Local food is all the rage and one farm in Cajun Country has taken it to a new level. At family-run Belle Ecorce Farms, you can sample artisanal goat cheeses then meet the adorable goats that produced them!
We recently toured the farm with owner Wanda Barras, who oversees a menagerie of goats, miniature horses, ducks, chickens, exotic birds, hairless cats and a crew of rat terriers who have embraced their role as goat herders.
Located on the banks of the Bayou Teche waterway in Southern Louisiana, Belle Ecorce Farms was one of the highlights of our Cajun Country road trip. Read on for details of the farm tour and the award-winning Très Belle Chèvre cheeses.
Owner Wanda Barras has deep roots in Cajun Country and was raised on the St. Martinville farm that she now runs. She and her sister grew up riding horses and helping their grandfather raise cattle on the property he bought after World War II.
Standing outside of the goat pen during our Thanksgiving week tour, Wanda explained that goat cheese is not a traditional part of Cajun cuisine. Prior to starting her cheese business, Wanda’s only experience with goats was with a childhood pet.
As goat cheese gained popularity in the 1990s, Wanda’s attention turned to raising goats. She started with two pregnant females and by 1990 had ten goats, which she and her niece milked by hand. (The little girl grew up to become the manager of Belle Ecore Farms).
Goats aren’t native to the Louisiana bayou, which presents some challenges for local farmers. As Wanda explained, the short winter makes it harder to deal with parasites and the moist soil doesn’t clip the goats’ hooves as effectively as rocky terrain. Wanda overcame these obstacles by consulting with the professors from Louisiana State University and the University of Louisiana.
Farm tours are offered by appointment for an unbeatable price: $6.50 per person. (A tasting tour with goat cheese samples is also available for $12.50). We spent two hours with Wanda, exploring the animal pens and cheese making facilities as she told us about the history of the farm.
Belle Ecorce is home to 100 female goats from several breeds, including floppy-eared Nubians and elfin Lamanchas. Both produce high butterfat, sweet dairy milk, according to Wanda.
I haven’t come across any goats on the streets of New York City, so I was surprised by the friendly nature of the Belle Ecorce herd. The goats are adorable and come right up to visitors; I had to snatch my notes away from a white goat named Zano, who had a taste for paper.
Much like the title character in the film Babe, a tiny rat terrier has developed a bond with the herd and is now the resident “goat dog.” He corrals the nannies around their pen and suspiciously eyes all visitors.
Another terrier at Belle Ecorce was corralling a row of ducks, which play a more traditional role in Cajun cuisine. Wanda sells a small amount of duck eggs at a Baton Rouge market; she recommends combining duck eggs with bacon, onion and rice for a Cajun variation of Chinese fried rice.
Belle Ecorce Farms is also home to miniature show horses, including some national award winners and the smallest horse I have ever seen. Like the goats, the horses are friendly and walk right up to visitors.
Since the goats are milked seasonally, a Jersey cow on the farm provides fresh milk throughout the year for use in cheese making. We met her male calf, who is currently being weaned.
The backyard of the showroom and cheese making facility at Bell Ecorce is filled with birds, from spotted roosters to African Grey Parrots.
Dozens of exotic birds in rainbow hues squawked (and spoke) to use from their cages. Wanda breeds and sells the birds through a mail order company.
Belle Ecorce Farms now produces about 100 pounds of goat cheese per week, depending on the season, and has sold its products to the region’s finest restaurants– from John Besh’s New Orleans eatery August to Jolie’s Louisiana Bistro in nearby Lafayette.
A gregarious woman, Wanda did not have any formal training in cheese making but is not afraid to experiment with her products; she even considered selling goat milk soap before focusing on cheese. Her current line includes classic goat cheese– soft, creamy and delicious– as well as innovative versions of Brie and hard varieties.
Every step of the cheese making process is conducted onsite at Belle Ecorce, from milking the goats to aging cheeses in an above-ground refrigeration unit. It takes three hours for workers to milk 40 to 50 goats, whose names and numbers are tracked on a white board.
Walking through the cheese making room with its sleek steel appliances, it is hard to imagine that this was once the farm’s bird aviary. This is where Wanda’s innovative ideas are tested; her recent experiments include “beer cheese” crafted with local Abita beer, and variations on Gouda and Manchego cheeses.
While cheese making is an intricate process, Wanda approaches it as an art and does not use exact measurements. “It’s all touch and feel, looking at it and smelling it” she explained. “I’m not afraid to make mistakes.”
Wanda studied art education in college and summons her creative skills to create “party cheeses”– small disks of goat cheese peppered with herbs and decorated with flowers.
These small batches of goat cheese are made from original recipes and use eclectic ingredients like wasabi, hazelnut oil, pesto and orange marmalade.
My favorite was the Cracked Pepper (“CPM”), but the Parisienne and Tuscan (a two-time award winner) were also delicious. I enjoyed tasting a range of flavors, from tangy Jalapeño to fruit varieties.
Très Belle Chèvre cheese is for sale at the farm and at farmer’s markets in Southern Louisiana; call to place orders and arrange for shipment throughout the country.
Farm tours are available with advance reservations. The map on Belle Ecorce’s website shows the wrong location, and it can be tricky to locate the entrance on South Main Street in St. Martinville. Make sure to call and ask for directions before setting out.
Belle Ecorce Farms
St. Martinville, Louisiana
Phone: (337) 394-6683
Wanda’s Cell: (337) 519-0231
Office Hours: Monday – Friday 8:30AM to 4:00 PM or by appointment