A pause for thanks

What a journey these past three years have been. In February of 2014, I spent short winter days in an abandoned milkhouse nailing ceiling joists to barn rafters and grouting tiles. I worked with Mervin Weaver, a Mennonite friend who's handiwork and thrift would get the job done under budget and faster than anticipated. His uncle Elmer with his flatbed trailer and uncanny knowledge of country backroads hauled a collection of dusty steel equipment from the Pisano’s place in Coatesville. Martha Pisano passed away the year before, and she left behind a suite of micro cheesemaking equipment and a flock of East Friesian sheep. I purchased the equipment from her husband Jerry, and an Amish farmer snatched up the flock (whose milk I would later occasionally turn into cheese). I was so nervous the whole drive back from the Pisano’s farm, looking back to watch a 25 gallon vat pasteurizer tip ever so precariously towards the flatbed railing at every bend in the road.

Getting said equipment through the milkhouse door was no smaller a feat. With the help of three grown men, I installed two vats, three stainless drain tables, and a triple sink into a 15 by 20 foot space that would become my home away from home. In that concrete chamber, I would spend every waking hour for the proceeding nine months, only to come up for air in autumn when the days grew cold and short again. I was 28 years old and I had a mission: to start Oley’s first artisan creamery.

People warned me about all of the things: the hours upon hours of dishwashing, the fact that the regulations are getting stricter, the lack of local demand for premium foods. I floated above these cautions with the inflated sense of optimism that has carried me through to this point. I wanted to be an artist in a studio, situated so perfectly between the farm and the kitchen. I wanted to turn grass into cheese, the most refined food in the world. For better or for worse, my first skill was not in cheesemaking, but in ignoring the constraints of reality to whimsically chase a romantic idea.

I’m glad I did. I’m not just saying that because I have to; because technically I’m locked long term into this business with all of its infrastructure, its debts, its dishwashing. I say it because I mean it from the depth of my heart. Taking a risk on cheese was a good risk, and I’ve been richly rewarded with a supportive, collaborative, inspiring peer group and a growing base of customers that, fortunately for me, appreciates good, strong, stinky cheese.

I choke up when I think of how far the business has come in three years thanks to these two groups of people, my peers and supporters. It is you, dear folk, who took a risk on the new gal in town. It is people like you, Sue Miller and Jaap van Liere, mentors and devoted taste testers. I am, never was, the most experienced in the flock. I was guided primarily by a taste memory of the cheeses I grew up with, the ones my mother introduced me to on visits to Belgium and France. I transitioned from home cheesemaker to professional in a few short years, and determined to start my own production, didn’t stop to think that I could have used more training. The short answer is: I could have. Mistakes were made. Luckily, they were tasty mistakes, at least to those with the adventurous palate. And alas, I made a name for myself with oozy textures and big flavors that were only in part intentional. 

The good milk at my foundation is to thank perhaps most of all. I’ve written about beloved Spring Creek Farm before, and I won’t stop praising the Stricker family’s ability to turn luscious grass into high quality milk. It is the finest in the region, I’d venture to say, and I’m equally proud that my grandfather worked with the family on soil amendments during his days as a consultant with Reading Bone. Without the family’s devotion to their herd of Jerseys, Ayrshires and Holsteins, those experiments in the creamery would have turned out all wrong. The gambles worked because the milk was good, and my tinkering was rewarded and encouraged thanks to the riches of butterfat and protein with which the Strickers endowed my stainless steel vat.

Somewhere in the mix, I managed to meet the love of my life and get married. Sure as I was to exist as a peasant Oley Valley cheesemaker for the rest of my life (and just about ok with that notion), I met Pat McPeake and her two friends at the original cheese shop in Oley, the one that happened out of a mini fridge beside my creamery door. She was impressed at my height, and called me the next day to ask - point blank - if I was hitched. Her son Owen was living and working as an acupuncturist in Philly at the time. He showed up to the farm and we walked the trail along the Manatawny, talking about our ancient trades. After a year of shuffling back and forth between his hometown and the city, Owen made the move back to the country, near his family, his beloved natural world and his new love. His small rural practice does well considering its remote location, tucked away on our homestead in the Oley hills. He is part time milk hauler for Valley Milkhouse, cheese deliverer, and strategic advisor. I thank his dear soul for empowering me to keep going, despite the financial strains and long hours. He keeps me honest, true to the passion that brought me here.

A wise woman once told me, "the only thing more overrated than natural childbirth is running your own business." The challenges ahead are real and getting harder. It seems that starting the operation was the easy part; sustaining it will be the real triumph. I am examining the ways I can build a lab and acquire some fairly costly testing equipment to comply with new regulations on antibiotic testing. I am also looking to expand my aging space to improve consistency of the cheeses and enable further experimentation with new styles. I am making arrangements for better transport and shipping to my wholesale partners within the region; I long to spend more time with the cheese and less time on the road. All of these projects cost time, money and wrinkles. 

So, at this crucial three year mark, I give pause to thank all of you for leading me to this point of what I would call success. I appreciate how far you have carried me and humbly approach the future with your wind at my back. 

Natural Medicine for the Oley Hills

What does a cheesemaker do to take care of her tired hands and aching back? 

Like many of you, I work with my body every day. I'm on my feet, lifting, moving, working hard. While I'd like to think my immune system is vigorous, I get to sniffling this time of year, and the common cold is not a friend to someone who needs to remain active for business to keep running. If I stop, the production comes to a halt. 

I find remedy and relief in Acupuncture and Chinese herbal therapies. These treatments are natural, they are rugged, and they are effective. And I've discovered them thanks to my partner, a local acupuncturist named Owen McPeake. 

I share this with you because Owen is in the process of launching a crowd-sourcing fundraiser to move his practice from the streets of Philadelphia to the hills of the Oley Valley where he grew up. Contributions to the campaign are rewarded with discounted treatments and herb formulas, and there's even a package for the "needlephobic" who would prefer a treatment consisting of herb formulas only. Owen will use the funds to curate an herbal pharmacy to serve this community. 

I invite you, my dear friends and followers in Berks County, the Lehigh Valley and beyond, to learn more about Owen's practice and his campaign at his Indiegogo site

And please join us in celebrating the launch of local and natural medicine in the Oley hills. On Sunday, November 15 from 1 to 3, we will be hosting an open house at our home and the site of Owen's practice studio. Mulled cider and, of course, Valley Milkhouse cheeses will be served. The address is 75 Orchard Rd, Fleetwood. To RSVP, email owenmcpeake@gmail.com or call (484) 547-7999.

Posted on October 30, 2015 .

The Best of Both Fermentations

In a cheese vat filled with curds and beer is the best place to begin to tell the story of my latest Belgian adventure. 

But first, I should explain why I’m here.

My link to Belgium begins on an apple orchard in St. Truiden, where my late mother’s family is now in its third generation of fruit production. My mother grew up there, and nearly all of my aunts, uncles and cousins on her side still live there. I enjoy visiting them because they live next to the Wilderen brewery and distillery, where the only menu offerings are beer, gin, and ice cream sundaes. (This is classically Belgian: the epitome of decadence.) 

My mother met my father in Belgium when he was a pro basketball player in Europe in the 70’s and ‘80s. He was playing for the team of my mother’s hometown; they fell in love and started a family. I was born in Switzerland, my sister in Belgium, and we both spent our early years in Spain. When I was five years old, they chose to move back to my father’s Pennsylvania Dutch roots in Berks County to raise their children, which is precisely how I ended up with one foot in both countries. (I’ve calculated that both halves contribute equally to my affection for good beer.)

This winter, I seized the opportunity to book a plane ticket to Brussels, excited in equal parts to visit my mother’s family and travel on a sort of cheese pilgrimage.

A month before the trip, I reached out to several creameries throughout Flanders, the northern, Flemish speaking part of Belgium. I contacted eight, to be exact, and I was happy to be welcomed by two. 

I spent last week with the first one, a small dairy farm and creamery, De Vierhoekhoeve (a name which I can now proudly spell) where I assisted the cheesemaker in his process of making what is known in Belgium as bierkaas, or literally, beer cheese.

The cheesemaker, Pieter Taelman, became interested in bieerkass when he married into the family farm, forming the second generation of ownership alongside his wife, Hilde. There was a brewery in the town that he thought might enjoy having its beer made into cheese.

He thought right. The brewery was Delirium Tremens, ranked among the best beers in the world. It took Pieter several years of perfecting his bierkaas recipe, and he now makes cheese for many of the finest breweries in the country - Pater Lieven, Hopus, Gruut, Duvel, Liefman's Kriek; the list goes on. He uses blonde ales, brown ales, krieks, trappist beers - the cheese does well with any beer style. Conveniently, there are plenty to choose from.

Bierkaas is a style that is made like a Gouda, but in the midst of the process, fresh curds are soaked in beer. The curds spend an hour bathing in ale, absorbing as much of it as possible, before getting drained in small round forms and pressed for several hours to form classic baby Gouda wheels. The wheels are painted with cheese coating to protect the rind and aged for several weeks, months or years. 

In the cheese’s young form of 4 weeks, the flavor of the ale is highly pronounced, and some mongers can even identify the brewery based on a blind taste of the cheese. As the cheese ages, the ale flavor takes a back seat to the caramel, nutty flavors that begin developing. After several months, the cheese identifies as a mature Gouda, initially sweet, sharp on the finish, and teeming with crystal crunch.

I had encountered the cheese before, although not consciously. While traveling here as an adolescent when I was first discovering beer (of course, the legal drinking age of 18 is a mere suggestion), I found it entirely amusing to be served three cubes of cheese with my beer at the bar. It was years later that I was able to put it all together; that said cubes of cheese were actually bierkaas, not a snack, but a specialty.

Some may say that the cheese is meant to be enjoyed with a glass of the beer with which is it made, but I think that it’s the other way around. The beer needs the cheese to become a perfect pairing, and this, I profess, with my whole (half Belgian, half American) heart. 

Posted on February 25, 2015 .

cheese is history

Many people ask me: how and why did I come to develop the ashen, bloomy Witchgrass? 

There are several layers in the answer to this question - personal, geographical and historical. 

For one, I love mold. I love all it can do for cheese - preserve and protect it, develop interesting flavor complexes, and most importantly, break down the proteins that convert a tangy, fresh cheese into a layered, decadent paste. I find these cheeses not only the most interesting to eat and share at a table, but also the most fascinating to make. It is exciting to watch the blanket of white mold grow on the surface, turning a round of yellow cheese into a fluffy, white cloud. And I love to observe the ripening process from the surface-in, evidenced only with the breaking of the seal and the first slice into a Crottin.

But of course, the origins of a lactic bloomy extend much further than this love affair. 

The true answer lies in a history lesson.

This type of cheese, along with many of France’s best, developed in the home kitchen of a French peasant farmer in the Middle Ages. The story is worth telling because it represents the cornerstone in the evolution from simple fresh and pressed cheeses to the more complex, surface-ripened ones we know and love today.

As had been commonplace for several thousand years before Medieval times, milk was turned into cheese for the purposes of storage and nutrition (in early human history, we were still evolving a tolerance for lactose, and cheese was discovered to be the only means of digesting milk). Cheese was both a primary food source for the peasant families as well as a part of the rent they paid to their landlords. And the types of cheeses that developed during this period - the soft ripened, lactic curd, bloomy rind cheeses of the world - did so as a direct result of the climate, social structures and division of household work duties of these times.

Peasants living in the Middle Ages in northwestern Europe subsisted as tenant farmers, renting land from manor lords to grow crops and pasture animals. These peasants grazed cows on common lands while their landlords’ fields were used during the growing season. In the off season, the cows were allowed to graze on the stubble after harvest. Given this limited feed supply, a peasant could keep only a cow or two at the most, and these cows yielded a very small volume of milk, probably about one gallon a day.

This limited milk supply is an important factor in the evolution of ancient cheeses, and it was compounded by the role of the woman on the farm. Since the responsibility of growing food kept the men in the fields all day, it became the woman’s role to take care of all the rest. She tended to the chickens and pigs, brought grain to the miller and baked bread with the flour, tended to the herb garden, cared for the children, did the cooking, spun and weaved wool and flax into clothing and blankets, and mastered the fermentations of brewing beer and - most importantly to this story - making cheese. 

Here is the critical part: considering her extensive list of wifely duties, the peasant cheesemaker would have not have had time to make cheese with such a small volume of milk after each milking. She found it most efficient to pool milk from two milkings so that the process of making cheese was worth her while, and so that she had a larger volume to work with.

The pooling of milk from two or more milkings was possible thanks to the cooler, damper climate of northwestern Europe. While recipes evolved from the European peasants’ Mediterranean cheesemaking forbears who could make only fresh cheeses for immediate consumption, the northerners could store milk at a reasonable temperature for a short period of time for the first time in cheese making history.

It was in these very hours of milk storage that the great cheeses of Europe were born. During milk storage, bacteria naturally present in the milk would have the opportunity to get a head start on fermentation, converting lactose milk sugars into acid. This slow, natural acidification of the milk before coagulation is what helped it develop the flavors and textures of more complex cheeses. 

The final tipping point is this: the cool, damp climate that allowed these families to store milk for a day was the same environment that allowed for the storage of the finished cheese, as well. Cheeses were made using similar methods of the fresh cheeses of the Mediterranean, but could be stored in a cool, damp climate, which fostered the growth of all sorts of yeasts and molds on the cheese surface. These natural rinds served two purposes: they preserved the cheese for longer periods of time (as a blanket of white mold is competition enough for unwanted molds and bacteria), and the rinds also ripened the cheeses from the outside-in, allowing for the breakdown of proteins that lead to creamy, oozy textures.

Once the cheesemaker discovered these variables and their effects on the outcome of the cheese, she could begin to play around with the parameters to yield a wide variety of cheeses. It’s no wonder that, in time, France developed several hundred varieties and many of the world’s most complex cheeses.

And there it is: an evolution in cheese that took place out of practicality and led to the highly impractical, indulgent cheeses we adore today. 

* A special thanks to Paul Kindstedt for all of his wonderful research on the history of cheese. Read more in his book, Cheese and Culture.

 

Posted on September 5, 2014 .

the (un)clean cut on rennet

Twice in the past two months since the start of my production, I have been asked about my choice of rennet. Twice, I’ve had to disappoint two conscientious vegetarians who were saddened to hear I use veal rennet. While this is not a significant hit rate (and, at that, both customers admitted to “cheating” and buying the cheese anyway), I was intrigued to dig a little deeper into the subject. Since rennet is an essential part of my cheesemaking practice, I wanted to know more about the choice I make every day, often twice a day when I dilute a few millimeters of syrupy brown liquid in water and stir it into a 40-gallon vat of fermenting milk.

Let me preface the conversation by admitting that I was drawn to veal rennet for a couple of primarily indulgent reasons. First, the word on the street has always been that alternative rennets can cause bitterness in cheese. Having a sweet tooth myself, I decided this was not to my taste. 

Second, I had a warm and fuzzy feeling about finding use for the dismal byproduct of the dairy industry: male calves. It is known to most that the only reason veal exists in this country is a result of dairy. What to do with the young, male calves who will not grow up to be milkable? Let’s turn them into tender, young meat. Eating dairy means not-so-indirectly fueling the veal industry. (I, too, still have a hard time digesting this quandary.)

And finally, I am a traditionalist by nature. I think back to the man or woman who made the earth’s first cheese, surprised to open his or her calf-stomach storage sack and find that the milk had curdled. (Actually, Egyptian tomb murals show cheese being made as early as 2000 B.C.). The enzyme in the fourth stomach of the unweaned calf exists to help it digest its mother’s milk, and humans were smart to discover that this enzyme can be used in the coagulation of milk for cheesemaking. Veal rennet is nothing more than these fourth stomachs, cleaned, dried, sliced and rehydrated in a salty, slightly acidic brine to create the liquid form.

Surely, that does not sound appetizing, but it makes intuitive sense. And if one were to examine the rennet options available on Dairy Connection’s website, the option of Veal Rennet has the simplest and most alluring description to the purist: 100% natural veal rennet. 

Natural, but not vegetarian.

The alternatives, which are vegetarian friendly options, are not quite as natural, and require a little more color.

The first alternative to veal rennet is microbial rennet, often coming by the name Marzyme and manufactured by a company called DCI. Microbial rennet is derived from a fermentation of mucor miehei, or mold. These molds are produced in a fermenter and then purified and concentrated for commercial use. Microbial rennet is known to cause some bitterness and off flavors in cheese, and is also rumored to be a less stable source of coagulant, but it is suitable for vegetarians so long as no animal products were used in its manufacture.

Because of the imperfections with microbial rennet, producers sought an additional alternative. Enter: CHY-MAX. With the development of genetic engineering, it became possible to extract rennet-producing genes from animal stomach and insert them into certain bacteria, fungi or yeasts to make them produce chymosin during fermentation. According to Wikipedia, “The genetically modified microorganism is killed after fermentation and chymosin isolated from the fermentation broth, so that the fermentation-produced chymosin (FPC) used by cheese producers does not contain any GM component or ingredient.” In conclusion, this version is suitable for vegetarians but flirts with the line between natural and genetically modified ingredients. Further, the ultimate source of the rennet is still being extracted from animal, so while it does not contain any animal matter in its final form, it still depends on animals for its manufacture.

With this knowledge, I stand a little taller in my decision to use veal rennet as my primary coagulant in cheesemaking. It's not a squeeky clean choice, but one that suits my style and aligns most closely with my ideals: that is, to be as pure and traditional as possible in my ingredients and in my process. 

And there you have it: way more detail than you ever wanted to know about rennet, but here for your bedtime reading nonetheless. While I do not have all of the answers to the big paradox around eating dairy and conscious eating, at the very least, I’ll try not to eat my words.

 

Posted on July 25, 2014 .

white mold 101

“Do you eat the rind?” 

It is one of the most common questions customers ask me at the market stand when they poke a sample of Witchgrass with their toothpick and inspect it with a skeptic's eye.

My response is always the same:

“It’s the best part.”

Some shy away.

But most people, even if wary at first, delight in the adventure of the initial bite.

Whether white, blue, green or brown, in cheese, mold means flavor. It’s what contributes to the character of a cheese. If it weren’t for the ashen grey and white mold rind of the Witchgrass, it would be something more similar to a cream cheese than a Valencay (the French cheese that inspires it). 

Said white mold, and more specifically, penicillium candidum, delivers earthy, mushroomy, and some might even say a barnyard flavor to the palate after a certain age. I have even heard the descriptor “ripe laundry.” Without exactly knowing what "ripe" laundry is, I understand completely.

Moldy rinds do two wonderful things for cheese. First, they cover it with a protective layer to help preserve it. Once the integrity of the rind is compromised, so is the nature of the cheese. It’s at its best within a week or two of slicing into it, but can keep for several weeks and even months when the rind is kept intact. 

Second, white mold works on the surface of the cheese to ripen it from the outside-in. A few weeks into the process, the cheese paste closest to the rind starts breaking down into a runny, oozy consistency much like a brie or camembert. This is why I sometimes describe Witchgrass as an under-developed brie: it is enjoyed at its youthful four-week age when the paste of the cheese is still fresh, while the surface is beginning to age. I like this convergence between fresh cheese and aged because I like the bright, tanginess of the fresh sheep's milk, while the Francophile in me relishes the flavor of a developed white mold rind.

White mold cheeses begin their rind development in a controlled aging environment for the first two weeks of their life. The mold wants warmth and moisture to grow. At the Milkhouse, the white mold aging space fluctuates somewhere between 48 and 55 degrees and 80 to 95 percent relative humidity (the latter percentage being preferable but only sporadically achievable when the water-soaked rag chooses to hold up its end of the bargain). Only a couple of months into production, I need not even inoculate milk with white mold: it thrives naturally on the cheese's surface because the mold spores are thriving in the air of the aging space.

When a thick and fuzzy blanket of white mold has sufficiently covered the cheese’s surface, it gets wrapped in ripening paper that allows specifically for moisture retention and air exchange. If a Witchgrass has ever made its way into your market bag, you know this paper. And if you were to keep the Witchgrass in your fridge, in its ripening paper, for several weeks, without cutting into it, its body would convert into the oozy paste of a brie. With this continued ripening comes not only a decadent paste but a more developed flavor.

So…yes. That is also recommended. 

For any skeptics out there who have not yet dipped their toes into the sea of moldy cheeses, you’re missing out on the action. It’s time to get a mold on.

Posted on July 3, 2014 .

it begins with grass

This week, I would like to highlight the fresh pressed, sweet and mild Milkweed. I call it a farmer's cheese because of its simplicity to make, its young age and its semi firm texture. Many have told me that it has more developed flavor than farmer's cheeses they have tried before. This is a cheese without an ego - I think the name suits it well because it's one that lets the milk shine.

And, oh! That milk!

A word on that milk...

In my search for the highest quality milk for cheesemaking, I was so happy to meet Forrest and Greg Stricker, father and son owners and operators at Spring Creek Farms in Wernersville. I had to do some searching to find milk that was not only very rich and creamy, which is essential to the styles of cheeses I like to make, but also milk that is clean, which is the foundation of cheesemaking. It is not possible to make cheese that is consistent in quality, flavor and texture when you are constantly battling other bacterias present in the milk. It must start with a clean slate so that you can nurture the ones you specifically want to develop.

Enter: Spring Creek Farms. Incidentally, the Strickers knew my grandfather, Bill Angstadt, quite well, as they bought bone meal and natural fertilizers from him at his business, Reading Bone Fertilizer Co. Apart from the family connection, what endears me to Spring Creek Farms is their devotion to natural farming practices that translate directly to healthy milk that is the highest quality and, thus, the best milk for cheesemaking. 

Their pastures are chemical free. If you ever have a chance to visit them, you will be engulfed by a thick blanket of deep green as you pull up the driveway. From April to December, their herd of Jersey, Ayrshire and Holstein cows never spend more than 12 hours on a single paddock of grass before they are moved to a new field. Their milking parlor is the cleanest and most pristine I have seen. And most importantly, the Strickers are filled with passion for what they do. That love truly does translate to happier cows.

Going back to the cheese, then, the reason why the Milkweed stands out in my mind this week is because it offers the chance to experience that beautiful milk in a concentrated, creamy little wedge. Jerseys and Ayrshires have a notably sweet milk, which is one of the characteristics that people first taste in the cheese. Apart from snacking on it with crackers or crusty bread, I have enjoyed it with fruit and honey for breakfast, as the mozzarella to my tomato salad, and even - for a special treat - grilled. Because of the high cook temperature and pH of the cheese, it has a slow melt time, so you can actually grill slices of it on a hot griddle or grill. My friend once seared the Milkweed in a hot skillet and added it to his curry dish, using it almost as a paneer.

Anyway you slice it (but preferably, in nice thick wedges), the Milkweed is a must for tasting the Berks County terroir and that Jersey-Ayrshire sweetness.

Posted on July 3, 2014 .