. He reveals, “For home cheese makers, I like New England Cheesemaking Supply Company, in Massachusetts. They’re really good because they have tons of recipes and they offer help. If you’re having an issue, you can usually chat with someone online or by phone. Cultures for Health is another one. They do a lot of general fermentation supplies, and they’re really cool, though they’re a little bit more expensive. You can also go to Hoegger Supply; they sell everything related to goats. They have larger amounts so you can get larger bags, but they don’t provide recipes or anything else. The bags come from Europe with just a culture; there’s nothing in English on the bags, which could be challenging and intimidating to new cheese makers.”
- Calibrate those thermometers! It’s important to have an accurate thermometer on hand. Michael recommends using the Tel-Tru 12″ Thermometer and offers advice for calibrating it: “The first thing I do is I swirl my thermometer in ice water until it reads 32 degrees [F]. If it doesn’t read 32, there’s always a way to manually either turn the needle so it’s at 32, or digitally change it. I suggest doing this once a month with all your thermometers.” Michael sticks with an analog one, rather than digital.
- Use the right pot. You’ll want to use a high-quality, nonreactive, heavy-bottomed pot. These pots can be quite expensive, but they are long-term investments. Michael reports that stainless steel work well and his brand of choice is All-Clad. A coated ceramic Dutch oven, like the ones from Le Creuset, also work well. He informs me that ceramic-coated pots retain heat well: “If you’re doing something like heating milk to 75 degrees [F] for chèvre, and then letting it sit on your counter for a day, it’s going to hold that temperature a little longer, which is really, really helpful for cheese.”
We hope you’ll try putting these tips to use and embark on your own cheese-making journey. What’s to lose? Mountain Flower and Hatch Lab have given you the skinny! More questions? Send them our way and we’ll try to answer them in our next cheese-making article or in a future online class.