Laurel Miller Visits Quillisascut Farm School
Sign up for chores at Quillisascut Farm School, where hard work is celebrated
The 33 goats of eastern Washington’s Quillisascut Farm assemble at the milking parlor in a line that would put most first graders to shame.
Co-owner Rick Misterly calls for many by name before he and his wife, cheesemaker Lora Lea, get down to business. I grew up raising dairy goats, but watching this twice-daily ritual during the week I spent with the Misterlys reminded me that farming is a profoundly personal undertaking.
I was at Quillisascut with nine other culinary professionals attending Rick and Lora Lea’s Farm School of the Domestic Arts—an intense, seven-day, hands-on crash course in animal husbandry, agriculture, and farm-to-table cooking. My fellow students and I slept dormitory-style in a hand-built, straw-bale farmhouse equipped with a spacious professional kitchen, its counters lined with jars of homemade herbal vinegars, strings of dried peppers, and bowls of saved seeds.
Each day, the ten of us split up into groups and were assigned specific tasks: weeding rows of crops; making cheese; foraging for elderberries, chokecherries, and rose hips; and harvesting ingredients for every meal. We were also put into kitchen crews, charged with producing meals for the entire group. Some were quite lavish, which was a triumph considering the Farm School rule: except for salt, sugar, and coffee beans, everything we used had to be local. In our own kitchens, none of us would hesitate to reach for a lemon to provide acidity in a recipe; at Quillisascut, we had to find a closer source. We substituted verjus, a “green” tangy juice made from unripe grapes. We also dehydrated, pickled, and preserved the overflow of late summer crops and ground our own flour. In the creamery, we scooped gloppy cheese curds into molds and stretched mozzarella, learning the basic hand work needed to make three basic types of cheese: instant set (a ricotta style), rapid coagulation (mozzarella), and long set (chèvre).
While most of the participants were familiar with the concept of eating locally, participating in the demanding physical work of farmsteading brought the idea home in a new way. One early dawn when I entered the milking parlor, Lucy Damkoehler, pastry chef at Seattle’s TASTE restaurant, was finishing her turn with the goats. “It’s a lot of work, going from ground zero to the table,” she observed with awe.
For most of us, the really intense part of the week was the butchering of a male kid goat and ducks. In fairness to the animal, Rick did the actual killing, but we each plucked and butchered our own duck and participated in skinning, eviscerating, and breaking down the goat. Because the Misterlys emphasize sustainability, every edible part was used in one form or another. Much of the meat was made into sausage and other charcuterie, although we set aside duck breast and a goat haunch for later meals. I was assigned—along with 17-year-old Ian Pecoraro, the youngest member of our group—to cook the goat’s testicles. Ian and I dutifully marinated them overnight (in garlic, olive oil, white wine vinegar, and thyme sprigs). The next day, we sliced and pan-fried them; their surprisingly mild, savory taste made up for the teasing we’d endured.
Many of the meals we cooked and consumed were memorable, but the highlight was a farewell dinner of spit-roasted goat, tzatziki, baba ganoush with paneer, and yogurt cake with rose-hip syrup and walnuts. Watching the goat cook on the spit, the air fragrant with burning apple wood, I chatted with Matt Wakefield, a sous chef at Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts. Because Matt had no previous agricultural experience, I was curious to find out what he had learned from his week on the farm.
“It’s going to change the way I cook,” he declared. “I’ll have more respect for the food. Instead of just slapping a piece of meat onto a plate, I’ll remember a goat going from live animal to a carcass . . . I need to set aside the time to call and talk to farmers and teach my staff not to waste. It’s just food to us, but to the farmers, it’s their livelihood.”
Written by Laurel Miller
Photography by Harley Soltes
Laurel Miller is a contributing editor at culture and a food and travel writer based in Seattle, Washington.