Pioneer farmstead cheesemaker perfects fresh, handcrafted goat cheese
She started 20 years ago with a “how to” book written in French, a pig to eat her mistakes, and a vision of handcrafting the Midwest’s first farmstead goat cheese. Today, Anne Topham’s Fantome Farm fresh chèvre is a beloved mainstay at the Dane County Farmers Market in Madison.
“The pigs are long gone, but the vision is the same: to make the best cheese I can every week,” Topham said. “Nothing compares to the feeling of handing cheese to a customer that just a day or two before, came from the work of my own two hands.”
Once a week, from mid-April through December, Topham carefully handcrafts French-style fresh chèvre at her farmstead cheesrie (a licensed dairy plant) near Ridgeway. She sells it at the Dane County Farmers Market and occasionally to a limited mail-order clientele.
With its delicately creamy texture, pleasant tartness and lustrous sheen, Topham sells the cheese 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. Occasionally, she also crafts aged rounds.
Making chèvre 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 20-goat herd requires twice-a-day milking, specialized feeding and a little ingenuity.
“Goats are smarter than cows, I think. You have to figure how to get them to want to do what you have in mind. They are very independent creatures,” Topham said.
Topham should know. She and partner Judy Borree have been milking goats for almost 25 years. Their journey began in 1979, when Topham took a break from studying for her doctorate in education policy studies at UW-Madison and instead went home to Iowa to visit her parents, who had moved to her grandparents’ farm.
She never returned to her academic life.
“Instead of continuing work on a dissertation, I learned about raising cattle and driving tractors,” Topham said. “Then for fun we bought a young French Alpine goat and her three-week-old kid.”
Topham became hooked. As much as she enjoyed working with cattle, goats were a better size for two women to handle. Their first goat was a terrific milker, and soon Topham and Borree were getting more milk than they knew what to do with.
“I made yogurt. I made ice cream. We cooked with it. And still there was a lot of milk,” Topham said.
Then Topham remembered a friend, who before she left Madison, had returned from Paris, bearing a beautiful round of goat cheese on a bed of straw. That memory changed Topham’s future.
“It was the first goat cheese I had ever tasted and I never forgot that taste. So I started trying to make the cheese I had tasted,” she said.
Like any good academic, she went to the library. She read cheesemaking books written in French, took the University of Wisconsin cheese technology course and visited pioneering California cheesemaker Laura Chenel to see her set-up.
In 1982, Topham and Borree bought land near Ridgeway, built a barn, and began remodeling an attached garage into a licensed dairy plant. A year and a half later, Topham was selling fresh chèvre at the Dane County Farmers’ Market.
“Nobody was doing what we were doing in the Midwest. I figured if we could be the first, it would be a real advantage. And it has been,” Topham said.
While Topham’s Fantome Farm gourmet fresh chèvre is now well known throughout Wisconsin, that wasn’t always the case. Twenty years ago, French-style fresh goat cheese was a new taste for many.
“We cajoled people into trying our cheese at the Market. We thought if they tried it, they would buy it, and we were right,” Topham said.
Topham began to learn as much from her customers as she had from her books and expert advice.
“Sometimes, a customer might say last week’s batch was too salty so I would measure more carefully the next week. Others would tell us we were making a cheese that you could only find in the mountain farms in Puerto Rico, or that it was similar to the fresh cheese made by the nomadic people in Afghanistan. And here I thought I was only making a gourmet French-style goat cheese!” Topham laughed.
Although many would agree Topham has long since perfected the art of making fresh chèvre, she continues to learn new techniques. Topham recently traveled to France to study “affinage” – the art of ripening cheese. Although Topham has always specialized in fresh goat cheese, she’s ready to try something new.
During her visit to France, Topham expected to find French cheesemakers using natural caves to ripen their many varieties of regional cheeses. Instead, she found both farmsteads and large processors building and using man-made mechanical ‘caves’ – with arrays of climate-controlled rooms.
“It made me come back and want to tear up everything I have and start over,” Topham said.
“Seeing the mechanical caves in France has definitely changed my advice to starting farmstead cheese owners. I think that building and planning for such spaces and learning ways to perfect ripened cheese will help take farmstead and artisanal cheesemaking to the next level here in Wisconsin. At least I’m hoping to do that for Fantome Farm,” she said.
With more than 20 years of cheesemaking experience, Topham is more than willing to share her past mistakes and successes with others. She is available for presentations and enjoys explaining the art of cheesemaking.