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Goats in the Mountains

by Anne Willan

Birch River, West Virginia. "You're going up the mountain!" exclaimed my informant delightedly when I enquire the way to Brier Run Goat Cheese Farm. And so it proves. A mountain in West Virginia is the real thing and our Honda crunches on the rocks as we shudder our way down an Appalachian track suited only to four wheel drive. No sign of activity until we sight Greg and Verena Sava, energetically waving beside their hand-built log house. "The goats will only come out if the sun shines," explains Verena, "but why don't you come and meet them?" She opens the barn door and a pungent, welcoming odor of warm animal envelopes us. The goats crowd over, a motley collection of beige, brown and black. Verena explains some are hardy alpine goats, others flop-eared Nubians. She crossbreeds for mutts. "We tried bringing in purebreds, but they are too delicate, they couldn't make it up here."

Suzette interrupts in a spirited attempt to gnaw at my notebook. All the goats have names, and strong personalities to go with them. Triplet kids were born that morning, and a friendly little black face is brought for me to greet. For the twice-daily milking, which until recently the Savas did entirely by hand, the goats establish their own pecking order. For years Fantasy has been in the lead: "She has all her wits -- always discovers whether the fence has a hole," says Verena. "Goats are very active, you know, constantly climbing and exploring all over the hillside." Each goat -- around 70 of the herd of 120 are in milk -- produces up to 1 1/2 gallons of milk, yielding around 2 pounds of cheese per gallon in winter, less in summer when the herd is out to grass. "The cheese tastes different, too," says Verena. "I can even tell which pasture they are on." The farm is certified organic -- we try to build up the pasture with natural compost, but that's all."

Brier Run produces around 40,000 pounds of cheese a year -- "we're very small, the only producers in West Virginia", says Greg. "We could sell much more, but it's so hard to find the right help". So the Savas continue to rise at 5:30 seven days a week, never leaving the farm for more than a few hours at a time. Such dedication has become recognised and their nationwide customers range from the local supermarket chain to Zabars in New York and Zimmerman's in Ann Arbor, who are sending their cheese manager for a week to the farm to experience production at first hand. When the Savas came to Brier Run it was derelict, overgrown and abandoned for l2 years. They built the house without benefit of even an electric saw, using materials salvaged from an old cabin they bought for $75. Gradually a barn has been added here, a lean-to there, all built by hand. From outside, the dairy is equally DIY but the inside is very different, sparkling white and scrubbed clean daily, with only the faintest whiff of whey. We stop to wash our boots. From the milking parlor, the milk passes directly through sealed pipes to the pasteuriser and on to the cooler. Cheese is made twice a week, the process a simple matter of adding culture and rennet. Deceptively simple: temperature, acidity and nutritional content of the milk are crucial and the Savas experimented for months before arriving at just the right combinations. Now, after l2 years, they can judge at a glance the right moment to start ladling the curd, with infinite care, into the plastic draining molds. "The fat molecules are so delicate in goat's milk," explains Verena, "it's important not to stir, and certainly not to agitate the milk otherwise you lose the smooth creamy texture in the cheese. I get very frustrated when pople cannot tell when the milk has been mistreated."

At the house we sit down to an almost biblical meal of homemade bread, red wine and five different cheeses at varying stages of ripeness, one blue and one dusted with homegrown basil. (Goat cheese is almost unique in excelling at all stages of maturity from fresh to mellow to dry). The fresh cheese is light, amazingly sweet: "notice those layers which form when you crumble it," indicates Verena. "that's a sure sign of hand molded cheese."

We talk of our mutual beginnings in food and cooking -- Greg majored in Italian at the University of Chicago and Verena, a teacher, was born and raised in Switzerland. An illness brought them to the peace of West Virginia 20 years ago. They gradually explored the possibilities of Brier Run valley, raising horses, chickens, vegetables, but none were as successful as the goats. As we bump back up the stony track, it seems to me we are leaving the end of the world. But for Greg and Verena Sava it is the beginning, "an experience we would never have wanted to miss."

For more information contact:

Brier Run Farm
Greg and Verena Sava
Route 1, Box 73
Birch River, WV 26610
(304) 649-29975

Goat Cheese and Chocolate Nut Fudge
makes 3/4 lb. fudge
Greg Sava has started a modest line in cheese desserts, with fudge his most popular item.

2 squares (2 oz) unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1/3 cup (3 oz) fresh goat cheese
2 cups confectioner's sugar
3/4 cup pecan or walnut halves (about 24 halves)

Spread chocolate on a heatproof plate over a pan of hot water and leave to melt, 3-5 minutes. Leave chocolate to cool. Line a baking sheet with wax paper.

Crumble cheese into a bowl and beat with an electric mixer until soft. Gradually beat in sugar -- the mixture will be lumpy. Continue beating until soft and light, 3-5 minutes.

Gradually beat cool melted chocolate into cheese mixture. Drop teaspoonfuls of mixture onto the lined baking sheet. Top each spoonful with a nut half, pressing it down slightly. Chill fudge until set, at least 2 hours.

Anne Willan is the founder of the famous French cooking school, LaVarenne, and has also served as president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals. She is the author of over a dozen internationally published cookbooks.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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