They are named by virtue of their characteristics: Freckles is dappled with freckles, Clove is the color of her namesake spice, and yes, Shakira “sings.”
Most are a breed of goat called “Nubian,” although there are a few Swiss Saanen and Alpines in the mix as well. Mary Ann Andrews, rancher, cheesemaker and owner of Dream Catcher Ranchito, experimented with a few different breeds before she committed to the Nubian. Brought to the States by European settlers, these hardy goats originated from the Middle East and North Africa, making them beautifully suited to the high-desert landscape in which they now thrive. Although on average Nubians produce a smaller volume of milk, the milk they do produce has the highest butterfat content––“equivalent to a Jersey Cow!” according to Mary Ann. The butterfat contributes to a better tasting milk. And high butterfat content and that signature great flavor combine to create the creamy, delicious, “un-goaty” goat cheese for which Dream Catcher Ranchito, located southwest of Santa Fe, is now known.
Twice each day, Freckles, Clove and the rest of their herd sisters are led by a familiar handler to their milking, after which they receive a treat they enjoy as much for its flavor as we do its whimsical allusion: a handful of animal crackers, of course. These are happy goats. That’s Mary Ann’s motto: Happy goats make the best milk. And from the best milk comes the best cheese.
Looking around these 10 acres of paddocks—for goats, alpacas, the two huge white Great Pyrenees who guard their flocks and free-range chickens—as well as the barn, the house and the commercial kitchen that comprise the Ranchito, it’s hard to believe that a little over 10 years ago, Mary Ann knew nothing of goats. She’d spent her career as a financial planner in Kentucky. And while she’s originally a city girl from Wisconsin, that state’s great reputation for all things cheese is the only hint––and a distant one at that––that Mary Ann’s passion would become making goat cheese in the Southwest. “Retirement,” she explains, “opens up the possibility of other things.” She was drawn to Santa Fe because the mountains “make her heart sing,” and surely the view of the Sangre de Cristo range from the Ranchito keeps her nearly always in song. She had no previous experience with ranching or animal husbandry, but had always loved animals.
Initially, Mary Ann planned to raise alpacas for fiber. But around 2009, a confluence of events––the bottom dropping out of the alpaca fiber market and the unrelated closing of three small goat dairies in the area––led her to consider goats. She bought her first goats and hit the ground running…except that she had never cared for, let alone milked, a goat. Without a mentor to guide her, Mary Ann threw herself into a multi-year, self-taught intensive on all that one would need to know about running a goat dairy, from nutrition (alfalfa hay and great well water) to handling, from milking to pasteurization and the making of cheese. In a world where “rapid prototyping” is the modus operandi of start-up “accelerators,” Mary Ann’s pilgrimage to becoming a rancher and cheesemaker has evolved at a pace that seems refreshingly old-world and human.
Through slow and steady experimentation and repetition, she developed a repertoire of goat dairy products, from milk products like yogurt and buttermilk to a wide array of cheeses including ricotta, plain and flavored chévre, plain and marinated feta, mozzarella and farmhouse cheddar. Each step of the way, she tasted and tested to see what both she and her friends found most flavorful. For instance, Mary Ann found that most people prefer the surprisingly creamy, smooth and palatable feta that results from the addition of less salt brine. The foundation ingredients for all of her products are simple and elemental: for the chévre, only rennet, culture and cheese.
The flavored cheeses are made with a doctrine Mary Ann learned from a smart chef: “Whatever is added to enhance the cheese should never take away from the cheese. It should be cheese first.” When she does “enhance” the cheese, it’s with handmade, homemade recipes like the aromatics for the marinated feta and the lemon curd for the chévre. It’s caught on fast. Dream Catcher cheese has been enthusiastically embraced by Santa Fe, both among the professional chefs and the community at large. Nina Yozell-Epstein, founder of Squash Blossom Local Food is one such fan. Squash Blossom carries Dream Catcher Ranchito’s products both in their Blossom Bags for home kitchens, and supplies their dairy to over two-dozen restaurants in Santa Fe. According to Nina, “Their goat dairy products are so fresh and creamy, they don’t taste goaty at all. I’ve been working with Mary Ann for about a year and a half now, and it’s a delight to watch her business grow and change in delicious and creative ways.”
Many chefs—especially in a city like Santa Fe, where there’s a strong commitment to economic and environmental sustainability—will seek local ingredients. But being local isn’t enough; if the taste doesn’t pass muster, chefs will look elsewhere. “I don’t like goat cheese,” Chef Dru Ruebush of Radish & Rye freely admits. Yet Dru is one of Mary Ann’s most vocal supporters. “Her cheese doesn’t taste like goat,” he says, “and I would attribute that to the freshness, more than anything. I’ve spent a lot of time around goats in my life––they have a scent––usually that muskiness is far too off-putting for me, but everything she makes is fantastic. I use her feta––we simply put it in a couple of salads. We also make our own labneh from the Greek yogurt, and have been working with her on the cheddar, which is also fantastic.”
Chef Guido Lambelet of the Institute of American Indian Arts finds that the subtle flavors are incredibly versatile, working well in a tztziki sauce for gyros, or a fruity yogurt, as well is in baking: “…our baker Marcella loves using the buttermilk for her cakes, cupcakes and muffins,” Guido says. “It also makes great custard.” In this case, the age-old adage holds true: size matters. Much of what Mary Ann creates is possible because Dream Catcher is a “micro” dairy. Here, “small” is a positive attribute, allowing the Ranchito to stay just as nimble as her Nubian goats, enabling her to maintain a standard for freshness (everything is made to order, nothing is stored) and develop new recipes and techniques. “Creating different things and seeing where I can take it to the next level: that’s what stimulates me,” Mary Ann says, smiling.
Good timing: the future of goat dairy products looks auspicious now, at a time when more people are learning about the health benefits of goat milk. These benefits are not only for the lactose intolerant, but new research is emerging about the importance of reducing inflammation and fostering a healthy microbiome. Goat’s milk has a relatively similar protein and vitamin profile to cow’s milk, but has fewer allergenic proteins and has been linked with reduced intestinal inflammation. Due to the homogenous distribution of fat molecules, many find it easier to digest, as well. On the outside, studies show that the high levels of vitamin A in goat’s milk are an added benefit for healthier skin and reduced acne.
Humans aren’t the only ones who benefit from the healthy attributes of goat milk: Dream Catcher Ranchito products developed specifically for pets are also available at Tullivers Pet Food Emporium, Critters & Me, and Paws Plaza. Looking ahead, Mary Ann plans to offer kefir, which will be stocked at La Montañita Coop, and a treat of which she is very proud––a sugar-free chocolate milk sweetened with chicory. To support the growth of the dairy, she now has full-time help from Ali Salvador, who studied sustainable agriculture at Green Mountain College in Vermont. And they’re always looking for volunteers interested in learning through lending a hand––just ask the next time you see them at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market.
At the forefront of Dream Catcher Ranchito is Mary Ann’s care and admiration for her goats, ingenious, affectionate animals she feels are largely misunderstood. They are “Houdinis” able to open a complicated gate latch, and are highly trainable. All of her goats are trained to be calm with handlers and to walk on the lead for easy daily care and milking. After mingling among them in the early morning light, I found that “curiosity” is perhaps their most defining trait––as well as a penchant for a good neck and back scratch. Mary Ann muses that one day, she’d like to help spread the gospel of the goat with a series on how to care and train for them. Frankly, given all Mary Ann does each day, it’s hard to imagine how she’d find the time. Hers is the kind of “retirement” that has lead from her career with a “day job” to earlier mornings, longer hours and fewer, if any, weekends. And she seems to love every minute of it.
Story by Gabriella Marks