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Old World cheese in a new world

By Rona Sullivan


In this Sustainable Goat Dairying installment for Dairy Goat Journal I will explain some history of cheesemaking in the early South Eastern North America, before laying out the Bonnyclabber Cheesemaking Process. This type of cheesemaking depends highly on intuition and all of the senses. If you are a person who must have a recipe, you will probably not enjoy it! It’s great for sustainable operations that require multi-tasking, and land/food/animal systems working in concert. Most of the stages are a little bit flexible, but I will make it clear which stages are not. Another important note is that you do need to be careful that your milk is clean from healthy animals, and be very responsible not to contaminate any wet food product, even when the product inherently contains healthy enzymes and good bacteria. After the history lesson, you’ll see the template for the process that I am using to make many varieties of goat cheese (or cow or sheep), which is also the template that I’m using in my classes.

For those readers who might have missed my first Sustainable Goat Dairying column in the Nov./Dec. 2005 issue of Dairy Goat Journal, or the Commercial Dairy Diary our family put together for the July/August 2005 issue, I own and run a micro-dairy (Sullivan’s Pond Farm, Inc.), in Eastern Virginia, where the Rappahannock River meets the Chesapeake Bay. I produce aged raw milk goat cheese made from fresh warm milk, with no rennet, starters, cooking, etc. I discovered several years ago, that one old name for this fermented milk product is Bonnyclabber, and that the Blue Ridge where I was born, was dubbed “Bonnyclabber Country” by settlers traveling through and settling Virginia during the 1700s. The term was originally Irish, meaning clabbered milk, but was anglicized to “Bonnyclabber” by the Scotch-Irish. 

During my dairy and genealogical research I also learned that my ancestral Scotch-Irish, were not actually Scots and Irish marrying in the new country, as I had previously believed. They were in fact, Presbyterian Scots who were coerced by the British to be removed to Ulster in Northern Ireland as farmers for a full 100 years prior to immigrating to America. They blended Irish traditions with their own, bringing the culinary, musical, and agrarian mix with them. Irish Catholics brought other Irish traditions later. 

Back in Ireland, cereal grains were eaten with clabbered milk daily. In America, cornbread was substituted, which was introduced by the American Indians. When I was growing up in Virginia in the late 50s, early 60s, buttermilk with cornbread crumbled up in it was still a daily staple. These are not the only ancestors that I have in Virginia who utilized this dairying tradition. Virginia was and is a very large melting pot, but the Scotch-Irish are simply the planter-pioneers tied most closely to the “bonnyclabber” name. During the 17th and 18th centuries in Virginia, there were mainly English, Scots (Scotch-Irish), Germans, Native Americans, and some French.

So why is this all so important?

Raw milk, even raw buttermilk, is an essential heritage food that is no longer legal in Virginia and many other states. That’s one of the reasons that I’m so vocal about how I make the cheese from naturally clabbered milk—legally aging it 60 days or more. Another reason is that the natural enzymes are so healthy and beneficial. Yet another reason is that this process makes cheesemaking accessible to every home kitchen, with only milk and a little salt—just like the time when there were no suppliers to get rennet to the backwoods farmsteads—but it is equally suitable for small commercial operations.

I’ve mentioned before that we have designed a 12×24 dairy that includes milking parlor, milk room, and cheese room: all compliant with commercial Grade A specifications in Virginia and many other states. We had a $3,500 Amish-built barn dropped onto the property. Then we put up all the partitions for the rooms, and outfitted them as much as we could with used equipment. Total cost was $16,500. It was important for me to create a legal cheesemaking facility that would be almost as accessible as the “just milk” cheesemaking process. Of course since we are small and only use raw milk, we don’t have to have any bulk tanks or pasteurizers. We don’t have bottling equipment, as we are only making cheese. Milking three cows, or 10 or fewer goats works in this size operation, and we were not required to have a septic tank for this small size.

We believe farmers should be appreciated and well-rewarded, where farming is done thoughtfully, sustainably, with long-term well-being taking priority over immediate gain. This requires thoughtful cooperation between producers and consumers, thus helping to break the cycle of overproduction, disease and animal losses, and lower margins; practices that force farmers to “squeeze the animals” to produce more milk, which drives the margins lower. On-farm cheesemaking keeps more of the value “on the farm,” and this could help keep dairies from going out of business. It might even encourage a resurgence of small, local dairies. 

Our dairy goats live well with a diet of 95% pasture, and locally grown orchard grass and alfalfa. Though our goats won’t produce as much milk this way, we believe they will live long, healthy lives requiring little medication, while rearing healthy kids with their milk. The rest we use for our cheese. If we do have to use a medication for a goat’s health, that goat’s milk is not included in the cheesemaking until the legal withdrawal period has passed. Our goats are bred only once a year, and milked seasonally, which gives us and them a much-needed winter break. Consequently, we have a shorter cheese-making season, but we don’t freeze milk or curd to prolong it, which could adversely affect the texture of the final product. Our dairy goats’ diet includes grain and mineral supplements, without animal by-products or hormones. 

In my previous estimations it takes no less than 20 pounds of feed to make 11 pounds of milk, which will make about one pound of cheese. The other nine pounds is whey, which at a “modern” 2,000,000 lbs./day cheese factory, is a big disposal problem. But on small farms, the whey is a natural resource; an opportunity to recycle. Some goats love it, but so do dogs, cats, ducks and chickens, pigs, and some people. It’s full of protein and is often used to fertilize plants, but my favorite utilization is to replace water with whey in my otherwise “authentic” French bread recipe; I think French bread goes best with my cheese! Whey is not only good for protein and enzymes, but can be used as a starter for fermented food products—another topic for another day.

My cheesemaking method is archaic and has been utilized by many cultures. In some cases it continues, or is experiencing a resurgence, but industrial revolutions in England first, and then throughout America, cut back on its use. It has been called “slosh back,” and “lactic curd.” “Slosh back,” simply means to save some milk from the previous milking to culture the milk from your next milking. This is what was called a “starter.” This practice encourages the good bacteria in the milk to activate, eating up the lactose, or milk sugar. Over time I realized that “sloshing back” was just another step I didn’t need to take, as there are beneficial active cultures already available in good, clean milk. “Lactic curd” simply refers to taking the time to allow the curd to form “on its own,” by developing naturally, rather than adding acidity. Because I am not pasteurizing, and prefer not to store milk, I must “start” cheese every day during the milking season.

I first challenged myself to learn to do all stages without the use of electricity, so that I can now use the least possible. Now we have a milking machine, as well as coolers in which to age the cheese. An added market benefit of this old way is that our cheese is not curdled with rennet made from calf stomach, which renders our cheese “vegetarian friendly,” at least to dairy-eating vegetarians. Some rennet is produced in a lab, and called “vegetarian.” Remember that there was no refrigeration in the South, which is why most cheese was consumed before it was aged, but aging was done by some people, and I have figured out ways to do it. We’ll go over that in the next article.

If you feel more comfortable, you can decrease the amount of milk. You won’t get as much cheese, but one gallon might yield about 3/4 of a pound. Just remember that you cannot put this on an exact timetable, as many variables affect the amount of time that the milk needs to clabber. It can take as little as eight hours in early lactation, and as long as a week, especially in later lactation or in cold or changing weather.


Pour fresh, strained, still warm raw goat milk into airtight 2-1/2 gallon clear glass containers. The clabbering process occurs in the most timely manner where the temperature remains between 85-105°F. (Fluctuating temperatures also have a detrimental effect on curd flavor.) Glass containers allow for observation without disturbance or possibility of curd contamination. Clabbering can take anywhere from six to 72 hours. Stirring is not necessary.

Clabber consistency

Any clabber consistency can be drained to make cheese with the correct choice of draining cloths. Following are three examples of clabber consistency that I categorize as Buttermilk, Yogurt, and Cottage Cheese, and their corresponding draining cloths.

Buttermilk: tight weave linen flour sack; yogurt: cheesecloth; cottage cheese: butter muslin.

Draining procedures

A warm ambient temperature in the cheese room precipitates the most efficient draining of curd. During late lactation clabber can be difficult to drain. Salt may be added during draining at the rate of one teaspoon per quart. For buttermilk, gently ladle clabber to drain first in a covered, cloth-lined colander. This will ensure retention of precious milk solids. If the clabber is dripping clear whey, but is still not of a desired curd consistency, then tie the corners of the draining cloth together and hang the bag. For whey collection, a receptacle may be placed under the colanders or the draining bags. The Yogurt or Cottage Cheese consistency of curd may also be ladled into cloth-lined colanders, but may be hung immediately upon the completion of tying the corners together. When dripping stops, which can also take anywhere from six to 72 hours, move on to the salting stage. 


I always salt at the rate of four teaspoons per gallon of curd, and then, of course, “to taste” during the tasting stage. 

Due to slow draining of late lactation milk, you may add salt before the draining. If you have opted for salting before draining, then you may like the option of leaving the cheese in their cloth bundles and pressing. These are called “Stilton Bundles,” but you may recognize the shape as Jack Style round edged discs. If choosing “Stilton Bundles” as the desired ultimate shape, the still-tied bundles can be placed between trays for their initial pressing. I use milk jugs filled with water as weights for this kind of pressing with large bread trays in-between layers, and leave them on the drain table. When whey stops again, the bundles can then be placed on towels between trays in a 45°F fridge for the drying stage. It is crucial to check the towels daily, and replace when they become wet. Otherwise proteolysis (melting/runniness) may begin, which is not going to be good for a cheese that you’d want to reach at least 60 days! When the bundles achieve the hardness that you desire, it is time for your rind choices, so that aging may begin.

For other unsalted curd it is time for the tasting of curd.


This is when I make my initial choice for what cheese this curd might make. If the curd is sharp and even somewhat bitter it is going to become “William & Mary’s Garden,” a “Spiced Cheese,” which is a legitimate FDA Standards of Identity option. I think garlic sweetens sharpness or bitterness, but additional balance may be obtained with thorough drying and pressing, or milder curd may be added to mellow out a sharp or bitter curd. I consider bitterness or sharpness at this stage to be a defect, but have also found that lactic curd cheeses mellow more over time than non-lactic curd, unless the bitterness comes from improperly drained cheese, which will deteriorate before it can age.

If the curd is sweet it will become my “Chesapeake Perle,” which will be encased in beeswax after drying. If it is buttermilk-like it will be called simply “Bonnyclabber.” I know which shape each of my cheeses will take. Shape is as important in identifying cheeses, as age, size, color, texture, taste and rind. It is extremely important for you to look at pictures, and read history of cheesemaking methods in your area, and in other countries. What draws you? What old methods would you want to put a new twist on? What grows in your area that is traditionally available, or showcases something about that area? If you’re going to make artisan cheese, you will need to make many decisions, which I believe is what keeps the interest of the cheesemaker, as well as their customers. Larger cheeses will not dry out as quickly, but may be more difficult for you to handle. Small ones sometimes dry out too quickly, but may be sold without slicing.


I almost always use only light salt, at the rate of one teaspoon per quart.

At this stage the cheese could probably be called “fromage blanc,” or “queso blanco.” It could be used on bread, on potatoes like sour cream, for pasta fillings, or in place of buttermilk in a recipe. In the next issue, I will go over drying, aging, rind treatments, beeswaxing, etc.

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