For the past two years, Emily Eakins has auctioned off her goats at the Sonoma County Fair. Her Boers have won prizes, and, not surprisingly, they're snapped up, butchered and barbecued. Though she's just 11, and only a sixth grader at Forestville Elementary School, Emily is a 4-H club veteran and knows what she's talking about what she talks goats. "Goat meat is really good," she says enthusiastically. "It's better than lamb—not as gamey. Chocolate, my first goat, was a real sweetheart. Last year my prize goats, Super Bull and Little Red, were skittish. They didn't want to be petted."
All over Northern California, "Got goat?" has become more than just a rhetorical question. Farmers in Marin, Sonoma, Mendocino counties and beyond are turning to goats as a way to diversify and to jump ahead of the culinary curve, as cutting-edge chefs have begun to cook goat and serve it in restaurants. Of course, goat meat has been around as long as European immigrants have been around, and goat has always been a part of the Mexican-American diet. Almost every taco truck serves goat tacos, and the taqueria, that ubiquitous American institution, wouldn't keep customers happy without birria, a kind of goat stew.
Mark Dierkhising, the chef-owner of Dierk's Parkside Cafe in Santa Rosa, has been cooking goat in Napa and Sonoma since the 1970s. He's learned a lot from the Mexican immigrants in his kitchen. Last September, he put goat chops on the menu, and because they were an overwhelming success, he's planning to serve goat tacos regularly.
"Goat is everywhere, though people don't notice it," Dierkhising says as he stands at the counter, wearing a white apron. "In the vineyards, Mexicans will cook a whole goat. They dig a hole, build a fire, and let it die down. Then they'll put a whole goat inside a kettle, drop it into the embers, cover it with a damp cloth and cook it for hours. At lunch, it'll feed a crew of 30 men. Nothing tastes as good."
At Big Goat Farm in Marin near San Antonio Creek, Cindy Pomi raises goats with her husband, Mark, on a 503-acre ranch that was home to cows for nearly 100 years. Now they have a herd that includes 200 does, eight billies and about a hundred kids, all of them friendly to humans, though the billies butt heads. Mark Pomi is a third-generation farmer and a graduate of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where he and Cindy met. He's not ready to give up farming without a fight, but he'd rather be raising something more dignified than goats.
"They're OK," he says begrudgingly on a sunny autumn morning in between chores. "In some ways, they're like cows. They're ruminants. They eat thistles and blackberry bushes. They're time-consuming, and as with cows, you have to mend fences."
Cindy enjoys goats more than does her husband. The daughter of farmers in the San Joaquin Valley, she has a BS in animal sciences and an MA in agricultural education, and teaches science in a one-room schoolhouse in West Marin's Hicks Valley. She's also a representative for Barefoot Books, which specializes in children's literature. "All of us have second jobs," she says as she stands in a field surrounded by goats with names like Bon Bon and Candy, her sunglasses perched atop her head. "Farming is a way of life," she adds. "It was bred into me. As a girl I was shy; farm animals helped me get over it."
The Pomis take their goats to Dixon, near Sacramento, to be slaughtered in a USDA certified slaughterhouse. Then they're delivered to such as the Marina Market and the Olema Inn, where chef Jimmie Wong cooks goat from time to time.
The goat business has picked up in recent months, in part because of glowing articles about goats in newspapers and magazines, so the Pomis' goat meat is already sold through March 2009. Still, goat ranchers feel there's an uphill battle to fight. As they point out, consumers often think of goats as inedible creatures that dine on tin cans. The idea of eating "kid" turns stomachs, but it won't if Emily Eakins and Cindy Pomi have a say.
Perhaps the most eloquent local advocate for goats as farm animals, pets and all-around environmentally friendly beasts is a Petaluma native named Nancy Barlas, who raises Boer goats with Paul Lewis, a jovial descendant of immigrants who came from the Azores in the 1840s. Barlas and Lewis also make two kinds of goat sausage, one for breakfast and one for dinner, available only at the farm and by mail order.
"Goat is the healthiest meat when it comes to fat content, cholesterol and sodium," Barlas says, as goats with names like Picasso, Nemo and Chattanooga gather around. Barlas wears a T-shirt with the image of a goat. "Goats are intelligent," she continues. "They do minimum damage to the environment, they help prevent fires and they manage landscapes. You can eat almost every part of the goat: leg, shoulder, shank and breast."
Paul Lewis listens carefully and nods approvingly. "I've spent most of my life with pigs, horses, cows and sheep," he says. "I've been fascinated with ruminating animals. Goats are the most amazing. They're eaten in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americans. More people eat goat than any other red meat."
At Della Santina's Trattoria on the plaza in Sonoma, owner Dan Della Santina remembers his boyhood in Tuscany, and the mountain villages where the entire culture centered on goat. "Villagers ate goat cheese, goat milk, goat meat," he says. "The boys who tended the goats came down from the mountains in September and went back in spring when the baby lambs were born. We ate goat every Easter. That's the one time of the year we serve it here."
All year round, goat sells for about $3.99 a pound at the Chapala Meat Market in the Fiesta Shopping Center on Highway 12. Seven days a week, goat tacos, just $2 each, are served at the Taqueria Los Primos on Highway 12, a short walk from the Sonoma Mission Inn. Sheana Davis, a local chef and educator who learned to cook the meat from two Bulgarians who worked on a Sonoma goat farm—eats at Los Primos with her dad. "Goat is here to stay," she predicts. "It's only a matter of time before it's in upscale restaurants all over Northern California."
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