Messing About with Goats at Catapano Farm

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A curious Catapano Dairy Farm goat. Michael Heller photos

By Michelle Trauring

At one time, Karen Catapano could tell her goats apart.

There was Isabel, the lead goat at Catapano Dairy Farm — who almost looked like a cow with her black and white pattern — and Cherry, a large, dark-colored goat with the sweetest disposition and a pretty face to match.

The twin tan Toggenburgs, Amy and Alice, would walk the fields with Catapano, following her every move. They were friendly, easy to milk and not skittish in the least, she recalled fondly, regal with a thin black stripe.

But then there was Spider, who had horns. She was aggressive and could jump like a gazelle. At any given moment, she would be on top of the barn, on top of the milking parlor, over the fence, or trying to butt people.

That was almost 15 years ago, Catapano said. Since then, the herd has grown exponentially — babies having babies having babies, she groaned lovingly — and now with nearly 100 does, bucks and kids, names have shifted almost entirely to numbers, and it’s nearly impossible to tell who’s who from a distance.

Especially when the majority of them are white.

“I try, I really do,” Catapano said. “Sometimes they’ll have a distinctive facial, maybe a little more hair, and of course we have collars and numbers on them. But to look at them at first glance and tell them apart? No. No way.”

The goats don’t take it personally. Their milk is still producing award-winning cheeses and a luxurious skin care line for Catapano and her husband, Michael, who bought the original 1-acre farm in Mattituck, and its random assortment of 18 goats, back in 2003.

Their current herd, which has increased five-fold, of mostly Saanens and Alpines now live on 5 acres in Peconic, and produce a certain quality of cheese that has a loyal following of farm stands, restaurateurs and chefs across both the North and South Forks—and for good reason, they say.

“One of the best things I’ve ever had out here — and I’ve been out here on and off for 15 years — is the Catapano goat feta,” raved Matty Boudreau, executive chef at Baron’s Cove in Sag Harbor. “I think you still have a degree of people who are weirded out just by the words ‘goat cheese,’ but people have been making this cheese for hundreds and hundreds of years. It’s time they caught on, and because of the well established ‘foodie movement,’ they are.”

Virtually unknown in the United States until the 1970s, goat milk cheese dates back to the ancient Greeks, when, according to legend, Zeus fed on goat’s milk, which made it the food of the gods. Prehistoric nomad hunters reportedly created the first goat cheeses around 7000 B.C. before the four-legged dairy producers adapted well to the Mediterranean, making them one of the first-ever animals to be domesticated by humans.

The style of cheeses known and loved today can be traced to 8th century France and the invasion of the Moors from Spain. When Charles Martel halted their advances, many of the Saracens remained in the area, raising their goats alongside French farmers in the Loire River Valley and — together over the course of a millennium — building a chèvre empire that still produces 70 percent of France’s goat cheese.

Thanks to California native Laura Chenel, goat cheese first made its way to the United States in the 1970s after she worked as an apprentice under longtime French cheesemakers. Laura Chenel’s Chèvre is still one of the biggest names in American goat cheese, and inspired dozens of producers to make their own versions.

Not all are created equal, Catapano said.

Beet salad with Catapano goat cheese by Chef Michael Rozzi of 1770 House in East Hampton.

“There’s a lot of really crappy goat cheese out there. Some of these places make it with powdered milk and it’s just awful,” she said. “And if they try that stuff once, they think in their head they really hate it. But they just haven’t had the right kind.”

When done well, classic chèvre should be smooth, creamy, lean and clean, with a depth and character that can be hard to describe. Nevertheless, Michael Rozzi tried.

“It definitely has that gamey, barnyard, interesting goat flavor to it, but in a really delicious way — sort of the flavor of the field and a wonderful grassiness and that tang,” said the chef at 1770 House in East Hampton. “There’s a signature tang, but it’s a cleansing tang. Sometimes cheeses from other milks can be weighty and can stay on your palate, whereas goat cheese is light and has this cleansing acidity to it. For some people it’s a little lemony, for some people it’s a little grassy. It depends on your palate.”

Rozzi — who has used Catapano Dairy cheeses on and off since the day they opened — will feature a number of the aged varieties on his cheese menu throughout the summer, while incorporating the chèvre into his grated raw beet and local carrot salad.

“Cooking in the Hamptons and doing it for quite a long time now, there’s one thing I know: we have a very savvy dining clientele. And because of that, I would say goat cheese was even overused here at some point,” he said. “But when you target local and artisanal, when the Catapanos and their goats bring it the way that they bring it, that’s what makes it really interesting and keeps it fresh and something I want to keep putting on a plate.”

The Catapano cheeses have followed Boudreau through four restaurants — “I’ve even played around with their soaps before,” he said — and he also incorporates the farm’s yogurt into a Ranch-like dipping sauce and frozen goat yogurt, he said. On the current, but ever-evolving, menu at Baron’s Cove, diners can sample Catapano chèvre on the asparagus goat cheese salad and, later in the season, inside the stuffed zucchini flowers.

“This cheese brings itself to the plate, so as a chef, we’re no better than our ingredients,” Boudreau said. “And it’s one that makes us better.”

Outside of the kitchen, it’s the emphasis on local that keeps Rozzi coming back, he said, and the relationship he has with the husband-and-wife team.

“The best part is there isn’t a middle man. Karen calls me, I order and it gets delivered straight from the farm. This is definitely the real experience,” Rozzi said. “It’s an art form, an expression of the cheese maker himself. It goes hand-in-hand with wine making. But it’s not just about what you put in your mouth. It’s about where it came from, how it was raised, what they ate. It conveys the whole history of the cheese itself, and from what I can tell, these are some very happy goats. They’re doing a beautiful thing at Catapano.”

Every day, the goats happily follow a set routine. Starting at 6:30 a.m., they are milked eight at a time by machine while they munch on grain at their feeding stations. Then, they meander between their outdoor feeding station, which is stocked with hay, and the fields before returning to the parlor for a second milking session at 4 p.m. that is open to the public.

Goats at Catapano Dairy Farm.

“Goats only give a small amount of milk — about 3/4 cup daily — so having 10 goats is like one cow,” Catapano explained. “We were entering competitions and my husband, who makes the cheese, was winning all these awards, so that’s why we grew the way we did.”

No matter the cheese variety — the farm currently produces eight — the rough equation is 1 gallon of milk to 1 pound of cheese, and the process always starts the same, Catapano said. The milk is first placed in a cooling tank before it’s moved to the pasteurizer, which uses steam and a low heat setting, she said.

“Then, the cultures and enzymes you add depends on what you’re gonna make,” she said. “Nobody really tells you a recipe on how to do it. You have to do it yourself.”

It is the challenge and a sense of freedom that makes running the dairy farm a true pleasure, Catapano said. Days are never the same twice, she said, and it doesn’t hurt that she’s constantly surrounded by the definition of cute—even if she can’t keep them straight.

“They’re just a lot of fun to watch,” she said. “They hop sideways, they love to leap, they like to play, they play with each other. They’re a fun animal. I didn’t know much about them before we got started, but they really are so adorable.”

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