Gently ringing bells resonate on the property of one of New Zealand's top makers of goat's cheese.
Jennifer and David Rodrigue run the Belle Chevre Creamery, milking about 17 goats on their 16ha property near Waipū south of Whangārei.
"We have travelled to Switzerland many times and always loved hearing the bells on the animals there,'' said Jennifer.
As well as evoking the sound of the Swiss Alps, the bells allow Jennifer and David to keep track of their herd of Anglo Nubian goats.
"If we were ever to hear the bells heading in the wrong direction, we would know something has gone wrong and we would be able to quickly react.''
A self-taught cheesemaker, Jennifer has quickly risen through the ranks of New Zealand cheesemakers to win many top awards for her artisan cheeses over the past few years.
Her Belle Chevre Creamery Marinated Goat's Cheese won a gold medal last year in the Good George Brewing Goat Cheese section of the NZ Champions of Cheese Awards, run by the New Zealand Specialist Cheesemakers Association. It was runner-up for champion cheese in that section.
She also won silver awards for her Boursin de Chevre, a spreadable Gournay-style cheese, as well as her Yo-Goat yoghurt, which she has decided not to make commercially because of food compliance costs. She also won a bronze award for her Betta than Feta feta cheese.
In 2019, she won the trophy for Home Crafted Cheese and Cheesemaker of the Year. Later that year she obtained Ministry for Primary Industries registration and began trading commercially. Belle Chevre Creamery won three gold medals and three silver medals in the 2020 NZSCA Champion of Cheese Awards.
For Jennifer and David, the goats are almost like family.
"They all have names and they all have definite personalities,'' said David.
The goats share the pasture with young calves.
"We have an agreement with a friend to run their calves on our property. Goats and calves do not share the same parasites so the goats get the tall grass and the calves follow along to eat the pasture down and eat their worms as a way of cleaning the paddocks,'' David said.
Branches of pittosporum and other nibbly treats are shared among the herd, as goats prefer a wide variety of food.
Jennifer said pittosporum, willow and olive branches were harvested as well as leaves from the vegetable garden.
Shelter trees are fenced but bear signs of how high a determined goat can forage.
Dry conditions this summer are starting to affect milk production, so David and Jennifer will shortly decide when to dry off the herd, allowing them their only chance of a holiday.
While 17 animals might not seem like a lot to milk, the production is relentless through most of the year. Milking is done first thing in the morning, four at a time, and the afternoon is spent making the delicious cheese products in the creamery building.
Jennifer and David are also registered breeders of Anglo Nubians and are members of the New Zealand Dairy Goat Breeders Association.
"Our policy is that every goat finds a home, so we find places for all of the animals bred on the property,'' David said.
Stud bucks are sent to other breeders throughout New Zealand to ensure pedigree lines are kept diverse.
Part-time employee Sierra Ardley has recently joined the couple to help look after the goats and learn about cheesemaking.
Jennifer and David use solar power to run the business and house, with the summer sun now powering the entire business.
Custom-made stands in the milking shed allow two animals to be milked at a time while the next two are checked for any signs of ill health. Milk tests on individual animals are also done regularly to ensure it is always top quality.
In Jennifer's milk processing realm, the milk is pasteurised into curds and whey before she starts adding her magic, using cheesemaker's spoons with the quaint measurements of a tad for a quarter teaspoon, a dash for one-eighth, a pinch for one-16th, a smidge for one-32nd, and a drop for one-64th. The culturing process for some of the cheeses takes 18 to 24 hours.
As small artisan producers, Belle Chevre cheeses can be hard to find but lucky Northlanders can find them at the Waipū Roving Rural Market, of which Jennifer and David are founding members, as well as at local butcher shops in Waipū and Ruakākā, Graze in Maunu and in the cheeseboard selections of several top restaurants, including the Duke of Marlborough Hotel in Russell and Land and Sea at Marsden Cove.