oats produce better milk for cheese-making.
Until the middle of the 20th century, much of eastern Chester and western Delaware County was still covered in forest. While subdivision after subdivision has steadily encroached upon the region, traces of a more sylvan past still exist.
On a 1923 Radnor Hunt Club hunting map of the area, a bend in Ridley Creek in East Goshen Township is labeled Shellbark Hollow after the native Shellbark Hickory trees. Plenty of hickory trees remain in the hollow, including one prominent specimen in the midst of an animal pen.
Here, early on a warm summer evening, a brown Nubian goat rears up on his hind legs, sniffing at the leaves from the hickory tree. The goat, part of the small herd of dairy goats at the Shellbark Hollow Farm, ultimately declines to munch on the leaves.
"They're browsers," says Pete Demchur, owner and cheese-maker at Shellbark Hollow. "They just eat certain things, like the tops of the grasses in the pasture." Since Shellbark's goats receive plenty of "really nice Western alfalfa," they're apparently very picky about their pasturage.
Demchur has been raising goats on his 3.5-acre plot of land for more than 13 years but didn't start producing cheese commercially until 2002. While he's got deep restaurant experience in almost every position there is (he started as a busboy at 10), Demchur started experimenting with cheese-making only after he became comfortable raising the goats.
"The first thing in the business is the animals," says Demchur. Accordingly, all his part-time employees start by working in the barn like he did, then move on to specialize in different parts of the operation.
He started out with only two kids. Demchur needed to build up his herd before he could start making cheese, so he let nature take its course. Almost all the goats in the herd can trace their genetics back to those first two goats.
Depending on the animal, each milking goat will produce eight to 10 years of milk.
Demchur chose Nubians even though they're harder to maintain than other dairy breeds because they produce better quality milk. One tangible way the milk differs is butterfat content: While on average goat's milk is lower in butterfat than cow's milk, Nubians produce milk that on average contains more than 5 percent butterfat, higher than the 4.2 percent average for cows.
Richer milk means more flavorful milk, which ultimately leads to more exciting cheese.
In the years between establishing his herd and initiating commercial production, Demchur started experimenting with making cheese. A self-taught cheese-maker, he developed all his own recipes, learning everything by eye. Initially he listened to outside advice, which is why he has hundreds of dollars' worth of acid meters collecting dust in a back room.
Shellbark Hollow's chevre biscuits, available in 12-ounce rounds, flaunt a tart freshness that's absent in chevres sealed in nitrogen-flushed plastic bags and shipped from France or California. Shellbark Hollow's sharp goat cheese, a recipe developed by Demchur, is unique. Half-Italian, he was raised on provolone and so finds conventional chevre a little boring. His version ages two weeks before hitting the market; it works well in a salad in need of a little kick. Shellbark also makes several chevre spreads.
Shellbark Hollow Cheeses are available at Salumeria, the Fair Food Farmstand in Reading Terminal Market and Di Bruno Bros., among other retailers. They're also on menus at the White Dog Cafe and Maia in Villanova, among other restaurants.
Demchur scoffs at the idea that there's only one way to make cheese. "Everybody tries to be mainstream," he says. "My cheese is far left."
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