There are a number of reasons we love Ruggles Hill Creamery. If you’ve ever come in right after Michael Holland has dropped off one of their beautifully wrapped cake boxes filled with individually handmade and wrapped goat cheeses, we’ve probably told you, “you need to try this cheese.” I was very familiar with their cheeses, which ones were creamy, which ones were fudgy; the delicate Brother’s Walk, or the cider washed Hanna’s Awashed. But until I drove the hour and a half to the farm at the end of June, I was not yet aware of just how much heart and soul went into making these little lumps of deliciousness.
Tricia Smith and Michael are the owners at the award winning Ruggles Hill Creamery. The 38-acre farm located in Hardwick, MA came to them in 2010 after five years of working in Carlisle, MA. They built the creamery and struck up other projects to make the property complete, including a utility structure that supports the solar panels they use for power.
The first member of the Ruggles Hill family that I get to meet is Lesley, the Akbash pup who acts as livestock protection animal to the goats on the farm. Lesley is under a year old and still getting into her role as protector. She has her own pen for now, in order to encourage the right behavior.
Akbash (“white head” in Turkish) dogs have long been a staple in Turkey as guardian animals and for herd protection against predators. When Lesley is ready, around 2 years old, she’ll be moved closer the goats at night. Five-foot high electric fences usually provide adequate protection, but Lesley is good backup. Especially since the area is rife with coyotes and even the occasional mountain lion, she provides a necessary service
The farm employs two goat breeds: the Saanen and the Oberhasli. The white larger alpine goats are the Saanen. They’re beloved by cheesemakers for their high volume and quality of milk, and their personalities are fun loving, gentle, and chaotic. Their genes are also dominant – Saanen/Oberhasli mixes will be white apart from some occasional orange spots. Hence, Tricia and Michael’s nickname for the mixes: creamsicles! Oberhasli are the brown and black breed. They have a high butterfat content of milk and they are both sweet and serious. I was overwhelmingly approached by the Saanen, while the Oberhasli seemed to need a little more convincing that I was interesting enough to sniff.
In the milk room I met Remy, an Oberhasli who is busy feasting on sugar beet pulp. When Lesley announced my arrival, Remy got slightly left behind to enjoy the special treat that the goats get while they’re being milked. It’s also a by-product of sugar extraction, non-GM, and rouses butterfat in the milk.
A common conception about goats is that they’ll eat almost anything – this isn’t true in the way people think it is. Goats have a hard upper palate. So, they can eat plants with thorns, cactus, and bark. However, they’re actually pretty picky. So when it comes to acquiring nutrients from plant-based food, it comes down to the rumen. Goats have four chamber stomachs, of which the rumen is the largest. They eat the vegetation, it goes into the rumen, comes back up as cud, and so on, until it is digested. Michael explained all of this to me and said, “Hence the term, ruminate.”
Now that it’s summer, it’s prime time for milk production because the kids have all been weaned off their mothers and the goats are getting plenty of nutrition. At the store, we’re excited because that means lots of great cheese coming in. Tricia takes ownership of milking and is the principal cheesemaker. She said, “I find it really hard to entrust milking to another person simply because it’s one of my major connections to my animals during the day. I’m always really concerned that my udder health is great, I just want see how the animals are. So I would have a really hard time turning that part of my work over to somebody else. To me, the milk is kind of one of the key things in the business.”
Tricia studied civil engineering at MIT. Ryanne, her helper in the creamery, has a background in chemistry. When I asked how that education pairs with this kind of work, Tricia said, “I think any thoughtful background is useful. What I like about it is – there’s the science and engineering aspect – but there’s the care and craft part too. One of the good things about Ryanne, is she owns cows and produces her own cow’s milk, works with it in terms of cheesemaking, but she also has that really deep animal compassion that translates into how the milk is handled. She’s always interested in what’s going on in this side of the barn.”
When it comes to the goats, Tricia knows them back to front. She breeds according to genetics, so goats that do well on once a day milking and extended lactations – their kids are favored. Same with the cheese – she said she’ll often get up at night just to check on how the cheese is doing. When people talk about farm to table, these are the kind of personal touches that come across in the food. Things like people knowing their animals and sleeping in the barn when they’re giving birth. Creating handmade cheeses that are not just produced, but crafted.
Ruggles hill cheese pair amazingly with wines, meats, jams, or just on their own with a crusty baguette. Look for them in our case wrapped in white glossy paper with the goat stickers on top.