Dust billows behind the truck as we drive down a gravel road to Caromont Farm, where artisanal goat cheese is made every day. Pulling up to the house we are met by Bear, a large Great Pyrenees dog born with a pure white coat that is now orange after lying in the Virginia clay. He gives us a few barks before lumbering over with his tail wagging, sniffing our pants and leaning into our thighs. Up on the porch we barely get our boots off before being greeted by Gail Hobbs-Page with hugs and smiles. She laughs as she asks us to remind her why we’re there. This is a busy time on the farm and she was up for most of the night fighting the threat of predators. “I may cry at any minute ‘cause I’m pretty raw… You just don’t sleep! It’s like having 30 new babies.”
Caromont is a working farm. During kidding season, which begins at the end of February, there is a ridiculous amount of work to be done. Each night the pregnant goats must be checked on every three hours. Once the does begin freshening (birthing babies and therefore producing milk), Gail hopes that the baby goats aren’t rejected by their mothers. If they are, the newborns must be fed four to five times throughout the night by Gail. When all goes well, the babies stay with their moms until they are three days old, when they are pulled away so that the does can be milked. Milk is collected and processed twice a day and taken to the two cheese-makers. Then there’s the cheese-making itself, and the continued baby feeding, and the farm chores. And when there’s time, extra-curricular activities like gardening, canning, and prosciutto-making. “It’s just a crazy time of year. You have 30-40 [babies] depending on you for meals. You have 30 does you’re depending on for milk. If they don’t give milk you don’t make any cheese. And if you don’t make any cheese you don’t make any money.”
Gail and her husband started Caromont Farm fives years ago in Esmont, Virginia. After working as a chef for 25 years, Gail found herself disappointed with the quality of ingredients being used in the restaurants where she worked. She wanted to cook good food, and realized that she didn’t have to work in a restaurant to do that. It was a point in her life that required reinvention, and she knew that somehow goats would be involved. Her father gave Gail her first goats at a young age, and the memories she has of that time in her life are fond. Bringing tears to those of us at her table, she explains “I had goats as a kid… Once they get into your blood you can’t get [them] out. When you’re a kid and you have that really safe, fantastic memory…you always want to go back. That’s the wacky goat streak for me.”
We take a walk out to the pens, where three-day old baby goats greet us with wagging tails. Gail calls to them and they run to her, jumping up to her thighs and nuzzling their heads into her open hands. We learn that three-day old goats act like three-month old puppies, and five minutes in are ready to take a few home to our own back yards. Moving on to the three-week old babies, Gail demonstrates ‘play time’ by running around the yard with the herd following behind her. They think of her as their momma and she clearly adores them, calling them by name and explaining their lineage. “I knew your grandma!”, she says to one baby girl in her arms and plants a kiss on her nose.
“When you’re a kid and you have that really safe, fantastic memory…you always want to go back. That’s the wacky goat streak for me.”
Gail is happy with the progress of the farm these last five years, and is visualizing how she wants it to grow. She hopes to broaden her market and sell Caromont cheese across the country. “What started as this lofty ‘I can do this’ thing has become a cyclical, seasonal learning of what it is really like to make a living doing this. I am pleased… Especially for a woman who is just trying to go [back] to that happy, safe place she had with her dad.” She’s learned that it is a very rare thing to make money doing all of the work yourself. “You’ve got to separate the farming from the cheese-making. You need people focused on the quality of the milk and the cleanliness of the plant, and you need people focused on the health of the animals and the management of the does.” They are constantly experimenting with their cheese, but when it’s right, they stop. After five years, Gail feels that they’ve gotten their Esmontonian cheese to the perfect place. “It is the cheese that we’re going to make our mark with.”
Back in the kitchen, Gail pulls out a package of homemade, rosey prosciutto. It was aged for 17 months in her barn; the amount of time the Italians say it takes to create the highest-quality product. The hog was raised and killed on the farm, making this prosciutto very special to her. “This prosciutto – you could never buy this in a million years. This is the most special thing that we do.” Gail never views her animals as commodities, and feels a sense of duty to each one being raised at Caromont. “Farming is not just about food, it’s also about life and death. You’ve got two choices – you can avoid it or you can deal with it and strengthen yourself. Brace yourself for it. And then you really enjoy the quality of the food you produce.” Unfortunately for us, Gail doesn’t now nor ever plan to sell Caromont prosciutto. She does, however, recommend Surryano or Olli Salumeria for high-quality, local alternatives.
The composed salad Gail prepares for our lunch is a symphony of the best local ingredients available at that very moment: arugula from Double H Farm, prosciutto and cheese made at Caromont, a vinaigrette created using local fig jam from Jam According to Daniel. In the spring there is so much work to do that there is not much time left to eat. Simple dishes, using what is available on or around the farm, grace the table between goat feedings and milking. But no matter how simple, Gail’s creations are thought through and balanced. “You have to think about the harmony of the flavor profile of the [ingredients] that are going together.”
“What we do here daily is bring this level of craft and food and farming together… It’s a combination of necessity and seasonality. This is the way we eat.”