Archive for June, 2006
So we just finished our week long camping tour of Southern Utah. In all we camped in Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce & Zion. Each are quite beautiful and awe inspiring. We did come prepared to camp in the sense that we had a tent, sleeping bags, and a cooler but for anyone who has camped before that is not really the most complete supply list. After two nights without any kind of padding to sleep on we caved and expanded our camping gear to include thermarests; however we never caved on food- we just continued to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I counted 24 total in 6 days. We did supplement with some fruits and tortilla chips and of course any reasonable cheese we could find. Sonoma Jack was a cause for celebration in the Moab supermarket. Ok ok we also snuck in a few beers and a bottle of Idaho Chardonnay (you didn’t see that coming did you?). Here is a very small selection of the photos we took during our exploration.
Now back to the cheese tour! next stop Fiscalini…
June 23rd, 2006
So audio takes a while to parse through… that is why we are just now getting to Appleton Creamery! These were all recorded while Caitlin made cheese (the metal noise is her stiring the heated curd). Each is around 1 minute.
Why they sell local
June 21st, 2006
Name: Haystack Mountain Dairy
Owners: Jim Schott (President)
Animals: Approximately 175 on farm- including kids- (pirmarily Nubian and Saanen with some La Mancha thrown in) and milk from another herd of 800 in Colorado. As they plan for expansion, they have partnered with other farms who are raising their kids once they hit a certain age until they are settled at their new farm location (see below for more info).
Cheeses/Products: Chevre and Fromage (plain & flavored), Snowdrop, Haystack Peak, Haystack Feta, Queso de Mano, Sunlight, Red Cloud
More info: www.haystackgoatcheese.com
Back in 1989 Jim and his family moved to Niwot Colorado, purchased some land, bought five goats and began milking them by hand to make cheese. After a long career in education he was looking for a change of pace…dare I say a route towards retirement. The herd grew slowly and by the time he got up to 25 goats he decided to go visit a few people that had been doing the goat cheese thing before he got in much deeper. When he began cheesemaking he had a staff of one- his daughter Gretchen. They worked together for a few years, growing the herd, developing their wholesale customer base, and participating in a staggering number of farmers’ markets (13). Jim affectionately refers to those times as the “beer and chips days” because at the end of the day he and his daughter were so exhausted that the most they could do was slug back a beer and have some chips and salsa before bed…and then get up again the next morning for milking and cheesemaking.
We rolled into Boulder late on Wednesday afternoon, just in time to meet head cheesemaker Peter Kindall at the farmers’ market so we could taste some Haystack Mtn cheeses and have a bite to eat. Cheese hearts broke all over New York when Peter and his wife Caroline decided to move to Boulder, Colorado. Both Peter and Caroline were very involved in the cheese community in NY, many of the people I know on the NYC cheese circuit feel that they learned much of what they know about cheese from Peter. The farmers’ market in Boulder is kind of happenin’ with the expected stands of bountiful farm products and a whole “food court” section- one thing NYC greenmarkets don’t really offer (at least the Union Square one doesn’t). Everything at the food court is served in biodegradable containers made from corn…such an odd feeling to throw everything, including your utensils, into the compost bin but after reading the sign above the various bins multiple times we agreed it was the right thing to do. Downtown Boulder is beautiful so we wandered around with Peter and his son August for a couple hours before heading out to the farm where we were staying with owner Jim Schott and his wife Carol McLaren.
Pulling into the drive at Haystack Mountain was like setting off some crazy motion sensor alarm- approximately 75 kids began bleating like mad as soon as we exited the car. Obligingly we walked over to their paddock to fuss over them…suckers. Carol walked out to greet us and shortly thereafter took us on a tour of the farm. There are approximately 100 goats being milked and these goats are separated into pens according to their milk production. In each pen they have ample room to loll about, ample water, shelter, and daily rations of alfalfa hay are delivered to them. There are a couple other pens- one for the bucks, one for young kids, one for slightly older kids, and then also a nursery for the newborns (there was one that had been born that morning and oh my god was it ever tiny and so cute with its knobbly knees and crazy long ears). Carol also pointed out the mound of volcanic rubble in the distance which is Haystack Mountain.
The milking parlor, milk room (bulk tank), cheesemaking and aging room are all housed within one structure. All of the raw milk cheese, and the two soft-ripened cheeses, made by Haystack is made in this facility on the farm. Fresh chevre and fromage, plain and flavored, are all produced at Haystack’s creamery which is located in Longmont- maybe 15 minutes by car from the farm. Basically the milk for cheeses made at the creamery comes from other sources which has allowed Haystack to increase their production considerably.
On our first morning we hung out until Peter came by the farm- which he does so he can collect any cheeses needed for wholesale orders because all of them are boxed up and shipped from the creamery. We drove to the creamery with him making one short stop at the soon-to-be-new location of the farm. It is an 80 acre farm that has fallen to serious disrepair. Before the dairy can be moved, all the structures- including the meth-lab trailer- will need to be torn down and new structures built. Jim was able to negotiate a deal with Boulder county to get the land at a rate lower than the going development rate. Haystack Mountain is the only remaining dairy in the county and the majority of surrounding neighbors were in support which helped the deal go through smoothly. This move will enable Haystack to increase the herd on the farm to 800 goats over the next few years.
Seeing the future farm site was the first mention of the long-term goal to get Jim closer to the retirement he set out towards 17 years ago when he bought those first few goats. Peter put it best when he said, “Moving the dairy will get the Haystack business out of Jim’s front yard and maybe it will finally allow him the space he needs from it to actually retire.” Discussing the history of the farm with both Peter and Jim we learned that there have been a couple critical decision points along the way where Jim might have been ready to slow down or not ready to make the next level of capital investment and that at each juncture like this the employees have voiced their desire to press on to the next step. A few years ago when Haystack hit a growing pain, a group of the employees wanted the company to continue badly enough that they invested in it and are now shareholders in the Dairy.
We moved on to the creamery where a staff of 6 were busy in the make room; bagging chevre set that morning, packing bulk containers of chevre for restaurants, smoking logs of chevre, labeling packaged cheeses and packaging up orders. Peter gave us the official tour while we peppered him with questions about his own journeys in cheese. When the staff took a break for lunch, Michael and I busted out some cheeses from previous farm visits for them to sample. While they were snacking we got to hear about another huge new project that Haystack has on its plate. Pontotoc Area Vocational Technical School in Ada, Oklahoma contacted Haystack to ask if they would like to run the new dairy they were putting in on site at the school. The dairy will employ six local people and all cheeses made in at the dairy will be Haystack Mountain products (in 2007 they will produce a line of Oklahoma cheeses) thus Haystack is sending one of their star cheesemakers, Sarah, to manage the dairy.
When we finished at the creamery we headed back to the farm to spend some time interviewing Jim. One thing that became clear when we were speaking to him is that he did not set out with the intention to expand even to where he is today let alone to where the company is headed. Many of the farmstead cheesemakers we have met have articulated a conflict they feel about expanding into more distant U.S. markets. I think this might be something that many small business owners feel because their business has been built on selling their products to people they see and know to some extent; the idea of their product (especially a perishable consumable) going to an unknown customer base is almost too much of an abstraction. This is when we thank our lucky stars that someone like Jim has been at the healm of Haystack because he doesn’t have sticky fingers on the controls, he is willing to guide the company with a degree of openness to the potential that his employees see. Speaking to him it becomes clear that this is not something he has tried to do rather it is a wonderful byproduct of the kind of individual he is. It pleases him to hear that his employees enjoy and are fulfilled by their work and yet he wouldn’t ever take direct credit for having created that.
By the time we completed the interview we were ready for dinner and Jim and Carol took us into downtown Boulder to a local-focused restaurant called Kitchen. Kitchen is a place that everyone in the local food scene is excited about. One cool feature of the restaurant is the large blackboard displayed in the main dining room- it lists all the local farmers whose products are currently part of the menu.
The following morning Peter was making raw milk cheeses at the farm so we trailed around behind him in the make room while he worked. One of the wonderful things about Peter is that he is constantly pondering what makes a cheese come out the way it does; not the most basic science of it rather the nuances of each element that impacts the flavor of a cheese. We had a long discussion about the “goaty-ness” of goat’s milk cheese and what people purport makes that happen and is it a good or bad thing to have goat cheese taste goaty? In his position at Haystack, Peter has had the pleasure of tinkering with existing processes and recipes and also developing additional cheeses. I found it incredibly interesting that he has focused on making new cheeses from the same basic “make” process. For example during the Queso de Mano make he pulls a small amount of curd off early (at a lower temperature than the final Queso de Mano curds) and puts it into smaller molds to make a washed-rind cheese called Red Cloud. Having traveled extensively throughout Europe to visit cheesemakers I think that Peter sort of fell in love with the elegance that simplicity (we might also call this efficiency) brings to cheesemaking and that it has become on of his guiding principles.
When we stood at the new farm site Peter encouraged us to take photos and to come back in 2-3 years and take photos again- twist my arm. He said it with a confidence that comes naturally when you know you are surrounded by the right people to accomplish what you’ve set out to do. I don’t know about you all but in 2008 we’re thinking about Cheese by Hand: Reloaded…
June 19th, 2006
So we are taking a little break. To be completely honest we have already started said break but are just now getting around to posting about it! The next few days we will be heading into the national parks (Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce & Zion). But to get to them we have to go to through the lovely state of Colorado. And here are a couple-three from our day with our good friend Michael Israel and his wife, Patsy. (Couple-three is a phrase I learned growing up in central Illinois and it never ceases to amuse Sasha) They live outside Denver and took us for a lovely drive to Mt. Evans (14,100 feet).
And it wouldn’t be a Cheese by Hand stop without a milking animal… so I give you the mountain goat:
Then we made it across the continental divide and monkey had to check out the views…
Utah is next - we will try to post some photos from our time camping in the parks. So far we have been completely stunned with how beautiful this country is… really!
June 15th, 2006
Name: Mozzarella Company
Owner: Paula Lambert
Location: Dallas, Texas
Animals: MozzCo gets both their cow and goat milk from a number of small dairies around the Dallas area.
Cheeses/Products: MOZZARELLA(goat and cow), Queso Oaxaca, Ricotta (goat and cow), Feta (goat and cow), Queso Fresco (traditional and flavored), Queso Blanco, Creme Fraiche, Mozzarella Roll, Hoja Santa, Caciotta (traditional and flavored, cow and goat), Mascarpone, Mascarpone Tortas, Smoked Scamorza, Crescenza, Blanca Bianca, Montasio, Montasio Festivo, Herbed Goat Logs, Fresh Texas Goat Cheese (traditional and flavored), Deep Ellum Blue, Mascarpone
More Info: www.mozzco.com
I called Paula from the road when we were nearing Dallas and asked her if she was still at the photo shoot she had been part of over the last few days (she is one of the busiest people I know)…she assured me that she was doing nothing at that moment except waiting for Michael and I to arrive and tell her all about our travels. So when we arrived we gave Paula and her husband Jim a bit of an update over dinner, at a restaurant called Ciudad, which included some fantastic upscale tex-mex food (her cheese was indeed on the menu).
In the morning we sipped cappucinos before making the 7 minute drive to the Mozzarella Company. Almost 25 years ago Paula decided that she could not live without the fresh mozzarella she had known during her time in Italy and that she was the ideal person to bring that delectable cheese to Dallas. She figured out the zoning requirements for a small factory and came across a spot in the Deep Ellum neighborhood in Dallas. As we drove she explained that the neighborhood earned a reputation during the 1920’s when a group of blues musicians began creating new kinds of music that evenutally became known as the Deep Ellem Blues. She also mentioned that the neighborhood had a reputation for being a bit “seedy” which I think she might secretly like about it.
We spent the day with her two head cheesemakers, Carmen and Octavia, who have been with the company for 19 and 21 years respectively, and their crew in the cheese room. The crew is made up entirely of women who were so generous with their time and kind enough to not laugh too hard at our attempt to form balls of mozzarella. Within the seven hours we spent at the cheese factory the women made eight varieties of cheese- all with attention and care. AS you can imagine this means there is some hustle happening and also that they arrived at the factory well before we did to begin pasteurization of the two vats of milk (one cow and one goat). The pasteurizers were emptied and re-filled multiple times that day in order to produce the cheese needed for upcoming orders. Carmen arrived early that morning (before 5AM) to get things started and then passed the baton to Octavia that afternoon who continued with cheesemaking until 7:30PM.
There are two large pasteurizers which double as vats. The trick to making so many styles of cheese in one day is the overall schedule for production and having the right kind of equipment and layout as the Mozzarella Company does. There are at least 10 large rectangular plastic tubs that sit on frames with wheels attached- this means that the room can be reconfigured at a moments notice. After milk is pasteurized it is poured into these tubs which are bascially smaller vats to allow for staggered cheesemaking of a variety of cheeses. For example, when we were there two or three of the vats were used to make mozzarella; the whey from each of these vats was poured off into another movable container, wheeled to the back of the plant and transferred into a small vat that is used to make ricotta and queso fresco. Meanwhile, a few other small vats were filled with goat or cow milk for making caciotta. Having multiple vats of caciotta allows them to make some traditional (plain) and other small quantities of ancho chile and other herbed varieties. The entire setup is simple, low-tech and enables the women to make large quantities of cheeses all by hand.
When the mozarella curd was ready, it was chopped up into strips and then smaller bits with a knife and submerged in hot water. One person worked the curd with a long paddle, gently stretching it and folding it in on itself. Once it was sufficiently stretched, the other women stopped what they were doing and gathered around one end of the table to begin pulling off pieces of the flexible curd and forming them into various shapes for bocconcini, half pound, and one pound balls. Such a beautiful thing to watch and it was only one of the cheeses we saw them make.
I returned the following morning because the ladies were making one of my favorite Mozzarella Company cheeses, Hoja Santa. They were just beginning to blanch the leaves when I arrived. Hoja Santa leaves are HUGE. Each leaf is pulled out of the boiling water and put into an ice bath before being stretched out on a plastic mat. Small rounds of goat cheese that were made the week prior were pulled from the cold storage to be wrapped. I always assumed that each piece of cheese was wrapped in one entire leaf and watching Octavia I saw that each piece of cheese was wrapped with about one third to one half of a leaf and that wrapping each one was like completing a puzzle. It looked so complicated that I opted out of leaf wrapping and instead followed Octavia’s wrapping with the string of rafia that winds around each piece and is finished with a small bow.
That evening we went to dinner with Paula, her husband, and two of her friends. We went to Hector’s Restaurant which was excellent. The chef started our meal off with a cheese platter for the table and declared that Paula is the “Grand Dame of all things cheese.” We could not agree more. She is a savvy business woman (which the cheese world needs) who is turning out a robust line of cheeses that are truly made by hand. We never thought we’d say this but we kind of can’t wait to get back to Dallas, Texas….
June 15th, 2006
Name: Pure Luck Dairy
Owners: The entire family- Denny Bolton, Amelia Sweethardt, Gitana Sweethardt, and Claire & Hope Bolton
Location: Dripping Springs, Texas
Animals: Approximately 110 Nubian and American Alpines (milking around 65)
Cheeses/Products: Chevre (plain and flavored), Basket Molded Chevre, Feta, Del Cielo, Hopelessly Blue, Sainte Maure, Claire de Lune
More info: www.purelucktexas.com
Pure Luck Dairy straddles Twin Oaks Trail, we learned this by barging in on Denny Bolton in the Pure Luck Office who kindly directed us to the dairy where we found someone who could find Amelia for us. Many of you who are familiar with Pure Luck know that the farm is going through a large transition with the loss of its founder Sara Bolton last November. Amelia Sweethardt is her daughter and also has been a cheesemaker at the dairy since 1997. She has taken over the cheesemaking reigns. In addition to Amelia, two of Sara’s other daughters Claire and Hope also assisting with multiple aspects of the dairy, not to mention Denny Bolton (Sara’s husband and partner in the business) and Gitana Sweethardt who also helps run Pure Luck. All four of Sara’s girls grew up milking goats and drinking fresh milk from their own farm so they understand the value of what they do let alone the work required to run the dairy.
Of course the day we scheduled for our visit was Amelia’s day off- if there is such a thing on a dairy farm. While we waited for her near the dairy, we were entertained by a sound sampling of farm animals…goats, of course, a couple of dogs and a shameless attention seeking cat. I always see it as a good sign when all animals on a farm are friendly.
Amelia bounded out of the trees- her home is just a short walk from the cheese room- to welcome us. We had arrived on a cheese nurturing rather than cheesemaking day meaning that cheeses made earlier that week were being salted and turned. Pure Luck sells most if not all of their cheese in Texas- the majority goes to markets in Austin, San Antonio and Dallas. In the cheese room we met Juana who might as well be family- there is no one new at Pure Luck because everyone is either blood related or has been around for years. The entire staff is bilingual including the new Pyrenees puppy who goes by Lucy or Lucia. We watched as Amelia flipped the Sainte Maure and Juana salted the chevre in a large mixer. Amelia explained their plans for an expansion of the make room space. Currently all of the cheeses are aged in a cooler on the other side of Twin Oaks Trail, the expansion would bring all aspects of cheesemaking to one place. Of course as soon as I found out that they would have more space I asked the logical question: does that mean you will make more cheese? Amelia was careful to note that they will focus on getting their expansion built before they plan on increasing their output. This is precisely what I would expect from any farmstead cheesemaker because many of them agree that slow, steady expansions are the only way to go and patience is essential.
In my notes from that day I found something about the milking parlor: “maybe the cleanest milking parlor I’ve seen yet”. As we walked through the parlor, Amelia showed us where the goats wait their turn to be milked and then the area where they can snack on some alfalfa on their way back out to the pasture. She explained that the kids are still nursing from their mothers once during the day (after the does go through the parlor in the morning and have spent a bit of time on pasture) and then separated from them in the evenings- it is something they are experimenting with. In the past they noticed that the kids that nursed longer became stronger does so they are considering this in their herd management evaluation. While maintaining the principles her mother set in place for the farm, Amelia is also considering new ways of doing things. For example she is looking at their options for producing some of their own feed and she is also investigating outlets beyond auctions for the kids they do not keep. We finished up our tour of the cheese plant by walking through the bulk tank room- never the most exciting but always an important part of the dairy. They are making cheese 3 times each week which creates a sound workflow given the variety of cheeses they produce and the handling they requires in the days immediately after they are made.
Pure Luck is a stellar example of a small, farmstead dairy that has developed an operation that is sustainable given the land they have and their staff. Amelia said something that struck me as a unique perspective in the world of farming (and she said it matter-of-factly too), “If you need someone to work for you in the high season you have to figure out how to employ them in the low season too”. One example of this is the decision she and her mother made to develop cheesemaking seminars during their off season to keep cash flowing through the dairy. They also have the added benefit of sharing some employees between the dairy and their organic herb, vegetable and flower farm business across the road.
Walking around with Amelia it is abundantly clear that her mother’s vision for the farm runs strong throughout the entire place and for good reason; everything is clean and simple and everyone is on the same page- healthy and well-managed animals produce great milk for cheesemaking. This means that we can count on the continuation of beautiful farmstead cheeses which is wonderful. We can also look forward to ongoing developments at Pure Luck…maybe even more cheese?
June 14th, 2006
Name: Bittersweet Plantation Dairy
Owner: Chef John Folse
Location: Gonzales, Louisiana
Animals: Bittersweet gets their cow milk from a milk processor and their goat milk comes from a small dairy a few hours away. This will change when they make the dairy expansion- they will be able to collect cow milk from local dairy farms.
Cheeses/Products: Fleur de Lis, Fleur de Teche, Evangeline, Gabriel, Creole Cream Cheese, Bulgarian Style Kashkaval and Goat Milk Feta, Marinated Goat Milk Feta, Boulettes de Chevre, Feliciana Nevat, Chocolate Pecan Butter, various flavors of both ice cream and gelato, and various flavors of yogurt.
More info: http://www.jfolse.com/bittersweet_dairy/index.htm
Hanging out with Chef John Folse is like having a live audio tour of the cultural and culinary Cajun and Creole history. The full day we spent touring all parts of his company was like participating in an immersion program… seriously.
We stayed at Bittersweet Plantation, which is in a small town called Donaldsonville, about 40 minutes northwest of New Orleans and one time capital of Louisiana. We cheered as we crossed the Mississippi (a first for me)…little did we know that we would cross it many more times before weaving our way out of the bayou a couple days later. Teri, the manager of Bittersweet Plantation, which has been converted to a small restaurant and B&B, greeted us with wine and tea sandwiches and showed us to our room- the Bitter Suite. The plantation is an amazing source of history itself, formerly owned by the great-grandfather of John Folse’s wife, it was one of seven buildings left standing after the town was burned by Union soldiers during the Civil War. The owner of the plantation owned the general store and had all of his backstock of dry goods and meat on his property, making his home a perfect location for the Northern General when the troops arrived.
The following morning Matt Summers, the dairy manager, picked us up and took us to Gonzales, LA where the dairy, bakery and company headquarters are located. The chef was waiting there for us with coffee and breakfast, but first we went to see the milk get pumped into the vat by the two full-time cheesemakers from Bulgaria (they are a story in and of themselves). Matt explained to us that their workhorse product is the Creole Cream Cheese which is sold within their local market and is therefore guaranteed to be less than a few days old whenever purchased. We can confirm its popularity as we looked for it at a number of stores who were sold out.
We talked to the Chef while we ate breakfast (pastries from his bakery) about what drove him to get into the cheesemaking business. He explained that while he was doing research for his latest book, The Encyclopedia of Cajun & Creole Cuisine, he discovered information in the archives about dairy farming in the area. It struck him that where he grew up, in the Bayou, every family had one or two cows to provide milk and cream for themselves and that the cuisines of many of the nations who settled Louisiana involved cheese. He fully acknowledges that when he had this insight he really knew next to nothing about cheesemaking, so he began to call around to local universities with dairy science programs and began to ask a lot of questions. What he looked to do was to make cheeses that would be representative of cheeses that might have been made by the seven nations who created the Cajun and Creole culture. It seemed simple enough, he just needed to find someone with the right cheesemaking expertise. Much to his dismay, no one seemed to have answers about small scale, non-cheddar cheesemaking techniques.
Chef decided that he would begin with the Creole Cream Cheese, a product that had virtually disappeared from the marketplace. He found a company that had made it for years and they agreed to give him the recipe and all of the old wooden forms they had used to hoop the product. The forms went into his archives, and the recipe was put to immediate use. Now, one key element to the development of all parts of the Chef John Folse empire is something that the Chef refers to as his Mr. Magoo syndrome; good things tend to land in his lap. A young student at LSU visited his offices one day and explained that his parents, who were currently in Bulgaria, had won a lottery to immigrate to the U.S. but that they needed a company to sponsor them in order to come over. This young man had come to Bittersweet because his parents had been making cheese for the past 30 years in Europe and he had heard there was a dairy in Gonzales. Chef began working with this young man to get his parents to Louisiana and into making cheese at Bittersweet. Of course they also needed lessons in English which were provided as part of their workday. Their names are Dimcho and Petrana Dimov and they have been with the dairy for the past three years. They have been making the cheeses that Matt and Chef John Folse develop for his Cajun & Creole line and also some of their favorites from Bulgaria- Kashkaval and Feta.
We spent the morning with Matt and the Dimovs watching them begin the cheesemaking process for Creole Cream Cheese and Fleur de Lis; both cheeses are required to set overnight so we saw them pasteurize and add the cultures and rennet. Once we had interviewed Matt we left with Chef to go see the other property he owns called White Oak Plantation which was acquired only through the sheer will of the owners that John Folse be the person to buy it from them. Like he said, Mr. Magoo syndrome. This is a space they rent out for catered events, corporate meetings, etc. He also is beginning to do events for the public like having the symphony play out in the beautifully manicured gardens. As with his cheesemaking, White Oak Plantation carries over the theme of the seven nations through its seven distinct gardens involving native species from those nations which are being developed on the property.
I asked Chef what it was like to come into the cheesemaking community as a known chef with a certain level of celebrity and his answer was impressive largely because it illustrated that he is well aware of his predicament in the artisan cheese industry. He is an established and successful businessman in the food industry who is expanding into cheese at a time when it is hot and he knows that some people will want to write him off for this. Instead of backing out he is looking at expanding his operation and working to use his influence to foster sustainable growth within the local dairy community. For example when he expands his dairy, he will begin purchasing milk from local dairy farms because through his research on dairy farming in the region he has come to realize that he has the potential and the means to help that industry. When John saw that the number of dairy farms has dwindled, he began to wonder if Bittersweet could help even more dairies by becoming a milk processor. It is worth noting that Chef’s non-cheese product lines (soups, sauces, bakery) involve large quantities of milk and cream so he actually could support a sizeable portion of Louisiana dairies.
Chef wanted us to see all aspects of his operation, so we proceeded to his USDA manufacturing facility where he makes soups and sauces and also develops his other product lines- butters, gelatos, etc. After the tour we returned to Bittersweet Plantation for a fantasic five course meal. We left Bittersweet Plantation with some awesome ice packs for our cooler, cheese, a loaf of their bread, and a strong desire to return and see what Chef John Folse and Co. will be able to do to help dairy farmers in Louisiana not to mention the new cheeses he will develop.
June 11th, 2006
Name: Sweet Home Farm
Owners: Alyce Birchenough and Doug Wolbert
Location: Elberta, Alabama
Animals: Milking 13 Guernseys, total herd is 30 including calves and hefers
Cheeses/Products: Chalet, Fondrea, Jubilee, Perdido, Baldwin Swiss, Elberta, Bama Jack, Gouda, Feta, Montabella,Blue, Pepato Asiago, Cheese Fudge, Garlic Blue Cheese, a Taleggio style cheese that I can’t remember the name of!
More info: Southern Cheese Guild
Everything at Sweet Home Farm is done to please both the functional and the aesthetic. The first thing you see when you pull into the farm is a chicken coop that is so sweet (and so well kept) it could break your heart. I know- I’m really selling the bucolic image here- but it would be a disservice to not talk about the craftsmanship involved in the entire operation that makes up Sweet Home Farm. There are only two “employees” Alyce Birchenough and her husband Doug Wolbert, they are also the owners. This means that they are the gardeners, the repair people, the milkers, cheesemakers, and as if that were not enough they are shopkeepers too. All of the cheese produced is sold on the farm, not to prove a point, rather to keep things simple.
I called Alyce from the road when we realized that we were running late and might not arrive at the farm until well after 7pm. She asked enough questions to determine that we were headed the right way and promptly invited us to dinner…we didn’t realize that between Georgia and Alabama we had crossed a time zone. One more hour for us and such a great dinner with Alyce and Doug. When we arrived Alyce walked us around the farm. We started in the garden which is teeming with growth: beans, blueberries, greens, pears, three varieties of figs, pecans, loquats, limes, oranges, lemons, herbs, white peaches, quince, artichokes, mulberries, persimmons, and muscadine grapes… just to mention a few. Of course there was something cheese related in the garden too- cardoons- the thistle plant used as the coagulant in a number of Portuguese cheese recipes. She educated herself on how to make the solution used in cheesemaking and even tried working with it in some of her cheeses until she learned that it creates bitter flavors when used with cow milk (many of the Portuguese varieties are sheep milk).
We busted open some cheese that we had brought with us from Sweet Grass Dairy for a little aperetif and then Doug popped out to milk the cows so that we could all lounge comfortably after dinner. While Alyce put the finishing touches on dinner, Michael and I got to check out Doug’s collections of butter molds and cheese plates- even dairy farmers can get hooked on ebay. Looking down at a table full of food that was grown on the land you are standing on gets me every time- grass fed beef strips, string beans from the garden, sweet corn, cucumber tomato dill salad and parsnips. After dinner we managed to get Alyce to recount stories about their first dairy cow and some of their other early farming experiences.
Our visit fell during Memorial Day weekend so the gulf coast was packed and that meant that on the first full day of our visit, Saturday, the cheese shop would be even busier than usual so they encouraged us to check out the beach in the morning before coming to the farm. We followed their instructions and rolled into their driveway around 2pm and found that it was full of cars. Every time one car would pull away another pulled in and this went on right up until 5pm when the shop closed. There is a lovely little bench in front of the shop where we sat, between our visits to the milking cows in the pasture and coffee breaks with Alyce and Doug (seperately of course), and chatted with their customers. It is important to understand that Sweet Home Farm is not in the “middle of town” - it is off of a somewhat trafficked road and then is a mile and a half down a dirt road! This means that customers have to know where they are going and they have to want it. And since all of Sweet Home’s sales are done at the farm, it makes the effort of those customers even more amazing. Everyone that we spoke with that day felt like they had discovered something special when they found Sweet Home Farm and they assured us that if we ever had an event to attend or a group of people to impress that cheese from Sweet Home would be sure to put us in good standing for any occassion.
Once the shop closed we hightailed it down a few back roads to the coast to the Pirate’s Cove for a beer and some pizza. Even though the weather was gorgeous and the beer was cold we exercised restraint because Doug needed to get back to milk the cows. While Doug was busy in the parlor, Alyce and I flipped through her cheese photos from Italy. We interviewed them later that evening while Doug peeled their first harvest of garlic for Alyce to use in the Garlic Blue cheese she would make the next morning. Around midnight we kicked ourselves out, fearing that we were going to interfere with their Sunday schedule….
The next morning we watched carefully as Alyce made a large batch of blue cheese; separating a small quantity for the Garlic Blue which she developed because of a customer request and continues to make it because it has developed a cult following. I am so blown away by Alyce, her approach to and passion for cheesemaking, not to mention the way that she and Doug have developed their farm, that I’m feeling squidgy about how to say something that does her justice. Really! She became a small-scale cheesemaker before there were home cheesemaking books and small quantities of cultures for sale; she learned to make cheese by reading an Encylopedia of Country Living which illustrates her determination. But the real wow factor about Alyce is that she might have more love for the actual thing- making cheese by hand- than anyone I’ve encountered in my time in cheese. Sweet Home Farm could sell twice what they currently do from their farm shop, and she could rest on her laurels, but instead she does things like troll the internet and figure out how to make rennet from cardoon thistles! Her curiosity about all things cheese related is insatiable. She is probably a wonderful, if not a bit intimidating, student and yet she is also a phenomenal teacher. The majority of cheesemakers in the South, even a few along the eastern seabord, credit her with having been their best resource when they were learning to make cheese.
Being around Doug and Alyce was particularly enjoyable because they have the ease that comes with being around people who know where they are headed and why… if something is complicated for them, they figure out how to make it uncomplicated. Watching them life looks so much more straightforward; they are focused on what is workable… for them. Fortunately, the things that work for them are totally cool for the rest of us too.
June 10th, 2006