See how artisanal producers turn milk into pure dairy heaven. Plus: Molten Cheese Gnocchi and more.
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.
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.
The artisanal advantage
Are all cheeses created equal? Well, sort of. Milk is always set into curds, which are drained of whey and formed into cheese.
But the beauty of artisanal cheeses lies in the tiny variations from batch to batch, which is what's so nice about things made by hand; they're new creations every time.
An artisanal cheese reflects the skill of the person who made it, the place where it was made, how it was aged, sometimes even the season.
At Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy, outside Boulder, Colorado, you can taste that creativity in each of Haystack's nine cheeses ― which, like Winchester's gouda, have won multiple awards.
The dairy's public tours end with a tasting of, for instance, Boulder Chèvre, a pure white, incredibly creamy fresh cheese that tastes as clean as spring grass. And there's Red Cloud, a small wheel with a reddish, sticky rind, and a buttery, molten, mushroomy interior.
Haystack Peak takes the shape of a pyramid and has a creamy-firm texture and a pleasant mineraliness. Its velvety rind of microscopic Penicillium candidum ripens the cheese from the outside in, and if the temperature in the aging room is too high, you learn, the cheeses will shed those rinds (or as the French say, tombe les pantalons ― "lose their pants").
Tours begin, naturally enough, at the kid pen, full of baby goats as frisky as preschoolers on a playground. There's no goaty smell here ― just the freshness of the green fields, high blue skies, and groves of aspens and cottonwoods against the mountains.
A few of the kids stretch their fuzzy necks toward the farm's founder and occasional tour leader, Jim Schott, begging for a scratch. They look as though they're about to purr. Which, says Jim, they actually can do: "When you get about 10 of them at it, it makes a nice, mellow sound."
Jim, a former education professor, has fun factoids at his fingertips. Did you know that goats' milk production wanes in winter, sometimes causing holiday cheese shortages? Or that the strange horizontal shape of goat's pupils is also found in octopuses?
Jim started making cheese in his kitchen in 1989, using the milk of his five new floppy-eared Nubians, and learned by consulting other cheesemakers and reading books ― including a how-to pamphlet by some cheesemaking Benedictine nuns.
It took nine years of very hard work and the occasional maxed-out credit card before the business "achieved critical mass," as he puts it. Now he and his wife, Carol, are adding 80 acres to the farm and setting up a branch in Oklahoma.
To watch cheesemaking at Haystack is to appreciate the delicacy of goat cheese, with its soft, snowy, easily digestible curds (versus the fattier, more rubbery cow's-milk curds).
And to see each little cheese being coaxed into ripeness in aging rooms set to just the right humidity, temperature, and airflow is to understand patience and watchfulness.
For Jim, it's all worth it. "Goats and cheesemaking are both quintessentially transforming. The goats produce new life, and when we add the culture to the milk, it becomes cheese. It's magical each time."
And in a way, so is the cheese itself, whenever a taste brings back the pleasure of seeing it made.
Take the cheese trip
Here are details on the cheesemakers profiled in this article.
Winchester Cheese Company Guided tours (10 a.m. Wed and Thu, $125 per 25 people; reservations required) include tasting. Or just stop by to watch the cheesemaking (free; generally 9-1:30 Tue-Fri). The shop (9-5 Mon-Fri and 10-4 Sat-Sun) sells gouda plus other Dutch goodies; 951/926-4239.
Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy Guided tours (by appointment; $50 per 15 people) include tasting. Self-guided tour twice a week (free; 12-2 Tue and Sat; typically no cheesemaking on Sat); 720/494-8714.