Monthly Archives: May 2008

Let the cheesemaking begin

In my squalid kitchen, cheesemaking has officially begun!

More than two years ago I ordered chevre culture from New England Cheesemaking Company, promptly stuck it in my freezer, and forgot all about it. I had just befriended a guy in Berkeley who had goats and I had delusions of getting milk from him. It didn’t happen. But now, oh now, I can finally make my own.

But it’s not like I have an excess of milk. I’ve resorted to milking Bebe only once a day (Fiasco Farm said she does this, with healthy results, for over 10 years). Just as I get less milk from my Nigerian Dwarf goats, who work great in small backyards, I don’t mind getting less milk if it means I don’t have to milk twice a day. It’s not like I’m in the cheese business! I let Orla, Bebe’s daughter have access to her mom during the day (she’s milking for me!) and pen her up at night so I get the morning milk.

So, it took me four days to stockpile half a gallon of Bebe’s sweet, creamy milk. The directions on the chevre package said to add one packet to a gallon of milk, so I just heated up the milk to 86 degrees, and sprinkled in what looked like half the package. It was hard to see four days worth of milk used in an experiment like this. What if it didn’t work?

For 12 hours, the cheese set up in an undisturbed area. I heard that the culture can be finicky, so I didn’t peek at all. That night, when I finally looked into the bowl, the milk had pulled away from the sides and had two distinct layers: there was just this creamy, yogurt-like substance, which I ladled into cheese cloth, and the clear liquid, the whey, which I put in a bottle for drinking later.

I hung the cheese to drain, above the sink, using (as you can see) the rope from our cheap blinds. For using only half a gallon of milk, this cheese ball seemed massive! Of course, it was mostly residual whey. The next morning, the ball was deflated and hard. I peeled off the cheesecloth and viola! A white cluster of something—cheese—in the shape of a deflated ball of cheese. I whipped it up, a bit, added a shake of salt, and then, like I saw at Dee Harley Goat Cheese, molded it into plastic wrap with a bunch of pepper sprinkled on it.

How’s it taste? Pretty good, but it’s a little dry, and not as creamy as I had hoped. Later I read that I’m supposed to put the curds into these plastic cups with holes in them, and let the cheese drain for two days. So what I made was fomage blanc. Now I need to buy–or make–some chevre cheese molds. Then I want to try making St. Maure–a penicillin infused goat cheese. And, with the right cultures, there’s some hope of making mozzarella.

Making plans

Spring’s the season for scheming. I often wake up in the middle of the night thinking about root vegetables. Why didn’t I plant more beets? Then Bill’s been planning various summer-time trips–a bike ride to Bolinas, a trip up to Seattle for my mom’s 65 (!) birthday.

It’s also time to plant a victory garden on the lawn of San Francisco’s City Hall! I’m doing research for a story about heirloom seeds and got myself invited this weekend to a seed-sowing party in West Oakland. We planted and transplanted veggies to be featured in a victory garden in the front lawn of San Francisco’s City Hall. I don’t want to give away all the secrets of the project, but I’ll tell you that I planted several types of amaranth, peppers, and tomatoes.

The idea for community-focused vegetable production has been a fairly long-standing tradition in America. In the 1890′s, the mayor of Detroit first advocated growing community gardens. Growing your own veggies made a lot of sense during the Depression, too. When WWI hit, war gardens sprouted up all over America. The idea being the troops needed the food from the farms, so ordinary citizens should grow their own for their tables. During the Second World War, victory gardens were popular. During the 1940s, all over the country, including urban areas like SF, NYC, Boston, Philly, cities played host to demonstration victory gardens to inspire citizens to grow their own food. For the whole story, check out an article from Tea and Cookies in Edible SF about the project.

City Slicker is donating the know-how and their greenhouse; Seeds of Change the seeds (all heirlooms); the City is hosting the spot; Garden for the Environment is coordinating the whole deal, and a group of artists at Future Farmers are adding the artistic touches. It’s going to make SF proud. Now if only Oakland would do the same!

Spring is also harvest-season. Today’s NYTimes had a photo spread of vegetables gone wild in kitchens–here are mine. They are new potatoes, fava, young garlic (garlic press), artichokes (one enormous plant gave us 30 ‘chokes), in the jar are newly-ready olives, finally brined and palatable six months after picking. Enjoy spring!

Trouble town

I hate this weed.

Mostly it grows in pathways, but occasionally the burmuda grass and foxtails get into a garden bed, and that sucks. So I was outside pulling up these weedy grasses, which have invaded the parking strip even though I covered the parking strip with straw then wood chips up to six inches thick. Weeding can be satisfying work. Passers-by say hello, chew the fat, ask me for a quarter. Because remember, I’m not living some rural lifestyle with baby goats and rabbits. I’m living some urban lifestyle with baby goats and rabbits.

A reminder of my urban farm: gun fire. Two shots, very close. Somehow muffled. Now, it IS firework season, but I knew those were bullets. Eventually the cops came.

I went upstairs to take the photos, because I think the police don’t like cameras.

Then I went back downstairs and kept weeding. “What happened?” A guy in a reggae hat asked. I had been eavesdropping on the cops, so I knew a man had been shot, not killed, upstairs in the apartment across the street. I became the town crier. A family who frequents the goat area drove by and asked. I grew tired of telling the news.

Then a guy named Kilo who squats in the big brick building came out and asked what happened. He seemed shocked, in awe. Since I had absorbed the information for over an hour, I said, “No big deal, it happens all the time.” Kilo and I have a strange relationship–he wants to hate me, but he can’t quite. But my casual observation set him off. “You say that–that it’s no big deal because they’re black,” he said. He sneered and looked at me with disgust. “Oh please,” I said.

He walked away, and for the rest of the day, I was haunted by his accusation. At first I was in denial. Shootings DO happen all the time here. But that I had become so casual about it–that IS disturbing. And those who die, shoot, and kill are 99% black. But was that why I was being cavalier? In my heart of hearts, I don’t think so. I think I’ve just become desensitized to the violence. I mean, how could I say a man getting shot isn’t a big deal? I pledged to apologize to Kilo, and waited for him to come back.

I weeded all the burmuda grass in the two parking strips. I overheard one of the cops, a woman, say “Happy Mother’s Day,” and then she sped off. Then I put down more mulch. I heard more gunfire. Kilo never came back.

I stood and looked at the passion flower. Soon there will be fruit.

Goodbye Georgina, hello bunnies

Took my goat to work yesterday. Georgina melted everyone’s heart and a few people offered to buy her. This bodes well for my future in Nigerian Dwarf goat trading.

I held her on my lap for most of the day, where she slept curled up in a cuddly ball. Then her new owner met me at the station and took her away, back to Lake County, where she had been conceived. She’ll get to be around her half-sisters and brothers, and I’m sure she’ll have a great life. I can’t wait to see photos of her in 4-H competitions, where I’m sure she’ll win all kinds of prizes.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Bebe doesn’t seem to miss her baby, though her sister seems a bit lonely. I plan on holding her a lot, and milking Bebe more often, to take the place of Georgina.

In other baby animal news, here are the newest batch of bunnies! Six of them.

Which goat?

I’ve been staring at the goatlings’ backsides lately. They have little tiny udders. I simply can’t believe it! They’re only two months old, but they’re becoming little ladies.

which goat has better milking potential?

Anyway, I had a bit of a Rumpelstiltskin moment when Bebe’s former owner emailed me, asking for photos of the doelings–front, side, and back. They were taking their doe from the buy-back agreement we had made when I bought Bebe, all preggers. I thought the family only wanted a doeling who was polled (without horns) but it turned out they wanted to take Orla or Georgina, dependent on their backsides, because the family wants to show the goats in 4H and other Nigerian Dwarf shows.

When I look at Orla and Georgina, I guess I know that Georgina is a better looking goat–she’s got a straight back and long legs. So it wasn’t a surprise when the family decided they wanted Georgina. The mom explained:

“She is a lot more level across her topline, her rump is less steep, she has more width accross her chest, and she has a wider escutchen.” The escutcheon is an index for milking–the wider the better milk production.

But Orla is (truth be told) my favorite because she’s so docile and sweet. So we are all happy! The mom said it was a hard choice because both of the girls turned out really nice. And she predicted that next year, after I breed Orla, I’ll have more milk that I can handle. She said Bebe’s offspring often milk out 3.5 pound of milk! That’s almost a gallon! And, Orla’s got a suitor with blue eyes just waiting for her.

Biofuels debate

Anyone else out there feel like a 1970s revival is on its way? I’m not talking about bell bottoms and polyester, but gas lines and fuel shortages.

As some of you know, I work/own a biodiesel station in Berkeley with five other women. Most days our customers come in and happily pay more than the price of regular diesel. They do so because they know that our biodiesel is sustainably made: we sell fuel made from recycled vegetable oil within our community (Oakland/SF Bay Area). It’s better for the environment, for the workers (we have intimate contact with biodiesel—pumping it into the truck, dispensing it, changing fuel filters), and for our customers.

Lately it’s become very easy to dismiss using biofuels. Biodiesel and ethanol are getting a bad rap. The former head of the UN called biofuels a crime against humanity. So I guess I should just shut up and get a gas car like everyone else.

The reason I got into biodiesel was self-empowerment. I learned how to make my own fuel by scrounging through a restaurant grease trap, processing it with lye and wood alcohol, and viola: fuel for our old Mercedes. I didn’t have to buy a Prius (which I can’t afford). If it rained, I had a car to drive instead of my prefered transpo option, biking. Then I joined our collective and learned how to drive a biodiesel big rig, fix cars, and run a business. So biofuel changed my life for the better. So, despite the UN, I’m still pro-biofuel. The question is: what kind of biofuel? How was it made? Local? Recycled? Does it enrich our community? Is it traceable?

Our biodiesel costs $4.99/gallon. That’s about 50 cents more expensive than regular diesel. Lately, some people have become scared. I see it on their faces at the station. Is the price going to go up again? someone will ask over the phone.

Yes. Each of us needs to change the way we think about energy, food, power. Each of us needs to come up with our own solutions within our community. If expensive fuel will motivate you to ride your bike more often (as it has for me) or start lobbying for better public transportation, or car sharing, then isn’t that a good thing? As I watch the food shortages unfold, and see the demise of cheap energy, which made everything cheap, I’m grateful that I know how to grow my own food, milk goats, breed rabbits. And I want to teach more people how to do all those things. We have to feel empowered in order to make a difference.

We have to start getting realistic about the cost of everything. The days of cheap energy are gone. We have to plan accordingly. I know at our biofuel station we’re going to start teaching more people how to farm in the city, to drive electric cars, to ride their bikes, use car share. We can’t just throw our hands up in despair. Action, not despair.