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1/04/2017 7:26 am  #1

A Mennonite’s Knack for Fine Goat Cheese

A Mennonite’s Knack for Fine Goat Cheese

BLOOMSDALE, Mo. — A Mennonite woman with a used 2001 Porsche Boxster and a Hello Kitty collection is making some of the most delicious French-style goat cheese in America.

The affection for Hello Kitty is a holdover from Veronica Baetje’s childhood. So is the Porsche. She got a taste for foreign cars helping her father in his south St. Louis repair shop. A few years ago, she figured there was no real harm in shedding the plain dark sedans favored by the Mennonites for something more fun.

The car doesn’t have anything to do with the quality of her velvet rounds of aged goat cheese or her pine ash-coated pyramids, which have won major competitions and enchanted cheesemongers from California to England. But racing through the back roads of this pocket of eastern Missouri with Ms. Baetje, her traditional head covering blowing in the wind and a Diet Pepsi in the cupholder, whatever one may think about American goat cheese and its relationship to God begins to shift.

“I’m not saying, ‘Eat this cheese and you’ll become spiritual,’ ” she said, taking a curve and heading toward Ste. Genevieve, Mo., a little town on the Mississippi River started by French Canadian colonists almost 300 years ago. “I just promised God that if he would allow us to have this business, I would talk about him whenever I could.”

In addition to her religious convictions, Ms. Baetje (BAY-jee) is a curd whisperer who babies both her goats and their milk, coaxing from it complex French-style cheeses so good that one — the pyramid she named Bloomsdale after the community where she lives — has repeatedly beaten out 2,600 competitors to earn a top ranking at the World Cheese Awards.

Goat’s milk is delicate, filled with tiny, fragile fat globules. It’s harder to work with than the milk from a sheep or a cow. Slosh it around too much, and the protein strands break down. Get the slightest bit rough with the soft curds, and they won’t hold as much moisture. Without moisture, the cheese won’t cooperate in the aging room.

“The care with which they ladle this milk out of the vats and into the forms is extraordinary,” said Kate Arding, a British-born dairy consultant who founded Culture, a cheese magazine, and is a co-owner of the cheese and food shop Talbott & Arding in Hudson, N.Y. She first met Ms. Baetje when they were speakers at a conference for Amish cheese makers.

“Her cheese is just in a different league,” Ms. Arding said. “There is a quality to them which comes from a lightness of touch. A lot of it lies not in the flavor but in the texture.”

Most people who start making goat cheese are happy if they can produce a decent fresh chévre. But early on, Mrs. Baetje began punching above her weight.

“When you start making goat cheese, you don’t go for a washed rind disk or these cheeses that have this kind of complexity and are so fraught with opportunities to go south,” said Matt Rubiner, who owns a specialty cheese shop in Great Barrington, N.Y.

That’s not to say Mrs. Baetje’s cheese is always perfect, he said. They are so delicate that shipping can be risky. Sometimes they are too crumbly or break down too quickly under the rind. But when they are perfect, he said, “they are very, very special.”

They are also rare. Mrs. Baetje tries to turn out at least 750 pounds a week, which includes a lot of hand-shaped hearts of fresh chévre flavored with herbs or, this time of year, pumpkin. She sells a few other versions, including a nutty aged cheese called Amoureux, with a vein of ash inspired by Morbier, that uses a blend of goat’s and sheep’s milk.

Much of it gets snapped up at farmers’ markets and by local chefs like the ones at Niche outside St. Louis or by shoppers at the local Whole Foods, where it has been sold since 2009.

Sometimes Mrs. Baetje and her cheese show up in New York City. Shops, including Saxelby Cheesemongers, Lucy’s Whey and Campbell Cheese & Grocery, often carry it. She even hands out samples at places like Zabar’s. Her plain dress and religious devotion sometimes make her a target.

In a recent encounter on the Upper West Side, a shopper told her: “ ‘When you tell me you’re from Missouri, that tells me you’re naïve,’ ” Mrs. Baetje said, recalling the episode. “I thought, ‘Yeah, and I just rode in here on my cow.’ But I just asked her if she’d like to try some cheese, and she loved it.”

Mrs. Baetje and her husband, Steve, both 46, own Baetje Farms. They grew up across the street from each other in a St. Louis suburb, playing kickball and going to church. He was Catholic; she was Episcopal. After high school, she studied graphic arts, and he built houses and cut stone. One day, she looked out of the front window and noticed that the little boy had grown into a handsome man. Within a couple of years, they were married and she had converted to Catholicism.

They tried mightily to have children. Mrs. Baetje had a handful of miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy that nearly killed her. They both began seeking a deeper spiritual connection. She started wearing a head covering because she read a Bible passage that urges women to cover their heads when they pray. A group of Mennonite women noticed.

“We were really searching for healing and a deeper religious experience to bring us comfort and understanding in our situation, and here come the Mennonites,” she said.

Soon, the couple moved to a rural Mennonite community in southern Illinois, taking up a life light on technology and filled with farming, prayer and hard work.

“I don’t think living in the age of the Jetsons is so great,” she said. “I just like doing these peaceful, Heidi-like things.”

They got their first goat in 1998. “She wanted a cow but we didn’t need that much milk,” said Mr. Baetje, who is often up by 3 a.m. to milk their herd. She talked librarians into ordering books on cheese-making and learned how to care for her goats.

An early mentor, the Canadian cheesemaker Margaret Peters-Morris, told her the process of turning milk from her own animals into cheese made her feel as if she were part of the cycle of life.

“That was the first time I realized that, yeah, I don’t have children but this is really a connection for me,” she said. “I felt a little robbed that I didn’t get to have my own family and my own children. But here I was able to take of this goat, harvest her milk, help her birth her kids, and then I felt like I wasn’t left out.”

Still, they felt out of place in the Mennonite community, where families with 10 children were common. The economy in southern Illinois was depressed. So were they. After seven years with the Mennonites, they moved their 40 beloved goats to this farm, about an hour’s drive south of St. Louis, and got serious about the cheese business.

She tinkers constantly with her cheeses, worrying over every detail. Especially, she prays that she will have enough of the silky milk she depends on. Her label includes a Bible quote: And thou shalt have goat’s milk enough. Her invoices and website and even her barn hold more Bible quotes. It is off-putting to some cheese mongers, who won’t sell her cheese.

“As a small-business person I try to have a pretty big separation of church and state and business and politics,” said Steve Jones, who owns Cheese Bar and Chizu in Portland, Ore. (He notes that he is a fan of the cheese, even though he won’t sell it.)

But cheese making owes much to religion, particularly the cheese developed by European monastic orders, said Gordon Edgar, the longtime cheese buyer for San Francisco’s Rainbow Grocery Cooperative and the author of the new book “Cheddar: A Journey to the Heart of America’s Most Iconic Cheese.” He is a big fan of Mrs. Baetje and her cheese.

“Some people praise the terroir for the cheese, and other people praise God for the cheese,” he said. “Is there really a difference?”

Last edited by Goose (1/04/2017 7:27 am)

We live in a time in which decent and otherwise sensible people are surrendering too easily to the hectoring of morons or extremists. 

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