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Jane Ciabattari on the Delights of the Rural Life
Posted on Jul 9, 2009
In the fall, Raskin writes, “Apples ripened in abundance, and all the other fall fruits tumbled down too: pomegranates, persimmons, and pears, all of which I ate profusely, with Fanny’s Café Granola, or with blue cheese from the Cowgirl Creamery, or all by themselves.” “Field Days” is a skeptic’s journey, making its discoveries all the more potent.
Kessler, author of the moving novel “Birds in Fall,” which begins when a plane falls from the sky off the coast of a remote island in Nova Scotia, is a recipient of the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Whiting Writers’ Award.
“Goat Song” is, Kessler writes, the story of his first years with dairy goats. “A story about what it’s like to live with animals who directly feed you. I tell of cheese and culture and agriculture, but also of the rediscovery of a pastoral life.” We have forgotten how much of everyday culture derives from a lifestyle of herding hoofed animals, he writes, “from our alphabet to our diet to elements of our economy and poetry.”
By Jonah Raskin
University of California Press, 344 pages
By Brad Kessler
Scribner, 256 pages
“Goat Song” also is a novelist’s revel, replete with goat sex (yes, graphic descriptions), birth, milking, weaning, herding, and the complex and yeasty process of making cheese from the raw milk of the goats you milk. This memoir impresses most when Kessler records the quotidian in all its mystery and beauty. He records in lyrical terms his sheer love of being in the company of his herd, and moments of sheer hedonism. The first taste of his own home-made fresh chevre, for instance.
“It tasted like nothing we’d ever eaten before—a custard, a creamy pudding, the cheese so young and floral it held within its curd the taste of the grass and herbs the goat had been eating the day before. It seemed we were eating not a cheese, but a meadow.”
Later, he and his wife sample three small cakes of his initial attempts at aged chevre, the first covered with chives, the second with pepper. “Then we unmolded a third and poured a pool of honey over the cake and ate it like a dessert, with spoons.”
Kessler turns serious about his cheese-making. He travels to the Ferme de Rouze in the Pyrenees, a village whose terroir seems most compatible with his flinty Vermont location, and studies with a French master who gives him the protocol, step by step. As he leaves, he writes, “I knew at last what kind of cheese I’d make back in Vermont … a cheese made from goats and clouds, humility and mountain air.”
By book’s end, he takes a sample of his handcrafted cheese into an artisanal restaurant in New York, where the fromager declares it “herbaceous,” “grassy,” “very good.” (The East Coast equivalent of the San Francisco menu’s notation: “Oak Hill’s mixed heirloom tomatoes with queso fresco.”)
In these fresh, impassioned reports from the fields, Raskin and Kessler remind us that the farming renaissance has been rooting in this country for decades. Indeed, the connection between humans and growing things—plants, animals—is a bedrock we ignore at our peril. Their explorations, eloquently reported, remind us, too, of the simple pleasures of growing things, of herding, of re-entering the natural landscape so thoroughly that human concerns regain their proper scale.
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