>Milk of the Gods

>My adventures in goat milking on Collins Farm, in five parts.

I. Inspiration

Food is delicious. We all know this. But there are some foods that are extra delicious, foods that make you drool at the very thought, foods that one would go through great lengths to obtain. These foods, of course, are different for each person. For me, chèvre, or goat milk cheese, is quite high up on the list.
Most people know goat cheese as feta, the tangy, crumbly stuff usually thrown on Greek salads and pizzas. Chèvre can also be made like cream cheese, a flavorful spread that’s excellent on toast, crackers, salad, apples and right off the knife. This substance is one of the things I would take onto a desert island; I would marry it if only it had a better personality; I would sell my own grandmother if it came right down to it (not really, but you get the picture). Actually, that’s the only downfall of chèvre: it’s darned expensive. At Safeway, a potato-sized log of low-quality goat cheese runs around five bucks. For a really good, locally made kind, you can pay three times that much. In fact, in my college days, my monthly grocery budget looked a little like this:
Fruits and vegetables (organic, of course): $60
Dry beans, rice, flour, tofu and yogurt: $50
Coffee: $20
Chèvre: $50
Well, something like that, anyway. Anyway, the point is, I like chèvre. Since coming to the farm, however, I’ve adopted a mostly local diet (my new motto is, “Will work for vegetables”), which meant no goat cheese. Until now.

II. The Goats

I have to admit that the goats have played a sadly minor role in my life on the farm so far. I don’t think I’ve even mentioned them on this blog before, and seeing as how everyone’s online these days, they’ve probably noticed that. So I’ll offer a formal apology and waste no more time in introducing them.

Miss G (left). This old goat belongs to Andrea, the fiercely independent mother of four who works with me at Arrowvale. In her prime, Miss G produced a gallon of milk a day, effectively nurturing Andrea’s kids through their formative years in addition to her own. When Andrea moved into a house without a yard, Miss G shacked up here, where she seems pretty happy. She’s fourteen, which is older than goats are even supposed to live, but though she’s a gummy, graying, rack-of-bones old granny (probably a granny several times over, in fact), she is the indisputable matriarch of the goat pen. Miss G loves kale, sunflowers and banana peels, and will head-butt anyone who gets in the way of her eating her fill. She’s too old to be milked, so I’ll move on to the stars of this story.

Spotty (center). Surprisingly enough, Spotty is white with black and brown spots. This spring, she gave birth to two little white goats, who we recently weaned along with Dotty’s single offspring. (Among goats, giving birth to twins or even triplets is the norm.) Spotty is a friendly goat who keeps her beard clean and would never dream of stooping to the shenanagins of her younger pen-mate. She loves just about anything, especially squash, banana peels and carrots.

Dotty (right). True to her name, Dotty is black with white spots and crazy, but more like a motorcycle racer than an eccentric aunt. She wears a blue dog collar, which helps when you’re trying to catch her, but getting close enough in the first place is the real challenge. Dotty has simple tastes, preferring goat feed (grain) to most other foods, but likes to try what the other goats are eating so she can spit it on the ground and crush it under her hooves. She smokes Marlboros and has a tattoo of a snake on her left shoulder.

III. The Milk
A few fun facts about goats and their milk:
Goat milk is consumed by more people worldwide than cows’ milk.
Goats are the earliest known domesticated farm animal.
Goat milk takes on the flavor of whatever the goat eats. If the goat has lots of sweet clover, the milk will be sweet. If she gets into something really bitter, watch out.
The ancient Greeks and pagans worshiped a god named Pan, who had the legs and feet of a goat and played the original pan flute. He was notorious for his lustfulness, going around making love to nymphs and instigating orgies. It is said that in order to remove this clearly dangerous being from the cultural lexicon, early Christians modeled the devil after the goat.
In Hindu mythology, the god Shiva also appears with the horns of a goat or bull, an incarnation known as “Pashupati”.
Male goats (“bucks”) smell foul. I’ve never smelled one, but numerous sources have told me they are fond of rubbing urine in their beards and generally being disgusting. If you keep a buck around the doe goats, their milk will also start to smell this way.
Goat milk can be consumed by people with an intolerance to cow milk, but scientists aren’t really sure why.

IV. The (not so) Tragic Departure of the Little Goats
All summer long, Andrea and I have been eying the udders of Dotty and Spotty wistfully. Their three young ones, given the opportunity to nurse long past the time they might have otherwise been weaned, got all the milk. There wasn’t anything we could do about it but laugh at the overgrown kids when they crawled on their knees to get under their short mothers. Really though, these little goats were a pain in the neck. They crawled through the manger where we would feed them and stand in everyone’s food, pooping on it and causing Miss G to roll her eyes in disgust. They dug a hole under their little barn so they could escape. And they cried whenever they thought they could trick somebody into feeding them.
Finally, last week, the little goats found a new home (a relative who needed them to give her bored border collie something to herd), so we undertook the difficult task of separation. The three little ones went down to a pen by the barn, and the moms stayed in their pen at the top of the campground. They cried for a day straight and Spotty escaped several times to go see her little ones. It was all very heartbreaking and would have made a very good Disney film where the baby goats are sold to a cruel circus master and embark on a long journey back home. In reality, all that happened was that Spotty and Dotty seemed to get over it pretty quickly, and the little ones started to get hoarse, sounding like squawking seagulls by the end of the second day. In the meantime, I closed in on our milky bounty at last.

V. The Milking

The day of the first milking was also Andrea’s day off, which put the duty of training me on Ann’s shoulders. I was desperately in need of instruction, considering I’d never gotten milk out of anything but a plastic bottle and my interaction with the goats has been limited to giving them their grain, filling their water bucket, and poking kitchen scraps to them through the fence. In preparation for milking, I found a four-gallon bucket and scrubbed it clean, then reported back to Ann. She eyed my bucket doubtfully. “Don’t you think that’s a little large?” she asked, politely. I shrugged my shoulders, so without another word we headed over to the goat pen.
Spotty and Dotty are pygmy goats, which means their heads reach no higher than four feet, and their udders dangle a scant eight inches or so above the ground. In fact, pygmies aren’t even bred to be dairy goats; they’re supposed to serve as petting zoo animals or as companions for lonely elephants in captivity. I observed their unfortunate lack of height when the first goat was on the milking bench in front of us, and immediately realized why Ann had had doubts about my optimistically sized bucket. I went to the kitchen for a smaller plastic pail and returned.
Spotty was the first one to come through the gate, so we started on her. Luring her onto the stand with grain, we placed a halter around her head. I tried to hold her still while Ann, who grew up on a dairy farm and ran one here for fifteen years, bent over behind the goat and began pumping out white jets of liquid like she was brushing her teeth. Good, I thought. This isn’t so hard after all. After a bit, she gave me a turn, so we switched positions. I placed my hands on the two fleshy teats and squeezed.
Nothing happened. I tried again, putting a little bit more muscle into it this time. Still nothing. Ann tried to explain how the trick was in closing your fingers one at a time, starting with the top one. I couldn’t seem to relay this information to my fingers, which simply pressed the teat uselessly into my palm. I had a the sudden, draining feeling that this was one of those skills bred into farmers, like knowing when the rains are coming or how to grow a pumpkin to the size of a wheelbarrow, and I would never get it.
In the meantime, the good-natured Spotty was putting up a heck of a fight. She and Dotty hadn’t been milked before, and I imagine the feeling of it was pretty weird. She kicked, she squirmed, she shook her head. I stayed stubbornly in place, my hands between her back legs, trying to gain in thirty seconds a skill that I knew would serve me well for the rest of my life. All I could manage, though, was to avoid her hooves when they came flying at me.
At that point, Ian, a friendly Australian from the Yukon who is on an extended camping stay here with his family, strolled up. “Want me to hold a leg for you?” he inquired. “Sure,” Ann and I said, and he grabbed one of her back legs. That put an end to the kicking. I applied myself with renewed determination, squeezing and pulling and muttering under my breath. Then, suddenly, I saw a white mist erupt from one of her teats. I tried to duplicate this result on the other side. After a few tries, a small stream of milk sprayed sideways into the air. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.
When Dotty got on the stand, the project turned into a group effort. Reinforcements were called; Bob stood at Dotty’s head with Ann while John, Ann’s brother, and another fellow he works with joined Ian in holding various moving parts of the goat. A few other campers strolled up to watch this diversion. Farmer Bill, a neighbor who cuts our hay, rolled by in his tractor and threw in a few pieces of sage advice. I could feel sweat tricking down my hairline, fueled by frustration and the bright early September sun. After I’d gotten about half a cup, I handed it off to Ann. She milked most of it out, then gave me one last turn. I gripped her udder more confidently this time, observing that it was significantly less full-feeling now. We were nearly there. I squeezed out a couple of jets of milk, and Dotty kicked the pail over on me.

The next day, Andrea instructed me in the fine art of milk storage before we got to milking. In essence, always use a cloth to filter your milk, and use it up within a couple of days or it starts to get, as she put it, “goaty”. This factor may explain why goat’s milk isn’t popular in developed countries like the US and Canada, where milk travels long distances and sits on shelves before being consumed in a deteriorated, super-goaty state.
After we had gathered our clean containers, our udder-cleaning cloth and the all-important grain bait for the goats, Andrea and I went out to the pen. Spotty volunteered first again, hopping up onto the new milking bench that Bob had constructed the night before. Rather than hunching behind the goat to milk, Andrea showed me a different technique – sitting next to the goat, facing the rear, one shoulder into her side. I gave it a shot and slowly but steadily began coaxing milk into the pail. With my ear to her belly, I could hear the food gurgling down to her stomach and smell that clean barn-y smell that is one of the best parts of being on a farm. Gradually, I developed a rhythm, which worked for about ten seconds until my hands started to cramp up. Andrea expertly finished the job and we moved on to rebel Dotty.
Goats are smart, and Dotty figured out this game fast. At the sound of grain hitting the feed bucket, all three goats rush to the gate like cats after a can of tuna. Since Spotty is the boldest, she usually gets there first and slips out before the others when we open the gate. Dotty, though, hangs back, looking at me with wild eyes that seem to say “Come on in here and catch me. I dare you.” So I slip in, shutting the gate behind me, and face off with the little black goat. We size each other up, locking eyes and planting our feet firmly on the ground. Dotty makes a feint to the left. I charge directly forward, putting the rock pile in the center of their pen between us. She gallops joyously around it and to the other side of the pen. I follow slowly, keeping low to the ground, arms outstretched. Cornered, she makes a desperate lunge to sail by me. I grab her collar on the fly and stumble sideways for a few feet as she continues her trajectory. Andrea cheers and opens the gate, and I drag her to it. Before long, she’s on the milking bench. The fight isn’t over, but it’s certainly less intense than yesterday’s. Half an hour – and a few sore fingers – later, I’m in the kitchen following Andrea’s recipe for home made chocolate pudding.
This pudding is deliciously rich and not a bit goaty, but my craving for chèvre has not yet been satisfied (it takes at least a gallon of milk to make cheese, and we get about six cups a day). The adventure, in other words, is not over yet. But my fridge is now stocked with jars of milk and the time of the cheesemaking is near. In the meantime, go make some chocolate pudding – just be sure to use whole milk for maximum fatty goodness.

Andrea’s Fabulous Chocolate Pudding

1 c sugar
1/4 c flour
½ c cocoa powder
4 c whole milk

Whisk together dry ingredients in a small, heavy-bottomed pan. Add enough milk to make a paste (about 1 ½ cups) and whisk until lump-free. Add the rest of the milk and whisk smooth. Heat over a medium-high flame until mixture boils, stirring constantly. This will take about 20 minutes. (We recommend doing your pudding exercises in this time: squats, leg stretches, curls with heavy objects lying around the kitchen. You can then enjoy pudding guilt-free. Alternatively, grab your internet access device of choice and watch this video repeatedly.) Once boiled, remove from heat and cover, stirring occasionally until cool. Eat warm or refrigerate and consume within three days.


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