On any given morning in Boonville, as the fog rolls back toward the coast and the shapes of low-lying hills emerge, you’ll likely find a flock of goats, tails wagging, tucked into stalls in the small milking parlor of Pennyroyal Farm. But you might not hear them.
The most striking feature of the farm (aside from the beauty of its natural surroundings at the southern point of Anderson Valley, in Mendocino County), is the resounding quiet. “It’s a peaceful place,” says Sales Manager Star White, when she toured us around the farm in March. These animals are content and remarkably calm, and it’s easy to see why.
The one-hundred acre farmstead and vineyard, family owned for generations, released its first cheese in the spring of 2012. Named for the wild pennyroyal mint that blankets the pastures, the family raises goats, sheep, chickens, and bees, grows hay and grapes, in such a way that each endeavor complements the other.
And the cheese? It’s prepared just steps from where the happy animals reside, and it is truly divine. But, we’ll get to that in a moment.
The Farm is at the same time homey and state-of-the-art. Gleaming stainless steel in the milking parlor, an immaculately kept path winding from barn to creamery, aging rooms, visible through glass partitions to the newly built tasting bar, are pristine, gorgeous, and welcoming.
“We make farmstead cheese, which is different than artisan. All of our milk comes from right here,” Star tells us. A rust-colored barn, erected in 2009, is the center of activity on our visit. It’s massive southern roof is paneled with solar cells which fully supply their energy needs; the surplus (about 80% of what’s produced) goes back to the grid.
Inside the barn, ample stalls open out to green pasture, happily munching does lounge in beds of straw, and in spring, bouncing baby goats (almost 100 of them!) totally steal the show.
The Creamery is just steps from where the goats are milked each morning and evening, and, of course, delicious cheese begins as delicious milk. “I hear people say that they don’t like goats’ milk,” says Star. They only think so! The familiar “goaty” flavor of your run-of-the-mill, grocery store goats’ milk is due to handling, and the fragile nature of fat molecules. Frequent pumping and agitation during processing break down the walls of the lipoproteins surrounding milk fat molecules. Oxidization of the fragile fatty acids occur, which imbues the milk with that pungent flavor that’s off-putting to some.
Not so at Pennyroyal. Goats are hand milked or machine milked via gentle vacuum suction, the milk is rolled ever-so-carefully up a (smooth) path to the creamery (not pumped or piped), and then gravity-fed from tanks. No pouring. No jostling. Some is prepared as raw cheese. Some is gently pasteurized for other preparations.
The Goats The team at Pennyroyal is on a first-name basis with every goat on the property. Kidding season, which was in full-swing when we visited, holds as much anticipation and excitement as the waiting room of a hospital nursery, and each new kid is held, named, bottle fed and welcomed immediately upon arrival.
The herd is a carefully selected blend of Alpine, Nubian, La Mancha, Saanens, and Oberhasli. They are huge, bright eyed, and beautiful. They produce milk for approximately eight months of the year (at an average of one gallon per day!), and then rest through the winter until kidding season arrives in spring.
The Sheep I cannot forget to mention the sheep! Sheep have been in residence on the Pennyroyal Farmstead for over on quarter of century, and are an important part their sustainable vision. The family’s practices were pioneering when they raised vineyard trellis lines by nine inches to accommodate the sheep. These are primarily a blend of East Friesian and Lacaune; they have smaller udders than the goats, are more difficult to milk and produce less, so their milk is prized. The family raises a flock of Baby Dolls on their neighboring property, Navarro Vineyard, for weed management.
On a side note, if you’ve never been sung to by a chorus of bleating lambs, it’s one of the funniest things I have ever experienced! We could not get a word out in the sheep barn without them chiming in. Fantastic.
The Cheese One that is adored on our own ever-evolving cheese menu is Penny Royal’s Velvet Sister. Creamy and bold with underlying mushroom flavor, this rennet-style cheese was named for some of Boonville’s early inhabitants, sisters fond of wearing luxurious fur coats.
In fact, all of their cheeses are named from the colorful dialect Boontling, spoken by native “Booonvillians” in the early 19th century. (By the way, if you’re ever looking for a curse, wonderful and peculiar in its’ specificity, study up on your Boontling! It’s amazing.)
On this particular visit, when milk production was just beginning again after a winter hiatus, we sampled an assortment of aged cheeses, beginning with the Boont Corners. This is a raw milk cheese, sometimes prepared from a mixture of sheep and goat milk, sometimes all goat, depending on the season. It’s made in various vintages, aged from two to six months and beyond. The younger cheeses are sweeter, with a soft, pliable texture, and, as they age, the Vintage and Reserve cheeses firm up slightly, the flavors developing subtlety, complexity, a mild nuttiness. Words do not do them justice.
Boonter’s Blue is a heavenly creation we also tasted on our visit. This is a mild but totally distinct blue, with a fudgy texture and rich, lingering flavor. All that I can say is, eat this cheese at your earliest opportunity! It will change your life.
Pennyroyal’s tasting room in Boonville is due to open its doors this summer. Until then, the best way to order their cheese is direct. They also visit a few farmers’ markets during the summer months, and their cheeses make appearances at select local restaurants. We are so fortunate to be one of them.
**Many thanks to Star, Sarah, and Casey for the visit! We’ll be back again soon!