Cheese from the farm

See how artisanal producers turn milk into pure dairy heaven. Plus: Molten Cheese Gnocchi and more.

Lemon Shortbread Cheesecake
Photo: Annabelle Breakey

Cooking with farmstead cheese
We created these recipes using cheeses from Winchester Cheese Company and Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy, but feel free to experiment with your own favorites.

Molten Cheese Gnocchi

Baked Goat Cheese with Spring Lettuce Salad

Mini Pumpernickel Grilled-Cheese and Pickle Sandwiches

Lemon Shortbread Cheesecake

Visiting a cheese farm
There has never been a better time to eat Western cheese.

Dozens of fine artisanal producers have popped up here in the past several years, and if you walk into your neighborhood cheese shop (or even a well-stocked grocery store), you're likely to find all kinds of local cheese, from fresh chèvres to buttery cheddars to powerful blues. Some are so good they're world class.

As with anything delicious, you can appreciate these cheeses just by eating them. But if you've ever taken a winery tour, you know that afterward the wine somehow tastes better.

The same is true for cheese ― especially farmstead cheese, made with fresh milk from the farm's own animals.

Visiting a cheese farm lets you see cheese created from the grass up, so to speak.

Winchester Cheese Company, in Riverside County, California, is a farmstead cheese operation with a gouda so good that it has taken top prizes at a slew of cheese contests, including the American Cheese Society's.

Winchester was founded by a jolly, rosy-cheeked Dutch American named Jules Wesselink, who ran a dairy farm for 40 years until the plummeting price of milk forced him to make a change.

So, in 1995, at age 69, he went back to the Dutch town of Haarlem, where he was raised, and learned to make gouda from a centuries-old recipe.

Anyone visiting Jules's farm gets to know the cows first. About 300 black-and-white Holsteins with big, sweet, cud-chewing faces stand placidly in pens along the driveway. Valerie Thomas ― Jules's daughter and head cheesemaker ― reveals that they're a Dutch breed prized for producing lots of milk: 7 to 8 gallons per cow per day.

At dawn and at dusk, she says, the cows trot, unherded, into the milking barn in shifts. They know exactly what to do for relief: "Each puts herself in her own slot."

By day's end, 2,000 gallons of milk will have been pumped through tubes and filtered into a giant steel tank.

Through windows into the cheesemaking room, you can watch as Valerie and her assistants turn a steel trough full of fresh raw milk into a smooth, silky custard by adding vegetarian rennet and starter culture.

With special rakes, they break up the glistening mass into wobbly, fragile curds and churn them with paddles ― "'until the pieces are the size of a Dutch dime,' as my father would say," Valerie explains. The sweet liquid whey is drained off and the curds are hand crumbled into molds and pressed; then they're bathed in saltwater to season them and form the start of a protective rind.

Now the young cheeses are trundled into the aging rooms (a series of scrupulously clean converted trailers) to join other fat wheels of gouda on floor-to-ceiling shelves.

The air is thick with a rich, mouthwatering aroma. It primes your appetite for the final stop: the tasting room, decked out in Holstein-print curtains made by Valerie's aunt.

There you can try ― and buy ― gouda at four stages of ripening, from a buttery 2-month-old to crumbly, sharp year-old Super Aged, plus flavored cheeses including a wonderful komijne kaas (cumin-seed cheese), a Dutch favorite.

 

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