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Not Kidding Around

Janet Orsi

C'est Cheese:Laura Chenel inspects her chèvre-making troops.

Goat cheese entrepreneuse Laura Chenel makes French-style chèvre a household word from Sonoma to Santa Cruz

By Christina Waters

The impossibly pastoral setting in which California's premier goat cheese is made symbolizes the storybook merger of two flocks, so to speak. The old Stornetta Gold Medal Dairy buildings, set in the hills of Sonoma, a landmark on the road connecting to Napa, have been home to cows and their milk for over 80 years. Now this historic compound houses Laura Chenel's colorful tribe of goats and, more importantly, the production arenas for her celebrated chèvre--400,000 pounds of it a year.

Cradled in the heart of California pasturelands, the big white buildings stand out against an azure sky and hills so green they glow. From the back of one building a sudden flock of brown, tan and black-and-white goats gambol up the hill and disappear into a soft emerald fold. Maybe like all Capricorns, I find these vivacious, hardy creatures just a bit smarter and more interesting than most farmyard animals. Certainly, they're rocket scientists compared to cows, I think, soaking up this rural ambiance.

But the woman I've come to meet is no New World Heidi. Ensconced in a tidy office across the lot from the dairy, Laura Chenel is very much the master of her corporate empire. Small, pretty, with eyes as blue as the screen-saver on her 19-inch Radius monitor, Chenel is a local girl who made good the old-fashioned way--through hard work and great timing.

Sure, the kids are cute, but what does the
cheese taste like?

And does anyone else make fresh
goat cheese locally?

Cranking out handmade goat cheese from a small Santa Rosa farm, she single-handedly created and mastered the market for American chèvre back in 1979 when there was no one else doing it. Her products fell into the hands of one Alice Waters, who not only pronounced it as good as the French stuff, but better because it was local. The ascendance of California cuisine and the presence of Chenel chèvre on the menu at Waters' Berkeley-based Chez Panisse restaurant coincided.

The '80s were mad for designer products and California chèvre fit the bill. Chenel had arrived. Several years ago, she began the plan to take over the old Stornetta dairy, empty since that operation moved into a multimillion-dollar facility in Petaluma. Best of all, the new cheese-making site would allow her to have her own herds of goats once again. After all this is a woman who freely admits that making goat cheese is just a way of justifying her real passion--goats.

Circuitous Path to the Culinary Mainstream

What I wanted to do was never very clear to me," chuckles Chenel about the circuitous path that to her current status as one of the country's top food professionals. "Every year I had a different major, first at UC Berkeley, then at Stevenson College [UCSC] for a year--nothing grabbed me," she recalls.

During a stint in New York, she married and returned back home to Sonoma County "to have a little farm with a few goats." Intrigued by the potential of goat milk, Chenel spent four months interning in France with traditional chèvre-makers. "I learned their techniques and got my inspiration from them," she says. "I really threw myself into making cheese--I loved it."

Goat cheese has finally become mainstream, Chenel agrees, "but in the beginning, I had to get out there and tour, promoting chèvre and familiarizing people with it." Two Chenel books--American Country Cheese and Chevre! The Goat Cheese Cookbook, co-authored with Linda Siegfried--helped give home cooks encouragement. Now her business grows by 20 percent each year, depending upon how much goat milk is available.

"The demand is really increasing a lot faster than we can keep up," Chenel says, as we slip on silly white hairnets for a tour of the gleaming cheese-making facility. "Most of the farmers who produce milk for us had cow dairies in the past, which has gotten too expensive. Actually goat milk production isn't a big money maker either-feed prices are high," she sighs, "especially in California."

Complaining that she can't fill all her orders--"We're at zero inventory three times a week!"--Chenel shows me the gleaming tanks where goat milk--piped in from her own freshly milked animals and trucked in from flocks in the Central Valley--is pasteurized.

The operation itself is, as she points out, simple. Pasteurized through heating, the milk is cooled to around 75-80 degrees and a culture and coagulant are added. The next morning, the acidity is checked and the milk is separated into curds--which will drain in nylon mesh bags--and whey, which becomes feed for cows. After the milk is drained and salt is added, it becomes fresh goat cheese and either is delivered in bulk to restaurants or shaped and then aged--for up to three months--and packaged as any one of eight products she currently markets.

"The real key is keeping everything scrupulously clean," Chenel notes, as we next enter a room where men in more of the white hairnets are swirling great vats of goat milk, filling huge cheesecloth-lined vats, and scooping the day-old product into tubs for delivery to restaurants. "The cleanliness of the milk determines the quality of flavor. The only thing keeping me from adding new products," she explains, "is the low milk supply." Which is why she decided to build up her own flock again.

Following a quick peek inside a refrigerated aging chamber, where rows and rows of fist-sized chèvres are beginning to sprout their fuzzy penicillin-induced mold--"cheese has to be turned daily, like champagne"--we step back outside, and head toward the rustically weathered maze of pens, gates and corrals. Once we remove our hairnets, it occurs to me that Chenel actually looks good in hers. Martha Stewart, eat your heart out.

Whole New Ball Game

This is where I'd spend all my time, if I could," Chenel confesses, approaching a boisterous pack of two-week-old kids, part of her current flock of 230 mixed-breed animals. Picking up one little guy who appears lost, she cuddles him and talks to him, ignoring bits of straw now covering the front of her sweater. One senses that she's really in her element talking goat genetics, breeding weight, gestation and milk fat content.

I find out that male goats are only valuable for their stud potential, and Chenel gets a randy gleam in her eye at the subject of testosterone levels and physical endowment. No balls, no bluechips is literally true in the world of goat farming. "Boys go bye-bye," she explains, looking in on a tiny compound of four-day-old babies feeding at a central trough called the lamb bar. Or they're sold for their meat, for which, Chenel says, there's a surprisingly large market.

The young goats are--for lack of a more appropriate word--adorable. With their huge intelligent eyes, lustrous short hair and nonstop energy, they practically bounce off the walls at the sight of Chenel, who knows each one by name. With plant manager Dan Silva, one of 13 employees at the new facility, Chenel shows me around the milking area, where a quartet of handsome La Manchas, the color of cocoa, has been herded up a ramp for easy access. They're fed a mixture sweetened with molasses for added nutrition while they're milked. They seem content.

White ones, chestnut ones, huge mamas ready to give birth, high-strung adolescents bursting with energy, Alpines, Saanens, Togenbergs, Nubians--it's an orderly, eclectic menagerie.

The various corrals and pens in which the goats enjoy their youth are neatly organized yet appealingly rustic. The energy of natural processes and state-of-the-art cheese craft carries over into Chenel's plans for the future.

She's begun renovating one of the milking areas of the old dairy, an area close to the front of the facility. "The Stornettas always had school tours here," she says, "and we want to do the same thing." Soon there will be an exhibition goat milking area open for the public to tour and get a little closer to the source of all that chèvre.

But by now, another curious La Mancha with tiny ears has captured her attention, rummaging around in her pockets and begging to be cuddled.

"I love goats," she says.

She's obviously not kidding.

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From the June 6-12, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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