Meet Winston and Walter, our protagonists today. My husband Colin and I procured these lovely little fellows in May. We live on a small farm in Shoreham, just down the road from Twig Farm in West Cornwall. Cheesemaker Michael Lee makes a mean tomme, and it turns out that one of the biological imperatives of milking goats is ... baby goats. Most cheesemakers face a glut every spring of young male goats, called bucklings.
We approached the business of raising goats not unlike the way we approached the business of raising cows, and raising a puppy: Acquire the animal, then figure it out. Our delightful friends Lucas Farrell and Louisa Conrad (of Townshend-based Big Picture Farm, purveyors of award-winning goat-milk caramels) convinced us that goats were a piece of cake and no trouble at all and super cute (admittedly, my words, not theirs — although if that blog isn't goat propaganda, I don't know what is).
So we paid Lee $25 apiece of two mostly weaned wethers (castrated males) and piled Walter and Winston into a large dog crate for the short drive home.
Raising goats — or at least, raising two goats — turned out to be easier than we expected. Walter and Winston followed us around the yard on walks. They bleated for attention when they caught sight of us coming and going. We watched the goats, the goats watched us.
It took a few days for W & W to figure out the physics of our electric fence. In the meantime, Colin cobbled together a little goat house from scrap wood around the farm. Eventually, though, the goats acclimated to the electric fence and chomped away happily on patches of weeds and grass and overgrown shrubs. We moved them every couple of days, and trotted them out as entertainment when guests came for dinner. Sally the Dog persisted in her effort to befriend the potential playmates, to no avail.
3. Chill out for four months.
Pro tip: Set the goats up within easy viewing of your living room, then cackle every time they head-butt each other.
4. Schedule a butcher.
Because we didn't intend to sell our goat meat, we were able to bypass USDA-certified slaughter facilities. Instead, we scheduled an appointment with Rup's Custom Cutting, a small butcher shop in Sudbury. (The mom-and-pop shop, incidentally, got a shout-out in the Atlantic in 2010 when Barry Estabrook wrote about on-farm slaughter.) For $25 a goat — coincidentally the exact same amount we paid for the live goats — Rupert LaRock sent a team of two butchers out to our farm on a drizzly September morning.
I was "putting on my boots" and "looking for my raincoat" when the butchers rolled up at around 8:30 a.m., their pick-up truck already weighted down with the plastic-wrapped carcass of a beef cow slaughtered earlier that morning. Colin led the two goats out of their pasture and down the driveway. One by one he gave them a bit of grain in one of my cake pans. One of the butchers raised his rifle, fired a shot, and then leapt forward to slit the goat's throat and let the animal bleed out. (The cake pan, incidentally, was ruined in the process — unless anyone has a hint for patching a bullet hole in aluminum.)
To my credit, I ambled over shortly after and watched as the butchers strung up the goats one by one from our raised tractor bucket. They were incredibly efficient, and in 20 minutes or so, both goats were skinned, gutted and wrapped in plastic, ready to head back to Rup's to age for a few days.
Though we raise cattle, we're only two years in that agricultural venture; these were the first animals we've slaughtered at our little hobby farm. I worried about being overly attached or queasy when it came time to turn what were essentially barnyard pets into, well, meat. But you know what? In the end, I felt remarkably little angst about the process.
It helped that the on-farm slaughter was so fast and relatively painless. The goats woke up to their usual goat-y life (frolic! eat grass! frolic some more!), binged on a brief grain bender, and then it was lights out.
6. Dig a really big pit.
A few days later, we got down to business: We've been raising an old timber-frame barn at our farm this summer, and we were throwing a late September bash to commemorate the affair. Two days before the party, Colin dug a large pit — roughly 4 by 5 feet wide, dug to a depth of about 2 feet — with the tractor bucket, and lined it with stones. Then, on Friday afternoon, he and a friend built an enormous bonfire out of hard wood in the pit.
Meanwhile, I recruited a friend to help me prepare the goats. We slathered each of the carcasses in olive oil, salt and pepper, and then essentially dumped the kitchen sink into their stomach cavities: apples, red wine, onions, garlic cloves, squash, every kind of herb in my garden. The goats dressed out at 20 and 21 pounds, respectively, which is about as much as my puny little arms can handle. But hoist and handle we did.
We then went about a complicated mummification process to protect the goats from the fiery coals upon which they'd soon be laid. First I wrapped each carcass in burlap, using strips of burlap to truss the meat. We wrapped them next in several layers of aluminum foil and, finally — just before they went on the fire — in another layer of burlap, which this time we soaked first in water.
By this point (11 p.m.), the fire had burned down to extremely hot coals. Colin dreamed up a quick solution for lowering the goats into the pit, fashioning a sling out of chicken wire. No pagan rituals, no dancing around the fire. We just manuevered them over the coals, lowered them into the pit, covered the whole thing with dirt — and then crossed our fingers. A few tendrils of smoke escaped from the dirt-covered pit, which we then tamped down gently. And that was that.
9. Walk away.
Really, the rest was just magic. We went to bed, woke up the next morning, and went about our business. And then, around 1 p.m., we went back to the pit. At this point I could have been equally convinced that we'd discover inside either a) raw meat, or b) charred-beyond-recognition cinders.
Instead, we raked away the dirt to find a still very hot, still very steaming bed of coals. The chicken wire sling ended up being crucial for lifting the meat off the fire and onto a nearby picnic table. We very carefully sliced through the layers of burlap, foil and yet more burlap — and then there you had it: aromatic meat that was so tender it was falling off the bones. There's not much photographic evidence from this point on, because I was elbow-deep in aromatic, finger-licking-good goat meat (or "chevon," if you're fancy). But trust me. It was a sight to behold.
Would we do it again? Let's just say that I'm already daydreaming about playing goatherd to a little army of wethers next spring, and I'm drafting a mental list of what kind of meat to pit-roast next. We do have some ideas for perfecting our "recipe," if you can even call something so foolproof a recipe.
Fourteen hours ended up being a little long for the goats, and the side of meat closest to the coals charred too much. Colin's got some ideas for improving air circulation within the pit. But mostly? It's just magic.
In the end I was dissuaded from pitting Walter against Winston in a taste test — although, let's be real: Clearly Winston, as the cuter of the two goats, was the most scrumptious. Either our friends are just polite, or everyone truly liked the meat — it got rave reviews.
Photos by Kathryn Flagg.