A novel approach to living off the land

Couple’s creations include goat cheese

By Stephen Meuse
Globe Correspondent / July 29, 2009

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SANDGATE, Vt. - It’s early afternoon and a group of us - 15 in all - have set out for a hike in the woods. We climb steadily along a path shaded by birches and poplars. The air is warm and juniper-scented. Though we’ve just had lunch, some of us wander off to munch a juicy leaf, nosh a bit of bark, and generally gourmandize the scenery. We don’t think anything of this. Most of us are goats.

The hillside we ramble is the property of novelist Brad Kessler (“Lick Creek,’’ “Birds in Fall’’), 46, and his wife, photographer Dona Ann McAdams, 55, native New Yorkers who left their urban digs for an 1800 farmhouse and 75 acres in southwestern Vermont. They continue to ply their respective crafts, but as Kessler explains in a new book, it’s the twin routines of tending 11 Nubian dairy goats and making cheese from the milk that frames their schedules. “Goat Song: A Seasonal Life, a Short History of Herding, and the Art of Making Cheese’’ is Kessler’s extended meditation on how the couple’s encounter with pastoralism has offered them a fresh perspective on life and work.

There’s a sense of calm and order here that feels almost monastic (in fact, there’s a Carthusian charterhouse nearby). The dairying is a labor of love, not a real business.

Kessler sees the little herd of goats as a connection to a remote, collective human past. “When you live with animals who directly feed you,’’ he says, “you begin to feel what humans felt for millennia: an elemental connection to the land, a deep sense of place, a connection to a larger cosmology. That’s the way we developed as humans, as one animal among others.’’

Kessler and McAdams bought the farmhouse in 1998 but didn’t live there full time until the goats arrived six years later. That served as an excuse to make a permanent break with the city.

“Once the does kidded and were lactating, we made our first batch of cheese,’’ Kessler says. These were faiselles, smallish tapered cylinders of moist, unsalted curds.

The day we visit, a batch is draining over the kitchen’s old porcelain double sink. We watch as Kessler deftly removes three cheeses from their perforated cups, sets them on a wooden board, rolls two in fresh herbs, the third in a light coating of cracked black pepper. The process for making faiselles, or chevre, which is salted and a bit drier, is remarkably simple once you have the milk (raw is best). The results are spectacular: sweetly lactic and delicately delicious in a way you don’t expect.

During a visit to a cheese-making family in the French Pyrenees, Kessler also learned to use goat milk to make a firm, ripened, mountain-type cheese called tomme. Ripened cheeses call for considerably more skill and time. The couple makes six each week, two at a time, from Memorial Day, when the does are newly in milk, to Columbus Day, when the moms are dried off to give them a rest.

“Each tomme contains some morning and some evening milk - about 10 gallons in all,’’ Kessler explains, “though some say the best tommes are made from a single milking.’’ Once molded, pressed, repeatedly turned, and salted (he describes the process in “Goat Song’’), new wheels are set on unfinished board shelving in a screened-off corner of the fieldstone cellar. Over several months they’ll put up a rind and begin to take on the hue of tawny port. At four months, the tommes are tasty; at a year they’re redolent with aromas of fresh-cut hay and complex, farmy notes reminiscent of reserve gruyere.

Cheeses made from unpasteurized milk can’t be sold in the United States until they’ve been aged for 60 days, so the couple’s fresh chevres are consumed at home. Their tommes, however, were a big hit in New York at the restaurant Artisanal, which began buying and serving them in 2007. Then the couple moved to Italy when Kessler received the American Academy of Arts & Sciences’ Rome Prize for his writing, and the relationship with Artisanal ended. Today, most of the tomme production is used as barter with Clear Brook Farm in Shaftsbury, where the cheese is for sale with the farm’s organic produce. “We’ve got a lot of credits,’’ says Kessler, a trace of ruefulness in his voice. He and McAdams grow much of their own food on the land.

Back on the trail, which Kessler refers to as “the salad bar,’’ we wonder whether all that tasty browse doesn’t harbor some danger for the goats. He calls the girls by name and knows all their quirks. “You read that things like acorns or wilted cherry leaves may be bad for them, but the goats seem pretty picky. And, you know, it’s all that exotic browse that informs the cheese.’’

Stephen Meuse can be reached at