Tuesday, 15 September 2009

My first Goatmilking

I breakfasted from the hedgerows on my way to the bus stop this morning, and my pockets now bulge with a couple of ripe apples taken from the autumn tree.

I've found it glorious to conduct my daily business in the countryside, walking to work, home, the goat farm and the bus stop through fields, woods and bridleways.

I'm on my way to London. I've been at the farm nearly two weeks now. Here's what I've found.
The greatest thing is the goats at the goat farm over the hill. When Kim and I first arrived, we were silenced and spellbound by the herd of baby goats in the lower fields, their mothers all up top getting a milking. On a Devonshire hillside, the sunset valley behind them, they clustered curiously and characterfully towards us, each one a clear Personality, and gradually explored us and nuzzled and cuddled and made friends.

We dragged ourselves away and walked up to the main shed where Rowan was milking their mums. I fell in friendly love with Rowan on the spot. She was a grinning no-nonsense tall strong slightly posh bird like me, and she was goat crazy. Casually milking 24 organic, Neil's Yard dairy goats in about 7 minutes with the aid of a machine, she invited us to help while she chattered away merrily about all things Goat.

I approached my first goat. Yowzers. I reached my trembling hand towards her bulbous udder, made first contact – yeek! - my poor goat jumped all over the place – my trembling hand tickled her! I jumped away in fear of these flailing goat legs and stood there with Rowan and Kim laughing all over the place and me trying to calm myself down enough to touch the poor beast without tormenting her.
Several similar tries later, I kept going, and I finally managed it with a bit of steady breathing, a different goat, a pat on the haunch to warn her I was about to come in, and softly repeating 'steady now, steady now, here we come, nice and steady...” and it kind of worked.

When we were on our last batch of the 120 goats we milked, she let us have a go at milking by hand.
Goat udders are like warm jugs made of incredibly soft leather, and holding one in each hand is like eating a bowl of steaming porridge in winter, with honey or brown sugar and cinnamon. I farted around a bit figuring out how to get any milk out of the teet, but once I managed it, I got into something of a rhythm. Goat milking is meditation. Provided you don't have to do 15 by hand morning and night, it basically gives you the same good feeling as sitting in a tree or putting your head or tummy to the earth, but it's even better because it also gives you milk.

And more. I've eaten yoghurt with my breakfast every morning for the past several years. Maybe you've bought a plastic bottle of milk every couple of days for years. If I collected all the plastic yoghurt pots I've thrown away to god knows where, they'd probably fill both decks of this bus.

I don't like that.

A goat eats up your brambles, nettles and leftover food. You have a little homecoming meditation on it each day in the quiet of the shed and as a result you get milk which lactose intolerant people can handle and is really good for the skin (I was allergic to my mother's breastmilk when I was born – projectile vomited it across the room after every feed – so I was weaned on goats milk. I've never liked cows milk and I find that when I drink it it makes my skin flaky, my nose blocked and my singing voice muffled). If you do some very simple things, you can also get yoghurt, and really delicious cheese quite easily – more on that in a sec.

Their shit becomes fantastic compost if you can sweep it up and put it somewhere quite regularly, their girl babies can either be kept to increase your herd or raised, impregnated and then sold for something between £120 and £200, and their boy babies can be killed at between 3 and 6 months old and turned into human energy, either yours if you want to eat it and you have a local slaughterhouse and butcher to use, or Rowan's farm sells their boy kids to flashy London restaurants who are interested in unusual food like goat meat.

You also get calm, peaceful friends.

And when your ladies die, you can bury their carcasses several feet below a new veg patch and they'll make excellent fertilizer. Actually any roadkill or fish bits (you can buy these) will do the same – this is fairly common practice in New Zealand I'm told.

Your milk is unpasturised so healthier for you, says Rowan, the biochemistry graduate Neil's Yard cheese maker - that's why she makes her cheese with unpasturised milk. Pasturisation kills a lot of the vitamins and nutrients, apparently.

And you don't participate in a questionable dairy industry...

How much better is that than a tub of yoghurt from the supermarket? And that's not even going into the economics.

I'm sold on goats.

Kim and I went up again last night and came home with three litres of milk with the following simple additions to prepare it for cheese: a couple of drops of rennet, which comes from the stomach of male goats - you can also get vegetable rennet – and a couple of spoons of whey (the liquid that separates from the curd when goats milk starts turning) from yesterday's goats milk that's already on the turn. This introduces the cheese culture into the milk. If you want to make yoghurt you add a couple of spoons of yoghurt instead; that introduces a different bacteria, the yoghurt bacteria.

For yoghurt, you don't need rennet, but Rowan says that adding a couple of spoons of skimmed milk powder makes it more thick and creamy, otherwise it can be a bit weak and runny. Kim and I looked at each other at that point – skimmed milk powder isn't the sort of thing we have on the farm – then clearly simultaneously thought, what the hell, worth a try.

We left half the milk in the larder overnight, covered, and this morning it was already solid like set yoghurt. Amazing! The over half we'll do tomorrow when I get back from London.

She said, what we do then is taste the curd to make sure it's no longer creamy but a little bit sharp and acidic. Then we put a sieve in a bowl, and put some cheesecloth in the sieve. Carefully spoon the curd into the cheesecloth without disturbing it too much, and when it's all done leave it for a day or two and then eat it like cream cheese.

I don't know make mature goats cheese with a rind. I'll investigate.

Ok. Enough eulogising on goats.

So veg. I love vegetable gardens, but I'm not loving this one. The production is more for sale than for the community, and that creates a different feeling. There is a widespread feeling that the relationship with the landlord, who buys the veg wholesale for sale in the farm shop - is exploitative, and I find that demotivating: I don't want to be an exploited agricultural worker. My interest in the veg garden is removed.

The community is struggling right now with the relationship with the landlord. Profound uncertainty looms about the future of the farm. The effect on the community is paralysing. A troupe of 8 pigs is down to two – we're slowly eating our way through the third – delicious! - and is not being regenerated. The three goats were weaned off milking weeks ago and are being sold today. The chickens were all killed by foxes one day – yes, they don't just come at night – when they'd been let out and about – and they haven't been replaced. Their pen is grownover with tall weeds.

Understandably, nobody wants to do anything until they know they can stay on terms that work for them and that don't make everyone feel like exploited agricultural workers.

Moods pass like viruses through the house. When we're happy and chirpy, we bob around happily together chirping. When a mood of uncertainty and somnolence descends on the house, it descends on all of us. We all retreat quietly to our bedrooms, caravans and yurts, and in my case at least sit there thinking about what next, what else, what instead of this.

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