Near the end of a dirt road in New Sharon, surrounded by green pastures and grand vistas, you’ll find a small but busy place called York Hill Farm. For John and Penny Duncan, it has been home since the early-1980s.
“We were back-to-the-landers,” says John, who, prior to becoming a farmer, was a respiratory therapist. His wife, Penny, was a registered nurse.
They bought a 13-acre slice of paradise — “We looked a long time before we found it,” says John — and then, inspired by an article about a goat cheese operation in Mother Earth News, they got goating.
“We thought, ‘We can do this,’” says John. And indeed they did. And some. This year they won yet another national award, this time in the soft ripened goat’s milk cheese category at the 2015 American Cheese Society’s annual competition.
They started small, beginning with two goats; they are now milking 36. Their herd is comprised of two varieties of goat: Sanaan and Alpine. They also have one buck and six kids, much to the delight of local human kids who often come to visit and pat.
Making good cheese is cyclical because goats, says John, “have a 5-month gestation period, just like a deer.” They put the buck in with the females in late October and their herd is “in full production by the end of April,” he says.
Among goats, there is a pecking order, and each breed of goat has its own personality. The goats at York Hill Farm also have names, which, according to John, reference maternal lineage. For example, says John, “Tourista’s mother was Theresa, who came from Elsa . . .”
And Penny notes that although the goats “are very sweet and sociable, they’re livestock, not pets.”
For many years, the Duncans managed a herd of 50 goats before cutting back. Currently, says Penny, “we’re getting more production out of fewer goats.” York Hill Farm now produces five tons of cheese every year from three dozen goats.
Initially, they created a cheese-making operation in a spare room within their home. Then, as the operation grew, a new “animal barn” was constructed in 1986, allowing for conversion of the existing barn into a cheese factory, and moving production out of the house.
What are the secrets to award-winning cheese?
“Well fed and content goats produce the best cheese,” says Penny.
John adds that “well fed” has not only meant hay, grain and pasture grass, but also “our best shrubbery, apple trees and blueberry bushes,” which is why a good fence is an essential element in raising goats.
“We’ve cleared a lot of land with them,” he says with a smile.
In addition, the goats are fed whey, a byproduct of the cheese-making process.
Other factors in making good cheese include “attention to time and temperature in the cheese-making process, and cleanliness, cleanliness, cleanliness!” says Penny.
Back in 1987, challenged by the prospect of milking 25 goats by hand, they purchased a milking machine and other equipment that made the process more efficient and cleaner, and allowed them to sell to markets in Boston and New York.
With automation, York Hill Farm can milk three goats at once in a short period of time, all the while feeding six, including the three being milked. Over the course of two milkings a day, each goat produces approximately 1 gallon of milk.
York Hill Farm produces a number of goat cheeses including: chevre roll with black peppercorns and garlic; chevre roll with green peppercorns and nutmeg; chevre roll with dill and garlic; ripened chevre roll with ash; fresh chevre in cups; fresh chevre with herbs and garlic in cups; and Capriano hard, aged cheese. “All of our cheeses have won prizes over the years,” says Penny, referring to the American Cheese Society’s annual competition, which travels around the nation each year.
“In 1987, the black peppercorn roll with garlic won, and in 1996 our ripened cheese won in Madison, Wisc.,” says John.
In 2007, it was York Hill Farm’s green peppercorn and nutmeg roll’s turn to bring home top honors in the category of cheeses flavored with crushed or whole peppercorns or savory spices, and in that same year the dill and garlic entry and the black peppercorn entry each took second places.
In 2013, their aged goat cheese earned third-place honors in the farmstead aged over 60 days category.
And this year the farm’s ripened chevre rolled with vegetable ash earned first-place honors in the soft ripened goat cheese category.
“Vegetable ash,” Penny explains, “is purified charcoal.” It acts to neutralize the surface acids of the cheese, “which helps to form the nice white bloomy rind. Historically,” she adds, “it was made from cuttings taken from grape vineyards.”
It takes about three hours to process the cheese. After setting overnight, the milk turns to cheese curd. “Then,” explains John, “it’s scooped into cheese cloth and hung to drain.”
The whey, the liquid byproduct that drains from the hanging cheese, is saved for consumption by the goats. The curd is then processed one last time into rolls and cups to be sold. It takes two to three days for fresh cheese to be ready for market.
The curd itself “doesn’t have a lot of flavor,” says John. However, as it ages, “it develops a more complex flavor.” A ripened cheese is one that sits for at least three weeks.
The butterfat in goats milk is higher earlier in the season (soon after the kids are born) and later in the season (when the milk is nearly gone). Because the milk’s qualities vary depending on time of year, certain cheeses are only available at certain times of year. The ripened chevre, for example, will be available again in early October.
York Hill Farm sells cheese from the shop at the farm, as well as online, at several locations in Belgrade and Farmington, at farmers markets, to restaurants and at other locations.
“Years ago,” says Penny, “you could not sell goat cheese in Maine, so it had to go to Boston or New York City. . . . The last 10 years, the local thing has gone nuts!”
In addition to goats, the Duncans have also raised sheep, chickens and “a beef critter” from time to time. Up until “last fall,” says John, “we still had beef critters.” They also grow their own vegetables. “Penny can grow anything,” John adds, with obvious pride.
York Hill Farm’s goat cheese and beet salad
4 ounces salad greens
3 ounces plain or herbed chevre
2 medium beets
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
2/3 cup good olive oil
1 teaspoon Dijon-style mustard
1 tablespoon maple syrup
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat over to 400 degrees.
Peel and shop the beets and carrots into half-inch chunks; peel and halve the shallots leaving a bit of root end so they don’t fall apart. Place on a baking sheet, toss with a tablespoon of olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and roast for 20 minutes, turning over once or twice until brown and softened.
Mix dressing ingredients in a jar with a lid and shake to emulsify. Dress the greens and divide onto four plates.
Top with the warm roasted vegetables and crumbled chevre. The heat of the vegetables will warm and soften the chevre.
York Hill Farm’s chevre pound cake
8 ounces fresh chevre
1 1/2 cups butter
2 cups sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups flour
Have all the ingredients at room temperature. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Lightly butter and flour a 10-inch tube pan.
Put the butter and cheese into the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or use a hand-held mixer) and beat at medium speed until smooth.
Beat in the sugar slowly and continue to beat at medium speed until the mixture is very light and fluffy, about 4 to 5 minutes.
Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition, until light and fluffy again. Add the vanilla.
Gently fold in the flour and blend until the ingredients are just incorporated. Pour the mixture and spread evenly into the prepared pan and bake approximately 75 minutes or until a wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, or until the internal temperature of the cake is at least 200 degrees. Be careful not to overbake.
Transfer the cake to a cooling rack and allow it to cool in the pan for 10 minutes. Invert the cake into a rack and cool to room temperature.
Recommended: Serve the cake still slightly warm from the over, with lightly sweetened sliced strawberries. Plain slices of cake with a cup of tea is also a favorite.
The recipe makes a large cake that will cut into 12 to 20 slices. The cake or portions of it may be tightly wrapped and frozen for up to a month.