Inspiration at Pholia Farms

Bigfoot legends, Portland eccentricities, Nike’s birthplace, Goonies backdrop, rugged coastline, year ’round rain and rich vegetation. Come to find out, they also has some damn good goat cheese. 

We had never been to Oregon before. Austinites dream of exchanging air conditioning for alpine air, drought for afternoon rain showers, and sweaty t-shirts for wearing a jacket. Portland lived up to our expectations. We drank incredible beer, had some fabulous meals, witnessed world Naked Bike Ride Day and other quirky happenings. A personal highlight was at the farmer’s market, I met a charming gentleman that sculpted me into a garden gnome. My inner Amelie was delighted to say the least.

For the second leg of our trip, I planned a visit to the Rogue River. I wanted to see what south Oregon looked and felt like. Oregon’s tourism site proved a handy tool to take a peak at farm stay vacations in the area, and I came across an airstream trailer experience on 40 acres with two lovely hosts that make cheese. Reviews looked favorable. Why not give it a shot? Pholia Farms did not disappoint.

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Ten miles outside of the city of Rogue River, nestled on back country roads sits open pastures, clean air, divinely wooded hills, and a charming off-the-grid creamery and farm. Vern and Gianaclis have built what some might call utopia, others might call a lot of planning and very hard work.

My husband and I did not intend to fall in love with farming, goats and cheese that weekend. But it happened anyways. We stayed two nights in a refurbished Airstream trailer that overlooked a field with a Llama. Our hostess tucked award-winning, aged, hard cheeses into our small kitchenette for us to sample while sitting on the covered porch at sunset. While making coffee in our small trailer, I watched the largest woodpecker I’ve ever seen scour a decaying tree stump for insect morsels. And we got to play with a lot of goats.

Pholia Farms has Nubian Dwarves and LaManchas. They produce high fat milk that is great for cheese making while being a manageable sized animal (unlike say a Jersey Cow). The disposition of the goats intrigued us. They reminded us of dogs – each with a unique, quirky personality. In fact, we even had the opportunity to go on a walk with the goats. Yes, all 40+ of them, through trails around the farm so they could graze on natural forage. We were also fortunate enough to visit the farm while there were baby goats (kids). While the adults grazed on nearby hay stacks, the kids erratically jumped in the air or even played on a playground set. Adorable to say the least.

I’m thankful to our lovely hosts Vern and Gianaclis. They opened our eyes that with proper planning, determination, resourcefulness and focus you can succeed. They’ve approached farming and their dairy as a business first. Airstream rental, livestock sale, cheese sale, and cheese making classes are all product lines that are tweaked over time. They’re extremely smart, talented, and warm people – and I couldn’t have been luckier to have the opportunity to meet them and stay with them. Also if you are contemplating starting a small dairy or getting into cheese making, you must immediately buy Gianaclis’ books.

My Internship: Pure Luck Farm – Dripping Springs, Texas

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If you really want to learn how to do something new, learn from the best.

Well, in Texas, I believe I found the best. Meet Pure Luck Farm. Pure Luck is a second generation family-owned farm and dairy that was one of the first farms in Texas to be certified organic. Today they are a successful, small business operation boasting around 60 goats and a range of soft cheeses that win national awards. Additionally they sell organic fresh-cut herbs and used to sell fresh-cut flowers. 

I first noticed Pure Luck in a retail environment. After returning from an inspiring trip to Rogue River, Oregon to stay on Pholia Farm, I wanted to share my new love of goat cheese with friends. I invited a group of pals over to our house in South Austin, and started combing stores like Central Market and Whole Foods for local goat cheese products. And there Pure Luck was. Smart branding, clean packaging and a delicious product. For months to come, once Pure Luck was on my radar I was finding it everywhere – in ice cream at Lick, on cheese plates at ABGB, to a cheese basket received from Antonelli’s cheese shop. 

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I reached out to Pure Luck to offer in exchange for free marketing services (as by day I am the Director of Marketing at a mobile software company), whether they’d be open to me coming out to the farm a few times to learn more about cheese making and herd management. Although we’re only a month in, the relationship seems to be a great fit. Amelia Sweetheart (the owner and daughter of the founder) is extremely smart, strong and straight-forward. I believe she will be a great mentor to learn from for months to come. 

On my first visit out to the farm last month, Amelia greeted my husband and me and invited us in to sample cheese and try some local cider. Her house was filled with beautiful photography (I believe by her husband) and cool antiques. We chatted about the internship, and then Amelia took me on a 1.5 hour tour of her farm. Buck pen, doe pens, milking parlor and cheese making rooms were wonderful to walk through. I particularly enjoyed hearing more about a house they acquired and moved out to the farm to expand their operations by offering more courses in Spring of 2014. 

A few things that really struck me during my chat with Amelia include:

  • If you’re going to change, start first with small changes. Don’t overcommit yourself. 
  • Do what feels right and stay true to yourself. 
  • Don’t spread yourself too thin.
  • Build products that are quality that align with who you are. 

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Batch #3: Queso Blanco

Another weekend, another batch of cheese. This Sunday I whipped up Queso Blanco.

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Ricki Carrol’s recipe was straight forward and easier than mozzarella.

Ingredients were easy to find: whole milk and cider vinegar. Technique included heating the milk slowly to between 185-190 degrees while stirring frequently. Then slowly add in the cider vinegar to make the curds emerge. As I write the post, the curds are draining for 2-3 hours in the kitchen.

What I learned:

  • My digital thermometer kept freezing up around 163 degrees. I realized I had it on a setting to determine ideal temperature for cooked pork. I was unable to turn off the setting entirely, however I was able to switch the setting over to chicken which required a 180 degree temperature when cooked well. Image
  • Determining where to hang the cheese cloth bag was hilarious. My husband and I tied up the cheese bag onto our kitchen sink’s faucet. I had the colander immediately below in case the cheese bag fell, however my biggest problem was the cheese bag was slipping back on the top of the faucet. First I tried using a magnet to block the cloth from slipping backwards, but alas – wrong metal? Then my husband recommended using a rubber band, which worked perfectly.

Open questions:

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  • Do vinegars come in different acidity levels?
    The cider vinegar I had on hand has a 5% acidity level. I’m curious whether all vinegars are at the same level, or whether this will affect cheese making.
  • Any recommendations on where to hang your cheese to drain?
    I would love to see what other cheese makers do to rig their cheese cloth up for draining.
  • Can you reuse cheese cloth?
    If so, any recommendations on how to properly clean the cloth?

Batch #2: 30-Minute Mozzarella, Ricki Carroll Recipe

30 Minute Mozzarella Recipe

Success! Sweet success. I completed my first edible batch of cheese. Batch #2 of 30-minute mozzarella gave me my cheese confidence back.

The Recipe

Thank you Ricki Carroll for making a recipe that I could follow. I tried her 30-minute mozzarella and followed the recipe as closely as I could understand to do so. The result was two 6-7″ long milky logs of mozzarella eaten at room temperature with olive oil, fresh basil and cherry tomatoes. What a snack!

Key Learnings

  • Good rennet matters. Forget the tablets I purchased from the grocery store. This time I went to Austin Homebrew Supply (for beer making). They had a small section for cheese makers, and I purchased a higher-quality rennet that was vegetable based. I chatted with one of the gentlemen there about rennet and citric acid. He said the rennet I purchased at the grocery store was more for making homemade Jello, not cheese. Also he said all citric acid is created equal (there isn’t a difference in “good” citric acid versus “bad” citric acid).
  • Lipase – the first time I followed a 30-minute mozzarella recipe, it did no call for Lipase. This time I purchased a mild flavor Lipase that can be kept for 8 monthsonce opened in the freezer.
  • Unchlorinated water – all city tap water is chlorinated. I purchased non-chlorinated water for my receipe.
  • Store bought milk – the first time I tried a similar recipe, I spent $8 on fresh, whole milk that I could only find at a famers’ market on Saturdays. This time I used whole milk that was not ultra pasteurized for about $3.44 from the grocery store. Cheaper and more convenient.
  • Diluting ingredients – it was interesting how different Ricky’s recipe was when it came to diluting the rennet, lipase and citric acid. All three ingredients required dilution in unchlorinated water for up to 20 minutes prior to adding the ingredients to the milk.
  • Cheese spoon – Have a good wooden spoon handy. For this recipe, you reheat the cheese in the microwave and it is insanely hot when it comes out. Also there areoften little pockets of water within the cheese when you start kneading it that will burst boiling water on your hands. I found a wooden spoon was helpful to use for the first minute or so when kneading cheese to prevent scalded hands.

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Open questions 

  • What do people do with their excess whey?
    I have a giant popcorn bowl full of whey liquid. It seems like a shame dumping it down the drain. Ideas I found for whey include making shampoo, smoothies, boiling pasta in it and others. Any ideas?
  • At what stage can you flavor the mozzarella?
    Now that I have the basics of the recipe down, I’m curious about the appropriate time to add flavors – say garlic, fresh herbs or pepper.
  • Is it okay if my Rennet isn’t totally dissolved? This time, my vegetable-based Rennet tablet fourth had soaked for 20 minutes, yet it didn’t entirely dilute in the water. Is this OK?

Batch 1: 30-Minute Mozzarella

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You have to start somewhere. I started with a recipe I found on YouTube for a simple, 30-minute mozzarella. The result? One gallon of non-homogenized milk was turned into a quarter-sized clump of cauliflower and .999 gallon of whey. 

Discouraged? Yes. However, it was a good wakeup call that cheese has very few short cuts. The good stuff takes focus, patience and hard work. 

Recipe notes below. I also found the original recipe on New England’s Cheese Making Supply’s site (several deviations from the recipe I followed – perhaps my issue). 

  • Stainless steel pot with lid
  • 1 gallon of whole milk. Cannot be ultra pasteurized.
  • 0.25 rennet tablet
    (1/4 teaspoon liquid rennet = 1/4 vegetable rennet tablet)
  • 1.5 teaspoons of citric acid U.S.P.
  • 1/4 cup of unchlorinated water to dissolve the rennet

Where did I go wrong? When comparing the recipe I followed against the original source recipe, here are differences:

  • 1 cup of water to mix with the Citric Acid
    Add 1.5 tsp. of citric acid, diluted in 1 cup cool water, to  1 gallon of cold milk and stir well.
  • If your milk doesn’t curdle when temperature is at 90 degrees F (YouTube called for 95), Rikki recommends increasing temp to between 95-100 degrees. 
  • Adding citric acid the the pot first, then add water, and then milk.
  • I am not positive the bottled water I used was chlorine-free. 

My goal is to master this recipe soon, and next time I’m going to solely follow Rikki’s recipe and use store bought milk. I first used non-homogenized whole milk from the Farmer’s Market and it was pretty expensive ($8). If I’m going to struggle through some inedible cheese batches, at least I should do it as cheaply as possible at first until I get it right.