Archive for July, 2006
Name: 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.
We 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.
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.
July 31st, 2006
I know that Comic-Con is in full swing down in San Diego, but up here in Portland we have our own love-fest going on! ACS (American Cheese Society) is rocking it! Cheesemakers from all around the country are mixing it up with retailers, distributors, writers and all around cheese-heads for four days of non-stop cheese eating!! I have heard more than one person say it is like meeting rock stars!
Sasha and I gave a talk Thursday about our project and played some audio for the crowd. It was a quiet crowd… we took the silence in the room to be a good thing - that they had absorbed all they wanted and were leaving more enriched than when they entered… OR they were thinking about lunch! Either way it was great to get the message out and be able to play clips from some of the cheesemakers.
Below is a piece we edited just for ACS. Along the way we have asked the cheesemakers if there is anyone they would like to thank for helping get them where they are today. We then put together a seven minute montage of their responses. This represents around 15 cheesemakers of our trip.
For ourselves we would like to thank all the cheesemakers we have visted and will visit for opening up their operations, farms and homes to us.
Hope you enjoy.
July 23rd, 2006
Name: 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.
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.
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.
July 17th, 2006
Name: 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.
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! Mariano 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.
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.
July 7th, 2006
Here are two audio clips from our interview with Andy and Matt at Fifefly… about making the move to Firefly and being exposed to the farming community. each are around 1 minute.
loss of farming jobs
July 5th, 2006
Below are three snippets from our conversation with Bob and Debbie Stetson at Westfield Farm. They talk about their decision of buying the farm (literally) to antibiotic in cheese…
Buying the farm
Antibiotics in cheese
July 2nd, 2006