Arlene Brokaw: Inspired Farming
Posted on June 25th, 2012
More important than striving for perfection is to “keep your cool, be confident in what you do know to solve problems down the road… It sounds like good advice, but I still freak out.”
Arlene Brokaw, head cheesemaker at Olde Oak Farm, has a wisdom acquired only with experience and many mistakes. As we waited in the cheesemaking facility for the starter culture to work its acidifying magic on the milk, Arlene explained to me that during her first few years on the farm, she could not focus on the cheese, on the greater result. She had been too afraid of messing up. This is Arlene’s fourth season up in Maxfield, Maine, 45 minutes north of Bangor, and while she is still learning about how to make great cheese, anyone could be fooled because she exudes ease in her element.
Olde Oak Farm is a small operation hosting approximately sixty goats with twenty-two in milk production this year. When I visited the farm two and a half years ago, they were milking each goat by hand. Today, milking is more efficient with one portable machine able to milk two goats at a time. Each goat’s udder is cleaned, stripped for a visible check of milk quality, and hooked up to the “claw” to suction the milk directly into the portable tank. Then, as the volume of milk pumped decreases to a trickle, the claw is removed and each goat is hand milked to the last drop. This is to ensure all the milk is carefully removed from the udders to limit the risk of mastitis, an infection of the mammary glands.
All the milk from Olde Oak’s goats is sent directly to the cheesemaking facility not 100 feet from the milking parlor. The facility is a small cabin, fitted with plastic milkboard walls and ceiling, sinks, shelves, a walk-in cooler, and of course a cheese vat. Much of the milk is transformed into fresh, lactic goat cheese (also known as ‘chèvre’), sometimes mixed with herbs and spices, and sold in 5-ounce containers at farmer’s markets across Maine. Other times, the milk is made into aged cheeses similar to the ash-coated Saint Maure logs and into small Camemberts. To supplement their herd’s milk, Arlene also transforms purchased cow and sheep milks to make a Boursin-like fresh cheese and aged cheeses comparable to Manchego and Saint Nectaire.
While I appreciated every one of their cheeses I tasted, there was one cheese preparation I found particularly surprising and delectable. This was a specialty I savored – and wished to stuff my face with – because it was flat out delicious. Simply, it was plain fresh goat cheese stuffed in small, round red peppers. The crunchy, slightly spicy, slightly sweet pepper, melded with the creamy, tangy, soothing goat cheese, makes my mouth water even when I’m not hungry. I wondered about them as I was helping prepare the cheeses for market, and Arlene suggested I have a taste. I popped a whole one in my mouth and felt the colorful explosion of contrasting flavors invade my senses. How had I not known about the pepper-cheese combination? Where could I find a regular stash of those bright, adorable red peppers? I brought a 5-ounce container of the pepper-cheese dish home with me and, I can say without hesitation, I regret sharing it with my family.
Arlene Brokaw originally came to Olde Oak Farm to learn how to care for goats, how to make cheese, and how to run a farm. As a former journalist, she wanted to move away from writing about all the cool stuff people do, to actually being the one to do those great things. Arlene’s favorite cheeses to make are not the pepper-cheese morsels of goodness but Tomme and Manchego (and her favorite to eat is Camembert). However, more than any cheese, her heart is tied most closely to the goats. She is extremely attached to every member of the herd and is anxious for the day she must leave the farm to move closer in the direction of running her own business. Olde Oak is successful in bringing delicious hand-made cheeses to its community, but Arlene aspires to save up enough to take a loan out for equipment and lease land to start her own farm.
While I get the sense that the other members of Olde Oak will desperately miss their head cheesemaker and friend, I know that such a deep commitment to a place will be carried with her wherever she goes. And even if she does not continue to make chèvre-filled pepper bites, I know she will keep her cool in the cheeseroom. Thanks to Arlene’s down-to-earth words of advice and humble attitude, I have managed to calm my own apprehensions about cheesemaking and keep going in my business plans. I know that my cheese will not be perfect, especially at the beginning, but as long as I strive to improve and look at the big picture, I can succeed. I only wish for Arlene the kind of inspiration she gave to me the few days I was making cheese with her at Olde Oak Farm.