It’s winter — where’s my yogurt?! Redwood Hill Farm, Part III

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Scott Bice shows us the tank of that day's goatmilk. It's lower in fat than cow milk, which is why there's less cream on top. (Sir Loin photo)

This is the final installment of a three-part tale chronicling our adventures at Redwood Hill Farm, a goat dairy. (Read Part One or Part Two. Can't get enough of the goats? We couldn't either, so we made a slideshow with additional photos.)

Goat milk – like any natural product – goes in and out of season. Goats produce more in the summer because of their birthing cycles, and because ... they just do. Also, in the winter, some of the female goats are resting and building up their reserves before having their kids. This affects the yogurt supply more than the cheese supply: Cheese can be made in advance and has a longer shelf life.

Also, Scott pointed out to us that lots of people make goat cheese, but Redwood Hill Farms is one of the few making goat yogurt. When goatmilk yogurt is out of stock, it's REALLY out of stock.

Dairy Queen interjects: There are apparently many, many lactose-intolerant people out there who nonetheless love dairy products and want to keep them in their diet (hello, Man of La Muncha?). There are pills they can take, and they often turn to goatmilk products, which are lower in lactose. Fun facts I learned from the dairy chapter in Marion Nestle's new book, What to Eat: Americans eat more dairy, and are encouraged to do so thanks to the well-organized dairy association, than any other culture in the world. Yet there are plenty of other, possibly better ways to get your calcium, and in fact eating lots of dairy doesn't seem to sit well with any ethnicities except Northern Europeans -- most cultures lose the ability to break down the sugar lactose after about five years old, which I guess is the oldest they could still possibly be breastfeeding. Anyway, back to the goats.

Miss Steak: In the winter, Scott said, Redwood Hill would be inundated with calls from customers asking where their yogurt was. So they made "goats are on maternity leave” signs that they asked retailers to put up on the shelves, but stores didn't always comply. Now they have a special yogurt lid for winter months that explains that the goats are resting.

I think it's great that the demand for Redwood Hill's wonderful products is so high that they can't keep up with it, and I also think it's cool that they let the goats rest and that they do their best to explain this seasonality to customers. Who said we have a right to all food all the time?

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We follow the goatmilk into the creamery. (Potato Non Grata)
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Tanks o'feta, brining (SL)
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Cheese, glorious cheeses (SL)
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The finished products (PNG)
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We couldn't bear to waste a mouthful of the Buona Sonoma chocolate goatmilk gelato, so we poured milk in the container (PNG)
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At last, some truth in advertising (DQ)

Still, you want to give customers what they're looking for. Adding to the herd would help – you'd have more goats milking at any given time – but right now they simply don't have the space. So they time-shift some of the goats using lights. They have light on them 18 hours a day for three months (December 21 to February 21). Then they cut lights down for three months so days appear to “get shorter." The goats go into heat in May and you get kids in October – this gives you milk in the winter months.

Whatever the time of year, once you milk the goats, you've got to turn that milk into something! The milk goes in a tank-truck to the creamery a short distance away. (They did build a creamery on site, but the farm outgrew it almost immediately. They now rent the old space to a gelato maker.) Dairy Queen, Sir Loin, the Potato and I all piled into the car to follow Scott over to the production facility.

It's a warehouse kind of space that they share with other tenants. Very quiet, as it's a Sunday, and deserted. Just a series of big, spacious rooms with things ... cheesifying silently. We all don plastic booties (we have just been tromping around in goat muck after all) and follow Scott into the main production area. The first thing we see is the tank of feta. This tour is much less interactive than the farm tour — we can't go touching things and letting the cheese nibble at us after all (or vice versa). But the feta tank is neat: metal molds with feta inside floating in the brine.

Then we get to see the yogurt assembly line. A lot of pipes and tubes and rollers. Scott explained it all very well, but I don't remember what connected to where. Yogurt now strikes me as a particularly finicky and temperature dependent food. You fill the cups, then it goes into a hot room for up to six hours, then to a chiller room to set in the cold for 12 hours. And you gotta be careful when and how you move them or they get messed up. (Apparently yogurts made with stabilizers are more rugged.)

Dairy Queen: The coolest thing we learned is how Redwood Hill tries to mitigate the effects of goatmilk's seasonality on its workers. Even in summer, when milk is gushing out of the goats, there's only enough milk to run the yogurt line about four days a week. In winter, it runs only one or two days. The Bices used to pay for their workers to take English or other classes, because they didn't want to lose their skilled employees, but they've since hit upon another solution. They've recently signed a deal to make low-fat and organic cow yogurt for Clover Stornetta.

Miss Steak: This seems like a tough call to us. The huge producers aren't exactly your best friends, but who can blame your workers for not being as excited about the goats being "on maternity leave" as the goats are. However, having mass-produced yogurt on the premises does not taint the high quality of what Redwood Hill produces, so I think it's the right decision. They make yogurt: they're not monks.

Dairy Queen: Redwood Hill also makes wonderful cheese, which they also schedule around the seasonality of the supply. Scott's eldest sister Jennifer started out by supplying goatmilk to California chevre pioneer Laura Chenel. Pretty soon it occurred to her that she could learn to make cheese herself, so off she went to apprentice on farms in France, Bulgaria, and Italy. In the summer, Redwood Hill makes hard cheeses and lets them age. Scott told us that they've started making a Tomme -- a hard, aged cheese kind of like a parmesan.

"It's a lot of work," he said. "You have to turn it and wash it every day." They also make chevre of course, my favorite. And then some lovely and wonderful rind cheeses like a Bucheret and a Crottin, and even a Camembert style.

It was well past lunchtime by then, and our stomachs were rumbling. We had the makings of a picnic in the trunk of Sir Loin's car; all we needed was some cheese. We asked Scott if we could buy some, and he took us into the giant walk-in cooler, which for me is kind of like, oh, being invited into heaven. There he picked out some cheese for us, and some yogurt, and some of the new chocolate goatmilk gelato. (Disclosure: He didn't let us pay for most of this, which was really, really nice but in no way influenced this write-up. We swear.)

We thanked him and bid farewell, our heads spinning with newfound goat knowledge and cheesemaking instructions. We stopped at a fantastic Sebastopol grocery and picked up some of the Organic Pastures raw milk that Miss Steak had been talking about, and some bread. Then we found a park with benches at which to picnic. The Camembert had to be set aside as it was not yet ripe, but we spread the fresh chevre, Bucheret, and crottin over everything with abandon, finishing up with the fantastic gelato — and reveling in the knowledge that such goodness really did come from "healthy, happy dairy goats," as Redwood Hill's label says. Seeing is believing.

2 Responsesto “It’s winter — where’s my yogurt?! Redwood Hill Farm, Part III”

  1. Marc says:

    I went to the Redwood Hill open house in June, and enjoyed it immensely. And it gave me an excuse to visit other Sonoma County food-sites like Artisan Bakers (Sonoma) and Matos Cheese (Santa Rosa).

    One thing I found interesting (and somewhat obvious) is the role of feta cheese (and now the new French-style aged cheeses) in the creamery's economic plan. During the seasonal milk glut, they have more milk than they can sell as milk, yogurt or fresh cheese. So they make an aged cheese that will be ready for sale soon after the seasonal milk glut is over. (Coincidentally, I ate some of their feta cheese yesterday in a salad tossed with diced Armenian cucumbers, diced tomatoes, parsley, mint and thyme. A wonderful blend of ultra-fresh and aged ingredients.)

  2. DairyQueen says:

    Ooh, I don't know about Matps Cheese, now I'll have to check that out. That salad sounds soooo good! I make something similar but I never thought about putting mint and thyme in mine.

    My favorite thing about the feta is the tub of brine it comes in. No more having to throw out dry, stinky-yellow feta that I forgot to eat in time.