There are times when I question my life choices—like when I’m shivering in an old crumbling barn with the vet until midnight, only to set my alarm for 3 a.m. and again for 5 a.m. so I can check on a goat who’s in labor. I steadied myself that particular evening by summoning the specter of Mary Holbrook, a pioneering British cheesemaker who had passed away suddenly just weeks prior. Her death had left a void in the firmament of women in artisan cheese, and I found myself staring down her legacy as I began my own improbable pursuit: a goat dairy of my very own.
Mary’s cheese found its way to me via the Bedford Cheese Shop, a Brooklyn haunt I frequented back when I was a wine buyer and graduate student with barely formed dreams of making cheese. But it wasn’t until years later, after I’d successfully heeded the siren call of another fierce female goat farmer—Laini Fondiller of Lazy Lady Farm—and begun my gamble as a Vermont butter and cheese maker that I stumbled on Mary’s story and felt an instant kinship.
As I discovered, Laini and Mary had a lot in common, which may explain why they compelled me so profoundly. Both began crafting goat cheese decades ago, well before “chèvre” was the ubiquitous term it is now, and both were instrumental in bringing the concept of seasonal, handmade goat cheese into public consciousness. As fortune dictated, it was Laini whom I got to know intimately over the course of several seasons; I left New York City in 2014 to work as an assistant on her totally off-the-grid farm in the far reaches of northern Vermont. Mary remained a distant legend until 2018, when a chance encounter with one of her former employees inspired me to seek an apprenticeship at Sleight Farm, her dairy in the English countryside. By then I’d been working with goats and making cheese for four years, but the prospect of adding to my dairy toolbox at the elbow of a woman I admired seemed an opportunity too good to pass up.
I began making arrangements for my trip as summer ended, but a combination of financial obstacles and a labor shortage at Lazy Lady forced me to cancel my plans. Dreams of learning to cut the curd for thistle-rennet Cardo with my bare arms and shape the Valençay-like Tymsboro alongside Mary faded into the background as I drafted an apologetic email letting her know my change of plans. Ever graceful, Mary expressed her regret and left an open invitation for a future visit.
A month after what would have been my departure date to the UK, just as milking season wound down at Lazy Lady and I was casting about for The Next Thing To Do, an opportunity to rent a barn and creamery and acquire several retired milking does materialized. In a matter of months I went from part-time farmhand and dairymaker to full-time business owner and goatherdess, a transformation that has been equal parts terrifying and exhilarating. In a bittersweet turn of events, I heard of Mary’s passing just weeks after settling in to this little farm I now call my own.
The older I get, the more I see the paths not taken slowly fading from view as the one that seemed destined all along unfurls before me. I am bereft at Mary’s passing and at the unfulfilled chance to learn from someone whose life’s work made it possible for me to do what I do. But I also recognize that had I gone forward with my overseas plans, my own farm would not have come to be. While I mourn Mary’s loss and feel the sting of a path no longer available to me, I marvel at the deeply felt mentorship that Mary’s American counterpart, Laini Fondiller, has provided me. These two women have charted my course in ways both subtle and visceral, have engendered examples of what is possible, and laid the groundwork for all that I hope to do. I am determined not to let them down.