Late last year, Jennifer Bice announced the sale of Redwood Hill Farm, her goat milk products company in Sebastopol, California. The purchaser? Emmi, the Swiss dairy giant, which also bought Cypress Grove Chèvre, makers of Humboldt Fog, from founder Mary Keehn five years ago. With the sale of Laura Chenel’s Chèvre to a French firm in 2006, the country’s pioneering producers of goat cheese are no longer American owned. Recently, I spoke to Bice by phone about the sale and its ramifications.
I’m seeing a pattern here. Now three of our “great ladies of goat cheese” have sold their businesses to European companies. What do European investors see that Americans don’t?
I don’t think it’s just happening in cheese. It’s all the smaller artisan companies. Our neighbor here in Sebastopol—Manzana apple juice—is now owned by the French. I did have American companies contact me over the years, but the Europeans understand high-end artisan products. They’re not in that mindset of just profit for their shareholders. They take a more long-term approach.
Sometimes larger companies think they can do things more efficiently. They’ll take the financial and marketing departments and move them to “corporate.” But we wanted all of our employees and management to stay here, and Emmi promised that. I haven’t seen many examples of American companies purchasing others where things stay the same.
The fact that Emmi does a full range of dairy products was also beneficial. They’ll make their experts available to us so we can learn from them.
How will the new ownership affect your product mix?
I don’t expect it to change at all. We’re continually introducing new products and discontinuing products with lower sales, but we’re not expecting that Emmi will tell us to make this or that.
Looking back on 45 years of Redwood Hill, what goes on your highlight reel?
Seeing the popularity and acceptance of goat products. It was so hand-to-mouth in the beginning. I was in business for 26 years before I could get my first bank loan. I would go to banks and “Oh, no, we don’t do any goat loans.”
It’s so gratifying for me to see this change in my lifetime. When we used to do demos at stores, we would just say, “Would you like to try our yogurt or cheese?” We wouldn’t say it was goat’s milk. Otherwise they would gag or start backing away. Now when you say you have goat cheese or goat yogurt, people want to try it. Never in a million years did I think I would have a business where people would clamor for the product.
How has the goat cheese consumer changed in the years you’ve been making goat cheese?
It’s dramatic. When we started, in 1968, nobody wanted goat products. Goat’s milk products were for people who had health issues and allergies, for babies who couldn’t digest cow dairy and people with ulcers. It was looked at more as medicinal food, sold in so-called “health food” stores. Our first product was raw goat’s milk in glass bottles that my mom and I delivered. In 1978, when my husband and I took over the business, we realized that the same people who were drinking the milk would buy yogurt or cheese if we made it. That’s why we diversified—to capture the most sales possible from the small percentage of people who would eat goat products.
The big breakthrough came in the 1980s, when chefs like Alice Waters starting putting goat cheese on the menu. You’d pay $50 for dinner and get goat cheese. I thought Chez Panisse invented the goat cheese salad until, many years later, I went to France and saw that every restaurant had a goat cheese salad.
Now the Millennials are much more adventurous. That has opened up new areas of customers—the “want-tos” rather than the “have-tos” who are allergic to cow dairy. Our goat’s milk yogurt quart is in like 98 percent of natural-food stores and sales are growing 6 to 8 percent a year, so that’s not because we’re getting into more stores. It’s because more people are buying it.
Being able to grow my business has been like the American dream. I didn’t have an MBA or any experience. I just learned along the way.
Yogurt Mousse with Orange Marmalade and Toasted Almonds
This fluffy mousse tastes like a luscious cheesecake without the crust, and it makes an elegant, do-ahead dessert. Bill Corbett, formerly a pastry chef in San Francisco, shared the recipe, which I have adapted slightly. You can substitute other fruit preserves for the marmalade, but I like the bitter edge that marmalade contributes. However, I make my own and it contains no added pectin. Many commercial marmalades have pectin added and are consequently quite stiff. If the marmalade you choose is stiff, warm it in a saucepan with a few drops of water, stirring until it liquefies. Then give it a few pulses in a food processor to chop up the thick pieces of orange rind.
- 3 cups Redwood Hill plain goat yogurt
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
- 1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and seeds scraped
- 1 teaspoon powdered unflavored gelatin
- 1/4 cup sliced almonds
- Orange marmalade (see recipe introduction)
Put the yogurt in a sieve lined with a double thickness of cheesecloth. Set the sieve over a bowl to catch the whey, cover the sieve with a plate or plastic wrap and refrigerate until you have 2 cups of thick drained yogurt, 1 to 2 hours. Transfer the drained yogurt to a bowl. If you over-drain and have less than 2 cups, simply whisk enough of the whey back into the yogurt to make 2 cups.
In a small saucepan, stir together 1/4 cup cream, sugar, salt and the vanilla bean seeds and pod. Sprinkle the gelatin over the mixture and let stand 1 minute to soften. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, whisking constantly to dissolve the sugar and gelatin. Simmer for 2 minutes, whisking. Strain through a sieve directly into the yogurt. Stir to blend. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.
In another bowl, whip the remaining 3/4 cup cream to soft peaks. Gently fold the whipped cream into the yogurt mixture. Divide among 6 glasses or compote dishes. Cover tightly with plastic film (not touching the mousse) and refrigerate until set, at least 2 hours. You can make the mousse up to 8 hours ahead.
Preheat an oven to 325°F. Toast the almonds on a baking sheet or in a pie tin, stirring once or twice so they cook evenly, until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Let cool.
To serve, put a scant 1 tablespoon marmalade on top of each mousse. Top each portion with 2 teaspoons almonds.