The idea for this column began as a simple story about an incredible day I spent making goat cheese at Drake Family Farm in Ontario. But to only write about the hours with head cheesemaker Mike Carrasco and operations manager Randy Hoach would shortchange some of the important parts of this story. In previous columns, I’ve mentioned the tenuous connection between food producer and customer, and how disconnected Southern Californian consumers can be from their food. When consumers reconnect with small-scale food producers there is great potential for good—we can learn about how our food is made while also learning what good or even great food can be. It is my theory that educated consumers are willing to spend more money on a superior product when they can taste a difference and see the power of their dollars at work in the local economy.

Dr. Daniel Drake, who runs both a very successful veterinary practice and a very risky goat cheese business, is a passionate voice for this small world of local food producers. “The people that buy our products do care,” says Drake. “They care about us and they want us to stay around, they want to sustain us, and they are willing to vote with their paychecks and pay more for the products.” He also thinks the expense of the products and the people it supports must be a part of that picture: “You’ve got to educate people about how much it costs to make goat cheese, and why it’s $6 a tub at the farmers market instead of a dollar.” Much of that cost is in the slow care of the animals, from the feed mixtures to the cleanliness of the milking process and the care of the milk once it is taken from the goats.

This cheese adventure really began with my bike, a local farmers market, and a new brewery in Riverside. Last spring I was meandering through downtown Riverside rolling toward a new warehouse brewery’s soft open, and realized it might be a good idea to grab some food. As I rolled through town, I hit Riverside’s Farmers Market on Main Street. It is not as big as other outdoor markets, and I didn’t have high expectations of finding something portable that could fit in the back pocket of my cycling jersey. But then I had an idea: what about cheese? I happened by what I previously knew as “the goat cheese booth” and bought a chunk of what looked like a gouda-style cheese. It was called “Idyllwild,” named after one of the three 10,000-foot mountains that surround the Inland Empire region. Upon subsequent visits to the booth, I noticed a couple of things: First, Peter Geiger, the seller at the downtown market, is very patient with customers, allowing them to taste and make decisions using their senses. Second, the cheese is so good it almost sells itself—it breaks misconceptions about what goat cheese can be. That first visit I bought a chunk of Idyllwild an aged hard-cheese style, and over the next few months, I tried the others. I finally told Geiger about my own cheesemaking journey and he suggested I call the farm and offer to help make some cheese. So I did just that.

When I arrived at the farm around 9:30 a.m. during my Christmas break, I was greeted by Randy Hoach, who gave me the grand tour. The farm is a rented space that sits on ten acres and houses around 360 milk-giving does plus a couple hundred more goats if you count bucks and kids. Milking goats come in two varieties—Nubian and Saanen. According to Drake, the Nubians have trouble giving milk for a few months each year, so he finds Nubians that give milk for a longer period of time and crossbreeds them with the Saanens. The ribbons in the business office are a testament to the fact that his goats are superior animals. They give around 1,000 gallons of milk each week, which is then pasteurized and made into six varieties of cheese.

The part after the tour was what I had really been looking forward to: meeting Mike Carrasco and helping him set up the Brie-style cheese. Carrasco is a friendly person who is trained as a chef, and initially saw cheesemaking as a temporary job before going full time. When he was promoted to head cheesemaker, those goals shifted. His cheesemaking process and kitchen setup is efficient and smart. Despite his friendliness, chefs in their kitchen always intimidate me, so I asked a lot of questions and did what I was told to do.

The cheese kitchen is tightly packed with equipment—two large steam-jacketed cheese vats and one smaller one, a full dishwashing sink as well as a handwashing sink, a gigantic pasteurizer, an industrial-sized mixer, and vacuum packer. Everything can be accessed within a couple of steps.

My first task after donning a kitchen hat and facemask was to wash and sanitize everything that might touch the cheese: the drip pans, cheese molds, and plastic cheese mats. The cheesecloth used in draining the Brie is laundered and sanitized in-house, as the dairy also has linens to clean from the milking process. In home cheesemaking, I use sushi mats, but those would be a true pain to wash individually. After washing these items and getting the draining mats set up to properly drain the Brie, it was time to form the Bries.

The evening before, cultures and rennet are added to the milk. Tuesday is the day the farm makes Glacier Brie, Mt. Baldy ash-rind, and all of the chèvre because the there is only one additional ingredient in the Glacier and Mt. Baldy—white Penicillium Candidum mold. The evening before, after the milk has formed curds, they are captured in hundreds of semi-permeable nylon bags. Because goat milk makes softer curds than cow milk, this is a great way to retain more of the curds for processing. The whey released from the curds still has nutritional value and is recycled into a tank and then fed to the goats.

The curds have a consistency of oatmeal. They are then scooped into not-so-traditional Brie forms, and traditional Crottin forms. The Brie forms are not traditional because they are actually plastic food containers which have had their bottoms cut off. Even in my home cheesemaking kitchen, cleaning the drainage holes in a traditional Brie mold can be time-consuming. These containers are smart, efficient, just the right size, and best of all, cheap and replaceable. The cheesemaker’s main job when incorporating new curds into the forms is to keep the consistency of the curds the same, so they drain evenly. As the new curds are mixed into the ones opened a few minutes before, it was my job to make sure this texture remained consistent. I think I pleased Carrasco most of the time, but occasionally he would critique my fills, showing me where I was under or over. This wasn’t a “stand and watch” experience: I formed every one of the Glacier and Mt. Baldy cheese that was made that day.

After I was done with setting up the cheese, I thought I was done, but I was wrong. The buckets of water in the cheese vat in the center of the kitchen were apparently part of the whey removal process for the chèvre. We moved countless water-filled buckets off of the cheese, turned the bags of curd, and then replaced the weights. Apparently four arms got the job done in record time because when Hoach dropped by to check our progress, he was surprised that we had already flipped and re-weighted the chèvre. Later in the afternoon, the staff would be by to mix flavored ingredients into the chèvre and prepare it for market.

My day had almost come to a close, but I still needed to visit the aging rooms and do some cheese tasting with my new friends. That will be the subject of the next month’s column.

Drake Family Farm cheese can be found at the following SoCal farmers’ markets—most markets are open 8-1:

Riverside Farmers’ Market Saturdays

Claremont Farmers’ Market Sundays

Pasadena Farmers’ Market Saturday

Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Wednesdays

Hollywood Farmers’ Market Sundays

Santa Barbara Farmers’ Market Saturdays

Ojai Farmers’ Market Sundays

Temecula Farmers’ Market Saturdays

part 2 of this article