Let us introduce you to a movement that seeks to narrow the chasm between Americans and where their food comes from.
In Mexico, where it was created, they call it cajeta. It was the sweetest answer to a sour problem of spoiled milk. Long before refrigeration, on the hot, volcano-studded plains of central Mexico, families with goats needed a way to preserve the milk their animals gave. They collected la leche in cauldrons, added sugar and cinnamon, and then stirred the concoction for hours over a fire. A tangy, viscous sauce resulted: caramel, but with a kick—a personality, almost. Goat’s milk was more delicate than cow’s milk, more vulnerable to its surroundings. Each batch of cajeta was unique. The pine needles or berries the goat ate, the climate, even the goat’s temperament and, perhaps, the cook’s mood affected its taste.
“There’s no crying in the caramel room,” Hannah Reid ’04 told me one October afternoon. “If you’re upset while making caramel, the caramel goes bad.” She was bustling around a small production kitchen in Brookfield, Vermont. There were stainless steel counters and windows looking out on a greenhouse barn filled with some 50 goats. Six copper cauldrons, each filled with boiling cajeta, sat on burners. Reid, who is 31, was wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and rubber clogs. A tiny tattoo of a bear adorned her right ankle; her long brown hair was tucked under a net.
Using a refractometer to measure sugar concentration in the cajeta, she darted back and forth across the room. Reid’s stepmother, Judith Irving ’71, and her coworker, Katie Sullivan, were slowly stirring the cajeta with long wooden paddles. They had been stirring for six hours. The room was hot, and the air itself felt sugared. “I love reaching the top of the hill between the house and the caramel room when the breeze becomes sweet, and I can tell what flavor we’re making,” Reid said. “Cinnamon has the strongest smell.”
Fat Toad Farm began as a hobby in 2006 for Reid’s father, Steve, her stepmom, and her stepsister. Reid was living with her husband, Tim Sinnott ’02, in San Francisco, where she worked for a consulting firm . As an undergraduate, she had spent a semester in Johannesburg, which had “a profound effect on my view of the world and my own role in it,” she said. She had worked for several nonprofits and admired her colleagues’ ideals. Still, she wanted to do something more tangible. Having grown up in rural Vermont, she had always been interested in the natural world, and her family’s cajeta business was taking off. Going home was an easy call.
Fat Toad was the first farm to handcraft and sell cajeta in the U.S. They package it in small glass jars; the label features a toad drawn by their neighbor, the New Yorker cartoonist Ed Koren. It’s sold nationwide by cheese mongers, specialty groceries, and stores like Whole Foods and Williams-Sonoma. Fat Toad is still one of only a very few purveyors that make farmstead goat’s milk caramel, meaning they use milk from their own goats instead of buying it elsewhere. As it happens, another Middlebury couple, Louisa Conrad, who was in Reid’s class, and Lucas Farrell ’03, are in this same tiny group. It must have been something in the water.
Humans painted goats on cave walls in northern Spain 15,000 years ago and started milking them 10,000 years ago in the mountains of present-day Iran. In 1637, on the island of Manhattan, an observer wrote that the New Netherlanders “keep more goats than sheep . . . and because they cost little, they are of importance to the new settlers and planters, who possess small means . . . [T]he young castrated tups afford fine, delightful meat, which is always in demand.” Goat meat is still the most widely consumed meat in the world, despite its scarcity on U.S. menus.
Until 30 years ago, American goat dairies were virtually nonexistent. Then chèvre became popular in the early 1980s, thanks to some enterprising French exporters. A California goat farmer named Laura Chenel went to France to learn to make chèvre and sold her first big order to Alice Waters, the owner of Chez Panisse, in 1981. More domestic goat cheese makers followed. In Vermont, since 1993, the number of commercial goat dairies has quadrupled to 32. “Small dairies that make artisanal cheese: that’s where the growth in Vermont dairy is,” Steve Reid told me.
Vermont’s traditional cow dairies are disappearing. At the end of the Second World War, there were 11,000 in the state. Today, about 1,000 remain. Production costs—for fuel, fertilizer, and especially for grain—have risen, while the price of milk, which is federally regulated, often remains low. Chuck Ross, Vermont’s secretary of agriculture, told me, “Where farmers get caught is when the public-policy framework does not provide a sufficient margin between input and output costs.” Smaller farms cannot compete with industrial farms’ efficiencies of scale.
Goats, however, suit small farms. They need much less land and grain than cows. They don’t require grassy fields. It’s a myth that goats will eat anything, but they do eat brush. In fact, goats “are happiest in brush,” one farmer told me. “At this point, we have to fence off trees we want to keep so they don’t eat them.” (Rent-a-goat agencies for clearing land or controlling weeds are not uncommon.) Goat-milk prices are, moreover, not regulated or tied to a commodity market. As Chuck Ross explained it, “Goat dairies have the ability to find their own market, build their own market, and add value to their milk through processing.” Processing means, in this case, making artisanal products like chèvre and cajeta.