They’re Not Kidding Around

Hawai‘i’s goat cheese producers are bringing home kudos.


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Chèvre, a pure white, mild, creamy cheese made from goats' milk (chèvre means goat in French), has been the darling of many a chef for more than a dozen years. It's found its way onto salad plates, inside quesadillas with kalua pig and sprinkled on top of pizzas. Production of this versatile, healthy cheese is on the rise as demand increases among chefs and consumers. Now, goat cheese is garnering attention for Hawai'i, as our Island chèvre producers win awards at the American Cheese Society competitions.

Chèvre was first produced on the Big Island in 1991 by Steven and Karin Sayres, located in Kurtistown. Their brand, Puna Goat Cheese, quickly became popular among Hawai'i Regional Cuisine chefs, but production ceased in 2000. The Sayres sold their herd of goats to Thomas Kafsack, a former software engineer from Germany, and his wife, Eva, a former high school German teacher. They established Surfing Goat Dairy at Öma'opio, Maui, in 2002, after learning about cheese making in Europe. The dairy about 200 goats grazing on 42 acres, producing 50 pounds of cheese a day. Surfing Goat Dairy offers Udderly Delicious, its plain chèvre brand, as well as feta (a brine-soaked cheese) and dozens of flavored varieties. This year, four of its flavored cheeses won awards in the American Cheese Society competition.

“French Dream” goat cheese with herbs from Surfing Goat Dairy. Photo: Olivier Koning

Dick and Heather Threlfall keep a herd of a hundred goats in Ähualoa on the Big Island. The 10-acre farm, a former macadamia orchard, also has bamboo, ti, ginger and pasture grass.

Heather, a nurse by training from Kailua, O'ahu, had a lifelong dream to make cheese. She started with a big, gentle Jersey cow that gave lots of milk. "But it was too big and intimidating," says Dick Threlfall, who is no wimp around animals-he shod horses for 37 years. They brought in some goats from the Mainland and Heather experimented, making cheese for friends for 10 years, before the couple decided to get serious about a goat dairy in 2001.

"Our plan was to make a cheese that chefs wanted: a soft, mild, consistent product," explains Threlfall. Big Island Goat Cheese-350 pounds a week-comes plain and in five flavors as well as in a feta. In 2003, the Threlfall's plain, creamy-style cheese placed second in the American Cheese Society's competition.

Steve Sayre and his girlfriend, "Lava" Stacey, are resurrecting Puna Goat Cheese, producing chèvre, queso fresco (a white, fresh, Mexican-style cheese) and feta and building their herd in Kurtistown. It will take a few years, but plans are to eventually produce a cheddar and a brie.

On Kaua'i, the Wooten family tends a herd of 35 goats on 3 acres near Kïlauea and produces about 120 pounds of cheese each week. At their Kunana Dairy, they add guava, mango and liliko'i to the creamy chèvre, or marinate it with sun-dried tomatoes and herbs. They also produce a crumbled feta.

"We've had goats longer than we have had children," says Louisa Wooten, who grew up tending angora goats in Texas. Her sons, now 21 and 15, help with the milking chores each day. "It's a big commitment to do a dairy. It's twice a day, every day, 24-seven. It works when you have a family to help out."

"I buy all I can from Louisa," says Todd Oldham, executive chef of the Princeville Resort, Kaua'i. "The cheese has an intense but clean flavor. It's very, very versatile and pairs well with vegetables, especially eggplant, beets, tomatoes. I use it in cream sauces and make ice cream with it."

Peter Merriman, who was one of the first chefs to use Island goat cheese (at his Merriman's Restaurant in Kamuela on the Big Island), explains that, in general, chèvre has a distinctive flavor that balances well with many other flavors. "It goes well with onions, contrasts nicely with the richness of olives and you can sweeten it for a dessert."

Culinary attributes aside, goat's milk is far superior nutritionally to cow's milk and is more easily digested by humans, claims Wooten. While chefs and consumers enjoy the delicious cheese from goats, farmers enjoy the goats themselves, citing their playful personalities and responsiveness. "Goats are the smartest animals I know," says Kafsack. "They learn their names in two weeks, they are clean, they don't need a lot of acreage. You can't get attached to cows like this."

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