The Big Chèvre – Old Windmill Dairy

DSC_2284Can baby goats stampede? I’m still not sure, but I am sure that 70-some two-month-old kids unleashed from their corral and running toward awaiting bottles is an entirely joyful sight. Their long ears flopping, their spindly legs barely finding purchase on quarter-size hoofs. This spring, my fellow baby goat feeders at The Old Windmill Dairy’s farm visit wait innocently as the wave of goats floods us, pooling around our knees, and voraciously searching for their bottles. When they can’t find one or they get shouldered aside, they settle for suckling our fingers or untying our shoelaces. Effervescent laughter ripples through the crowd. A few minutes later, their bellies absurdly bloated on their tiny frames, the babies demur. I pick one up, No. 245, and—after a failed attempt at eating my earring—she tucks her feet into the crook of my arm like a cat, settling in for a nap.

Awash in this overwhelming adorableness, it’s easy to forget: Soon, these kids will grow up and, like their milk-heavy mothers, help make some seriously good farmstead cheese. Since it opened in July 2007 as a Grade-A dairy, The Old Windmill Dairy has earned a handful of awards for its popular chèvres as well as its semi-hard cheeses. Fifteen years into his business journey, Michael Lobaugh lights up recalling when he’s earned compliments from his customers. “The joy of it is seeing the end product,” he says.

DSC_2385Ed and Michael Lobaugh started building the business in 2002. Ed’s familial background in goat farming and Michael’s desire to leave the corporate world inspired them to purchase a plot of land in agriculture-central (aka Estancia). They forged fences, erected buildings and, with just two Nubian goats, set out to be cheese makers. In July 2007, they officially opened the Grade-A dairy.

Some 200 goats now live on the business partners’ 30 acres of wide-open plains in Estancia. Beyond the Nubian’s floppy-eared affability, this breed also delivers milk with the highest butter-fat of any milk goat, like Alpine and LaMancha, which excel in the quality of their production. The Nubians are the Jersey cows of the goat world—though the farm now has a trio of milking Jerseys to fulfill customers’ requests for cow’s milk cheese, too. (Try the Black Jack, a four-pepper corn Jack cheese.)

The care and attention the goats receive also contributes to creating their high-quality, small-batch cheeses. The goats eat high-quality alfalfa—from just four miles down Estancia’s farm boulevard—and receive mineral supplements (no grain) and the occasional cast offs from farmers markets in Albuquerque, where The Old Windmill Dairy stand is a staple. Their consistent diet means a consistently quality product. The goats are never fed growth hormones, which Michael says is partly a reflection of their naiveté when they first started the business, but it also means kinder milk production for the goats and additive-free cheese for customers. The goats are well cared for and often receive names—Franny and Milk, the farm’s veterans, no longer produce milk and are retired. The goats are milked just steps away from where the milk is pasteurized and the cheese produced.

DSC_2114Of course, the farm excels at soft, creamy chèvres. Over the years, it has introduced several distinctive flavors, including Holy Chipotle, which helped it sweep the best snack-cheese category at the January 2017 ZestFest, in Fort Worth, Texas. (The chile and the Happy Jack, a Jack cheese with habanero and apricot, varieties took second and third place, respectively, in the same competition.) It has also created cheesecake-in-a-cup dessert varieties, with chèvre swirled with fig preserves, Heidi’s Raspberry Jam, or chocolate—all are favorites in our house. It took the cheese makers two years to perfect Happy Jack. Ed says, initially, the jack was coming out very creamy. Finding the right moisture—which helps the hot and sweet flavors blend—proved difficult to replicate. But through trial and error, they found the winning balance.

DSC_1786Its hard cheeses are also earning podium spots in national competitions, such as the Upper Midwest Dairy Industry Associations contest with big-name entrants like Land-o-Lakes. The Old Windmill Dairy faces tough competitors and eagle-eyed judges in that competition. For example, the Sandia Sunrise Smoked Gouda ranked high in quality but lost points because the mold was not symmetrical. The dairy’s McIntosh Cave-Aged Goat Cheddar, with a flavor similar to Manchego, however, earned a third-place spot in spring 2016, with a score of 98.3 out of 100. Tough competition, indeed.

The McIntosh cheddar, along with other aged cheeses, is the first in New Mexico to be aged in a cellar designed to produce the effects of cave aging. Time in the plastic-lined underground bunker intensifies the cheddar’s nutty, not overly sharp flavor. As it ages (sometimes as long as 18 months, though usually shorter), Ed says, the McIntosh becomes “spectacularly different than its younger predecessor at three months. Aging this cheese allows fruity undertones of grapefruit as well as notes grassy earthy flavors to develop.”

As it sits in the open air, the cheese develops taste notes unique to its locale, and unable to be duplicated if it were anywhere else, even Albuquerque or Santa Fe. Estancia has higher counts of blue cheese molds, making it easier to make blue cheese, blue cheddars or smoked Goudas with veins of blue. The Manzano Blue Moon is rich and robust. Relying on the natural temperature, the cellar maintains temperatures between 40 and 50 degrees. The cheese can be aged longer over the winter—90 days for the cheddar and four to six weeks for bries and blue cheeses. So some of the best cheese may be available in the winter and early spring—traditionally, when sales drop off as the cheese makers aren’t as visible as when they attend farmers markets and events like wine festivals.

DSC_2273All of the cheeses are available year round, including by the makers and in dishes at restaurants like Slate Street, Artichoke Café, The Grove, La Boca, Sunrise Springs Spa Resort’s Blue Heron Restaurant, and Fire and Hops.

The Holy Chipotle chèvre and McIntosh cheddar top customers’ favorites, along with the green-chile chèvre. Michael says two cheeses are waiting to be discovered: The New Mexico Virga was developed in the style of a Humboldt Fog, with soft brie ribboned with edible vegetable ash. The cheese has a rich flavor with herbaceous notes and a citrus finish. The Pepper Chevre Knots, hard nuggets of garlic-laced cheese rolled in black pepper, brims with earthy flavor that balances the spicy pepper kick. Michael recommends both as the stars of charcuterie boards.

A new cheese maker, Zakk Castle, took over in January 2017. Although he’ll certainly introduce new ideas and flavors to the mix, the cheeses must pass a democratic taste test before making it to the public. “We don’t sell it if we can’t agree that it’s worthy of selling,” Michael says. “I don’t have any more pull than the cheese maker. I don’t pull rank. Anyone that’s involved in making the product is equal in the process.”

In some cases, flavors are simply inspired by local tastes, like a New Mexican love of spicy foods. “I have never tasted or heard of a green chile or chipotle brie. I simply created it,” Ed says. He drew inspiration from New Mexico salsa to create the Chili & Hot chèvre. “I wanted to create a chèvre with chunks of chile but had a great taste like salsa so we  added onion, garlic and cilantro,” Ed says. On the sweeter end of the spectrum, he observes, “Lemon Lavender White Chocolate was easy once I tasted a gelato with those similar flavors. I realized the base/medium was very similar.”

In some cases, flavors emerge in response to customer or chef requests, or food trends. “When I created our goat-milk truffle brie, I had seen a few chef/food shows and read a few food articles about truffle oil and truffle mushrooms. That provided inspiration to create a truffle brie. It was only afterwards that I learned that other artisan cheese companies were making cheeses with truffle,” Ed says.  

While Michael focuses on animal care, sales and the nuts-and-bolts of the business, Ed organizes the events that have turned the farm into an agri-tourism destination. He still works full-time as a psychiatric nurse practitioner. Seeing the therapeutic effects the goats have on these families, he helps welcome visitors for good-for-the-spirit baby-goat feeding (and cuddling) sessions, farm tours, movie nights (scheduled for June 3 and July 8) and, starting July 29, classes on the chemistry of artisanal cheese making.

 

The Old Windmill Dairy is located in Estancia. 505.384.0033. For more information on events, visit theoldwindmilldairy.com.

 

Story by Ashley M. Biggers


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