Do you ever dream of retiring to some sort of quiet, rural paradise to raise a pretty little herd of goats and make gourmet cheese? I'll confess that I have.
Well, that idyllic vision got sullied with reality this week when I picked up a new book called "Hay Fever: How Chasing a Dream on a Vermont Farm Changed My Life," by Angela Miller.
It's a frank memoir about the reality of goat farming as a grueling second career for a couple of city slickers. And it's also an intriguing backstory for some delicious artisan cheese—ever heard of Consider Bardwell Farm? Their cheese has won awards and made it to the menus of some pretty prestigious restaurants.
Miller is a Manhattan-based literary agent (whose clients include Mark Bittman), and her husband, Russell Glover, is an architect. In 2001, the couple bought an old farm with lots of land in southern Vermont.
At first, they were simply seeking a weekend retreat from the stress of urban life—and hoping that a change of pace would strengthen their marriage, Miller candidly explains—but they quickly latched onto the idea of cheesemaking after learning that the farm's 19th-century namesake had established the state's first cheese cooperative there. By 2003, they had purchased six Oberhasli goats, hired a small staff and begun making cheese.
The next few years were anything but smooth, and that's what makes the book interesting. It's full of entertaining asides about the personal histories and quirks of the farm's individual characters, both human and goat, as well as nitty-gritty details about what goes on in the barn. The descriptions of mating and "kidding" (birthing) season amount to a class in Goat Farming 101: All You Ever Wanted to Know And Then Some.
There are sad, even gruesome moments—that's life on a farm. Yes, those goats are mighty cute. But they're also a cold, hard asset to a milk-based business struggling to turn a profit, which is why the males must be killed or sold for meat, and the babies are taken away from their moms within an hour of birth.
And there are funny moments, such as the time Miller supplies the goat meat for Bittman's wedding feast, and seems surprised that he doesn't want the creatures' heads, too. "He was afraid they would upset the young children staying at his future father-in-law's house," she writes. Gee, you think?
Of course, there's also plenty of explanation about how cheese gets made. It sounds like a lot of work, to put it mildly. But at the end of the book, I still feel a twinge of envy as Miller concludes that it has all been worth it:
"What more glorious project than this? There's so much beauty here, plus there is the privilege of getting to learn about goats and provide for their welfare, the opportunity to create a clean, healthy food product that adds a little something extra to people's lives using environmentally sound practices, and the pride of doing so alongside coworkers from different walks of life who have come together for a common purpose."