by Holly Madrigal
True confession...I don’t like goat cheese. Why then, you might ask would I be tickled pink to be hob-knob-bing with Sarah Bennett of Pennyroyal Farmstead Cheese? Because Pennyroyal has done the impossible: made an array of cheeses that do not taste “goaty”. “There is a reason the male goats live far across the vineyard,” Sarah laughs. This creamery’s fresh flavors are due, in part to the extremely short timespan from daily milking to cheese production.
The manner in which the milk is heated and processed also makes a difference. Resident Cheesemaker Erika McKenzie-Chapter and Sarah imported equipment from Europe that heats the milk without overly agitating it. If the fat molecules get broken and damaged a compound is released similar to what is found in goat glands. All of these factors, if done incorrectly, could add to that telltale hint of barnyard. Sampling these cheeses felt like an edible landscape. Describing the flavors and textures I find myself using similar descriptors as wine; “rich, fresh grass, bright, citrusy zing.”
The connection to wine is a strong one. Pennyroyal’s Sarah Bennett is from a longstanding Anderson Valley wine family. Parents Ted Bennett and Deborah Cahn of Navarro Vineyards have raised their daughter with the taste buds of a vintner. Three wines are now produced by Pennyroyal Farm; Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Rose ́ of Pinot Noir. The natural partnership of wine and cheese has been met with great success.
Near the corner of highway 128 and 253 in Boonville, the Pennyroyal Farm and tasting room is now open to the public. This state-of-the-art facility includes a solar powered barn, milking shed, temperature controlled cheese rooms, commercial grade kitchen and event space. The surrounding vineyard and gardens are also part of the integrated sustainable system. Baby Doll sheep mow the vine-rows and the meadows are grazed by a resident flock of chickens. Tours are available when the tasting room is open. The full array of sheep and goat milk cheeses, farm-fresh eggs, sandwiches and wine are on display.
When you tour the barn and dairy you can see right away how happy these goats and sheep are. They lounge about grazing, resting or causing trouble. This past year during an especially vigorous storm the roll-up barn door was partially lowered to keep the barn warm. In no time, eight or nine goats were using the door as their personal head scratcher, which pulled one side off its rails.
Each animal is given a name, and though no study exists to show that named goats make better tasting milk, the team at Pennyroyal believe it’s true. Goat and Sheep bio cards adorn the tasting room so that you can read about the individuals that make the cheese. The herd is given time off each year to ensure everyone is healthy and rested. Depending on the time of year, some cheeses include a higher or lower sheep milk to goat milk ratio. This leads to seasonal variations in flavor and richness throughout the year. “Farmstead” is a term that describes that the providence of all of the Pennyroyal cheese comes from the farm’s own animals.
Cheesemaker Erika McKenzie-Chapter knew as a young girl what she wanted to do. Studying abroad she learned cheese-making skills in the Poitou-Charentes region of France. She and Sarah have developed a nationally recognized, award winning slate of cheeses that keep evolving and getting better. The Laychee is a soft cheese similar in some ways to a Chevre. The word Laychee is Boontling (the regional dialect of Anderson Valley) for milk. Boont Corners was inspired by the large wheels of cheese made in the mountains of France. It is brined and aged on wooden planks in a temperature controlled cheese room. This aging room mimics the cool, moist caves of the French alps.
Velvet Sisters is a Camembert style cheese with a light rind and interior that gets creamier as it ages over six to seven weeks. The Bollie’s Mollies is crafted after a French style goat cheese called Fumaillo. This cheese won the Gold Medal at the 2013 International Cheese Competition in England. The Boonter’s Blue is made from raw goats milk. The curds are hand cut and packed into molds which allows for smaller curds producing a mild beautiful cheese.
Sarah and friends have also started serving small plates on the weekends at the tasting room. All recipes highlight their cheeses. A recent menu included Deviled Ham Gougeres, Boont Corners Quiche and Chive Laychee & Golden Beet Terrine. “I’m really glad that we included this kitchen in our new tasting room design.” says Sarah “ At first it seemed like a lot of extra work but it has been wonderful to experiment with different recipes and to have school classes come through.” Somehow Ms. Bennett manages to balance her responsibilities at the creamery with being a volunteer fireman, raising a three year old and two young twins. Their dedicated employees help in the tasting room, dairy, vineyards and cheese rooms. All of the spaces are open to viewing through the windows or through their frequent tours.
If you cannot make it to the tasting room soon, consider joining the Farm-to-Table Club. Pennyroyal will send you a package of first releases, recipes and tried and true favorites, five times a year. Their cheeses are available at local markets, Navarro Vineyards, and Farmers Markets around the Bay Area, San Rafael, Larkspur and Berkeley.
I can’t say that I have been converted to be a lover of all goat cheeses but I have certainly discovered a whole new selection of delectable local offerings right here in my Mendocino County backyard.