Cory Spencer and Kirsten Thorainson are about to embark on their seventh year operating Happy Goat Cheese Company in the Cowichan Valley, but their dream of making quality cheese goes back much farther than that.
Spencer first got hooked on cheese when he lived in Vancouver and frequented a cheese shop that carried more than 400 different varieties. After he was laid off from a job in Vancouver, he first found a local cheesemaker to work with, then spent most of 2010 in Europe, learning from master cheesemakers.
It turned out to be a brilliant move.
“To be honest, it’s the job I’ve worked at the longest,” Spencer says. “It’s a good pace, and we’re happy to work for ourselves. It’s a lot of work, but we’ve gotten used to it over the years.”
Many of the styles of cheese he now makes are derived from traditional French and English cheeses.
“My course work in France helped us out enormously, I think,” Spencer says.
Spencer originally wanted to work with sheep, but soon changed his mind.
“They weren’t the animal for me,” he says.
Working with cows in Canada is complicated because of the Milk Marketing Board. Goats and sheep are not subject to those constraints, and Spencer soon settled on goats, in part because of their demeanour.
“They’re a very personable animal,” he says. “Sheep tend to run the other way, and cows are indifferent, but goats are friendly.”
That doesn’t mean it isn’t a lot of work.
“It’s a steep learning curve,” Spencer says. “Not a lot of vets are goat experts. We’ve learned a lot of it the hard way. We do 95 per cent of the vet stuff ourselves. There are some good vets on the Island that have given us help when we’ve needed it.”
Goats are also very clever, comparable to dogs in Spencer’s view.
“If there’s somewhere they want to be, they’ll find a way to get there,” he relates. “If one of them is a great leader, we have to sell them or they’ll be taking half the herd with them and wandering out on the road somewhere.”
Unlike cows or sheep, goats prefer to eat off trees and bushes as opposed to grazing on grass. They enjoy few things more than a stroll through the forest.
But as much as they eat, they don’t do any lasting harm.
“They’re not down here enough to do any serious damage to it.”
As far as Spencer can tell, the animals are as satisfied as Happy Goat’s name would suggest.
“I hope so,” he says. “If money buys happiness, then they should be happy. They’ve cost me a fortune.”
Spencer and Thorainson now have about 100 goats. The females will have kids in January — 120 to 130 over three weeks — and they hope to keep 30 to increase the size of their own herd. Their eventual goal of 250 milking animals is still about four or five years away.
Nearly all the animals are female, with the exception of the two males: dairy buck Alexander and meat buck Big Papa.
“They probably have the best job on the farm,” Spencer jokes.
The bucks are turned out in July, and after their job is done, a five-month gestation period begins. Once the kids are born, Happy Goat will start milking and making cheese.
Unpasteurized and aged for up to 12 months, Happy Goat cheeses have subtle flavour, as far as goat cheese goes.
“They don’t have a really strong goat-y flavour unless we’re going for it,” Spencer says.
Spencer’s personal favourite among the cheeses he makes is Tomme de Vallée, which is based on a traditional recipe from the Pyrenees Mountains of southern France. He’s not the only fan of the cheese, which tends to sell fast.
“We don’t usually have much of our six-month-old Tomme,” Spencer points out.
Cheesemaking takes place every second day at that point, with eight to 12 varieties being made through different processes. The cheeses are sold at a variety of locations, all currently on Vancouver Island.
“There’s so much demand on the Island right now, we don’t have to go off the Island,” Spencer explains.
Those locations include Hilary’s Cheese, the Duncan Farmer’s Market, the Cedar Farmer’s Market, and the Bowen Farmer’s Market in Nanaimo. They are also hoping to expand to retail cheese shops and delis as production allows.
Hilary’s Cheese sells Happy Goat cheese at both the Cowichan Bay location and the new shop on Fort Street in Victoria. Owner Sonja Todd says she points customers toward Happy Goat products whenever they ask for local products.
“We feel totally privileged and grateful to offer this kind of artisan cheese from the Valley,” she says. “To have local cheesemakers down the road is amazing. When our cheesemaker retired [four years ago], we still wanted to have a local offering. Thank goodness for Happy Goat.”
Other than Spencer and Thorainson, Happy Goat’s only employee is Caroline Deary, who has been helping at markets since Thorainson has been busy with their first child, Milo, who was born in May. They will need more help as the farm grows, and hope to hire more workers next year.
As small as Happy Goat currently is, it is still the largest goat dairy left on Vancouver Island, “Partly because of the blessing and curse of not having to deal with the Milk Marketing Board,” Spencer explains.
Spencer and Thorainson are thrilled to be in the Cowichan Valley, and not only because of the region’s beauty and because they both have family on the Island: the natural pairing of wine and cheese makes the Valley a great fit, and they’ve worked closely with local wineries, including Unsworth and Cherry Point.
A sommelier by trade, Todd says that the flavours of goat cheese pair well with the grape varietals from the Valley.
“To have all this product and to be able to offer all that here in Cowichan Bay is amazing,” she said. “We are so thankful to be able to provide such quality products here at Hilary’s.”
Just for Thanksgiving this year, Hilary’s is offering a limited supply of cheesecakes made by a local chef from fresh chèvre provided by Happy Goat.
Chris Turyk is listed on the website for Unsworth Vineyards as “winery ambassador,” although he helps out in several areas when he’s not busy as sommelier at the celebrated Hawksworth Restaurant in Vancouver. He also enjoys pairing Happy Goat cheese with local wines.
“Pairing wine and cheese can be surprisingly difficult, but their Tomme pairs well with our pinot gris, and you could extend that to other Cowichan Valley pinot gris,” he says.
Happy Goat’s herbed-rind mandolin pairs well with cabernet libre, a variety made by Unsworth, Enrico, and possibly other wineries in the Valley, Turyk adds.
“Because of the tartness of goat cheese — it’s got that tang to it — it goes well with the acidity in Vancouver Island wines,” he explains.
There’s no science behind it, but Turyk feels that foods and wines produced close to each other also pair well together.
“There’s the saying, ‘what grows together goes together,’” he says. “It’s kind of ethereal, but it’s proven time and time again. I’m happy to believe that.”
Sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley in France goes well with goat cheese made nearby, Turyk points out, noting that Emandare and Alderlea vineyards in the Cowichan Valley make Sauvignon blanc wines.
There are many reasons, Turyk says, why Happy Goat has such a great reputation and their cheese is always in high demand.
“They are amazing people, and they make even better cheese,” he says. “What they’re doing is the way things should be done. They’re not trying to be anything they’re not. They’re quality-driven as opposed to bottom-line driven.”