It all started with a ghost.
Or was it a goat?
In 1982, Anne Topham and Judy Borree, two University of Wisconsin professors, were on the phone with their friend from France, asking for advice. They had just started milking their first goat, a big step in their career change from professeurs to fromagères. They were getting ready to start selling the fromage de chèvre that they had taught themselves to make, but still needed a name for their farm. So, they asked their friend for a quick translation into French.
Their friend got off the phone quite confused. “It’s very strange,” she said to her family. “Annie and Judy just told a story about a mother ghost and her baby who are living on their farm. They speak to the ghost, and play with her, and feed her…and for some reason they wanted to know what to call her in French!”
And so, Fantome Farm was named, not after the goats from whose milk their cheese was made, but instead after a ghost.
Annie and Judy were pioneers of artisanal goat milk cheese production in the United States. They introduced goat milk cheese to a country that wasn’t interested in tasting something so seemingly bizarre and un-American. Every Saturday at the Dane County Farmers Market in downtown Madison, Annie and Judy had to coerce people to taste the odd-looking cheese. But one taste, and they were hooked for life.
Fantome Farm’s fromage de chèvre was the beginning of my path to cheese obsession. As a baby, my mom used to give me tastes of the creamy, light, almost-sweet-tasting cheese off the end of her finger. Like everyone else, I was hooked. Every Saturday, my mom and I went to the farmers market to get a container of the fresh chèvre. Although her favorite was the chèvre with fresh garlic, she got plain chève instead for me, one of the sweetest acts of motherly love I could ever imagine.
When I became old enough, Annie offered me a job helping out at the market stand, where I worked until college. I showed up every Saturday around 7:00 a.m., returning home in the afternoon with a giant pile of cheeses to savor. Annie led me through tasting each of her cheeses, teaching me to recognize when a cheese had been slightly over-salted, needed a bit more age, or when the goats were producing milk with a slightly higher fat content than the week before.
This cheese was, and always will be, the holy grail of cheeses for me. Annie’s fresh fromage de chèvre, her slightly aged fleuries (both with ash and without, referred to as the ‘fleurie noir’ and the ‘fleurie blanc’), her rounds of fresh cheese in olive oil and herbes de Provence…just thinking of them makes my mouth water. Annie’s dedication to her cheese and her understanding of how delicate and susceptible to change an artisanal cheese is allowed her to create incredible and varied flavors. Each week, she tasted and adjusted. She paid close attention to the weather, time of year, milk-handling, and treatment of the goats…every aspect of the cheese-making process was important. Each batch of cheese was made by hand, and by her practiced and loving hand.
The foundation of my love and respect for cheese comes from that patient education from Annie. I learned that cheese is not just something you eat, but something you experience. For me, cheese both is a vocation and a way of life. Learning from and supporting local farmers, tasting and pairing cheeses, and understanding what goes into making a truly exceptional cheese has become my life’s passion.