Thursday, April 18, 2013

The People Behind the Food: Achadinha Cheese Company

While only a little more than an hour from San Francisco, the Pacheco Farm, home to the Achadinha Cheese Company, seems more than a world apart. The overcast skies and mist present the day I visited only added to the sense that this place is special. Here I found a way of life that has vanished from most places.
View from The Pacheco Farm
I arrived at the farm in the mid-morning. Everyone was hard at work making cheese or packaging cheese curds for sale. Jim kept me company while I waited for Donna. I had just asked him for tips on raising a locavore foodie when Donna came out. Their tips were introduce them to growing things early and give them responsibility for a project, whether an herb garden or chickens. Their children took pride in knowing how what they and their animals ate was grown, what their animals had been fed, how the animals had been raised, how the animals would be butchered, and more.
Before we began our tour, Donna gave me the history of the farm. When Jim's father worked the property, they had dairy cows and only produced cow's milk. Each piece of land can only support so many cows. It's not a constraint of whether you can grow enough grass to support them, but rather can you deal with the manure produced and the heavy nitrates generated. Fines can be substantial and make it hard to sustain a property. In 1995, the family made the difficult decision to switch from cows to goats. For 30 days, the pastures were quiet as they converted the farm (among other things, fencing needed to be changed as goats are smaller than cows). They started out producing goat's milk with 1,800 goats. Donna initially made cheese one day a week in rented facilities. The demand for goat's milk is not as high as it needs to be to make a living and they once again changed directions, reducing the herd to 600 to produce artisan goat's milk cheeses.
What I'm failing to convey is how connected the Pachecos are to the land and to their animals. As Donna talked, I could imagine how hard it must have been for my great grandfather when a decision by the state government left his remaining acreage unsustainable. Decisions were not and are not made lightly; it's vastly different than a tech worker deciding to change industries.
Making Cheese
The farm is ramping up for the peak of their season: spring through early Fall. If like me, you weren't aware of it, goat's milk and goat cheese is seasonal. The flavor of the cheese changes through the season as well, having more sweet, grassy notes in the Spring and a hint of bitterness from the hops in the Summer. To keep up with demand, the family makes cheese five to six days a week. They're currently running the cheese factory six days a week. "Factory" is a bit of a misnomer, and you'll see why in a few more paragraphs. Things slow down somewhat from December to March as the goats breed.
Prior to building their cheese factory, Donna rented facilities for ten years off property. This gave her a feel for different pasteurization methods. She opted for a process that is more gentle, using gravity rather than pumping and forgoing HTST (high-temperature/short-time; 145 degrees for 30 minutes) for a lower temperature over a longer duration (3 and a half hours). HTST often burns the milk affecting taste. Milk that's pumped has a higher pH, which can mean more flavor sometimes, but takes away from the yield. These processes can shatter the molecules in the milk.
With the exception of the last 100 gallons, most milk at Achadinha Cheese Company is gravity fed to the table where everything is done by hand to maintain as much fat as possible. They slowly stir the milk as hot water in the water jacket begins to heat up. For their Broncha cheese, you might be stirring for 45 minutes. For their Capricious, you're looking at an hour to an hour and a half of stirring.
A vegetable-derivative rennet is added to the milk. This causes the milk to gel into a Jello-like consistency. They'll rip the gelled cheese into inch cubes and allow to heal. When the curds are ready, they are placed into molds overnight. In the morning, they remove the cheese from the molds, apply dry salt, and put on Cypress boards in the aging room. Depending on whether its their Broncha or Capricious, the cheese remains in the aging room sitting for 2 to 4 months or 7 to 15 months, respectively. The Capricious is also flipped on edge partway through the process. When the cheese are ready, the Broncha is scrubbed, cut, and then packaged, while the Capricious is rubbed with olive oil, cut, and then packaged.
Aging Room
Up until six months ago, Donna only had one aging room, built about six years ago. Like everything, they've grown slowly and organically not leaping into anything. The room was housing at the time I was there approximately 2,000 wheels of Capricious (their aged goat milk cheese) and Broncha (their aged goat and cow milk blend cheese).
After touring the cheese factory, we headed to the milking shed. Days on the farm start early, with the goats lining up to be milked before 7:00AM. The goats don't have free roam of the milking pen, and there's a practical reason. The goats eat natural grasses growing on the property, alfalfa when natural grass is in short supply or in wet weather, whey, and brewer's yeast. They get the whey and brewer's yeast in the pen by the milking shed. The brewer's yeast is kept here as too much will leave the goats a little tipsy. Luckily for them, and for us, they prefer whey. Besides being a good source of calcium, whey replenishes the good bacteria in a goat's stomach to help digestion and increases the butter fat in the cheeses.
Twenty-two goats can be milked at a time. As you get the last goat ready, the first is almost done. You work back and forth until one of their drama queens stops the orderly procession waiting for you to come over and give her personal attention.
Milking Shed
The rain stopped long enough for us to tour the farm without getting drenched. This year in Northern California we've had less rainfall than normal, so the rain was welcome. Rain means the goats will have more grass to eat. The goats' diet is supplemented with alfalfa when the fields are brown or when its wet and the goats stay indoors. The cost of feeding the goats when there's little rain goes up, which eventually translates to higher cheese prices.
Goats are very smart animals, and like humans, do not like to be outside in the rain. Free to roam from the pasture to the shed, the goats and the calves enjoyed staying dry. Had it not been wet, I probably wouldn't have gotten to see the herd as close as I did.
Within the enclosure there are multiple pens. In the first pen, I met all of the pregnant goats. Being a city kid, I was curious whether the goats birthed their kids themselves or had assistance. Donna said in most cases the labor occurs unassisted. They regularly check on the goats and can tell if there's a problem. In fact, looking at any animal's body language, pregnant or not, you can tell if they're not feeling well. The signs to look for are an arched back, legs close together, and shivers. If a goat is in breech, Donna and her daughter both have hands small enough to help turn the kid. Animals that aren't feeling well are immediately separated from the rest of the herd, moved to a warmer area, and looked after.
As we toured the farm, Heddy, one of the Pachecho's five Australian Shepherds, was never far from Donna's side. She would occasionally scale the bales of hay to look out over the goats and the calves. The dogs know the rhythm of the farm, and among other things help move the animals back when they get to close to fences. Each dog picks her person, who'll she'll attach herself to. Wherever they go, she'll go without guidance. If they hop in the truck, she'll do the same.
In the second pen, I met the kids. The kids stay with their moms for three months before they're weaned. The kids are free to roam between pens, occasionally misplacing their mom. Each goat has a distinctive bleat. The lost kid will bleat and the mom will respond. The kid then works their way through the pens until they are reunited with their mom or reassured that mom is nearby.
The Pachechos pasture their cows and their goats together. To get them comfortable with each other, the calves, once weaned, hang out with the goats. The only animals not pastured together are the horses and the goats. This is for the goats safety as one of the horses does not like goats and could harm them. (The horse doesn't mind the cows.)
While we talked in the barn, the goats jostled and baa'd for Donna's attention. One of the goats Donna had mentioned earlier that would hold up the other goats during milking until she was acknowledged made her way over to us. Donna explained that this goat wanted you to hold your hand still so that she could rub the right spot. Other goats enjoyed having you scratch between their ears.
The only goats on the farm that you typically don't pet are the males or bucks. Turns out that the male goats use scent to bring the females into heat. While enticing for the females, it's less so for humans. I'd have to take Donna's word for it as I haven't visited a goat farm during mating season, only in the spring when kids are around.
Donna Pachecho
At the end of the tour, Donna talked more about her family and four children. She feels her children are lucky, they always had two parents at home. While both parents worked at home (the farm), the children always knew where they were if they needed anything. As she said that I remembered both my aunt and my mom talking about that luxury when they were at their grandparents' (my great grandparents') farm.
She, as was Jim earlier, was quick to point out that this way of life wasn't easy. She highlighted dishes and laundry that still needed to be done (I had the same chores waiting for me back in the city), but believed she was giving her children valuable life skills. They would know how to take care of themselves, from selling to handling money to welding to driving Class A vehicles, skills that many city kids don't learn.
The Achadinha Cheese Company is truly a family affair. Everyone knows a little of everything: making cheese, milking, moving the herd between pastures, working farmer's markets, and more. Donna's husband, as she calls him the backbone of the company, organizes the markets (50 a week and between 90 and 100 during the peak of the season) and oversees everything. They have one outside guy, Gonzalo, but he too can make cheese. (The day I was there he was stirring the curds for their Broncha cheese on the table.) Their oldest, William, has 40 cows, trading calves with their neighbor initially to build his herd. Now that his herd is large enough, he milks them on property. Their daughter has spent hours in the cheese factory. Their youngest son helps on weekends and also provides milking relief.

Finding Achadinha Cheese Near You

I wish everyone could be sampling Achadinha Cheese while they read this post, but what makes it so great is its freshness. In the San Francisco Bay Area, chances are you'll see Achadinha Cheese Company at your local farmer's market. Follow them on Facebook to get weekly updates. We satisfy our cheese cravings at the Mission Community Market on Thursdays from 4 to 8pm. The cheese you get at the farmer's market has been either produced that week (Feta and curds) or cut that week (Broncha and Capricious) to ensure the best quality product.
Besides farmer's markets, those on the peninsula can pick up some cheese at Bianchini's Market (Portola Valley and San Carlos). In some parts of the city, you can have Achadinha Cheese delivered to your door along with your CSA box, courtesy of LolaBee's Harvest.
If you're outside the San Francisco Bay Area, you'll have to wait until you visit to taste it.

Bon Appetit!
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