Famous Goats, Famous Cheeses

Originally published in Dairy Goat Journal

Katherine Hepburn lives in Siler City, North Carolina.

So do Goldie Hawn and Felicia Rashad.

Benjamin Franklin called it home for a while, too, but that was some time ago.

You just never know who you are going to run into at Brit and Fleming Pfann’s Celebrity Dairy. The 60 head of Alpine goats are named after famous figures in the arts, politics and history. It’s appropriate, since the cheese they make is developing its own reputation as it wins awards for its quality. The American Dairy Goats Products Association awarded their basic chevre log two silver medals (out of 100 entries) in 1994.

“Winning for the plain log cheese is like scoring high in the compulsories in ice skating,” Brit says. “It shows you really know the basics. If we can be the best in the country for the plain chevre against everybody else, that says a lot.”

Especially when starting a micro-dairy was never in their plans. They hadn’t even thought much about what they’d do with the land when they bought an old farmstead about an hour out of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. They were looking for a getaway from their lives in Florida. Fleming was a studio weaver and artist who owned a successful craft supply store and school; Brit worked in telecommunications. She remembered the place from her childhood.

When Fleming arrived at the farm, she realized the farmhouse was uninhabitable, so she hauled in a mobile home, hired a crew to drill a well, and convinced Brit they should move permanently.

That decision made, they started to restore the abandoned farm. A goat or two to eat the kudzu, honeysuckle, poison ivy, and underbrush made more sense than cutting it by hand. One of the goats was in milk, so they learned that skill.

That’s when fate stepped in, according to Fleming. She’s allergic to cow’s milk, but found she could digest goat’s milk without problems. That was great, but the couple soon discovered that two people can drink only so much milk. When containers overflowing with goat’s milk began taking over the kitchen, Fleming went to the library and got out a book on cheese making.

“There were a lot of experiments at first,” Brit remembers “and we learned a lot.” For instance, “the nose is a great quality control device” and “when the curd floats on top of the milk like Ivory Soap, you should throw it to the chickens.” The lesson is reinforced periodically. “Every time we try to cut corners in the process or don’t take our time and thoroughly clean and inspect and check the details, we end up throwing out a day’s milking. You can’t substitute quality and attention to details.”

They make a yogurt-style culture cheese. The curd is drained by gravity and formed into the log shapes. The result is a well-flavored, classic farmhouse cheese. To better learn the art of cheese making, Brit traveled to France, spending seven months in the Upper Loire Valley, west of Paris.

“The cheese is very light and delicate and it doesn’t keep well,” Brit says. “It has a high moisture content. It’s wrapped in a light wax paper, like a deli wrap. When we wrap it in this, it slows down the evaporation, but doesn’t stop it. It gradually dries out in two or three weeks, but it’s more like natural aging. At three weeks, the aged cheese is almost like a Brie.”

Rarely does any of Celebrity Dairy’s cheese last that long. At the height of milk production, the goats give almost one pound of milk per day. That translates into almost 400 pounds of cheese per week. Two-thirds of that is hand-delivered to local chefs and shops who call in their orders as early as possible to help insure they get their order. The rest is sold at the weekly Chapel Hill-Carrbaro Farmers Market. Customers are waiting in line when Fleming arrives at 7 AM. She’s usually sold out before noon.

“The Chapel Hill/Durham area could absorb four or five times what we produce,” says Brit. “This is a highly-educated, well traveled workforce and good food is important to this population. The Farmer’s Market caters to local people,” local being within a 50 mile radius. The rules at the Farmer’s Market require that the products be sold by the producers. “That means the customer talks directly to the guy who grew it, and they talk about the weather, the soil, the variety of the plant.”

The cheese sells for $12/pound. Knowing better than to tamper too much with a good thing, there are only a few variations to the basic log. “Confetti” is the log rolled in colored, crushed peppercorns; “Garbo” is rolled in a mixture of garlic and basil. There’s a soft spread made with the cheese and finely diced jalapeno peppers, and a raspberry-yogurt dip made with the cheese that is popular as a breakfast spread and on fruit platters.

With the popularity of the cheese and the demand for it so high, the Pfanns could expand their operation, but that’s not in their plans. “We have all we can put our arms around right now.”

Brit continues a full-time job during the day, leaving Fleming to handle most of the day-to-day work. They are actively looking for a full-time employee to learn cheesemaking. “There’s enough work here to justify another person,” Fleming says as she rolls the cheese into logs. The plastic sheets she uses to hold the logs in shape are from the local K-Mart’s craft department. “We buy them a couple of hundred at a time. I can’t imagine what they think we’re making!”

The herd right now consists of 60 Alpine goats. It’s been stable at that level for the past three years. 101 kids were born between Christmas and Easter, and “we will probably keep only ten.” They sell the excess kids for between $30-$50 for the small ones. The rest will be processed for the meat market. Brit and Fleming expect to see that market grow as the number of people from areas where goat is used as a table food increases in the US.

Celebrity Dairy is one of only four farmstead cheese operations in North Carolina. Like the Pfann’s, the two other goat cheese dairies are also located in Chatham County. The third farmstead is a milk cow dairy in the western North Carolina mountains. A center for organic and small, sustainable farming, Chatham is the only county in North Carolina with an agriculture agent dedicated to organic farming. Celebrity works the American Cheese Society, American Institute of Wine and Food, and the Slow Foods Convivia.

Celebrity Dairy’s eye-catching logo draws visitors to the farm. Designed by a family friend, it features a drawing of Gloria “our spokesgoat,” dressed in her finest rhinestone sunglasses and necklace. It reflects the approach Brit and Fleming have to their operation. “This is not a serious, high-pressure operation. The goats are fun to be around.” Their daughter started naming the goats after celebrities, matching personalities of the goats to personalities of famous humans. While goats purchased from other farms come pre-named, new kids born at the dairy usually end up with a famous name.

At first, the dairy was open for tours, but that didn’t work. “The schools were coming for free tours, but we had to hire people to give the tours. That just wasn’t making a lot of sense. It took up a lot of our time, too” so regular tours are no longer available. The dairy does hold an open house the Sunday after Thanksgiving, participate in the county-wide farm tour held annually at the end of April, and is open during kidding season. “So far, the does have not failed us There are always a couple of births when people are here,” says Fleming.

If someone shows up at 6 AM or 6 PM, when the herd is being milked and fed, they are welcome to watch and help feed. The herd is milked 16 at a time, a chore that Fleming usually tackles solo. She’s always glad for company, especially in the early morning.

Some of the help comes from guests staying at the Inn at Celebrity Dairy. As Brit and Fleming restored the farmstead, they thought that the addition of a B&B and small meeting center might be profitable. “Like the dairy, it wasn’t something we planned,” says Brit.

The result is a seven room inn that’s in an addition built onto the restored farmhouse. The original dwelling now houses a small meeting room, commercial kitchen, and office. The front of the farmhouse is now one wall of the enclosed multi-purpose space suitable for receptions and larger gatherings. The inn’s rooms are adjacent to that area. Comfortable and airy, they overlook the meadows and woods surrounding the farm. Breakfasts are huge and hearty, with scones, muffins, and omelettes – all made with fresh goat cheese, of course.