August 22nd, 2006
Name: Monteillet Fromagerie
Owners: Joan and Pierre-Louis Monteillet
Location: Dayton, WA
Animals: 30 milking Lacone/East Freisan sheep, 35 milking Alpine goats (this means they have about 2-2.5x that amount total on the farm- because they are raising replacements and finding outlets for the young males)
Cheeses/Products: Larzac, Mejean, Cardabelle, Fresh Chevre, Fresh Herbed Chevre, Fresh Sheep Cheese, Causse Noir
More info: www.monteilletcheese.com/
Joan Monteillet warned me multiple times that I would not want to leave Walla Walla once I had witnessed firsthand all of the amazing things happening there. She was right in all ways except one, it was largely what was going on right at Monteillet Fromagerie that make me want to stay. When we arrived Joan and Pierre-Louis were just finishing up a late lunch (4pm) with some friends who had stopped by for an impromptu visit. Pierre-Louis had just returned from the weekly trip to Portland and Seattle to drop cheese and restaurants and, most importantly, sell their cheeses at the farmers’ markets. So we settled in at the table, brought in a bottle of California Pinot Noir (Papapietro Perry) and sampled some of their delectable cheeses. The Monteillets’ close friends Clare and Jim told us about their recent purchase of two older buildings in the neighboring town of Waitsburg where they will open a small gallery and tapas bar and still have enough room left over for a studio (they are both artists) and living space. This is the kind of thing Joan meant when she talked about the buzz in the Walla Walla Valley.
Before becoming dairy farmers the Monteillets were conventional wheat farmers, the two of them worked 2,000 acres for over a decade. They have definitely taken a sharp turn away from monoculture even though they both admit that their former way of live was indeed more profitable than the operation they have today. I find it almost hard to imagine them doing anything other than what they are doing today because they are so passionate about their craftsmanship and their facility and land illustrate their attention to detail. They saw a wonderful opening to create cheeses to accompany the bevy of wine being produced locally and also to begin to preserve some of the rich agricultural land in the valley of the Touchet River.
Joan and Pierre-Louis have not only crafted a number of beautiful cheeses that can stand alone or accompany local wines, but they are quietly transforming their little pocket of the Touchet River valley into a sustainable farming oasis. When we finished lunch they walked us out through the myriad of non-milkers, kept close by the house along with chickens and ducks, to the sauna they built themselves on a gentle bend in the river. These two started out with just 3.85 acres and have expanded to 31.5 contiguous acres by creatively financing the purchases of land that has gone up for sale around them through the years. Talk to them for a few minutes about their farm and you will understand their level of commitment to diversity in agriculture and the preservation of old buildings and barns that are often left to fall to disrepair.
We walk up the road a bit with Pierre-Louis to see the house where we’ll be staying- yes, an entire house. The home was on one of the pieces of adjoining land they purchased and it took years for them to slowly bring it back up to a livable space. Joan has her glass studio in the room off the kitchen and there are gorgeous glass pieces throughout the house. This home now serves as a place for guests to stay but also as a rental for people interested in having a farming experience. The Monteillets understand that every additional income stream is useful to them- as with agriculture, even financial diversity is beneficial.
The next morning we walked a bit further up the road to the cheesemaking facility. When you walk in there is a small, beautiful counter for cheese and wine tasting and doors that go off in many different directions. The Monteillets are forward thinking and Joan has obtained a license for them as a specialty wine tasting room which allows them to legally do events with local winemakers right in their facility. This supports the Monteillets’ belief that if people see all the aspects involved in producing their cheese while tasting their products it has a bigger impact.
We suited up in our cheese room boots and head coverings and hovered around Pierre-Louis as he pasteurized first the goat and then the sheep milk (read: time consuming). I stepped into the cheese room to assist Joan by flipping some cheeses and then was allowed to help her ash and finish off molding the Larzac. The Monteillets are making cheese twice each week and yet each day there is work to be done on previous batches like flipping, salting, and packaging. By the time we thought about lunch we were too hungry to walk past the cheeses in the tasting room without sampling and Joan upped the ante by opening a couple bottles of local wines for us to taste- Bergevin Lane Viognier and Pepper Bridge Cabernet Sauvignon. Both were smashing with the cheeses. We enjoyed the sampling so much that we bagged the idea of lunch and planned for an early dinner at the Whoopemup Hollow Cafe in Waitsburg which is run by two friends of Joan and Pierre-Louis. If you ever find yourself in the Walla Walla neck of the woods I would highly recommend this spot for some bangin’ Southern/Cajun food.
The following morning I trekked up to the cheese plant and met Mave, the daughter of a local winemaker and part-time worker for the Monteillets. I worked with her on packing up Larzacs and Cardabelles for the upcoming weekend markets. While we did this Michael and Joan began ladling the curds which had been set by Pierre-Louis the previous day (remember all that pasteurizing?). I realize that this sounds like quite a charmed life the Monteillets lead however it is not without considerable sacrifice on their part. In addition to impromptu meals with friends, great wine, saunas and acreage along the Touchet River are the 20 hour days spent tending to milkers and replacements, pasture, cheesemaking, cleaning, packaging, and farmers’ markets that are 250+ miles away. Spending time with the Monteillets was a reminder for us that many of the farms we have visited over the last few months are at the tipping point; they have borrowed more than ever before in their lives to create the infrastructure of a dairy farm and a few years in they are nearing make-or-break points in their businesses. I’m not pleading for sympathy votes on their behalf, just reminding you that there is a tremendous amount that goes into these products because these smaller farmers are creating their industry as they go and that requires effort and money.
I encourage you, not only in principle, but in the spirit of gustatory pleasure to partake in what the Monteillets are doing. Although they sell a tremendous amount of cheese in Portland and Seattle markets there is cheese available for the rest of you too- just give them a buzz and place your order. Cheese by mail is a modern miracle.