As the moisture evaporates off the pot of forming candy, a rising steam perfumes the kitchen with scents of fresh grass, bathing pigs and livestock stamping through wet hay.
That barnyard smell is the first sign this caramel is, well, different.
“But in a good way,” says confectioner Shannon Hitchon, of an ingredient she’s just getting used to working with.
“It has a tang to it.”
And subtle undertones that will vault this candy, once cooled and cut into bite-sized squares, into sugar’s hall of fame.
Rather than cow’s cream, which is usually the starring ingredient in caramels, this pot of sweets is being fashioned from goat’s milk.
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And because of that ingredient, this candy is not only sublime, but a rarity.
This batch, as well as the ones before it and those to come, of course, may be Canada’s only goat’s milk caramels. Hitchon, may be the only artisan making them.
And the couple who commissioned her, Debbie Nightingale, a television executive and husband Shain Jaffe, a retired literary agent, may be the only urbanites to leave their big city gigs to start a line of confections, called Haute Goat, built around the oft-bearded creatures.
Specifically, a miniature breed native to West Africa called Nigerian Dwarf goats.
Just under two feet high with coats in muted hues of black, white and, fittingly, caramel, the small animals romp contentedly about a gated pen at the bottom of a lush rolling hill on the couple’s 10-hectare farm just east of Peterborough.
Warm and cuddly like newborns, the goats spring onto ledges, pop into doorways backlit by streams of afternoon sun, gnaw at hay and brush the tops of their soft heads onto any leg they come by.
“I just completely fell in love with them,” says Nightingale, 60, of why she fled Toronto for a pastoral setting. “They make me smile.”
About eight years ago, on a whim, she and Jaffe, 70, sold their St. Clair Ave. and Christie St. home and purchased the Campbellford property. Shortly thereafter, Nightingale came across the tiny breed on the internet. And bought one. Then another.
Suddenly, she was tending a herd with an aim to use their milk to craft artisanal desserts. Almost as quickly as she mastered the art of hand milking, Nightingale learned that bringing her facility up to Ontario’s goat milk regulations wasn’t going to be easy.
“It would have cost us a million dollars,” she says. “It wasn’t an option.” But she didn’t give up. Instead, she began sourcing goat milk from other local, regulated farms and searching high and low for artisans willing to work with the often fickle ingredient (Haute Goat also has a line of goat milk and cheese chocolates). Finally, after chatting her way through Ontario’s foodie scene, she found Hitchon and her company All Mine Caramel.
For a month, earlier this year, Hitchon, a self taught caramel maker in Toronto (who crafts Haute Goat’s goat’s milk caramel corn too ($10 for 300g), tussled with the high fat goat’s milk. She played with temperatures, experimented with moisture contents, sugar and salt concentrations and ratios.
She even spent hours evaporating pots of goat’s milk to just the right consistency and days figuring out how to slice through the very sticky — stickier than caramel made from cow’s milk — results.
Finally, she got it all to work.
The end product is a salted caramel ($1 for one piece or $10 for a pack of 10 pieces) that’s languid yet firm, soft but with just the right degree of chewiness and with an ever so subtle essence of barnyards and goat cheese that, even if it sounds weird, elevates this caramel’s pleasure principal tenfold.
“I’m up for trying anything,” says apron-clad Hitchon, of why she dove headfirst into the goat’s milk challenge.
“But this is a different beast all together.”
The caramels, and other Haute Goat products, including soaps, are sold at the FarmGate store which opened Aug. 3 at the Campbellford farm, online through the Haute Goat website and occasionally at farmer’s markets in the city, including Saturday morning at The Stop’s Farmers’ Market at Wychwood Barns.
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