BY KRISTINE JEPSEN
“Capra nera” means “black goat” in Italian, a language Katie Bonow, founder of Capra Nera Creamery, speaks fairly fluently because of a major in Italian studies and two stints as a WWOOF volunteer in Italy (World-Wide Opportunities in Organic Farming).
“It’s definitely a play on ‘black sheep,’” she says. “I guess I’ve always been a little different.”
But don’t let Katie fool you: Italian goat cheese might be a bit unexpected in her neighborhood of Scandinavian heritage, but Katie’s success making it and building a treasured brand around her six-stall goat-milking parlor is not surprising for anyone who knows her.
Katie (pictured at right) grew up milking dairy cows with her parents, Larry and Sharon Wiste, near Black Hammer, Minnesota, and won her first goat, Blossom, at age 12. She wanted one badly enough to write the winning essay for a contest held by her Houston County 4-H club.
Blossom was Nubian, a breed known for its small stature and the high fat content of its milk. Katie bred Blossom and her descendants with Alpine, Saanen, and Lamancha bucks, favoring the hardiness of ‘hybrid vigor’ and a more balanced milk profile. “Fat equals flavor, and protein equals cheese volume,” she says. “I wanted neither too much nor too little of each.” Female goats, or does, as they’re called, give birth – on average – to twin kids each year, although sometimes it’s triplets and quadruplets. Katie quickly had plenty of production on her hands.
“Wistes don’t ‘waste’ anything, you know,” she says with a chuckle, referring to her dad’s ability to repair anything with the barest of materials, and her mother’s prodigious knowledge of canning and other homesteading skills. So, Katie started making simple fresh cheeses like feta, then advanced her craft through workshops and farm internships, including the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese.
Today, Capra Nera Creamery produces Contadina cheese and limited edition Italian seasonal varieties like rosemary asiago. The Contadina, a hard cheese Katie says tastes like “cheddar crossed with Parmesan,” is available year-round in a variety of locations across the Driftless (see below for details).
All her cheese – 1,500 pounds of it a year! – comes from Katie’s 25 goats, which produce milk once a day March through December. All the milking happens in a 1970s cow parlor that Katie and her husband, Ryan, retrofitted for goats. Katie processes 30 gallons of milk into cheese every other day on average, a frequency that keeps the milk fresh – and not ‘goaty’ tasting. She is known for wheels of masterful hard cheeses weighing four to eight pounds, aged at 50-55 degrees for 60 days or more.
Producing cheese on the farm, in an insulated room adjacent to her milking facilities, preserves the integrity of the raw milk. When milk is picked up by truck and transported to a central processing facility – the industry standard with cow’s milk – it gets pushed and pulled through lots of pumps, then sloshed around in the truck’s tank in transport.
“Goat milk contains three short-chain fatty acids that are susceptible to oxidation – and more of them than in cow’s milk,” she explains. Making the final product (cheese), without handling the milk too much mechanically, keeps these fatty acid chains from breaking apart, preserving its natural rich flavor.
There’s something to be said for the care and handling of these short-eared pasture-fed goats, too. (Katie likes the nubby ears of the Lamancha genetics.) She’s always mindful of the relationship between her goats’ health and the quality of milk they produce. The Capra Nera Instagram feed (@capra_nera_creamery) is full of cuddly baby goat pictures, videos of mama goats standing placidly in their milking stanchions, milk pump chugging in the background, and funny clips of goats being goats, romping on pasture.
And each year, the goats get named according to a theme. There’s a Jackie O. and a Lady Bird Johnson from the season of presidential debate. And there’s a Dorothy and a Toto from the year they chose names from The Wizard of Oz. This year, babies have names from treasured children’s books, like Laura (Ingalls Wilder) and Jessie and Violet from The Boxcar Children.
In February 2017, Katie and Ryan welcomed their first human kid, Oren (not named according to a theme), who has been known to come along for chores in a baby carrier. For now, Katie can still reach around him to tend to the goats, but she looks forward to the day that he takes up some farm venture of his own – if he wants to.
“‘There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot,’” Katie quotes from A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. An avid reader, Katie says she revisits the book each year. “Here’s hoping that Oren is the latter.”
FIND CAPRA NERA CHEESE
Look for Capra Nera folks in person at Meadowfest, a weekend-long market hosted by Seven Bridges Pottery in Houston, Minnesota, each June.
Find Capra Nera product a growing number of groceries across the Driftless: Coops in Rochester, Winona, and La Crosse; Hy-Vee in Winona; Forager Brewing Company in Rochester; Lunds & Byerlys stores in the Twin Cities; and Katie’s hometown grocery store, Red’s IGA in Spring Grove, Minnesota.
Once upon a time, Kristine Jepsen milked a ‘house cow,’ skimmed the cream and made butter. But this foray into dairying with her family’s Jersey cow, named No. 12, failed to produce any good cheese. These days you’ll find Kristine writing for literary journals (more at kristinejepsen.com) and in the cheese aisle of Red’s IGA in Spring Grove, buying up Contadina.