Story and Photos by Bruce Shultz
ST. MARTINVILLE – Talk with Wanda Barras for a few minutes and you’ll realize she doesn’t do anything at half throttle.
She’s an all-or-nothing kind of woman.
“When I do something, I do it all the way. I just get absorbed with something.”
So even though she only intended 18 years ago just to get a goat for a pet (to add to her menagerie of miniature horses and a thriving exotic bird business), the plan for just a couple of pets took a big turn.
Before long she had a herd of goats and a lot of goat milk.
Wanda bought her first goats in 1999, when she went to a goat farm in Jackson, La., with a relative. “I thought maybe I’d get one as a pet.”
She ended up buying two females, and later a buck. “Believe me, a herd will expand quickly.”
Not only did she have more goats than she planned, she also had an abundance of goat milk.
She didn’t like store-bought goat milk, but was surprised that milk from her herd was tasty.
She also used the goat milk to make soaps, but that didn’t put a dent in the supply, so she signed up for a cheese-making seminar in North Carolina at the Goat Lady Dairy.
Her aviary for exotic birds was about to become the fromagerie.
From the course, she decided she would start making her own cheese, and she obtained a license in 2003 to sell her products with the label “Belle Ecorce,” French for “beautiful bark” referring to the bark of the live oak trees lining the road to the family land along the Teche.
She entered a few competitions with her cheese, and won several awards, including one in Wisconsin.
Wanda started selling her cheeses at a farmer’s market in New Iberia, then in St. Martinville before deciding the Baton Rouge Farmer’s Market is her best outlet.
“That pays my feed bill, and my people.”
But she realizes she has reached a plateau with the business.
“I’ve reached a point where I’m backing off. I’m not promoting myself like I should.”
The hard cheese is made with milk from her two Jersey cows, a breed she prefers because they give higher fat content.
Her goats are Nubian and LaMancha. She prefers LaMancha. “Nubians are not as smart.”
She said LaMancha goats catch on to the milking routine quickly, and they don’t have to be shepherded as closely.
She has cut down from 40 milking goats to 25.
Wanda admits that trying to keep a goat herd in south Louisiana is a challenge. “Trying to raise goats south of I-10 is a challenge.”
Goats prefer a rocky, sandy environment instead of muddy conditions that have been constant this year with frequent rains, she explained. “They’re not happy.”
She said she can tell the goats’ dislike of the sloppy ground has affected them because their milk production has decreased. One of her big sales venues is the Baton Rouge Farmer’s Market, held every Saturday morning where she sells cheese and sometimes fresh eggs.
“It takes us all week to get ready to go to market.”
She sells her cheeses at several stores, including Joey’s and Great Harvest. And her cheeses are used by several restaurants including Dark Roux and Bread and Circus and Saint Streets Inn. In Lake Charles, her cheese is sold by Crave Gourmet Baskets and Gifts.
“Her products fit real nicely with our offerings,” said Catherine Parrino, owner of Crave. “There’s something very special about her products.”
Parrino said she carries the herb-infused goat cheese, and the goat cheese sampler soaked in olive oil. “You don’t just like them, you love them.”
Wanda said several groceries carried her cheese, but she reduced her sales. “I backed down, and I didn’t want to get that big.”
She has a small modular unit adapted for her cheese aging house, kept at a constant 50-55 degrees in low humidity. The cheese ages a minimum of 4 months, up to 18 months. Aging gives the cheese more flavor, she explained.
Unlike cow’s milk, goat milk is naturally homogenized so it doesn’t require separation of the milk from the milk fat.
To start the fermentation process, the freshly made cheeses are inoculated with penicillin.
“I don’t follow recipes exactly. It’s more art than science, and I’m horrible with numbers.”
She makes a wide variety of cheeses, including camembert, brie, chevre, feta, gouda and blue cheese. The chevre, made from goat milk, is used for cheese spreads, mixed with a wide variety of ingredients such as jalapeno, sweet peppers, herbs and figs.
Several things can be added to infuse an interesting flavor in all the cheeses she makes, such as beer, sesame oil and chocolate mole’. She uses olive oil or pecan oil for a natural rind instead of wax.
Wanda said it’s not uncommon for her to spend all night doing research or combing the internet for information. “I’m one of these people who doesn’t sleep,” she said. “Four hours, and I’m good.”
But she admits that recently, she has started to scale back on her work. “I was working 16 hours a day, and it was killing me.”
Wanda first obsession was art, and she attended the University of Southwestern Louisiana in art education.
After school, she trained horses, then ran clothing stores before getting into exotic birds.
As long as she can remember, food and animals were a major part of life on Belle Ecorce.
“We’re foodie people. We know good food.”
Her cousin is chef and culinary writer Marcelle Bienvenu.
Every Sunday, her husband, Kenny Barras, cooks a big meal for the family.
In a pen near her milking herd, she has three miniature horses, including one that was a champion mare.
Before there was the goat operation, she had a thriving exotic bird business, selling macaws, cockatoos, parrots and African greys, and all the accessories, all over the U.S. She still has a breeding stock of birds
One of her grandfathers had a dairy, and another raised monkeys.
The Broussard family (originally Brossard) can trace the first family members’ migration from France to Acadia in 1654. When the British expelled the French settlers in the Grand Derangement in 1755, Joseph Beausoleil Broussard led an armed resistance campaign. Eventually he was captured and he led a group of Acadians to what would become St. Martin Parish in 1765.
“We’re direct descendants of Beausoleil Broussard,” Wanda said.
Stuart Gauthier, LSU AgCenter county agent in St. Martin Parish, said Wanda is actively involved with her grandchildren in the 4-H livestock program. He said she doesn’t just focus on the competition aspect of showing animals.
“She’s focused in the right direction, and I appreciate that.”