Food For Thought

Dover Hill Creamery

August 1, 2023
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Dover Hill Creamery is located at the top of the beautiful hills of East Dover. Peter, Sara, and Liz Honig live there and raise Nigerian Dwarf goats, and make rich, creamy artisanal cheeses from their milk. Sara and Peter are Liz’s parents, and the three of them, plus Liz’s fiancé, moved there in 2018 after falling in love with goats. At their previous home in Concord, MA, they raised goats as pets, and Liz loved caring for them so much that she took some higher education courses in dairy farming and cheesemaking. She is now the resident goat midwife and animal husbandry expert, Peter is the cheesemaker, and Sara delivers their cheeses to the small group of area shops that carry their products. But all three of them are deeply engaged with their herd — they all know each goat’s name and history and personality, and seem to consider them members of the family.

Goats are known to be smarter than dogs. They’re all different — each one has a unique character and personality that is apparent immediately upon introduction. And, like dogs, they know their own names and respond, if a bit indifferently, when called. Some, like Ivory, are so sweet they’ll nuzzle their head to your leg in easily-won affection. Others just try to nibble your hand or eat your pants. But all of them, even the bucks who were entering their “summer rut” when I visited, were kind and communicative.

Dover Hill Creamery is unusual in their choice of breed. The smaller size and lower milk yield of Nigerian Dwarf goats makes them an uncommon choice for goat dairies, but the higher fat content of their milk (9%), as well as the higher protein content, results in richer, creamier cheeses, and that’s what Dover Hill creates.

Quality is the top priority for the Honigs, and that starts with the quality of life for their goats. After they’re born, the kids are kept with their mothers for five weeks, which is significantly longer than many dairies’ practices. After five weeks, the kids spend half the day with mom and half the day apart. But as the kids become adults, the family ties are not forgotten. They may not need to nurse any longer, but they all know who each other are. At one point during my visit, I was surrounded by three generations: mother, child, and grandmother.

The herd is fed a nutritious diet; the bulk of it is made up of hay, but lots of other specialized feeds support their wellbeing, too, which also makes for better products. Milk that comes from goats eating a healthy, high protein diet is healthier and higher in protein (go figure!). Having the process of cheesemaking take place entirely onsite, from birth to brie, it’s easy to make the connection between the lives of the animals we get food from, the quality of the food those animals produce, and how that food can enrich the lives of the humans who eat it.

One of the special things about goat’s milk is that it is almost universal in its digestibility for mammals. Liz told me that they once got an after-hours call from a woman who had rescued a baby raccoon —  she needed fresh goat milk to feed it because it was the only thing it could eat besides mother’s milk. Many people who are sensitive to other animal milks are able to enjoy goat milk without issues. Why? Because the fat globules are smaller and it contains higher levels of medium-chain fatty acids, and the combination of those two things results in it being easier on our tummies.

Another thing that’s clear when viewed through the small scale of Dover Hill, where the goats are raised and milked, and where cheese is made all under the same roof, is the reasoning behind the basic physical structure of a working creamery. The first section is the barn, where the goats live and play. The milking parlor is attached to the barn, where the dams are excited to go once a day to eat the most delectable foods while they’re being milked. All of the milk is pumped into a fairly small stainless steel vessel (each of the 28 dams they are currently milking produces about one quart a day), and brought into the milk house where it is then filtered and cooled.

The Dover Hill milk house is a very small, very clean room where the milk, once filtered, is kept at a low temperature for freshness. A small stainless steel door built into the wall opens to another door, which opens into the cheesemaking room. The two doors are never opened at the same time, thereby preventing any cross contamination or pests from entering the cheese room.

The cheese room is yet cleaner than the milk house room — it’s completely spotless, and Peter, with his lab coat, hair net, and booties, looked like a scientist in a lab rather than a rustic farmer. But this is where all that delicious mold is growing! During my visit, on one rack lay a number of small bries which had been shaped into discs and covered in black ash the day before — they were completely dark, the color of charcoal. The wheels that Peter removed from the cheese cave (which in this case is a walk-in fridge kept at 54 degrees with high humidity) had been exactly like these ash-covered wheels a week prior, and they now had a beautifully delicate layer of white fuzz rising from the surface.

This is probably the seventh cheese​maker I’ve visited in my career here at the Co-op writing these articles, and more than any other, Dover Hill has embraced the regulatory landscape of cheesemaking and dairy farming in Vermont. The highly specific temperatures, times, and record-keeping requirements help ensure that their cheeses are safe to eat, and Peter considers the Vermont Department of Agriculture to be a wonderful partner to work with. His previous career was as an engineer: he worked at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, developing software to recognize objects on the ocean floor. His engineer’s mind has been put to good use in his new vocation, in coming up with systems to align with the state’s guidance, and in his appreciation of the language of numbers and data. You can always be sure that Dover Hill’s cheeses are safe!

But anyways, back to the goats. They’re the heart and soul of Dover Hill Creamery, and they seem not to mind the responsibility. Peter, Liz, and Sara, and their two part-time employees Cassie and Sean, keep the herd happy, healthy, and surrounded by the social connections and freedom they need to live fulfilling lives.

Come try some Dover Hill Creamery cheese for yourself!  Thursday, Aug. 17 from 1:30-3:30 pm.

By Ruth Garbus