Earlier this spring, Bill and I had the privilege of meeting Barbara Jenness, a local cheesemaker who operates Dancing Goat Creamery on her organic farmstead, Dogwood Farm. The farm’s Alpine dairy goats produce organic goat’s milk for both artisanal cheeses, such as chevre, and handcrafted Udderly Wonderful Soap.
Located in nearby Byron Center, Michigan, it was an easy drive for us one Friday afternoon in late April.
First greeted by the dogs, we went into the farmhouse and sat at a large table where Barbara brought out a chevre cheese sample for us to try. She called it a bloomy rind cheese–inspired by Camembert and aged about two weeks. Since Bill is allergic to cow dairy, it was a nice treat for him to taste-test the goat cheese. (The word chevre means goat in French. It’s a fresh cheese that doesn’t need to age for a long time.) It was superb.
Barbara Jenness has a degree in biology from Grand Valley State University, as well as a degree in Veterinary Technology. She has over 25 years experience in animal care–and you can tell she loves animals.
After all, only an animal lover would arrange her life around the natural gestation, birth, and lactation of a goat herd.
“It’s not about production,” says Barbara. “It’s about supply and demand. Because goats breed in the fall and kid in the spring, their milk is seasonal.” When goats lactate is when farmers milk them, so that’s when we get goat cheese. It’s really the norm for most herd animals, but our country’s food production system defies this natural cycle so we can have milk year-round, for example.
That’s why local restaurants and stores only serve or sell Dancing Goat Creamery cheese for a limited season. On a recent visit to one of our favorite restaurants, Everyday People Cafe, in Douglas, Michigan, I ordered the Dancing Goat Salad.
After moving to the Byron Center farm in 2000, Barbara acquired two Alpine dairy goats, which became the foundation for the growing herd. A soapmaker since 1996, acquisition of the goats allowed her to begin making goat’s milk soap.
Then, a milk surplus initiated the cheesemaking. After attending cheesemaking workshops as well as the North Carolina State University Short Course in Cheesemaking, Barbara opened Udderly Wonderful Soap and Dancing Goat Creamery.
In 2008, Barbara earned her Master Cheesemaking Certification from the Vermont Institute of Artisan Cheese, and she continued to return to Vermont for Italian, Spanish, French, and Irish Cheesemaking classes. Today, she continues sharing her knowledge by offering workshops and teaching classes about cheesemaking and soap making.
While Bill and I were visiting, Barbara emphasized the importance of building community around her business. She hires local people, such as her neighbor Amy, to work on the farm. “It builds connection with kids, teaching them how to run a business, build community, and connect with the neighborhood,” says Barbara.
We also got to see the cheese room. This is where the milk arrives for “gentle” pasteurization after the goats are milked, around 9:00 a.m. each day. This method of pasteurizing involves heating the milk in a vat and allowing it to cool.
While we were there, we sure learned a lot about cheesemaking. For example, it’s really just about “making acid.” When you acidify milk it curdles and coagulates. The liquid in the mix is the whey, which contains lots of protein. Cheese is really just made up of three ingredients: milk culture (“good” bacteria), renit (an enzyme that coagulates the milk), and salt. And, goat’s milk doesn’t separate because the molecules are smaller than cow’s milk; although it still contains lactose, this chemical make-up likely makes it easier to digest.
Barbara may joke that “cheesemakers are crazy because they love bacteria,” but her passion has certainly paid off. Just check out the recognition she’s received in the last couple of years, such as an award from the American Cheese Society. She has also been featured in the Dairy Goat Journal, among other press.
And, she’s got the happiest goats around!