The Value of Goat Cheese within Estonian Heritage Context

Theme: Documentation of Intangible Rural Traditions and Practices

by Ms. Nichole Michelle Weimer
HeritageForAll Intern (Call 2019) from Hawaii, USA and lives in Tartu, Estonia
Internship Program “Rural Heritage and Traditional Food”
M.A. candidate in Folkloristics and Applied Heritage Studies Program, Tartu University


This article is based on fieldwork conducted through three different Estonian goat farms with a special focus on one in particular. The author utilizes visual and aural methodology as well as participant observation to document and analyze the constructed values and beliefs of rural traditions through goat farming and making goat cheese.

Gentle bubbles started to erupt from the surface of the fresh goat’s milk in the tall, silver pot that sat over the small fire. Ann [1] clicked the gas burner off and lifted the pot 1 over to the left to cool. “Now, it will cool for about an hour” Ann explains, as she stirred in the rennet, an animal by product that reintroduces enzymes to the heated milk to create a chain of reactions which will result in cheese curds.

©author, 2019

We stood in Ann’s kitchen, a space of constant cooking, baking, eating, and of course, creating. It was warm, slightly humid and it smelled of fresh bread and boiled goat’s milk. Ann was pacing herself, moving confidently and silently throughout the kitchen, from the stove to the sink then back to the stove, with punctuations of explanations that pierced through the calm silence. Ann wasn’t much of a speaker, much like most Estonians, but rather a person of ergonomic usage of speech, speaking with minimal yet well weighted words. Rather, it was I who was nervous and peppering her with questions, which she gallantly took into stride.

Ann beckoned me to come back to the stove, once the hour had passed. “This is my favorite part,” Ann said through a small smile, “it’s very simple and maybe doesn’t make sense but it’s my favorite.” She grabs a clean knife and takes it to the milk in the pot. But when the knife touched the milk, it didn’t ripple as liquid does but rather, it pierced a mass that looked liquid yet was solid. Ann lifted a part of the sliced part up, checking to ensure that the curds were ready to be drained and separated from the whey.

She carried over the cooled pot to the sink where she had prepared the necessary tools of the craft: a strainer and a black bucket. Ann used a whisk to break up the curds in the pot and slowly poured partitions of the curd into the strainer while the whey drained down into the bucket beneath. This process was repeated till the curd and whey were segregated.

©author, 2019
©author, 2019

This case study is constructed around the farming experience with goats but ultimately the focus centers around the handcrafted goods made from goat’s milk itself and the meanings that are formulated through and around the goods. With Ann, she made things such as creamy and delicate fresh goat’s cheese, ecru colored goat’s milk butter, herbed goats cheese in luscious olive oil, and a few other edible commodities. However, this case study is also developed in such a way that documented crucial aspects of rural traditions and practices through interviews, participant observation as well as audio recording and film photography which will be elucidated further on.

“Kiiiitse kitse kitse!” Ann called into the air. The goats were hidden [2] amongst the late autumn brush but when they emerged, the soft thundering of their hooves that made contact with the soft earth provoked me to take a step back, a bit behind Ann. They sniffed at our pockets, searching for hidden treats and treasures while foraging for other earthly delights near us. Ann petted the nearest goat to her and began to tell me the story of how she came to this life.

©author, 2019

It was an easy decision to move from the city to the countryside but finding the right place took more time. Eventually, Ann and her family found the perfect house and moved to the land where the wind whispers through the leaves and the sounds of earth that echoed in the night. “I didn’t want to live in the city. I never really connected with the pace of life there, the demands, the noise, the stress. Coming back to the quiet rural life was a dream, one that I wanted to make happen” Ann details. Her farm was humbly large, with expansive fields for her herd of 23 goats to roam and forage, her laying chickens and clutch of turkeys, two dogs, two cats and a young energetic boy of six years old, to run and play. A small patch of forest lay behind her house and the main road softly hummed in the background.

Sound plays an incredible part in our lives and experiences as humans. It can evoke joy, anger, sadness, serene sensations and a plethora of other human emotions. It recalls memories of certain people, time, places and experiences. Music, certainly, is one of the first forms of sound, or perhaps as a collection of sounds, that we think of but there’s also other sounds that possess extensive amount of information that generates responses from us (Daza & Gershon, 2015). Such as the laughter of children, playing a game, that can evoke a sense of happiness or even a bittersweet reminiscence for our childhoods. The sound of a small yet pronounced sigh that could signify a sense of exhaustion, frustration, acceptance of a difficult situation or even relief. There are sounds that we associate with danger that infer us to act quickly. Through the creation and interaction of these sounds, sound therefore can be inferred to act as “an omni-directional microphone, acquiring the messy is-ness of the everyday that carries within braided signals of values, ideas, ideals, and processes” (Daza & Gershon, 2015). Simply, these sounds affect our experiences as humans, enhancing the received information that also become affected.

On site, I utilized a BOYA BY-MM1 shotgun microphone. This microphone is intended to be used in conjunction with a smartphone to create a sense of ease and generate greater mobility in the field. I recorded sounds that, as the researcher, I interpreted to be synonymous with the experience and life on Ann’s farm, along with suggestions from Ann and her family, what sounds they find to be important in their own perception and reflection of their lives. Some examples are the first calls of the goats in the morning, “it’s like they are calling me mom, asking me to wake up and come milk them.” There are also the sounds of the wind gentle moving about the leaves of the trees, human voices communicating with and around the animals, the gas stove clicking on, the running of water from the sink faucet, the sound of goats being milked, the clamoring of equipment being used to milk the goats and so forth. These sounds, in conjunction with the ocular data, aid in constructing and further enhancing the collected data.

©author, 2019

As previously stated, the aural data works in conjunction with ocular data. For this case study, it was based on film photography using a Minolta x-700 SLR with a majority of the film being of Kodak gold 200. The reasoning for utilizing an analogue based equipment was due stylistic choices, a deliberate intent to capture the nuances and imperfections within the lives of Ann, her family and the goats onto film.

Goat farming, let alone making artisanal goods from goat’s milk, is not particularly cultural heritage to Estonians. But what I propose instead as cultural heritage, is the backdrop in which goat farming operates within, which is the rural life, practices and traditions, that is very much so intrinsic and significant to Estonians. As Ants Viires claimed in their written text, ‘ Old Estonian Folk Life ,’ the topography and geographical makeup has deeply influenced the lives of Estonians throughout the millennia, as it is, “in addition to our original character, the natural and historical environment has helped us become what we are” (Viires, 2004). Furthermore, Ivar Paulson concertized how the Estonian forests became interwoven with the livelihood, beliefs, superstitions, stories and practices of Estonians as a relationship that operated “on the physical and spiritual level” (Paulson, 1971).

Ann’s family isn’t the only ones who decided to leave the urban space to return to some relative notion of their cultural roots. There’s also two other farmers: Tanel [1] and his wife as well as Mart [1] and his family. Tanel lived out his life and career in the capital city of Estonia, Tallinn, and decided upon retirement, to continue working but in the countryside as a goat farmer. He stated that the village they live in is in fact, close to where he and his wife grew up as young children. Moving to the countryside meant retirement, quiet, rest and reprieve for him and his wife. As for Mart, he and his wife decided, quite similarly to Ann and her husband, to move to Estonia’s idyllic rural spaces to raise their families and give their children an experience of traditional Estonia.

What is important to discern is that these people share a common sentiment of what is cultural heritage that is both influenced by internal cultural factors as well as the external factors that is partly constructed through the internal networks and their desired portrayal of self in Other. Rural Estonian tradition and practices functions through the self sufficiency that these farmers enact in relation to the environment they live in as well as the interpersonal relations shared. In the case of Ann, she believes in producing and making nearly everything they eat on the farm, “I want the best for my family, especially for my son. I know what is going into the food and I know that it is healthy and good for us.” There is also the interpersonal relationship that Ann has created and sustained through this occupation: the consumer and producer relationship. It is in Ann’s belief that there is a need and other people who desire to have good and clean food but do not have the resources or perhaps, desire, to fully commit to the rural lifestyle. In this, Ann is able to pursue a passion of hers while also being in demand of the consumer market.

The livelihood of farmers is not an easy one nor is it an affordable endeavor which calls into question of ‘why?’ Each farmer has their own reasonings and justifications for this path whether it was a calling to be answered or a generational tradition that was passed on to them and even more romantically based reasonings of retirement, a quiet life and the idyllic nature. For these selected farmers, most particularly Ann, this is a means in which to express her deeper values and beliefs of herself that is influenced and maintained through the means of her cultural and historical heritage. The goat milk products Ann makes reflects and facilitates a tangible commodity to represent her belief of good and clean food, the value and importance of interpersonal relationships and the traditions and practices of the rural Estonian life.

[1] Names have been changed at the behest of the interlocutor.

[2] Translation from Estonian to English: “Goooats, goats, goats!”


  • Daza, S., & Gershon, W. S. (2015). Beyond Ocular Inquiry. Qualitative Inquiry 21 (7), 639–644.
  • Paulson, I. (1971). The Old Estonian Folk Religion . Bloomington: Indiana University Publications.
  • Viires, A. (2004). Old Estonian Folk Life . Tallinn: Ilo Publishing House.

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