German goat cheese with a French flair
An exciting day at Petra Elsen's cheese manufactory - learning all about cheese making in a countryside village in Germany.
If you thought that the best goat cheese can only be found in France, then you have to taste Petra Elsen’s goat cheese variations. She produces her top-class certified organic ‘Hommerdinger’ goat cheese with the milk of her ‘white German goats’.
For more than 25 years, Petra is making her cheese with a wonderfully finely flavored and creamy melt purely by handwork. The names of some varieties such as Chevre Noire, Buchette or Chevrette show where Petra learned her cheese making craft: in Poitou-Charentes in western France – a region with a goat cheese tradition.
The perfect goat cheese – with which recipe?
Petra smiles at this question, but then she gets emotional:
“Yes – there are instructions, and it sounds very simple. I always say: you must have it in your blood and ‘burn’ for it! Adapting the individual work steps or at what temperature the milk curdles best today, that is not included in recipes. In the end I make the decision with the experience I gathered over the years, and I trust my gut feeling.”
And that’s exactly what Petra uses for the past years to make her delicious cheese. She started with her cheese production when goat cheese was not yet popular in Germany. Delicacy and ‘slow food’ are not the trend words in the 1990ties. In the German countryside there is still the prejudice that the goat is the cow for the ‘poor people’.
What are the important parts of making cheese?
The most important ingredient is the natural milk from Petra’s happy goats. Her 100 goats find their feed on the herb-rich meadows of the Eifel. A big part of this region is protected by the German National Park status. In the evening her goats get an extra portion of organic food. The goats are milked in the barn early in the morning before they venture out into the meadow again. Almost every day, 200 litres of milk are processed into cheese. The first step is to warm up the milk to a certain temperature in the big steel kettle, then to slightly cool down. Thirdly the necessary cheese culture and rennet are added to the pasteurized milk and filled into large milk containers. There the milk curdles within the next 24 hours.
True handwork in the manufactory!
The next day, the thickened milk is carefully scooped into the various moulds by hand, ladle by ladle. Petra uses her ‘tartlet’ shapes and the tapering rolls for her cheese varieties a la francaise – based on the above sour milk cheese process. After 24 hours, the moulds are overthrown. The cheese is now firm and will keep its shape. The cheeses can continue to mature on the grids and develop their milk mould over the next days.
The process of thickening the milk into the curd is different for Petra’s semi-hard cheese, the ‘feta’ cheese, cream cheese, and other varieties. The curd looks more like a grainy cream cheese and is still very sweet in taste. The acidification does not occur here until the next few days. Further maturation for the different varieties takes place in a maturation bag or in a specially temperature-controlled maturation chamber.
A dream job in the countryside?!
If you think: Wow, what a fulfilling job with animals and processing your own cheese! Then please ask Petra for an internship. This manual work is also backbreaking work and that every day. Her goats don’t go on vacation, they want to be fed and milked every day. They get sick sometimes too. Or the little goat babies are not accepted by their mother and have to be bottle-fed. Sometimes the animals find a hole in the fence and are suddenly everywhere. Or one of the billy goats is very stubborn once again.
Yes – more work to be done?!
The stable must be cleaned, straw and fodder have to be stored and the workshop rooms of the manufactory have to be cleaned every day. It takes muscle strength and endurance. Petra is really not a giant and when she repeatedly turns her 36 fully filled forms around in the square, she notices her back and shoulders in the evening! She has help from her 3 part-time employees. But if someone is sick, Petra has to work 80 hours or more that week.
Why did a young female farmer in the 1990s decide to start a goat cheese manufactury?
Petra grows up as the daughter of a ‘Wish to be’ farmer. Her father does not inherit a farm or receives his compulsory portion, which is the case in the Eifel region after the Napoleonic occupation. So, in the 1930s he trains as a farmer. Petra’s mother owns a farmhouse but no land. Gradually they buy additional land and with their 10 cows, a pig and a couple of chickens they are a small farm like so many other farms in this region. Her father sticks to his dream job and Petra already at an early age helps him with the farm work.
Family tradition – or renewal? What is the next step?
“His passion really impressed and shaped me. I always knew – I’ll be a farmer! My older brother, who is the traditional heir, then studied mechanical engineering. So, after graduating from high school in 1985, I started my Agricultural College straight away. We were 16 men and 4 women in the first year. None of the other women were taller than me. When we came up with our feminist approach, all we heard from the boys was: don’t make a ‘dwarf’ uprising!”
Petra laughs about these memories. Well, her sense of humor and confidence that she can handle anything helps her to realize her own dream. Her father supports her at a time when many small farms in the Eifel are closing. As everywhere in Germany they cannot withstand the competition from the big ‘industrial’ farms.
“My father always told me that I can do everything just as well as a man! But that didn’t always help me. Sometimes it would have been better if I had questioned more things, or planned a larger overview. Less emotions and more realism would have helped sometimes better with my business!”
What do the cow and the goat have in common?
Who knows? When Petra talks about cows and goats, you can see her enthusiasm. Both animals are ruminants and produce milk. But a cow can produce over 10,000 liters of milk and more per year, while a goat only produces 600-800 liters on average.
“In the beginning, my love belonged to the cows – I really wanted to do the milking. But I knew I couldn’t handle a cow physically! I had the experience from my parents’ farm. The cow is just too big and too heavy for me as a woman. I didn’t want to be dependent on a man who would support me physically.”
But then why the goat? The ‘poor’ people’s cow?
This is a question that Petra avoids for the time being. But then her answer comes very surely. “I really have to say how it was: it just flew to me. An angel whispered it in my ear.”
With this inspiration she plans the next steps. Petra wants her goats to graze and be out in the meadow. Milk from happy goats is her motto. The smaller milking parlour for goats fits perfectly into the old stables on her parents stable. Petra researches and finds the few goat farmers in the area through the goat breeding association. Furthermore, she also finds a cheesemaker and attends her first ‘cheese making’ course in Austria.
‘To take to the road’ – in search of the perfect goat cheese!
At age 25 Petra decides that it is time to step out of her home village. Emancipation is the key word also regarding her parents. ‘To take to the road’ is a term from the old days when young journey men travelled throughout Germany to gain life & working experience. Her first position is with a big farm on the Lower Rhine area. But she only gets to do the dirty stable work – not a trace of learning. She leaves her employer and during the wintertime she has to take up work in a factory. Next, she finds a new challenge – a job at a monastery. The head monk asks her to set up the goat farming and cheese dairy there. Unfortunately, the project is stopped after a short time and Petra searches again for a new job and position.
The lucky step: finding Joel & Patrique in France
She remembers her vacation in France near the Atlantic coast, where she saw so many goats. At the time she doesn’t know that the Poitou is one of the biggest cheeses making area in France. With the address list from the French goat breeding association, she finds an internship in an agro-industrial company. That over 1400 goats are bred and milked almost in a factory like style is totally new to her. The owner’s daughter tells her after a trip in the county side that she has eaten the most tasteful goat cheese in a small village.
“It was immediately clear to me: If someone who grew up with goat cheese still talks so enthusiastically about a piece of cheese, then I have to learn from the owner the art of cheese making. So, I went to the fromagerie of Joel & Patrique and asked for an internship. It was quite a challenge to understand everything about their cheese making process- with only 2 years of school French. But there was an immediate connection between us. They loved farming as much as I did.”
Once back at her parents’ farm in Germany she shapes her own recipes with the French cheese making knowledge in mind. Through her years of experience and her love for goat cheese Petra develops new cheese variations in the upcoming years – well still up today. There is no standing still for her. She very much loves what she does.
Blow of fate – and now?
During the mid 1990ties Petra builds up her cheese manufactory step by step on her parents’ farm – using the old stables and buildings. She gains a steadily growing circle of customers who appreciate and purchase her organic goat cheese.
Then one night in April 2015, almost the entire farm burns down within a few hours. An unexplained spark from a piece of equipment sets fire to the stables and the cheese dairy so quickly that the fire department can only save the old farmhouse of her mother. Fortunately, the goats are rescued in the nearby pasture. The magnitude and tragedy of the disaster hits Petra totally unexpected. This leads to Petra’s physical and emotional exhaustion. It takes her more than a year to decide for herself whether she wants to venture a new start. After all, she is no longer in her late twenties.
Close to home – does that pay off as a cheese manufacturer?
How do I market and sell a product that can only be experienced through physical consumption? This question is a challenge or thread for small manufactories. Petra’s goats have a good life on the lush meadows in the Eifel. But her farm is too far away from potential customers in the big cities. But Petra accepts the challenge and rebuilds her cheese manufactory.
Do you have a wish for the future?
Even though Petra looks as if she is quite relaxed about her craft, she is emotionally moved by many things that concern the future of her manufactory.
“Every day is so packed, sometimes even 24 hours are not enough to manage everything. I know that I have to make more efforts in marketing and selling my delicious goat cheese! I can see with other farm businesses that the input is now coming from the younger generation. The young people have other ideas and possibilities. That would be good here now, too.”
“Also, I would love to take a vacation again! But how? Well, thinking about it, I have everything in the Eifel region that makes my heart happy. The unspoiled nature, my goats, and a job where I can see every day what I have created with my own hands. And my Bulldog, the tractor, I drive it sometimes for fun. It was the first piece of equipment I saved the night everything burned down.”
German countryside cheese tradition – newly interpreted!
Petra’s delicious ‘cooked’ goat cheese goes well with many dishes
Petra has changed her grandma’s recipe with the ingredient of her goat cheese. Until the 1960s, cooked cheese is the ‘normal’ cheese in her countryside region. There is a simple reason for this. Butter and cooked cheese have a longer shelf life than pure milk. A great advantage in this time. The fat of the cow’s milk is skimmed off to make butter. The skimmed milk flocculates after 1 day and the drained cream cheese is dried in a cloth bag placed in the cupboard. This raw mixture then becomes quite glassy – like a typical low calories German ‘Harzer’ cheese.
“My grandma used to boil the cooked cheese again with milk, butter and spices. This spread was eaten on a loaf of bread. I use my ripe Buchette and boil it up with a little milk until it dissolves. Sealed airtight, my cooked goat cheese will keep for several months.”
Here is the easy recipe:
Heat up 1 tablespoon of Petra’s cooked goat cheese in a little bit of milk. Stirr the cheese sauce to the finished cooked spaghetti, add black pepper + fresh herbs. Serve with a salad and a glass of red wine from France or Germany. It is a little vacation treat at home!
Name: Petra Elsen
State-certified farmer, goat owner, cheesemaker, farm shop operator
She can be found:
in Hommerdingen, a very small village in the ‘Eifel’ a beautiful countryside near Luxembourgh, north of the german city Trier which has a rich heritage of roman ruins from around 100 A.C.
doing her daily work in peace, chatting with nice people from time to time, France and Switzerland, getting to know other countries
She finds that:
Barbara Streisand and Nina Simone are extraordinary women with a special charisma
Her WIASOLA tip:
Less emotion more realism is sometimes a better advisor in the decision-making process
Her favorite songs:
- Simply Red – ‚Holding back the years‘
- Carole King – ‘You’ve got a friend’
Soon to be found under:
A short clip about Petra’s work:
ZIEGENHOF PETRA ELSEN
Nusbaumer Str. 4
54675 Hommerdingen – Germany
Telefon: (0049) 6522 1027
Farm shop – opening hours:
Monday – Saturday 9-13 o’clock
More informationen about Petra and her cheese: