When Michael Lee and I walked into the goat enclosure at Twig Farm last Monday, five or six goats rushed up to investigate. First they nibbled at my notebook and the clasps on my messenger bag. One quietly pulled open the zipper pocket on my vest. Seconds later I heard a jingle and turned to look. She was munching on my keys. I snatched them back before there was too much spit on the door remote.
"They won't eat anything of yours. They're just curious. They want to know what it is," said Lee.
He greeted each goat by name, then straddled the largest, the lone male in the snowy enclosure.
"Can I have a ride?" he asked.
The goat grunted and pulled away, choosing instead to butt his gnarled horns against my arm. Several others got bored of hovering and moved on to gnaw at the wood and tarpaulin structure that sheltered their hay.
The goats are certainly the most noticeable part of Twig Farm, but they're only one part of all that goes on there. Michael Lee makes artisan goat's milk cheese, and his wife Emily Sunderman manages the business and marketing ends of the operation. They started the farm in 2005, and their cheeses almost immediately began to garner ribbons and prizes at American Cheese Society annual competitions.
And even with a relatively small production — about 10,000 pounds of cheese, depending on the year — Lee and Sunderman distribute their cheese to businesses all over New England and to the Cellars at Jasper Hill, which in turn sends the cheese as far away as California and Oregon.
The cheeses that come out of Twig Farm today arose out of a lucky coincidence.
"I needed a job," said Lee.
Unemployed and with a college degree in painting, he spotted a help wanted sign at South End Formaggio in Boston. He applied — and got — the job and jumped into the world of artisan cheeses.
But though the next jump from cheesemonger in Boston to cheesemaker in rural Vermont might seem large, to Lee, it was only natural.
"Every couple of years you reach a change in your life," he said. "This was just the next one."
The cheeses spend anywhere from 2 1/2 months to a year aging in the cave.
It's an idyllic change at that. The house and barn are painted a matching green, the cheese room is small and tidy, and the cheese cave, in the basement of the house, is packed with next year's cheeses.
"It's not abstract," said Lee. "You're taking these things that are ephemeral — the sun, the grass feeds the goats, then it goes through a whole process, but you're making food."
And for Lee, it's not a process of making the same four cheeses over and over. It's raising the goats, milking them, making the cheese and then seeing what happens after it ages.
"I don't think I've ever made the same cheese twice," he said. "Our cheese has parameters that it lives within, but I'm not going to pretend that the animals are static or the milk is static. They're out at pasture, and the different things they're eating affect the cheese."
With all the time Lee spends making cheese, I wondered, does he still have time for painting?
He gestured out toward the goat enclosure and smiled. "Well, I'm actually involved in a long-term landscape art project. It's collaborative. With the goats."
Andrea does reporting and online media for the Addison Independent. You can find her on Twitter here or see other Table Talk entries here. Feel free to weigh in on this post or suggest future topics, either in the comments section below or at andreas [at] addisonindependent.com.