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The best in goat cheese

ROGUE RIVER — The farmstead dairy sheltering 75 goats in the wooded hills north of town couldn't seem more removed from big-city bustle.

Yet to cosmopolitan connoisseurs of cheese, Pholia Farm stands among the world's finest artisan creameries, its products worthy of the industry's highest prices. The majority of Pholia's finished cheese is bound for boutiques in New York and Chicago. Rogue Valley residents, however, can taste and purchase the creamery's cheeses Sunday at its first open house.

Made in the Old-World tradition, Pholia's four raw-milk cheeses have natural, edible rinds. Elk Mountain, a washed-rind cheese similar to a Pyrenees tomme, took the amateur division prize for best in show at the 2005 American Dairy Goat Association Cheese Competition.

Flavors are more reminiscent of sheep-milk cheeses because Pholia's herd of Nigerian dwarf goats produces a milk unsurpassed in butterfat content, a whopping 8 percent, said owner Gianaclis Caldwell.

"Their milk's so creamy; it's not good drinking milk," Caldwell said.

But as Caldwell discovered with her first experiments, the milk made "really good" cheese. Experts couldn't agree more, and enthusiasts already have proven willing to pay upwards of $40 per pound.

"The taste complements and supports the price" said David Gremmels, president and co-owner of Rogue Creamery in Central Point.

"We think it's fabulous."

Gremmels has cheered Pholia's efforts since Caldwell and her husband, Vern, stopped by Rogue Creamery and casually introduced themselves several years ago, along with their plan for establishing a creamery on family property off West Evans Creek Road. Gremmels eagerly tracked the couple's progress over two years as they improved the property, erected solar panels and become licensed in September as Oregon's only off-the-grid dairy.

"Being green is good," Gremmels said, adding that his company is headed in that direction. "I think it's really something for the future.

The Caldwells' unique goats also impart a singular distinction: Pholia is the country's only licensed dairy of Nigerian dwarf goats. Their smaller size means the goats yield smaller quantities of milk, but mass production was never the Caldwells' goal.

Hankering after a little fresh milk, the family started its herd with just a few goats on property outside San Diego. Soon the goats were like part of the family.

"They're just so much fun," Gianaclis Caldwell said, watching her daughter Amelia, 13, cuddle day-old kids last week in the barnyard.

"They're extremely social."

When visitors to the farm meet the still-growing herd, the Caldwells take pride in introducing each goat by name. Sunday's open house also will include a tour of the family's 23-acre property where the goats browse native plants, which impart seasonal variations to the milk's flavor. Locally grown hay supplements the goats' diet, and the milkers receive limited amounts of organic grain, black oil sunflower seeds, kelp, meal and supplements.

Because Nigerian dwarf goats are not seasonal breeders, they provide Pholia Farm with a year-round supply of fresh milk, Gianaclis Caldwell said. The Caldwells collect 3 gallons in twice-daily milkings but hope continued breeding of the herd ultimately increases daily milk production to 10 gallons, which is all the dairy can process with its current equipment.

Cheese production is now at about 100 pounds per month. Wheels are aged a minimum of 60 days in the creamery's "cave" where Caldwell turns, washes and brushes each one by hand to maintain the rinds.

"You have to brush 'em, bathe 'em; they're needy little babies," Caldwell said.

In addition to the award-winning Elk Mountain, Pholia produces two other semi-hard varieties: a Colby-style cheese called Covered Bridge and a sharp, washed-curd cheese known as Hillis Peak that forms its natural rind from rubbings of olive oil and sweet paprika.

When humidity in the aging room is just right, Pholia makes Wimer Winter, a soft, slightly stinky cheese. It's available only in the winter and early spring.

Rogue Creamery has pledged to carry Pholia cheese but anticipates a waiting list similar to the one for its own award-winning Rogue River Blue, Gremmels said. Pholia also plans to sell cheese by direct mail.

For more information on Pholia Farm cheese, call 582-8883 or visit the Web site www.pholiafarm.com.

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.

Gianaclis Caldwell brushes and turns wheels of cheese aging at Pholia Farm.