Those of you who braved the last of Wisconsin’s never-ending winter last week at the Dane County Farmer’s Market may have noticed a familiar face missing. That’s because Wisconsin’s grande dame of goat cheese, Anne Topham, retired this spring after nearly 30 years of making French-style fresh chèvre and handcrafted aged goat cheeses for the market.
While Anne would never dream of taking credit for starting the Midwest’s love affair with chevre, all credit surely does go to her and partner Judy Borree for introducing Wisconsinites to fine French-style goat cheese. The pair started milking goats at their Fantome Farm near Ridgeway in 1982, after Topham took a break from studying for her doctorate in education policy studies at UW-Madison.
At the time, no one else in the region was making goat cheese. So, like any good academic, she went to the library. She read cheesemaking books in French, took the University of Wisconsin cheese technology course, and visited pioneering California cheesemaker Laura Chenel. Then she and Judy started experimenting. A pet pig ate their first mistakes. Later, better cheeses went to the Dane County Farmer’s Market, where the pair had to literally give it away in order to get customers to try it, because no one in Wisconsin had ever heard of goat cheese, much less eaten it.
“We cajoled people into trying our cheese at the market. We thought if they tried it, they would buy it, and we were right,” Topham said. She soon began to learn as much from her customers as she had from her books and expert advice.
“Sometimes, a customer might say last week’s batch was too salty so I would measure more carefully the next week. Others would tell us we were making a cheese that you could only find in the mountain farms in Puerto Rico, or that it was similar to the fresh cheese made by the nomadic people in Afghanistan. And here I thought I was only making a gourmet French-style goat cheese!” Topham laughed.
Although many would agree Topham has long since perfected the art of making cheese, she never stopped learning new techniques. She traveled to France in 2003 to study affinage – the art of ripening cheese, went to Italy in 2007 to study the making of Parmigiano Reggiano, and volunteered time in 2010 teaching cheesemakers in Ecuador how to add value to their dairy farms.
Along the way, she learned just as much as she taught, and after every trip, “It made me come back and want to tear up everything I had and start over,” she says. Her 2003 trip to France to study affinage was one of the first study trips by a Wisconsin cheesemaker on the subject.
“Seeing the mechanical caves in France definitely changed my advice to starting farmstead cheese owners,” she said. “Building and planning for such spaces and learning ways to perfect ripened cheese really helped take farmstead and artisanal cheesemaking to the next level here in Wisconsin.”
Thirty years after having to give away fresh chevre to customers in order for them to try it, it’s a bit ironic that Cook’s Illustrated dedicated an entire section to “The Best Fresh Goat Cheese” in its May/June 2013 issue. Editors compared nine different chevres from the United States and France, recommending Laura Chenel’s Fresh Chevre Log as its overall winner. While Anne’s cheese wasn’t involved in the study (she makes only enough cheese to sell at the market each week), it’s likely Fantome Farm chevre would have placed high on the list.
At age 73, Anne says she doesn’t plan to stop milking a few goats or making a little cheese. She’s just not going to make it for sale anymore. The next chapter in her life might include some consulting for beginning cheesemakers, something she’s done quite often along the way, most of the time for free. With 30 years of cheesemaking knowledge, she’s still got a lot to offer. Look for her walking – not working – the farmer’s market on Saturdays, still talking and sharing stories with former customers.