Posts filed under 'Photos'

Driving out West

Rough BreakThe day has come… we knew it was there, looming… but we now have the 1,000 mile drive between western Montana and our next farm in Minnesota. As I write this we are driving in Eastern Montana, what They call Big Sky Country.

Sasha is working up a storm to get up farm profiles. When you are visiting farms, driving, and camping it is hard to find the time to write a post then hunt down a connection to post it! But stay tuned… more farms will be coming!

Anyway, we had a few days to explore the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. Wow. For those that haven’t been… um, you should go. Really. It’s a pain in the ass to get to - and the crowds suck - but man is it crazy, weird good. We got to see many animals doing their thing: elk, deer, moose, coyote, pronghorn, marmot, wolf, bison.

Also had a great Overheard… Overheard in Bozeman, MT:
[employee explaining the other line of work of the owner of Lube Alley where we were getting our oil changed]
“He’s also a freelance beaver assassin.”
[inaudible response]
“It’s a dying art form”

Sunrise on the Tetons

Great Fountain Geyser

Hot Spring

Bison

Add comment August 12th, 2006

Windsong Farm

GaryName: Windsong Farm
Owners: Gary and Carla Beau
Location: Palmer, AK
Animals: They purchase milk for cheesemaking from a dairy 3 miles down the road that has been in operation since the 1930’s. The cow shares they sell are for the two Holsteins on their land.
Cheeses/Products: Mozzarella, Cheese Curd, Fresh Cheddar (plain and flavored), Beer Cheese (made with three local beers)
More Info: www.windsongfarmusa.com

Gary Beau has lived in Alaska since he was 10 years old and for some inexplicable reason, for as long as he can remember, he wanted to have a farm in Palmer. Palmer lies in the Matanuska Valley, the primary- if not only- agricultural belt in alaska. He and his wife Carla ran a successful small airplane business for decades before they purchased a forested lot at the end of a road in Palmer in 1990. With the assistance of seven sheep they cleared the land for building. In 1992 their next door neighbor (a family of 9) decided they needed a milk cow. [Note that at this point in the conversation Gary does mention that he never wanted to be a dairy farmer because dairy farmers are stuck: they’ve got to milk twice a day every day.] So their neighbor asks them if they would go in on a cow with them; they would trade off every three months so no one would be stuck milking year round.

They purchased a Jersey and every three months they would walk her across the bridge between their two properties. Well, eventually this cow had a heifer calf and the neighbor was not interested in expanding his herd so Gary took over responsibility for this calf. She was too cute to sell so Gary kept her and raised her. By the time the original cow had her second calf, Gary still had not sold the yearling. Eventually they were milking two regularly and figured that if they were milking two twice a day they might as well be milking 25.

Gary making cheese

The milk from the first two cows was already too much for them to consume so they ordered a book from the New England Cheesemaking Company and began making cheese in their kitchen. They had enough sense to understand that there wouldn’t be much money in selling milk to a coop so as they expanded their herd they continued making cheese. Sounds logical enough except that you’re in Alaska and in the winter it gets down below negative 20 (without wind chill) and you’ve got four hours of daylight. When we got into the winter conversation Gary did admit that its not easy, he remembered a morning where he walked out to milk the cows and even with a head lamp on he walked square into one of his beef cattle and knocked himself over.

back of the farmPicture it for a moment, it is pitch dark, the wind can be upwards of 120 mph and it is below 20 degrees and you are walking out to milk your cows. It costs at least two times if not two and a half times as much to feed your herd as it does in any other state. You have to be committed to continue with this routine like the Beaus did. Eventually it got to be a bit much with milking, making and selling the cheese. Four days a week, year round, Gary drives his truck out to a busy intersection and sells cheese from 3-7pm to passersby. I asked him if people come even in the winter and he said indeed they do, only difference is that they are slightly less interested in conversation. They decided it was time to downsize or shift their model a bit.

The Beaus sold their 25 cows, keeping two Holsteins and their original Jersey- Blossom, and struck a deal to buy milk from a dairy three miles down the road from them. The dairy they buy from has been there since the 1930’s and was selling all of their milk to the single coop in Alaska. Gary called the owner of the coop and asked if he could buy milk from him and the gentleman suggested he buy from the farmer closest to him directly. This is nothing short of a miracle in the world of milk coops (since they normally have exclusive contracts with the farmers) and yet it makes complete sense in the communal culture of Alaska.

I’m not sure if we’ll see Windsong’s cheeses in the lower 48 anytime soon… at the moment they are selling out locally. If you want to taste their cheeses you’ll just have to head to Alaska. Look for Gary off of South Glenn Highway in Palmer.

Windsong cows

Add comment August 11th, 2006

Beecher’s Handmade Cheese

Beecher's @ Pike PlaceName: Beecher’s Handmade Cheese
Owner: Kurt Dammeier
Location: Seattle, WA
Animals: Purchases milk from two cow dairies nearby downtown Seattle. One dairy has 120 cows and the other has 80. The breed breaks down to 80% Jersey and 20% Holstein between the two dairies.
Cheeses/Products: Flagship, Just Jack, Marco Polo, No Woman, Cheese curds (plain and flavored), Blank Slate (plain and flavored), Cultured Butter, some prepared foods too including Mac n’Cheese made with their own Flagship cheese.
More info: www.beechershandmadecheese.com

Kurt Dammeier is the first to admit that he kind of backed into the cheese business… he found the perfect location for cheesemaking, signed a lease and went in search of milk, a cheesemaker, and a recipe after setting up his cheesemaking room. Milk turned out to be surprisingly tough to find in the quantity and, more importantly, of the quality he needed. There were a couple dairies interested in working with him- largely because of recent changes in the local milk coop structure.

Kurt showing how to press

Beecher’s works with two dairies today, one has 120 cows and the other has 80. The mix has a Jersey majority with Holsteins making up the difference. This was done intentionally to get the right components for the cheese Beecher’s wanted to make. One of the farms that Beecher’s works with didn’t have the capital to invest in additional Jersey cows so Kurt purchased the cows to help them grow the herd.

We met Kurt in his office across the street from Pike Place Market. He talked us through his various businesses and partnerships and we began to understand that Kurt entered the cheese business with a different kind of thinking than most of the people we’ve visited. Knowing that he had capital to invest up front he decided to fill some holes he saw in the market. For example, he went with cows because most smaller farms opt to work with goats or sheep (they are easier to manage physically, require less land mass and are cheaper to purchase), and he created a cheese that ages for a year so as not to compete with others who might be operating on a tighter cash flow turn around than he needed to do. Basically he looked at the artisan cheese industry as a whole to understand where he could add value given that he had a certain amount of capital to invest and that his goal in this venture was to educate people about where their food comes from and how it is made.

CheddaringWe took a tour of his shop in the market which is also where his two large cheddar vats are (10,000 pounds/1,000 gallons of milk each)- a corner location with huge windows designed to achieve Kurt’s primary goal for Beecher’s: education. Around lunchtime the crowds swarm around the windows to watch cheesemakers working on the signature cheese called Flagship- a cross between cheddar and gruyere. They can stroll into the shop and taste fresh cheese curds and sample other Beecher’s cheeses. Outside of cheeses made by Beecher’s , the shop is focused on local, whole foods (no additives, preservatives, trans-fats, etc.). Other non-Beecher’s cheeses come from surrounding states- Montana, Oregon, California and of course other Washington state producers.

Kurt drove us out to one of the dairies they work with about 35 minutes outside of Seattle’s city center. As we drove Kurt explained the Beecher’s internal review of each batch of cheese. A select group of employees tastes every batch and determines whether it will go to the cheese counter to be sold as a table cheese, into the Beecher’s food products (i.e. mac and cheese), or gets held back to be submitted to upcoming competitions. Kurt shared some of his thoughts on the surge of cheesemakers entering the market. He said that, “…rising tide floats all boats,” sounding like the entrepreneur he is. He feels confident that quality always pulls through and that competition pushes all in the industry to do better. Part of this confidence most likely comes from his experience as an investor in Pyramid Brewery and weathering the sea change in the micro-brew business.

The farm he took us to is called Cherry Valley Farm and has been a cow dairy since the turn of the century. The gentleman who runs it today is the third owner since the homestead and when he purchased it in 2002 it was not in operation. Slowly he is making structural improvements to the facility. We checked in on the calves and wandered out to the free stall barn where the ladies were milling about awaiting their next feeding. The farmer puts the cows out on grass as much as he can but rain prohibits him from relying on grass for a steady percentage of feed thus the cows are fed a total mixed ration (silage, grain and hay). The farm is working towards growing 100 acres of corn so they can produce their own silage. While we talked to the farmer we enjoyed watching the Holsteins and Jerseys- quite a size difference between them- feed side by side.

Jersey & Holstein

Given that Beecher’s Handmade Cheese only began in 2002, it is awesome to see what a fixture it has become in the Pike Place Market. We were intrigued, but not particularly surprised, to hear that Kurt is tinkering with the idea expanding to have a farm of his own someday… knowing Kurt someday could be next week.

Add comment August 10th, 2006

Rogue Creamery

DavidName: Rogue Creamery
Owners: Carey Bryant and David Gremmels
Location: Central Point, OR
Animals: Rogue gets all of its cows milk from one dairy along the Rogue River. The dairy milks 200 cows and has a herd of Holsteins with a few Brown Swiss.
Cheese/Products: Crater Lake Blue, Smokey Blue, Oregon Blue Vein, Oregonzola, Rogue River Blue, Cheddar (regular and flavored), Cheese Curds
More info: www.roguecreamery.com

First order of business when we arrived at Rogue was an in depth tour with David. Before he caught wind of our presence we perused the creamery’s retail store where they have a combination of local and Italian cheeses, wines and food stores. The Italian bit catches you off guard until you hear about the history of this place and the celebration of Italian heritage that has been part of the creamery since 1935.

David and Carey tell the history on their site- read more- but for our purposes it is important that you understand that Tom Vella started the place back in 1935, handed it over to his son Ignacio Vella who sold it to David and Carey four years ago with the stipulation that they would continue to make the creamery’s signature cheeses according to tradition. Another part of this agreement is that Ig spends a week out of each month at the creamery observing and providing guidance and expertise to their cheesemakers.

dipping the blueAll of the offices are in the old house where the Vellas lived, there is another building across the road that serves as housing for the production manager and as a place to stay for Ig when he visits the creamery. David took us over to the blue cheese making room which is in a separate building from the cheddar making and retail shop. There were four guys working on pulling curd from the vat- timing is critical as the curd continues to acidify when it sits in the whey. Eight forms are set on a metal shelf that straddles the vat, the curd is scooped up and spread amongst these forms until they are full and then the cheesemaker slides a metal disc under each form one by one so they can be moved onto the large retail racks for draining. The racks are all at a slant to promote draining- this also means the cheeses must be flipped at regular intervals for the first 24 hours to level out the wheels (otherwise they would be slanted on one side).

We walked into the blue cheese cave which was absolutely teeming with racks of blue wheels- some pierced, some coated in melting salt crystals- and the aroma was to die for…sweet cream with a hint of blue mold. All wheels are dry salted for the first 7 days after they are made. On day eight the wheels are perforated to activate the aerobic blue molds that require oxygen to bloom (they actually test each batch to ensure it is ready for piercing). We got to see Poasa (who is also training to make cheese) doing perforations and waxing. From this point on, the wheels are all set on their sides and turned one quarter turn each day. The salting of newer batches and rotating of aging batches is no small task- even though you are in a delicious smelling room. After (60-75) days the wheels are waxed and moved to cold storage for long term aging. Although it took some convincing, David got us out of the cave and into the packaging room to meet Anna- the team leader- and see the immense amount of work that goes into packaging each wheel- all by hand of course. The wax is broken off and any stray bits of wax that crept into the perforations are plucked out before the wheels are wrapped in foil and sealed in plastic.

Salting the blue

The following morning we watched the earlier stages of cheesemaking- Rogue has the oldest pasteuriser in the western U.S. which was designed by Tom Vella and although they do not pasteurize the milk they use for their blue cheese making they do use this piece of equipment to get the milk up to cheesemaking temperature. We got to see their new cheese harps in action before we took a break to interview David (Carey was at Oregon State working with a gradutate student to define their raw and pasteurized milk study). It is clear that at Rogue there are three main priorities: preserving tradition, creating an excellent working environment (they have a better benefits package than many larger companies), and providing high quality cheese. A number of the employees at Rogue are lifelong residents of Central Point who remember coming to the creamery as kids for curds and they have re-discovered it as a place to learn new ways to apply their expertise from previous careers. A couple examples of this are Craig and Mike- two of their cheesemakers. Craig came to Rogue with decades of experience in military management and has taken on some production manager responsibilities while learning to make cheese. When Mike started at the creamery his expertise in refrigeration came in handy and over time, he has discovered that he is very interested in the science of cheese and Carey is now training him to take over their internal lab work.

the packing team

When we left the creamery we drove over to the Rogue River to meet Delmar at Rogueview Dairy- the source for the milk used for their cheeses. He has 70 acres with 1/4 mile frontage on the river- a beautiful piece of property in a valley that used to be loaded with small dairies of 15-20 cows. Delmer started with 90 cows and has grown to 200 where he has held for the past 15 years. The milkers go out on pasture daily when weather permits (which is from March-October) but are not exclusively grass-fed, they also get hay and grain. The dairy is now surrounded by homes- the same suburban encroachment that we’ve seen across the country- and although he hasn’t had many complaints from neighbors, those homes are a constant reminder of the value he could get for his land should he decide to sell it for development. Our visit with Delmar is a reminder of the tenuous nature of relationships between dairies and creameries all over the U.S. as the temptation to sell out and stop working so hard is great for dairy farmers. Given the current situation we are particularly thankful for creameries like Rogue who are committed to sourcing locally and working with dairies like Rogueview to restore the economic viability of dairy farming.

Delmar Cows at Rogueview

Add comment August 6th, 2006

Cypress Grove Chevre

mary1.jpgName: Cypress Grove Chevre
Owner: Mary Keehn
Location: Arcata, CA
Animals: Purchases goat milk from multiple dairies locally- occasionally reaches farther than local for milk when needed.
Cheese/Products: Chevre, Chevre Logs, Fromage Blanc, Humboldt Fog, Fog Lights, Pee Wee Pyramids, Bermuda Triangle, Mad River Roll, Goats Milk Cheddar, Mt. McKinley. They also have three products that are part of their Creamline selection- Midnight Moon, Lamb Chopper and Ewe-F-O.
More info: www.cypressgrovechevre.com

We had one of those is-this-really-our-life mornings the day we went to see Mary Keehn. Up at 6AM in our tent deep in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. We had some charred toast and cantaloupe with our friends Rose and Dave before winding our way out of the Redwoods to Highway 1. Of course all of that took a lot more time than we anticipated so we arrived at Cypress Grove at 9:30 instead of 8:30. Mary held no grudge- major props to her as it wasn’t just any Monday morning, it was July 3rd.

All of you Humboldt Fog fanatics must be dying to know about the origin of your favorite food… I will begin by saying that the name represents the locale quite well- dense fog hangs on everything in Arcata. The interior of the creamery is a fantastic contrast to what is outside: the walls are painted bright yellow and red. Mary took us on a tour of the receiving, pasteurizing, cheesemaking, aging and packaging areas. One of Mary’s most endearing qualities is her genuine surprise at the incredible growth and success of Cypress Grove. She decided to get licensed as a cheesemaker (over 20 years ago) because one restauranteur in town wanted to buy cheese from her. Because she had an ever-expanding herd of award winning goats and needed an outlet for the milk, she did it.

Packaged Purple HazesThe creamery recently acquired a used 2000 gallon pasteurizer and it is obvious when Mary laughs wholeheartedly about the contrast between this tank and where she started years ago that she is the ideal person to be at the helm of this chevre ship. Over the years she has been willing to suspend her disbelief and grow the business yet she has held tightly to the importance of certain cheese-related tasks being done exactly as they always have been. In addition to staying true to the fundamental points in their cheesemaking process, Mary has also created an environment, both in spirit and economics, where people in her community want to work. This was something Michael and I thought about a lot after leaving Cypress Grove- we realized that within the growth of the company Mary saw that while it was different than what she had originally envisioned, it allowed her to create the kind of workplace she believed in.

Early on in the development of the cheesemaking, Mary realized that she couldn’t manage a herd of goats, make the cheese, and run the business. Artisan cheese did not exactly used to sell itself so she spent a considerable amount of time driving to the two major metropolitan areas “nearby”- San Francisco (6-7 hours), and Portland (8-9 hours). She decided to sell her herd and found an opportunity to sell the entire group in-tact, the only way she wanted it, to someone she was confident could care for them well. This was not an easy decision and even through it was the best situation she could have hoped for, she still couldn’t bring herself to walk into the barn for at least a year after the goats were gone.

The shift away from their own milk did mean that they could support other farmers in their own community. Currently they do their best to fulfill their milk needs locally. Because they’ve grown so much and high quality milk is the foundation of their business, they now have staff devoted to working with local farmers on streamlining their business expenses. For example, local farms might be able to save money if they pool together to collectively purchase feed. Cypress Grove is also looking at possibilities to streamline their own business by partnering with the students in environmental engineering at Humboldt State to implement energy saving technology and look at innovative things to do with whey- which is considered toxic waste because of its pH level.

Removing cheesecloth from Humboldt Fog

So I won’t make you wait any longer… when I asked Mary where she got the idea for Humboldt Fog she said it came to her in a dream. This seems oddly appropriate considering the white exterior and fluffy texture. What stuck with me after our time with Mary was one thing she said during our interview, “People say you can’t change the world but I figure I can make change happen in my own little community here.” She figured absolutely right.

Add comment August 3rd, 2006

Pug’s Leap Farm

HeadshotName: Pug’s Leap
Location: Healdsburg, CA
Owners: Pascal Destandau & Eric Smith
Animals: Milking 24 goats- mixed herd of Alpines, Saanens, and Toggenburgs
Cheeses/Products: Petit Marceau, Pave, Buche

Although the 24 milking goats can browse all the way down to Dry Creek Road, one might never noticed Pug’s Leap because it is nestled back on the hillside among trees and brush so common to the not-quite-coastal valleys of Northern California. Lucky for us- thank you Healdsburg Farmer’s Market- Pug’s Leap was presented to us in broad daylight. We introduced ourselves and thanks to the avid local food supporters of a blog called Fork and Bottle (www.forkandbottle.com) who wrote about us on their slow food convivium’s site, Eric and Pascal had actually heard of us and graciously invited us out to the farm that afternoon.

This invitation was more than gracious considering that Saturdays are their “day off”- meaning that they don’t actually make cheese because they are busy going to market. It doesn’t look like an average person’s day off given that they are still out of bed around 5-ish for the morning milking and then they use the usual cheesemaking time to prepare for market. We descended upon them during their afternoon break- post market and pre afternoon milking.

CaveWe started our tour in the “cheese-room-with-a-view” which looks out across Dry Creek Road to the vineyard on the other side. The cheese room is modest and immaculate with a vat/pasteurizer which is in use now and an additional, smaller vat that Pascal hopes to use for making aged, raw milk cheeses someday soon. There are two small aging rooms off the side wall- one used for the delicate drying stage needed for small, mold and ash ripened cheeses and the other with higher humidity and a slightly lower temperature. These rooms are Pascal’s domain- he has always been interested in and good at cooking so this seemed the most logical place for him. As we talked about everything ranging from selecting goat breeds to the grey area around words like artisan and farmstead, Pascal tilted racks of cheeses made the previous day and encouraged the whey and scraps down the drain in the table.

Next we walked out into the milking parlor which is, as Eric described it, “state of the art for the 1930’s”. More important than being fashionable, it is simple and it works for them although it is uphill (a dirt hill) from the area where the does are kept which means that milking can be time consuming… particularly when you have 30 straight days of rain like they did this past winter.

Milking Board

The bucks are kept at the top of the hill and the does are down closer to the road- removing off-season temptations. The goats are eating browse (read: anything that emerges from the ground), hay, and are supplemented with a bit of grain around milking time. Sounds simple and yet, as with so many things on small farms, there are built-in complexities because Pug’s Leap is a small farm without enormous hay storage capacity thus Eric has to drive hours to do a hay collection every other week.

Everything about Pug’s Leap is in response to Eric and Pascal’s mounting discomfort with the state of affairs in farming and food production today; the ultimate example of consumers taking matters into their own hands. They are an interesting breed of new farmers- both stepped into this project with years of professional experience (Eric as an architect and Pascal as an environmental engineer) and little dairying experience. As we walked uphill to the area where the bucks are kept, Eric and Pascal agreed that although this is more tiring than any work they have done before, it is labor that produces tangible and very real results- life and death included- something they can’t imagine giving up.

Pascal and Eric

1 comment July 31st, 2006

Andante Dairy

SoyoungName: Andante Dairy
Owner: Soyoung Scanlan
Location: Petaluma, CA
Animals: Soyoung gets goat milk from Volpi Ranch where her cheesemaking plant is located. She gets cow milk from Spring Hill Dairy which has 400 Jersey cows
Cheeses/Products: Baton, Minuet, Crottin, Acapella, Nocturne, Pianoforte, Candenza, Metronome, Rondo, Melange, Adagio, Figaro, Picolo, Largo
More info: www.andantedairy.com

A couple years ago I read an article about Soyoung Scanlan in Saveur magazine and something about it moved me. I’m sure I was not alone in this feeling its just that I was also working in cheese at the time and grew up about one hour away from her cheesemaking plant. Since reading that article I have been scheming to visit Andante- with our cheese tour I had my opening. In April of this year, Andante moved from Santa Rosa to Petaluma; more specifically to the top of one of the velvety rolling hills of Petaluma. Soyoung’s facility shares this hilltop with the goats of Volpi Ranch that provide the milk for some of her cheeses.

Considering that Soyoung did not set out to become a cheesemaker she has become a revered figure in the artisan cheese industry. A number of cheesemakers we have visited met Soyoung during her time at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo where she spent over two years studying the properties of milk and how it functions in cheesemaking. Soyoung is an interesting combination, potentially a dichotomy, of the scientist and the artist. She has studied science for years with a background in engineering and she is also an avid pianist. I think Soyoung would be the first to admit that she has not looked at her cheesemaking as a business so much as a marriage of science and art- two seemingly conflicting things that bring her joy and that come together in the transition of milk into cheese.

Soyoung’s facility feels spacious, organized and clean. Its not incredibly high-tech and just like everywhere else, all the equipment comes used. There isn’t a huge stock of product on hand as Soyoung’s cheeses are almost sold before they are made. Early on in her cheesemaking career she was approached by Thomas Keller of the French Laundry who took a liking to her cheese. This one customer has helped Soyoung immensely, not only in sales, but also because of brief moments where she got to see Keller at work in his own kitchen. She says that each time she left the French Laundry kitchen she felt inspired by the drive and meticulous attention to detail exhibited there and when she returned to her cheese plant she would return to her plant invigorated, looking around for small improvements to make.

Andante Cheese

The best of her cheeses go to the French Laundry as they have since Thomas Keller placed his first order. He saw the self-conscious nature of Soyoung when he first met her and tasted her cheeses. Keller instructed Soyoung to bring them cheese whenever she felt it was good enough and that they would take whatever she had.

Although I think Soyoung’s public persona seems to make cheesemaking look tranquil and artistic, the reality behind that appearance is an incredible amount of hours and hard labor. The thing she said that stuck in my mind is that all along her arduous path to cheesemaking (i.e. up at 2:30 Am to drive from SF to Petaluma to collect her buckets of milk and haul them to Santa Rosa to make cheese) she didn’t ask herself whether she wanted to do each thing rather she asked, “is it possible?”. Clearly for someone with her drive it was and is possible. She is not afraid of hard work and yet within those long hours she has a lot of quiet time to observe what is around her and these observations seem to impact her cheesemaking as well. For example, in her new location she is closer to the goats that provide her with milk and she said that watching them has changed how she feels about the milk- the inherent value in the liquid that fills the vat.

On the ridge

She is not making cheese every day at the moment but with the mold-ripened variety she makes there are cheeses to be tended each day. When we were there she was focused on preparing cheeses to be taken to the Ferry Building farmers’ market in San Francisco the following day. Andante cheese is sold and served only at a handful of places, many of the ones lucky enough to get it are retailers and restaurants who have supported her from the beginning. Unlike other cheesemakers who have expanded into new facilities with the hope of making more cheese, Soyoung is comfortable with her current production. So the next time you’re at the French Laundry or wandering around in Healdsburg- which we highly recommend- keep an eye out for her cheeses.

2 comments July 17th, 2006

Fiscalini Cheese

John FiscaliniName: Fiscalini Farm
Owners: John Fiscalini
Location: Modesto, CA
Animals: Milking 1500 Holsteins and bringing up an equal number of replacements for 3000 total animals on the property. Closed herd.
Cheeses/Products: Bandaged Wrapped Cheddar (various ages), San Joaquin Gold, Flavored Cheddars, Horse Feathers, Parmesean
More info: www.fiscalinicheese.com

Fiscalini Farm was our first visit to a cow dairy with more than 150 animals and the first cow dairy that is a confinement operation (we have seen some quite large goat dairies that are confinement based). I wasn’t sure how I would feel about a confinement operation- along with many others in food I read Fast Food Nation and I’ve been delving into the Omnivore’s Dilemma and had formed a somewhat negative opinion of the concept. Mostly I was curious because the Fiscalinis are much much smaller than other confinement operations in California- case in point the “farm” we drove by on our way up I-5 that is home to at least 10,000 cows (more on that in a later post). Fiscalini is milking 1500 Holsteins which means that the total number of animals on their land is 3000; they are using free stall barns and feeding the cows a total mixed ration (TMR) of various grains and hay rather than grazing them on grass.

When we got out of the car we were not overwhelmed with flies or manure smells which is what one might expect when you are standing within 100 yards of 3000 cows. We met John who was incredibly flexible and gracious considering that I had given him the wrong dates for our visit and he had expected us to be there the previous day! He wrapped up what he was working on and gave us a tour of the dairy. Cows are put into different areas according to their age, health (there is a small hospital ward with its own milking parlor), and milking status. Calves are managed closely; for the first 60 days they are kept in individual stalls to avoid them attempting to nurse from one another and doing damage to their teets. Gradually they are put with groups of animals their age until the total number of that group is about 25 and eventually they go in with the yearlings to learn the ropes of being part of a larger herd.

Young Cows

All the animals are kept in free stall barns which are open air and, on this farm, designed for optimal cross-breezes and they also have communal areas for cows to roam around some. The floor in each of the barns is concrete and many of them are covered with cushioning mats and then a special mixture of dirt and dried manure. When John told us that they were recycling manure for the stall beds I assumed that this was because it was a financial savings- nope. Actually it requires an incredible amount of effort to spread the manure solids out to dry and then mix them with other materials to make an appropriate bedding for the cows. Sounds dirty right but actually the animals have been cleaner since the beds were converted. The cleanliness can be attributed to more than just recycled manure though, at Fiscalini the stalls are all raked over twice daily (once on Sundays) and fully changed out frequently which breaks the cycle of the fly larvae and also works as preventative maintenance- the cleaner the stalls are the less time spent cleaning the cows when they come through the milking parlor.

The parlor is state of the art with 54 total capacity (27 on each side)- milking takes 7 hours leaving one hour to flush the pipes and clean the parlor before starting up again (they are milking 3 times a day). A handful of things stand out in my mind about the parlor. First off it was clean and there were three guys working the shift- John commented on both of these things. The cows are not fed during milking because if you feed them they have a tendency to poop making mess on the equipment and the milkers. John said you can get by with two guys on a shift but three means that they can pay closer attention to what they are doing. They use a fresh towel to clean the teets on each cow (two teets with one, flip the towel and clean the other two)- do the math and it comes out to about 4500 towels each day. There are a number of safeguards built into the parlor to help the herdsman keep tabs on the health of the milkers. For example the milking units monitor salt content which is an early indicator of mastitis and also each milker has a pedometer which is read electronically in the parlor because a decrease in the number of steps taken in the course of a day can be a tip off that something is not quite right with a cow.

The following morning we came back to the farm early to meet Mariano Gonzales the cheesemaker. What an opportunity! Aging RoomMariano is revered in the U.S. as one of the most talented and knowledgeable cheesemakers- the perfect cheesemaker to teach us about bandaged cheddar (we had never seen cheddar made before). Making traditional cheddar is the ultimate example of what happens in cheesemaking- short stints of seriously physical work with lots of breaks in between- I like to think the breaks are not only for the cheese but also the cheesemaker to prepare for the next stage. It is important to understand that Fiscalini is not making cheese with all the milk from 1500 Holsteins- that would mean they were a large scale producer. They are using around 1000 gallons of milk each time they make cheese (5 days a week) which is only a fraction of what they produce in milk daily. The milk for cheesemaking goes into its own bulk tank. While we waited for the milk in the vat to warm up, we watched the staff pop the previous day’s San Joaquin Golds out of their molds and seal up cheddar made earlier in the week with lard before putting them in the aging rooms.

The “breaks” during cheddar making are normally used to care for the aging cheeses, clean, and finish all the other chores at the dairy but while we were there the breaks were used to straighten out all of our questions about cheddar making- the traditional way. The big distinction in cheddar making is well, cheddaring… which is where the cut and heated curd is lumped together in even blocks and then flipped and stacked and re-flipped and re-stacked at measured intervals. As Mariano explained this step contributes largely to the texture of traditional cheddar; I recommend you do a compare of block, cryovac cheddar and clothbound sometime- the textures are completely different not to mention the flavors. Mariano allowed me to participate in every step of the process- he is a seasoned instructor and has trained a number of other cheesemakers in his time at Fiscalini including Chris who was working in tandem with Mariano the day we were there. With the passing of each step, my respect for the makers of this labor intensive cheese increased tenfold. And all of these steps are only the beginning in the production of traditional cheddar. Once the cheese is made, unlike the block variety, a natural rind is allowed to form, and given the long aging period, a coating of lard, oil, or butter is smeared on followed by a protective cloth. The redwoods of cheese, as I like to refer to them, cheddars take months to develop the full depth of flavor locked up in the curds that form them. Their cloth binding allows them to continue to breathe as they age and also protects them from losing too much moisture and cracking.

Cheddaring

Fiscalini Farm represents a phenomenal partnership of years of dairying and cheesemaking knowledge- John and Mariano clearly enjoy working together and share a mutual respect. Although my personal inclination is always to want a cow to feed on pasture, I do understand that the current market- meaning milk prices, land prices, labor costs- don’t always support that. Our time at Fiscalini made it abundantly clear to me that if we are going to have confinement dairies I want all of them to be run like John Fiscalini’s. In our interview with John and his wife Heather we touched on so many features of the dairy that illustrate their commitment to animal comfort, milk quality and safety, not to mention the well-being of their employees. I encourage anyone with doubts to open their mind and pay a visit to the Fiscalinis.

Mariano Gonzales

1 comment July 7th, 2006

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