|Please view an excerpt from an interview of Karen Catapano for the Foodie Tour 2009. Click here to view!|
Cherchez La Chevre
A culinary renaissance of sorts is taking place in America, fed by the growing ranks of family farmers and artisan cheese makers whose products, made from the very best goat, sheep and cow's milk, could soon give the corporate cheese giants and their frozen milk stocks a run for their money.
For centuries, European dairy farmers have scoffed at the notion of American-made cheese, an industry that has been restricted over the years, in part by strong federal regulations outlawing the use of fresh, unpasteurized milk in the making of dairy products. The government allows only aged cheeses (which sit in resting tanks for a minimum of 60 days) to be made with unpasteurized milk. But an industry that has been kept at bay by the United States Department of Agriculture, and by the lobbying efforts in Washington on the behalf of corporate dairy farmers, is enjoying its most productive boom to date. A part of that boom is a small but growing farm on Long Island's North Fork: the Catapano Dairy Farm in Peconic, owned by Michael Catapano, a doctor turned cheese maker, and his wife, Karen.
In 2001, a decision to buy 15 goats for the Catapano family farm spawned what has fast become one of the most well-known and respected cheese-making operations in the country. Last summer, Catapano Dairy Farm won a prestigious award at the American Cheese Society's annual competition in Louisville, Kentucky for its fresh chevre.
This year, the Catapanos moved seven miles up Route 48 to a larger lot, where construction is underway on an 8,200 square foot barn to house their suddenly booming cheese business. What was once a herd of 18 goats has grown to 80, and a chevre known locally for its fresh and creamy consistency has suddenly become popular nationwide.
As the goat herd has grown, so has the inventory of equipment. The Catapanos' goats are now milked by a machine that pumps directly to a stainless steel holding tank, where the milk is held until the pasteurization process begins 48 hours late. Catapano said that while it used to take someone all day to milk 10 or 20 animals, the new machine milks all 80 goats in just under an hour.
But regardless of fancy machinery, according to Catapano the secret to any good cheese is having well fed and happy animals that actually enjoy being milked. "All my goats are friendly," he said. "They get fed great food and they have no stress."
The pasteurization process requires heating the milk by shooting steam through the walls of a 200 gallon stainless steel vat, bringing the milk's temperature to 145 degrees Fahrenheit, where it stays for approximately 30 minutes. "That is probably the most regulated stage of the process," Catapano said, noting that an official from the Department of Agriculture visits the farm once every two weeks to examine his operation.
After the milk is cooled to 90 degrees by cold water running through the wall of the vat, it's transferred to another stainless steel container where the pasteurization process begins. Added to the milk is what is known as "culture," which, Catapano said, is "essentially a nice word for bacteria."
The culture changes the milk into cheese by eating lactose and lowering the ph level, for a chevre, to a 5 on a scale of 1 to 14, which places near the acidic end of the scale.
According to Catapano, different types of cultures produce different kinds of cheese, all with distinct flavors. What that means, in essence, is that as long as the milk is of the highest quality, it is actually the culture that makes a true artisanal cheese. After the culture is added, Catapano adds an enzyme called rennet to the cheese, which helps with its curdling process. Originally taken from the plants and different kinds of funguses and yeasts.
Once the rennet is in, the cheese sits for at least 24 hours at a temperature around 70 degrees. It is then scooped into cheesecloth where whey, a by product, drains into buckets. After an additional 24 hours in the cloth, the chevre is mixed with salt and is ready to be packaged and sold for $21 a pound, with a shelf life of approximately three weeks. This was the recipe for Catapano's award winning chevre. Although, he added, "the cheese we won with was about 4 or 5 days old."
Catapano said that the process for each of his artisanal cheese varies, but that their quality lies not in the process, but in his thriving and healthy goatherd. He said that he and his wife, a former nurse and pharmaceuticals saleswoman, are thriving with the business's growth as well.
"It is a better life that she's ever had, and I enjoy it a lot too," said Catapano who still practices at the Wainscott Walk-in Medical Center when he is not working as a cheesemaker. "And we even made some profit last year, too."
Catapano added that considering all the important aspects of his venture-from caring for the animals to having state-of-the-art equipment to watching over every detail of the actual cheese making-the real challenge is staying true to the artisanal process. He summed it up by saying, "I think 'artisan' means you're doing the best of everything."
Getting Their Goats
Creamy, moist and mildly tart, it is the best chevre I have ever tasted. The cheese is made in wine country, on the North Fork, at the tip of Long Island, New York, and it is absolutely superb. In fact, it is an award winner.
Michael Catapano, M.D., and his wife Karen, run a goat farm and dairy where he, the cheesemaker, annually produces between 5,000 and 6,000 pounds of cheese from the milk of his goats - much of it chevre, as well as tangy little blocks of feta, blue cheese and cheddar, and tasty yogurt. That is in addition to being a primary care physician at the Wainscott Walk-In Medical Care clinic, which treats everything from nagging colds to broken femurs.
The dairy is more than just a simple hobby. "I work seven days a week - four days at the clinic, three days here - and this is very labor intensive," Dr. Catapano says. Often, after putting in a full day at the clinic, he comes home and works until midnight, raising the goats and making the cheese sold under the label Catapano Dairy Farm.
Although the Catapanos took over the dairy only in early 2003, they were able to break even in 2004. In summer 2005, they received a first place award for their chevre from the American Cheese Society, besting producers who'd been making cheese for more than 30 years.
"In the late '50s, my father had a vegetable farm on Long Island, where I grew up," says Dr. Catapano. "And his father raised goats on the east side of Mount Vesuvius in a little town called Ottaviano. And so did his father before him. But having my own farm one day was the farthest thing from my mind. Do you want the whole story?"
Indeed I do. Dr. Catapano's career followed a focus path, up to a point: Georgetown University School of Medicine and stints at Duke University, in the Public Health Service in Montana and at Denver General Hospital. Nary a thought of farming. In time, he came home to Long Island and eventually became chair of Emergency Medicine at Southampton Hospital in the late '90s. The hospital, however, was soon plagued by a huge deficit, and he says that meant more of his time was devoted to political maneuvering and less to medicine. He met Karen, a nurse, at Southampton, and when the wellness program she was running was eliminated, so was a job she enjoyed. Both left the hospital.
Dr. Catapano found his way to the Wainscott Walk-In Medical Care Clinic, where the workload varies between primary and episodic care and acute emergencies that don't require a hospital, such as setting broken bones, or suturing wounds. Because he and the other doctor there, Blake Kerr, M.D. take almost no insurance except Medicare and Medicaid, no one is telling them how to manage the care they dispense, something that had frustrated Dr. Catapano previously.
He was happy at the clinic, but Karen began dreaming of having horses, which she had as a girl, and there they were, living near the abundant farms and vineyards of eastern Long Island. Wasn't there someway they could get back to the land? Live a different life?
Through a friend, they heard about a goat dairy for sale - all of one acre, with 18 animals. "It was a dream at first," notes Dr. Catapano. "Could we make it work?" His wife says he went along with the idea for her sake. But what, exactly, did they know about goats? Or about making cheese? The answer is simple: nothing.
They learned some things from the farm's previous owner, and they found a woman in upstate New York who let them visit her goat farm for a week. There they took a crash course in raiding goats - and creating delectable chevre.
These days, it seems the doc is an old hand. He and Karen moved to a new five acre farm this past winter so they could expand the herd and milking process. They now have 89 goats, a llama inherited from Dr. Catapano's father, a quarter horse, six playful cocker spaniels eager for attention, one rescue farm dog and 10 pedigreed Ragdoll cats. Assisted by a family that lives with them, the Catapano's get the work done: breeding the Ragdolls and the Cocker Spaniels for sale and tending the goats, all of whom have names like Eve and Abigail. Bucolic, it is. Easy, it is not.
The goats have to be milked twice a day, and during their first six weeks or so, the kids are bottled fed twice a day (with their mother's milk) as well. A lot of family members and friends get involved in this - hey, it's fun to bottle feed a kid! The goats stop producing milk in the fall, and the dairy shuts down during the winter. But that is when Dr. Catapano takes seminars in cheese making from artisans in Vermont and elsewhere.
The milk must be pasteurized before the various cultures and enzymes that create different varieties are added. The cheese is packaged on site and either sold direct to the customer at the dairy or targeted for numerous upscale cheese shops, vineyards, farmers markets and restaurants on Long Island.
Initially, Karen marketed the cheese - as did those consumers who asked their local purveyors to carry it. Now the dairy can barely keep up with the demand. In fact, the Catapanos had to turn down an order from a large specialty food shop because they couldn't produce the quantity desired. The cheese is that good.
The kids are born in early spring, and Dr. Catapano says that this is the one time when his doctoring skills converge with tending goats. "I deliver the babies - in the middle of the night, whenever. And I act as my own vet for minor medical problems."
A tour of the farm includes the building housing the various vats and equipment for the cheese/yogurt operation, and indeed 13 bags of chevre in the making are hanging up and oozing whey. They invite touching. "Nope. Not without plastic gloves," says the cheese maker. To ensure that they cheese meets certain guidelines, state inspectors visit every couple of weeks.
Dr. Catapano seems so much in his element that one wonders which one of his two jobs he likes better. There is no hesitation when he answers: "I am a doctor first - but not in a hospital anymore. I enjoy taking care of people, helping people who depend on me with no one looking over my shoulder.
"But I enjoy this, too," he adds. "I like being able to make something good that people come back for."
A Cheese Company Ages
Karen Catapano stands in her in-laws greenhouse holding a baby goat and a soda bottle filled with fresh goat's milk. Through a rubber nipple the Nubian kid greedily sucks down the contents until the stark white liquid drips down its chin.
The greenhouse smells of the ripe odor of goat cheese, familiar to anyone who has spread chevre on a piece of bread or chopped feta for a Greek salad.
In separate pens, female goats are in various stages of gestation and motherhood. Pint-sized kids wander around, following Karen and passing in and out of the pens through the slats in the fences. If another mother's kid enters a pen, the doe will nose him out. Only her babies are allowed to nurse.
This year Karen and her husband Michael will oversee the births of close to 100 kids. They will keep some and sell the others to other dairies, ending up with 96 goats in their herd - the maximum allowed by the town - in the dairy they are building in the back of their new home on Route 48, know locally as the North Road, in Peconic. The number suits Michael. Any more goats and the upkeep would render his cheese-making operation uneconomical, he said.
The new building, which will house the goats (they can take colder temperatures but hate the rain), the cheese-making equipment, and a temperature controlled room for the aging cheese, is a big step up from the farm's former quarters a few miles west.
In 2003, the Catapanos bought an existing farm, fulfilling Karen's passion for animals and Michael's curiosity about making cheese. What started out as a hobby with 25 to 30 goats soon took on a life of its own. By the next year, after Michael took courses with some of the best cheese makers in the state and Karen researched raising and keeping goats, the farm was profitable and their products were selling out.
It was time to move.
And now in the spring, work crews have cleared the land on the five acres behind a large house to erect the steel barn. Behind the barn, the herd of goats, separated from the males, play around Karen and climb on top of her when she bends down to pet them.
"They will jump on you," she said. "They're very friendly."
The new facility will double the Catapano's production, provide more parking, and allow Karen more workspace to make skin care products from the goat's milk.
Aside from selling all they make, the Catapano's cheese was recognized by the American Cheese Society when their fresh chevre was named best in the country.
For Michael, who is known around the farm as the Cheese Whiz, (Karen is the Dairy Queen), this means he has been doing the right thing and will continue to provide the goats with the best quality food, keep the dairy spotless and sell everything as fresh as possible.
"Everyone thinks goats will eat anything," he said. "But they are actually very picky eaters. Once it goes on the ground, they wont touch it." To accommodate these gourmands, the Catapano's buy alfalfa from a woman upstate who grows her own. "It's nice quality hay," says Michael. "It looks good enough to eat."
He plans to build a feeding station that will keep the hay off the ground and minimize waste. As it is, the couple goes through about 450 pounds of alfalfa each day, close to 10 pounds per goat.
Goat's milk, he said, takes on "off" flavors very easily. And in the wild, as the food changes with the season, goat's milk will taste differently at different times of the year. By feeding the goats the same thing all he time, the cheese's taste will be consistent. In the dairy, cleanliness is monitored by state inspectors, and the farm stand in front of the new barn ensures the cheese is sold at the height of freshness.
"We always sell within days," says Michael. "No more than a week. If it's aged more than that it will have a different taste." Michael compared his cheese with what people buy in the supermarket: "Cheese in the grocery store is made with powered milk and frozen curd, which gives it a longer shelf life." But these ingredients also compromise the range of tastes.
This summer the selection at Catapano will grow as Michael experiments with new varieties. He will make the soft fresh chevre, feta and yogurt that have been popular and try to make aged cheeses like cheddar, blue, and a provolone type that will take a year to be ready.
To make mold-ripened cheese, like the blue, Michael buys the mold, which comes in two different types, differentiated mostly by color. To distribute the veins throughout the cheese he pokes holes using a knitting needle to give the mold the oxygen it needs to grow. New York State requires that the cheese age for at least 60 days. The longer it ages, the pungent it gets, but Michael likes to keep the center soft and buttery.
Back in the greenhouse, the Catapanos are still waiting for three more does to have their kids. The first of the year were born on Valentine's Day, after a mating season that spanned September and October. The kids will keep coming until the middle of April and then the first two months of milk goes to the babies. The mothers will continue to produce milk for the next six months.
New females can get pregnant as yearlings, but will not become efficient milkers until they are 2 or 3 years old. After that their productivity will last five to six years. Goats live 12 to 15 years.
"They love to get milked," said Karen. "They eat while it is going on, and it is very relaxing for them."
She plans to get an automatic milking machine from a woman upstate, because the repetitive motion gets hard on the hands.
Michael surveyed the work taking over his new backyard. In addition to his career as a doctor in a walk in clinic on the south Fork, he and Karen are busy feeding the new goats twice a day, tending to births, and landscaping the grounds surrounding their dairy.
"We will never move again." he said.
Catapano Dairy Farm, formerly in Mattituck, has opened at 33705 Rte. 48 in Peconic on the North Fork. At the new site, visitors will be able to watch cheese being made. The farm, which won first place for best goat cheese from the American Cheese Society, sells plain chevre, the soft goat cheese, as well as one made with locally raised garlic and another made with lemon-pepper, particularly good with Semillon and Chardonnay wines from local vineyards. They also sell three other goat cheeses: feta, Cheddar and a blue called Peconic Mist.A wine friendly picnic special of two cheeses, a box of crackers and a generous square of goats' milk fudge is $20.00. The farm is open from 9am to 6pm daily.