Thursday, September 21, 2006

Limited Edition

Part of the charm of many of our Wisconsin dairy artisans is that they don't ship cheese across the country to every specialty store in the nation; they don't have a fancy retail shop on their farm; they don't have a slick sell sheet and -- more importantly, they never want to. Their goal is to live a sustainable life on their land and make a living doing what they love.

One of the best examples of this lifestyle is the grand dame of Wisconsin artisan goat cheese: Anne Topham of
Fantome Farm. Anne started 20 years ago with a “how to” book written in French, a couple of pigs to eat her mistakes, and a vision of handcrafting the Midwest’s first farmstead goat cheese. Today, her fresh chevre and signature goat cheeses are a beloved mainstay at the Dane County Farmers Market and top restaurants in Madison.

From mid-April through December, Topham carefully handcrafts French-style fresh chevre and other French-style cheeses at her farmstead cheesrie near Ridgeway. She sells them at the farmers market, to top chefs, and occasionally to a limited mail-order clientele.

With its delicately creamy texture, pleasant tartness and lustrous sheen, Topham sells her chevre both plain and flavored with herbs. Other varieties come marinated in extra virgin olive oil and herbes de Provence, or coated with what the French call “black salt,” a mixture of salt and edible ash.

Lately, she's also been making Fleurie Noir -- a new, American Cheese Society award-winning bloomy rind cheese that is hand ladled into forms, dusted with ash and salt, and then allowed to age for several weeks. Her Boulot and other washed rind cheeses allow the full flora of the small herd's milk to express itself more completely.

Making chevre is a three-day process, sometimes requiring all of Topham’s attention, other times almost none. But the goats – from where it all begins – are another story: Topham’s 12-goat herd requires twice-a-day milking, specialized feeding and a little ingenuity.

Anne says goats are smarter than cows. You have to figure how to get them to want to do what you have in mind because they are very independent creatures. She should know - she's been milking them for two decades and has built a small, yet efficient and innovative milking parlor on her farm that is friendly to both the milker and milkee.

Her goats all carry individual names and families are named in related series, all directly related to whatever happens to be on Anne's mind when each goat is born. One series of goats is named after NPR hosts (the voices of Robert Siegel and Michele Norris often drift through the barn, as the radio stays on most of the time to keep the goats company); another family of goats carries beautiful names of obscure star constellations; another takes the names of women stand-up comedians, while others are named after old-time singers. It's interesting to listen to Anne talk to goats named Max (named for Maxene of the Andrews Sisters) or Alcore & Mizar (two stars who are always near each other in the sky) or Margarent (after comedian Margaret Cho). Each animal is treated with respect and dignity. These goats are truly part of Anne's family.

That relationship with the land and the animals carries through in the taste of Anne's cheeses. Extremely fresh, always beautiful and full-flavored but never "goaty", these cheeses often sell out by mid-morning at the farmer's market in Madison. Makes you wish she'd expand her cheesrie, buy a few more goats and make more cheese, but then again, she wouldn't be an artisan cheesemaker then, would she?