Backyard barn is perfect for homemade cheeses

By Margi Lenga Kahn, Special to the Jewish Light

I was inspired to make fresh mozzarella cheese after reading Barbara Kingsolver’s book, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.” But to make the cheese, I needed rennet, which is a combination of enzymes that coagulates milk and separates the solids from the liquids and the curds from the whey. I spent an hour on the phone trying in vain to find a local source. Frustrated, I Googled “rennet St. Louis.” The results indicated that I might have found a source. Actually, I found much more.

Her name is Merryl Winstein, and she lives in Webster Groves. She gave me her address, and off I went.

Driving down the quiet, tree-lined street in what seemed a typical suburban neighborhood; I had no idea that in the backyard of Winstein’s home were six goats. Yes, goats. To be precise, three Saanen, one Nubian, one Alpine, and a young kid not old enough to be milked.

Yes, milked. Winstein milks her goats once a day in her backyard barn, which was converted from a shed on the property. Her barn has five stanchions, which are platforms that hold the goats still while they are milked. Winstein designed the stanchions and built them herself.


“We knew this house was perfect for farming from the moment we saw it,” Winstein told me. “The house was on a triple lot, which provided ample space for a pasture to raise chickens. Over the course of about a year, I found that the Webster Groves ordinances allowed for the raising of farm animals, too. We added the goats later that year. “

Winstein stocks the rennet and other cheese making supplies because she is an accomplished and passionate — and superb — cheese maker. She has been making cheese from her goats’ milk and local cow’s milk for more than 16 years. She honed her skills by taking advanced classes in Massachusetts and a three-week class at the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese.

Winstein offers cheese-making classes in her home. She teaches techniques for controlling temperature, moisture and acidity levels and achieving the proper textures at different stages in the cheese-making process. Additionally, students learn about aging and how to set-up an aging cabinet in their homes. And, of course, they get to sample Winstein’s delicious cheeses.

So how does a nice Jewish girl, raised in Olivette, a 1974 graduate of Ladue Horton Watkins High School, get into farming and cheese making?

“There is no history of farming in my family,” said Winstein. “My parents wouldn’t even allow us to have a pet in the house.”

After her first year of college, Winstein moved to Canada, where she enrolled in art school to study illustration and graphic design. She spent summers as a farm hand on different farms.

In 1980, she returned to St. Louis and enrolled at Washington University, where she completed her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with a minor in Biology. Following graduation, she worked as an illustrator and designer, and eventually wrote, illustrated and published the book, “Your Fertility Signals –Using them to Achieve or Avoid Pregnancy Naturally.”

When she wasn’t in school, Winstein traveled the country, often staying on farms. She enjoyed the farm work. Although it was hard labor, it was personally satisfying. So much so that she was determined to make farming a lifetime goal.

When her first child, Sarah, now 18, was born, Winstein became a full-time homemaker and began farming.

When I visited her in mid-January, all five of her adult goats were pregnant. Their litters will range from one to three kids each, and their milk supply will provide not only enough to feed their babies but for at least one, and sometimes two, additional daily milkings.

The last time her goats gave birth, Winstein raised some of the males for extra meat and kept some of the females for milking. From this new litter, she plans to keep a male (a buckling) for breeding and one or two females (doelings) for milking. A number of people have expressed interest in buying some of the babies.

The chickens on the farm are multi-taskers. In addition to laying eggs, they pick through and eat parts of the goat manure, which keeps the barn and yard clean and, amazingly enough to me, free of odor.

Winstein’s husband, Richard E. Hibbs, is the gardener in the family. He grows potatoes, various greens, green beans, tomatoes, and assorted sweet and hot peppers.

I asked Winstein how her love of farming relates to her Judaism.

“For one thing,” she said, “the Torah is a lot easier to understand if you are a farmer. If you think about Abraham, Isaac, Moses and others, they were shepherds. Their lives revolved around raising goats and sheep to provide meat and milk to feed their families, skins for leather, and hair to weave into cloth.

“Having raised goats myself,” she continued, “I can also understand the animal sacrifices that they made and why they chose to only use the males for that purpose. They understood that the females provided much needed milk and could produce offspring to guarantee that their families would have food to eat and clothes to wear.”

And, of course, there’s Winstein’s commitment to hard work.

“I was not raised with a strong work ethic,” Winstein said. “It’s something I learned from watching other farm families. I wanted my children to understand that life is about learning to do things we enjoy as well as those we don’t. It is an enormous confidence builder. The discipline learned in doing farmyard chores goes beyond the physical and is applicable to learning in school and later in life. “

One year, Winstein’s son, Joseph, wanted an expensive pair of roller blades. He spent a couple of days digging out blackberry plants in the yard and potting them in small cups. At 5:30 one morning, Winstein took him to the local swap meet. There, her son was able to sell all of his plants in less than two hours. He made enough money that morning to buy his roller blades.

“Counting the money on the way home,” Winstein said, “he began to understand the value of hard work.”

Despite the hard work and dedication, there are limits to what you can accomplish on a “farm” in your backyard.

“We eat what we raise, but we are tied to suppliers for the hay and feed,” Winstein explained. “That being said, our food is better tasting and free of chemicals and preservatives. And we’ve created a model for farming that is entirely usable in cities.”

Winstein offers both half-day (3 hours) and full-day (7 hours) cheese-making classes. Laurie and Michael Vandervelde, both active in Hazon’s Community-Supported Agriculture Program (CSI) here in St. Louis, each took a full day class from Winstein on different days.

“We figured it was too much information for both of us to grasp over two days,” Laurie Vandervelde said last week, “so we split it up. Merryl Winstein makes cheese-making workable, is very hands- on and very clear. She is very passionate and knowledgeable,” Vandervelde remarked. “We’re looking forward to trying the simple recipes, the ricotta, mozzarella and queso blanco.”

Here are some of the ways I enjoy serving and cooking with fresh (no rind) goat cheese:

* Appetizers:

Quarter fresh figs (when in season), leaving the quarters attached at the bottom, and place a dollop of goat cheese in the center of each fig. Drizzle figs with extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkle with chopped fresh thyme and fresh ground black pepper.

Place 3 ounces of goat cheese in a jar and cover with extra-virgin olive oil. Add finely chopped garlic, black peppercorns, and a few fresh herb sprigs such as thyme, oregano, or marjoram. Refrigerate for 2 days. Drain and serve with crackers or toasted baguette slices.

* Salad:

Crumble goat cheese over a salad of mixed greens such as arugula, spinach, or field green mix, thinly sliced pears, toasted walnuts, and dried cranberries. Drizzle salad with a citrusy vinaigrette.

* Main Course:

Use a combination of finely chopped, saut éed vegetables gently mixed with goat cheese as a stuffing for raviolis made from wonton wrappers or fresh pasta dough. Boil stuffed raviolis in salted water until tender. Drain the raviolis and serve them in a hearty vegetable soup or as a pasta entr ée with tomato sauce.

* Dessert:

Drizzle honey over slices of goat cheese and top with toasted sliced almonds. Serve alongside fresh sliced strawberries.

To learn more about Winstein’s classes, contact her by phone at (314) 968-2596 or visit her website,

Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of two. A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is currently working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at [email protected]