Every one of Sarah Hampton’s 70 animals has a name – and her excellent produce benefits as a result, writes Richard McComb.
Sarah Hampton looks towards the youngsters scampering our way after spending their morning bouncing around in a field.
“Come on Juliet,” says Sarah, bending down to plant a kiss on the girl’s fluffy head.
Sarah quickly spots another familiar face: “Hello Justine. Are you going to say ‘Hello?’”
Justine takes a look, flutters her eyelids and trots off with her gang.
Justine and Juliet are part of Sarah’s extremely extended family. There are almost 70 of them but they are treated as individuals and they all have names. It’s just that they’re goats.
Sarah has named her herd of pure-bred white Saanen goats after typographic fonts. She tells me that she recognises each animal by sight. At first, I think she is joking, but she isn’t.
“They are all different,” says Sarah. “Humans have the same characteristics, like noses and eyes. So I know the goats by their udders and their faces and their bleats. If I am working in the shed I will hear one of them bleat and I will say, ‘Hello, Rosetta. I’m coming.’ Goats are like dogs really.”
Mother of two Sarah, 41, has been keeping goats for 11 years at the family farm near Bridgnorth. She started with two goats, Pallas and Pales, and things just spiralled as Sarah developed her skills as a cheese-maker. Today, she is thought to have the largest Saanen herd in the UK and they live in pristine conditions, grazing on clover fields.
The goats, which originate from the Saanen Valley in Switzerland, are milked twice a day and produce about a gallon each. The cheese is made on-site at a well-equipment dairy. The place is spotless. In fact, the whole farm is spotless, including the covered pens where the goats are kept at night.
Sarah keeps asking me: “Can you smell anything?” And I have to say I can’t. I had expected the large goat shed to honk but it is entirely fresh smelling in here, thanks to herdswoman Jemma Francis, whose day starts at 4.30am with milking, cleaning the parlour and mucking out.
Sarah says: “A Lot of goat farms don’t muck out often. We muck out every day. They do it two or three times a year. It’s no wonder they have problems with their cheese.”
Her extraordinary attitude towards the goats, who she really does treat as pets, and the idyllic natural environment in this patch of Shropshire means the animals at Brock Hall Farm must rank among some of the least stressed four-legged creatures on the planet. A note on Sarah’s website says: “We are totally committed to the health and happiness of our goats. Therefore none of our goats are for sale as meat and will never be for sale for any purpose other than as beloved pets or for breeding.”
The “don’t eat the goats” directive is partly due to Sarah’s love of the animals and partly due to her vegetarianism. Interestingly, her husband Robert, who helps out with pasture management and equipment maintenance, eats meat, as do the couple’s two children. “I just love animals. I could not eat them or betray them,” says Sarah. “But I love it when my family eats well-produced meat.”
Happy, stress-free goats make for wonderful cheese. Forget any preconceptions about overly strong, “goaty,” slightly “high” and chalky cheese. Sarah’s lightly salted Soft Fresh is beautifully light with a lemon zing. “It is essentially only two days old,” says Sarah. You feel like you are doing your body a favour just by eating it. It is a highly versatile cheese, working well on crispbreads or on canapes. Sarah suggests pairing it with beetroot, basil pesto, sundried tomatoes, caramelised red onion, aubergines and olives. Chefs love using it instead of mozzarella with pasta or as a ravioli stuffing.
Sarah, who learnt how to make cheese at Reaseheath College, Cheshire, also makes Brockette, which she describes as a lactic cheese. She is currently working on two new cheeses as well – Goaterin, a semi-soft cheese inspired by French Vacherin, and Hampton Loade, a gouda-style rind-washed cheese with butterscotch and toffee notes. “With age it will go more nutty,” says Sarah.
It’s clear she loves her goats, and is passionate about cheese-making, so what does she like best?
“They are inextricably linked. You cannot make great cheese without happy, healthy goats. When I am with the goats I enjoy every moment. They are such rewarding, intelligent animals yet I also love making a product that people like. The cheese is a physical manifestation of all the care we put into the goats.
“There are a lot of easier ways to make money or fill your day, but I love goats and I want to make an award-winning, successful product.”