I booked reservations several weeks ago to take a tour at Harley Farms Goat Dairy, hoping to reacquaint myself with Dee Harley and her lilting Yorkshire accent. A drive up the coast to Pescadero on Highway One, with overcast skies and unseasonally cold weather, took me along the coast and brought to mind pictures I've seen of coastal Scotland.
It's a drive I've made dozens of times. I never take it for granted: especially on summer weekends when the roads are dense with people from all over the world.
While sometimes the sentiment in California can be traced to a bumpersticker I saw in San Diego in 1979 ("Tourists Go Home, But Leave Your Daughters"), I try to be more tolerant under certain circumstances. One set of circumstances is the coastal road. There were more parasailers than I've ever seen over the water at one bend in the road: summer has started in earnest.
I arrived just in time to join the tour as they gathered at the gate to the goats' pen. My hope that there would still be lots of baby goats was realized immediately: dozens of kids, some barely knee-high, scampered among their mothers and aunts. Some were so small that the grass came to their shoulders.
It was a small group, about twenty people, including three boys. Upon entering the pasture, the goats all rose and gave the universal sign of welcome: pee and poo in unison to greet the guests. Of course, I hadn't had time to change into my sneakers, so I stepped gingerly through the high grass in my leather sandals. (Clark's, not Jimmy Choo.)
As Dee talked about the intelligence of the goats (the fifth smartest animal, says she...hopefully humans are not first), I glanced around to see different people being "chosen" by different goats for special attention. One woman in a blue windbreaker had to tug her sleeve, emphatically but kindly, from the mouth of one of the brown and black American Alpine goats. I found that my large leather tote appealed to two goats, who wanted to mash it into their heads. (They weren't butting me, just nudging me, with some seeming affection.) And unlike the billygoat that wanted to rumble, these goats didn't scare me at all. They were like big dogs.
We headed toward the barn, and looked back to see the sight of nearly two hundred goats starting to follow us. They are incredibly tame, since they're brought up around people from birth. Dee said they know early on she's the one with the food, so they take a special interest in her whereabouts. For she is the magnet, and they are the stee-e-e-e-e-e-e-el.
We all headed into the barn, where the goats hunker down in the rainy winters, taking care that their little cloven hooves don't get wet. Seeing Dee head to the barn obviously sent a signal to the herd, and the next thing we knew, all of them were following us in, as well. The barn smelled like old wood and clean straw.
The dairyman, Bernardo, rounded up one lady goat and brought her into the milking station. Milking a goat is a relief to the goat: she happily complied.
I walked behind everyone else so I could get clear shots of the goats, and so straggled into the fence leading to the milking room late. And was I glad I did? Bringing up the rear, a baby goat had escaped the fence, and came over to me with her head down. She wanted petting, and had the softest little ears in the world. What a darling!
Dee's big dog, Teddy, came over to let Little Darling know that she had no business being out with the people, and Little Darling scampered off. Well, I'm bad, so I followed her so I could rub her ears and neck and back and her little spotted nose.
I went into the milking room, where Dee described the transition from milking six goats a day fourteen years ago, to over two hundred, today. "I hear that milking machine at five in the morning, and say to myself, 'Thank God it's not me in there!" But she loves the goats: it's evident.
She gave a demonstation on milking a goat: clamp your thumb and forefinger in a ring, tightly around the top of the teat, and then use your other three fingers to squeeze the milk out of the "balloon" that forms. The three little boys went first, and one of them created froth in the bucket. "Oooooh, you got bubbles," Dee intoned in her Liverpool accent. (She sounds like a girl Beatle.)
I watched everyone else go ahead, and one older lady declined her turn. So I gave it a go, and I not only got bubbles, but I got froth, and the lady goat wiggled her back leg in rapture. "She liked that," Dee laughed. Presumably I'd hit her Goat-spot.
We headed into the cheese-making room, which was a new addition since my last visit three or four years ago. There everyone washed their hands, and Dee described the process—which seems like such a scientific word for the organic life of the milk and cheese—of getting cheese from goats. Everything is considered, from the fat content of the milk from individual goats to the shape and size of their udders. The higher the fat content, the better the cheese.
She talked about the heightened attention to small farms and dairies since September 11. "They seem to think that this is where the anthrax is going to come from." I asked if maybe if the terrorists were thinking, they'd hit up the seventeen gajillion silos full of pesticide-laced potatoes headed for the McDonald's french fry vats, and she laughed.
Three little boys came up to the table to help her make one of the Monet chevres that distinguish Harley Farms cheeses. They are adorned with edible flower petals: a delicate array with not too much nasturtiums, which can taste too peppery. The idea of the flowers was so that the white cheese, easily lost in a white cooler, would stand out.
The boys did a fine job with their petals, and Dee layered on the first layer of chevre before adding a thin sprinkling of herbs de Provence, explaining that the flavors had to balance with the cheese, and not overpower it.
Dee laid out a platter with cubes of bread, and invited us to taste the amazing (award-winning, many times over) chevre. She had said earlier in the tour, "My cheese went to Italy last year [for Terra Madre], and one Italian man said, 'This cheese was made near the ocean.' " It was so clean and subtle and smooth. One of the little boys said, "Like cream cheese."
Most of the families left, and one older couple, the grandparents of the youngest boy, suggested to Dee that she bring her cheese to the Ferry Plaza Market. I could see the resistance, though her smile didn't fade for an instant. She answered, "Don't get me wrong: I know everyone there, and I love what they're doing, but what we're about is bringing people to the farm. To see the connection. I mean, there are some people there who are using milk from other places. We're a closed circle."
I said, "Farmstead." She nodded and said, "I forgot to explain that on the tour." And turned back to the couple: "We really want people to see what it means to care for these animals, morning and night, and to see the care we put into making the cheese the best we can."
They seemed to get it, suddenly, because they both burst into huge smiles. Later, driving past Dee and me as she walked me to my car, the grandfather rolled down the window. "You'll be seeing a lot of us," he said, still grinning hugely, "We absolutely loved it here."
I know everyone did. Dee is radiant. And funny.
I lingered a little bit, just to thank her and tell her how happy I am that her business is enjoying such a success. (She was the first woman ever chosen by the Chamber of Commerce as Farmer of the Year in San Mateo county: a surprise to her, but probably not to anyone else.)
I learned yesterday that Dee is married to Tim Duarte, who owns Duarte's Tavern, famed among travelers for its artichoke soup, among other things. Yesterday would have been a great day to stop in and try it, with the cold and fog, but I had to get home.
When she saw my license tag, she said, "Oh, yeah, I love what you get to do....can I tag along sometime?"
Dee and I have made tentative plans for her to come with me to a farm or ranch or two, and I hope that happens soon. As I do most farmers, I think the world of her for her commitment and care. The quality of what she produces is impeccable, perhaps incomparable.
On a personal level, I just like her enormously. I hope the freedom from running the day-to-day operations of the business will be alleviated somewhat, so that she can get out to visit other farms. God knows, they inspire me: I can only imagine how she'd receive a visit to Deep Roots Ranch, with its cows and sheep and pigs and chickens. And friends.
That's all for today. Thanks, Dee, for the lovely time.
THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: “If you deny yourself commitment, what can you do with your life?” — Harvey Fierstein
Thanks for visiting.