Bloomsdale, Mo., goat cheese makers doing what they love

Monday, July 28, 2008

BLOOMSDALE, Mo. -- Steve and Veronica Baetje work either end of a milking platform, alternately coaxing their goats from the barn and blocking the door to avoid a traffic jam.

"Come on, girls!" Veronica Baetje calls, but then Steve Baetje has to shut the passageway quickly as the surging goats remember that there's feed in the baskets on the other side of the rail. When these eight goats are finished, they get verbal encouragement -- and the occasional shove -- to leave the platform and make room for the next group.

Twice a day, seven days a week, the Baetjes get about a gallon of milk from each of the 43 adult females in their herd. The milk, drawn by a vacuum pump and sent to large stainless steel cans, is carried one room away. There it's passed through a filter into another, larger collector can that chills the milk to less than 40 degrees -- the first step in producing the four cheeses sold under the Baetje Farms label at the Soulard, Clayton and Kirkwood farmers markets and to restaurants, gourmet food stores and wineries in St. Louis and Ste. Genevieve, Mo.

Baetje Farms produces about 200 pounds of cheese a week, 10 months a year. In January and February, the milk goes to feed the newborn kids.

After milking the goats, Veronica Baetje returns to the cheesemaking facility, an addition that her husband built onto their 1910-vintage barn. Today's task is molding the curds for Coeur du Clos, a Camembert-like cheese shaped like a heart.

"I make it that way because I love what I do," she said.

Cheryl Vines, a neighbor and employee, helps pour off some of the liquid whey from the solid curds. Next, they pour the curds into heart-shaped molds.

Then comes the cleanup. "Just about as much work goes into the cleanup of the equipment, if not more, as it does into making the cheese," Veronica Baetje said.

When the curds are unmolded, they are moved to one of several windowless cooling rooms designed to reproduce the conditions in an aging cave, where the addition of benign bacteria causes the cheeses to develop thin rinds. Veronica Baetje sprinkles the rinds with ash that she imports from France, partly out of tradition and partly, she said, because it helps stabilize the pH level in the cheese. Because Coeur de Clos is made from unpasteurized milk, it must be aged for 60 days before it can be sold.

Veronica Baetje dresses in a simple long cotton dress and wears a white bonnet known as a coif, while her husband wears a collarless long-sleeve shirt, suspenders and trousers. The Baetjes are Mennonite, and they dress plainly in accordance with the practice of some members of that denomination.

But their 19th-century appearance didn't impede them from implementing leading-edge technology. For example, the aging rooms are cooled with a custom-designed chilled-water circulator. "It lets us regulate heat and humidity without fans blowing," Steve Baetje said. Temperature and humidity monitors are installed in the facility, and a laptop computer sits on a counter.

"And I've got about five alarms set in my cell phone telling me when to turn the cheese or take a pH reading," Veronica Baetje said.

In addition to Coeur de Clos, Baetje Farms makes Coeur de la Creme, a fresh cheese packaged plain or flavored with fruits or herbs; Fleur de la Vallee, a semihard, washed-rind cheese made in 8- to 12-pound wheels and aged for a minimum of three months; and Ste. Genevieve, a roughly bell-shaped cheese inspired by Chaource, a rich, runny cheese made in France's Champagne region.

Plain Coeur de la Creme sells for $8 for a six-ounce package, and the other cheeses sell for $25 a pound. The Baetjes sell out of everything they make.

Veronica Baetje began to develop her recipes and techniques while the couple lived near Mount Vernon, Ill., and Steve was self-employed in the construction industry. The Baetjes ended up in Bloomsdale after visiting Veronica's brother, who works at Earthworks, a stone-fabrication company in Ste. Genevieve. By the end of the visit, Steve's knowledge of stoneworking had resulted in a job offer.

About three years ago, Steve Baetje's nephew saw a listing for a property with a barn about 8 miles northwest of Ste. Genevieve.

"It was perfectly suited for what we wanted to do," Veronica Baetje said. "I fell in love with lots of things I'd read in the Bible, and I wanted to learn what it would be like to be a shepherd."

The main part of the barn had been built from an old Sears catalog kit. The Baetjes' family and friends assembled on a Saturday for an old-fashioned barn-raising to raise the walls for the addition. The extended family also helped Steve build the trusses, and an outside professional did the roofing work.

(Their home is even older than the barn: A log-cabin section dates to the late 1700s, and the main body was built in 1835.)

Steve Baetje's background in construction and his seemingly inexhaustible stamina came in handy as the couple worked to set up a commercial dairy. "I'd work 12 hours as a stonemason and then come home and work another eight hours here," he recalls. More recently, he started devoting Wednesdays through Fridays to the dairy.

While the farm took shape, Veronica Baetje supplemented her self-taught knowledge of cheesemaking with programs at the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese and the University of Wisconsin. While in Wisconsin, she met a mentor: Neville McNaughton, who runs a consulting business called Cheez Sorce, serendipitously headquartered in St. Louis. McNaughton helped the couple find much of their custom-designed equipment.

"And whenever we have a new idea, he can just hop on his motorcycle and come down to see us," Veronica Baetje said.

She is planning to go back to Vermont for more training this year, and she'd like to learn how to make an Alpine-style cheese.

But while they might increase the herd slightly, the couple plan to keep the cheese production manageable and the quality high.

"I'm not going to get to the point that I have to hire more help," Veronica Baetje said. "I'm not going to lose control."

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