Sixtysomething Danville retiree Shirley Richardson has a baby monitor in her kitchen. It’s not to make sure her sleeping grandchildren are safe and sound — though she does have several — but to help her keep tabs on a different kind of kid entirely.
“I was in education my whole professional career,” Richardson says. “I really liked kids, but I decided I liked goat kids even better.”
Thirty-two newborn goats, resembling a giant litter of Portuguese water-dog puppies, currently populate the hills of Richardson’s Tannery Farm. Richardson’s buck, Hjalmar, nuzzles and kisses her in greeting like a friendly cat that happens to have expansive, fearsome horns.
These aren’t just pets, though. Back in 2004, Richardson decided to raise the cuddly black cashmere goats not just for their lustrous hair but because they’re known to produce excellent meat.
Richardson herself is mostly vegetarian. Yet, convinced of the health benefits of goat meat — or chevon, as it’s properly called — she has made it her goal to educate Vermonters about the benefits of the tasty flesh of her fuzzy Spanish meat goats.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture handbook, three ounces of goat meat contain 2.58 grams of fat, compared with 3.5 ounces in the same amount of chicken. Yet goat has just as much protein as beef and even more iron, as is apparent in the lean meat’s mineral-laden flavor.
Besides offering consumers an uncommon option, Vermont Chevon solves a longstanding local-food-system quandary. Because most goats in the Green Mountains are raised as milking animals, the majority of bucklings are euthanized shortly after birth. Richardson’s company finds a use for the little fellows, raising them for eight months to a year, when they reach optimal slaughter size. Animals, including does, culled from the herd can also be used as meat goats, a far more noble fate than the compost heap.
Demand is high; last fall, Tannery Farm sold all its own available goats. Since then, Richardson has been selling 10 or so animals to restaurants each month; these goats come from three partner farms that also provide milk to Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery.
VBC’s cofounder and owner, Allison Hooper, says she sees parallels between Vermont Chevon and her own experience when she started selling goat cheese almost 30 years ago; both are high-cost enterprises with potential for high profits. At the beginning, Hooper explains, processing and transportation costs make goat meat more expensive to produce than beef or chicken. However, the fact that chefs are increasingly interested in chevon is a good sign, she says.
Another promising omen is the uptick in slaughter and processing facilities around the state. Richardson currently transports her goats to the facilities closest to each customer. As the options multiply, her costs should tumble.
Richardson and her business partner, Jan Westervelt, another retired educator, have time for their company to catch up to Hooper’s. They incorporated Vermont Chevon in January. However, the story of Vermont’s growing appetite for goat goes back a year and a half.
It started when Tom Bivins, now executive chef at Stowe’s Crop Bistro & Brewery, first tasted Richardson’s Spanish goat meat. At the time, he was executive chef at the New England Culinary Institute and was preparing for a Slow Food dinner at which he hoped to serve chevon. “I was really impressed,” he remembers of his first taste. “Most people think it’s lamby or mutton-like, but it’s much milder than that. I was expecting, the first time I ate it, that it would have a tangy, farmyard gaminess to it, and it didn’t at all.”
Vermont Chevon is featured on Crop’s spring menu in the form of a curried stew with peas and carrots. Bivins has served it in specials including chevon ravioli. He says the lean meat particularly lends itself to braising or stewing, which keeps it moist.
Those aren’t the only uses for chevon. After Joey Nagy, co-owner of the Mad Taco, served cabrito tacos at the Stowe Wine & Food Classic last summer, other local chefs started to express interest in goat.
Matt Birong, of 3 Squares Café in Vergennes, was already a convert; he learned to love goat while living in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood. After meeting Richardson in Stowe, he contacted her, hoping to replicate the Dominican, Indian and Jamaican dishes he had enjoyed at his old haunts. Birong now buys whole animals, breaks them down them himself and uses their meat in monthly specials ranging from curries to a chevon confit in a French cassoulet (the latter is on his Vermont Restaurant Week menu). “The confit is so good,” he says of the meat, which is cooked in a mixture of goat and duck fat he labels “barnyard fat.”
Birong says he’s startled by how well diners have received the unconventional meat, but he has no immediate plans to make chevon a fixture of his menu. “I think the fun of it [would] kind of tame,” he says. “It won’t be a special thing for my customers anymore.”
Don’t tell that to Michael Clauss, chef at Burlington’s Bluebird Tavern. On March 26, he debuted his Vermont Chevon burger with a Facebook campaign that promised a freebie to the first person who ordered it. Since then, the double burger has been available every day, usually with garlicky spinach pesto and local feta.
Clauss, who coarsely grinds the leg meat himself, says, “It has the perfect ratio of fat to make a beautiful burger.” Still, the goat burger is a far leaner choice than the juicily greasy Bluebird double beef burger. The chef says he also appreciates the grassy, venison-like flavor of chevon.
Clauss and Richardson connected the old-fashioned way: She went to his restaurant and talked to him. Her grassroots approach has appealed to chefs, and she’s found herself making many new, younger friends. Among them is John Corliss, chef at the Rabbit Hill Inn in Lower Waterford, who taught Richardson to sous-vide her goat meat. She’s such a fan of the trendy cooking method, which involves cooking food in airtight plastic bags, that her husband has built three immersion circulators.
Richardson’s pavement pounding pays off. During Vermont Restaurant Week, several eateries will feature Vermont Chevon meat on their menus, including Frida’s Taqueria & Grill in Stowe and Pauline’s Café in South Burlington, as well as 3 Squares and Bluebird. Thanks to Richardson’s visits, the Kitchen Table Bistro in Richmond is another client. Richardson says she’s in talks with the chefs at Hen of the Wood at the Grist Mill and Prohibition Pig in Waterbury. It’s all part of her plan: to start with a base market of five to eight restaurants that serve her meat year-round, then to add more spots that feature it as a special.
Grants from the USDA and the Northeast Kingdom’s Northern Community Investment Corporation will give Richardson more time to spend on the farm. The funds have enabled her to hire Nicole L’Huillier Fenton of Flavor Communications to get the word out.
Last week, Fenton presented Richardson and Westervelt with Vermont Chevon’s new logo, which will adorn everything from primal cuts to the spicy, sage-smacked breakfast sausages made for the company by Jacob Finsen at the Mad River Food Hub in Waitsfield.
A new website is soon to launch, too. Richardson hopes to eventually sell cuts of goat directly to consumers via an online store, then to expand to specialty food markets.
But for now, Richardson’s focus stays right where it was before she “retired” — on education. She wants Vermonters to know that, while few New Englanders make goat a regular part of their diets, we’re in the minority. “It’s the oldest domesticated animal. Goat has been used for food for centuries,” she says, adding that it’s the most-consumed meat on Earth. “It’s eaten by every ethnic group in the world except white North Americans.”
If Richardson has anything to say about it, Vermont will be the next part of the world to discover the benefits of eating our bucking, bearded friends.