Great Cheese by Pure LuckSweethardt Loves Her Goats
While most of Texas is on central time, Amelia Sweethardt and the rest of the small crew at Pure Luck Dairy in Dripping Springs run on goat time. The nearly 100 Nubian and Alpine goats on the 11-acre spread call all the shots.
"They decide when we're going to get up in the morning and when we're going to go to bed at night," Sweethardt explains. "Everything here revolves around the animals."
And while goat time isn't very precise, it's always reliable. The does at Pure Luck are going to need to be milked twice a day virtually every day of the year. Sweethardt gets a break in the winter between New Year's and Easter while her goats are bearing and suckling their babies, but the rest of the year Pure Luck is a busy place producing as much as 600 pounds of award-winning goat cheese every week during the height of summer.
Sweethardt makes chevre, bleu, feta, Claire de Lune, Sainte Maure and Del Cielo cheese. The basket-molded chevre (French for goat) is the biggest seller and has won numerous awards for the family-owned dairy founded by Sweethardt's mother, Sara Sweetser.
Raised in San Luis Obispo in the heart of California's agricultural region, Sweetser took to farming like an old hand, and when she met and married Denny Bolton, a third- generation nurseryman, it wasn't surprising her home garden grew into something more.
Pure Luck Dairy Gets Its NameSara chose the name "Pure Luck" even though there was much more than luck involved when the husband-and-wife operation was certified by the Texas Department of Agriculture as one of the first organic farms in the state in 1988.
The family's initial commercial crop was cucumbers they sold to Whole Foods Market. They added organically grown herbs and cut flowers to the mix in the early '90s and the farm took off from there.
Sara had been milking her small herd of goats and making farmhouse cheese all that time. And in 1995 she made the decision to go commercial with her dairy. She stepped up production and applied for a grade A goat dairy permit. Today, the business is split down the middle between organic herbs and natural cheeses.
Amelia eventually left home, but not for long. When her mother invited her back to help run the family business, the natural-born farm girl took her up on it.
"Mom wasn't from a farming family but she really took to it. And I've been milking goats my whole life," Sweethardt explains. "She was one of those people who was just uncompromising about quality. That's where our foundation comes from.
"She instilled that in all of her kids. That's why our product is so good. We just don't cut corners. If something's not right, we stop everything and figure out why. Then we fix it. We're not willing to settle for anything less than the very best."
No one could have known if the small farm was going to be successful. What started out as a herd of 12 goats grew to 24 and Amelia, who had only planned to help her mom for a year or so, found herself hooked on the farming life. "Mom and I had a lot of fun together and we really worked well together."
Amelia, a process person, ran the business while her mother did the farming. With Sara's death in 2005, Amelia became president of the family business. "The business grew because Mom had me and I had her. We were a good team. My sister Claire works here now making the cheese. We're still a family business, although by Texas cheese-making standards, we're considered pretty big. Outside of Texas we're considered pretty small."
There isn't a typical day, according to Sweethardt. A normal production cycle begins once enough milk has been collected to process a batch of cheese. The milk is first pasteurized before a mesophilic culture is added to start the acid production that gives the cheese its flavor. Rennet is used to create the curds that eventually become cheese.
"A fresh chevre is a very soft curd," explains Sweethardt, "almost like yogurt. We put the curds in molds called baskets. They're sort of like colanders, with holes in them so the whey can drain out and the curds can solidify. Our chevres are all fresh. If we make them on Monday they're shipped to the stores on Thursday."
That commitment to freshness and quality is why Pure Luck cheeses are only available seasonally. When there’s no milk, there's no cheese.
"We could stockpile our cheese and dole it out during the offseason. People do that sort of thing to bridge the gap. You can also stagger the breeding and have a constant supply of milk," says Sweethardt. "There’s frozen curd on the market and frozen milk or even frozen cheese. Any of those practices are common and perfectly acceptable, but we kind of like having a break. It gives us time to do repairs around the farm and have a little down time.
"I learned my first year in the business that you have to cover Christmas. You have to have product available during the holidays. The retailers who support us all year can't be left high and dry during that time of year. Not having cheese available during the holidays is not funny. So we make sure we're in production through December, but then we take a little time off and let the goats rest."
Sweethardt says she'd have to make some hard choices if she wanted to grow her business, something she's not in a hurry to do.
"People are into local products and eating and living in the season. We're fortunate that we've had the same retailers for a long time and they understand the seasonal aspect of fresh cheese. Our customers are used to it and they roll with it. I'm pretty happy with things the way they are right now.
"As long as we keep making good cheese and people keep appreciating it, we're probably going to keep doing it this way. We're very lucky to get to do what we do."
Stuffed Chicken Breasts with Ragu of Mushrooms, Jerusalem Artichokes and Olives
Mix the goat cheese, herbs and lemon zest together in a small bowl and season to taste with salt and pepper. Stuff each breast with a quarter of the filling and then close the pocket with a toothpick. Season breasts with additional salt and pepper and set aside, refrigerated, until serving time.
To Prepare the Ragu:
Sauté the artichokes in two tablespoons of butter over high heat until lightly browned, about one minute. Set aside.
Wipe out pan and sauté mushrooms in 2 tablespoons each of olive oil and butter until lightly browned. Add mushrooms to the artichokes, along with the olives and parsley and set aside.
Heat the remaining butter and olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium high heat and place the breasts skin side down in the pan. Sauté for 5 minutes or so or until skin is golden brown and crisp. Turn and cook for an additional 4 to 5 minutes or until cooked through and firm to the touch. Remove breasts and keep warm.
Pour fat from pan and, over high heat, add the stock, wine and lemon juice. Bring to a boil, scraping up any brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Cook over high heat, stirring frequently, until mixture is reduced and beginning to thicken.
Add Ragu (the vegetables), taste for salt and pepper and warm through. Place breasts on warm plates, top with Ragu mixture and serve immediately.
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