Monthly Archives: September 2010

Bleating Heart Cheese: An Interview with Seana Doughty, Part II

Lily, a Bleating Heart Milker

Lily, a Bleating Heart Milker, all photos courtesy of Bleating Heart.

Bleating Heart is one of the best sheep’s milk cheeses available today, and cheesemaker Seana Doughty, who has the determination to drive from California to Wisconsin during winter to buy sheep, and the humor to name her wheels ”Fat Bottom Girl,”  is a force to be reckoned with. After tasting her samples at Cowgirl Creamery and being blown away by the flavor produced by this first-time cheesemaker, I knew I wanted to interview her for “It’s Not You, it’s Brie.” Because her story is so dynamic and fun, we’re extending the interview to two posts- it’s a long one, but her answers are fantastic. The interview was done via email, and my questions are in bold. This is the second interview. The first can be found here.

Tell us a little about how Fat Bottomed Girl is made. I love the story about how after it was left alone for a little while, you came back to the creamery to find that it had a thicker bottom and named it after the Queen song ode to fuller figures. What happens after the raw milk hits your creamery for this cheese? Do you add any molds to the wheels as is done with brie-style cheeses, or do you simply wash the rind and let it do its thing?

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Fat Bottom Girl (all photos courtesy of Bleating Heart)

When I first conceptualized the cheese that became Fat Bottom Girl, I knew I wanted to create something sort of in between a Basque style sheep cheese and a younger Italian pecorino. I had the taste, texture, and size in my mind before I ever made the cheese. I knew it would be raw milk, and I knew it would be a small format. Once the raw sheep milk is in the vat, it’s heated gently, then it’s cultured with a blend of culture strains. I do not add any additional ripening molds or yeasts to the milk. When the desired pH is reached, rennet is added (I only use natural calf rennet). Once set, the curd is cut and allowed to rest for 10 minutes. At that point, I cook & stir the curd a bit, gently increasing the heat over a 45 min period. Once the texture of the curd is just right, I “hoop” the curd into their basket moulds, each wheel being imprinted with a heart. The tricky part is recreating the accidental fat bottom shape – which requires a timer and constant attention! I have to unmould the cheeses at just the right time or else the fat bottom might be too fat, or too skinny. That’s actually one fun and truly artisan aspect of this cheese – it requires totally hands-on human intervention, you could never replicate that in a factory. These cheeses are allowed to fatten and acidify and when the pH is right, they are brined and then aged for 60 days at 55F. During the aging process, the wheels are washed every 2 to 3 days with brine. The orange /yellow hue on the rind is from the development of B. Linens, which was in the environment. Unfortunately, I just did not have enough milk to make FBG this year, but it will return in 2011. I will definitely being playing Queen when that cheese is back in production.

How long does it normally take you to perfect your cheese babies (your new cheese creations)?

The quick answer: none – I just make the cheese. I have never spent any time doing experimental batches of any cheese that I’ve sold (with the exception of the soft unripened sheep cheese I was experimenting with so I could use the milk being produced before the dairy got licensed). In fact, I never made cheese at home or “practiced” at all before I began making cheese for commercial sale. I made some whole milk ricotta on the stove from time to time – that’s it. I know this probably sounds completely ridiculous and quite cavalier, but it’s the truth. Plus, with the very high price and scarcity of sheep milk, I could not afford to experiment, it just HAD to work!

Before you started making your own cheese, you worked in a Venissimo cheese in Del Mar. What was the final straw that inspired you, a girl who grew up eating Velveeta and who loves designer clothes and keeps tubes of mac lipgloss in her creamery, to leave cheesemongering and to make your own wheels?

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Seana in Spain, buffing up her cheese (and charcuterie knowledge)

By the time I was an adult, Velveeta was but a distant unfortunate memory, and fine cheese had basically become it’s own food group for me. When I landed the gig at Venissimo, I was in heaven. I would’ve come to work there even if they didn’t pay me. I was completely smitten and even further fascinated with cheese. Within weeks, I concluded that it was not enough for me to just know and sell cheese, I needed to make it, I had a burning desire to create something. I felt like I had finally figured out what I want to be when I grow up – a cheesemaker, but I had create my OWN cheese. I would not be satisfied to make cheese for someone else. I am also not ashamed to say that I pretty much always wear lipgloss, especially when I’m making cheese. I made cheese yesterday, and I of course wore lipgloss – MAC Viva Glam is one of my faves.

What other wheels do you see in your future?

I knew from the beginning that I wanted to make a mixed milk cheese, which I am currently producing. This cheese will be out in Fall 2010, it’s called “Trifecta” and is a blend of 50% sheep, 40% cow & 10% goat milk. That cheese is loosely inspired by the local mixed milk tommes I had in France but definitely is not a copycat, it’s natural rind makes it unique to this environment. The name has a story – it is inspired by the largest gambling win I’ve ever experienced. A trifecta where you pick the 1st, 2nd and 3rd place winners in a race. This happened to me at the Del Mar horse races, which happens to be located about half a mile from Venissimo, the cheese shop I worked in, the gig that sparked this whole cheesemaking adventure. The cheese is sheep 1st, cow 2nd, goat 3rd….my true order of preference in cheeses.

I will definitely make a BLUE cheese once I have enough sheep milk, hopefully in a couple of years. I have always been a lover of blue cheese, in fact my cheese name at Venissimo was “Vamp de Valdeon” in honor of the amazing mixed milk leaf-wrapped blue cheese from Spain. I will certainly do a pure sheep milk blue cheese, and maybe a mixed milk blue.

Who are some of your favorite cheese folks you think we should be keeping an eye on?

My friend/cheese buddy Megan Mulhern, who I met at the Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference in Feb 2009, is someone you will likely be hearing about in the not-too-distant future. She and I became very good cheese buddies. She recently landed a job as a cheesemaker at Jasper Hill in Vermont, where she is making Bayley Hazen Blue (another excellent blue), but she has plans to eventually return to her native Texas and start her own cheese enterprise.

My friend Craig Ramini is another cheese buddy of mine….he is in the process of staring a water buffalo dairy in Tomales, right on the Marin/Sonoma County border. You will be hearing about him and his cheese soon, maybe even by the end of the year or early next year. Craig and I get together regularly for beer and cheesemaker moral support.

If someone told you they wanted to be a cheesemaker, what would you tell them?

The only thing I would say/ask is: “WHY??? – why do you want to be a cheesemaker?” Keep in mind that here is no one right answer to this question, but you do need to know the answer because trying times are ahead. Artisan cheesemaking, especially if you have your own dairy and animals, is DAMN HARD WORK so you’d better know just what’s driving you before you go down this road. There WILL be days when your resolve is shaken to the core. Starting and running an artisan cheese business is not easy, it is not glamorous (lipgloss helps though), and it is not very financially lucrative, especially when you start to count up the total hours and the physical & emotional energy you devote to the various aspects of the business. I have never worked so hard in all my life, but have never been so excited about my work either. You need to have immense energy, extreme dedication, intense drive and the ability to cope with all the highs and lows that will come your way. There will be blood, sweat and tears, sometimes all in the same day, especially if you have dairy animals. Things may go wrong, or don’t go as planned or expected, so you need to be flexible. Most of all, you must love love love making cheese, and you must love the cheese you make. If not, please don’t bother. Oh and you need money too, the more the better.

Thank you Seana, for this wonderful interview.

If you have any questions for Doughty, leave them in the comments. I’ll try to get you answers when she has time.

Have you had a chance to try Bleating Heart?

Bleating Heart Cheese: An Interview with Seana Doughty

Logo-revised June10-2010_0

Bleating Heart is one of the best sheep’s milk cheeses on the market today, and cheesemaker Seana Doughty, who has the determination to drive from California to Wisconsin during winter to buy sheep, and the humor to name her wheels “Fat Bottom Girl,”  is a force to be reckoned with. After tasting her samples at Cowgirl Creamery and being blown away by the flavor produced by this first-time cheesemaker, I knew I wanted to interview her for “It’s Not You, it’s Brie.” Because her story is so dynamic and fun, we’re extending the interview to two posts- it’s a long one, but her answers are fantastic. The interview was done via email, and my questions are in bold.

California is cow land. Until 2009, there were only four licensed sheep’s milk dairies in the state and their milk was harder to come by than a pizza without sundried tomatoes in the nighties. Now with ten East Friesian and Lacaune cross-breed sheep housed in a carport in her backyard, Seana Doughty has started the fifth certified sheep dairy in the state, and makes cheese that sells out within months. This is Seana of Bleating Heart Cheese. She makes Sonoma Toma and Fat Bottomed Girl.

It was very difficult for you to, first, find sheep’s milk to make your cheese, than, second to find the animals you would call your own. Would you speak a little about those hardships?

When I first decided that I was going to make cheese, I had also decided that I would make sheep milk cheese – it’s my favorite, so that’s what I would make. Right. The harsh reality set in that getting sheep milk was more difficult than acquiring illegal drugs or guns! Not that I was seeking those things, but I would bet I could have bought those more readily than sheep milk.

There was absolutely NO sheep milk to be found anywhere. At that time (late 2008-early 2009), there were only 2 licensed sheep dairies in CA, Bellwether Farms and Rinconada Dairy, and both of them were using every last drop of milk for their own cheese production. In spring 2009, two more CA sheep dairies got licensed: Garden Variety Cheese, and Barinaga Ranch.

It was Marcia Barinaga who I connected with and who gave me the opportunity to buy a little bit of her flock’s milk and use her creamery to make my first cheese, Fat Bottom Girl. By the end of the 2009 season, Marcia realized that she needed all of her milk for her own cheese and would not be able to sell anymore. I spent a couple of months thinking about what I was going to do, calling around and talking to various people who may be thinking about starting a sheep dairy (there are quite a few talkers, not many doers) and where I might be able to get milk, with no real leads. So I had a decision to make – stop making sheep cheese until someday when somebody decides to start a sheep dairy and will sell me some milk, OR – start my own sheep dairy.

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So…. I called up Paul Haskins at Swedish Mission Farm in Wisconsin, who I had visited earlier in the year to tour his sheep dairy operation. I told him my milk dilemma and convinced him to sell me 10 mature ewes, and to breed them for me as well. I didn’t know exactly where they were going to live yet, but I had a few ideas, the main one being my backyard which happens to be an apple orchard.

Seana Doughty's craigslist truck, oil-change in Wisconsin.

Seana Doughty's craigslist truck, oil-change in Wisconsin.

In December 2009 I bought a truck on craigslist and drove to Wisconsin and back, a 4200 mile trip, to pick up my flock. They settled in quite nicely in the orchard behind my house where I erected a carport and some portable electric fence. By the time the girls (as I call my ewes) had their babies, I had partnered with Kerry & Rex Williams, who are sheep ranchers living 3 miles from my house in Sebastopol. We formed an LLC, Black Oaks Sheep Dairy, built a “starter parlor” in an old barn on their farm, and got licensed on June 18th this year.

We now have a total of 84 East Friesian/Lacaune ewes that we have begun breeding this month and plan to increase the flock each season until we are eventually milking 200-300 prolific ewes. I visit my sheep often and do milk them from time to time (Kerry is the regular milker) and I am very involved in the overall operations and planning of the dairy, although not as hands on with the day-to-day care & feeding as my partners. This allows me to focus more on the growth of Bleating Heart and scaling up cheese production, knowing that my sheep are in good hands.

Why there are so little sheep in California yet so many in Wisconsin?

The only place in North America that has any sort of sheep dairy industry where there are farms that produce sheep milk for the sole purpose of selling milk (as opposed to making cheese) is Wisconsin. There are a few outliers in other states, but you could count them on one hand. Wisconsin is really the epicenter of sheep dairying in North America.

This is mainly due to the establishment of the sheep dairy at the Spooner Agricultural Research Station, a facility run by the University of Wisconsin. Why they took this initiative in Wisconsin as opposed to California or anywhere else, I’m not sure. I sincerely hope that California will someday soon have its own thriving dairy sheep industry so that we can produce more sheep milk products here. I will certainly do whatever I can to help make that happen. I am not a believer of shipping frozen milk or frozen curd across state lines or form other countries. I understand why other companies do this, I just don’t agree with it for both environmental and ethical reasons. More effort should be put into building up the local infrastructure(s).

Where and how did you learn how to make cheese?

I took 2 of the short courses in cheesemaking offered at Cal Poly, had a class with Margaret Morris, and also did a 3-day cheesemaking class with Moshe Rosenberg of UC Davis. Before that, I began by reading and studying – I bought many books, including dairy science textbooks (the books for hobbyists were of little value to me). I read, took notes, and then read some more. I studied cheese recipes, over and over, asking myself why certain steps are taken, what would happen if I did this or that differently?

There is a difference between simply following a recipe, and understanding WHY the recipe is written the way it is, why certain cultures are used, why you cut the curd to a certain size, why a cheese is aged at a certain temp or certain length of time, etc. I still do this type of inquisitive studying all the time. Although my degree is in sociology, I began college as a pre-med student so I have taken chemistry and biology classes – that helped immensely! The learning curve is going to be steeper for anyone who doesn’t have a familiarity with basic scientific lingo and principles.

I also worked as a cheesemonger for 6 months, further developing my knowledge of the cheeses of the world. Each day in the cheese shop was a new opportunity to taste and learn about more cheeses and I made every second count when I was there. This was absolutely invaluable. I cannot emphasize enough how much this helped.

Anyone can take a class and learn how to make gouda, feta, cheddar, etc. but I feel that is only part of it. To really become a good cheesemaker and understand cheese, my opinion is that one should have a good familiarity of the cheeses of the world.

In spring of 2009 I also spent 2 weeks in France, buying and eating massive amounts of cheese, visiting cheesemakers, and just marveling at the types of local cheeses they have there which are never exported or shipped outside those towns or regions, particularly in the Pyrenees where they have lots of sheep cheese and mixed milk cheeses. I was so in love with the area around the town of Laruns and the local cheeses you can buy at the town’s open market from the multiple small-scale cheesemakers, that I almost did want to come home! That trip was highly inspirational and I came back to CA with a even greater drive to create my own cheeses.

Were there cheese styles after which you modeled your wheels?

My goal was to create “American Original” cheeses. I had absolutely no desire to copy what Europeans have perfected over many centuries and generations. I recall a conversation with a well-respected cheesemaker last year, where I was talking about what type of cheese I wanted to make with sheep milk, and he said to me very matter-of-factly “you should just make Manchego.” Um, no thanks. Why would I make Manchego? The Spanish are already doing a rather stellar job with that, I cannot improve on that, I don’t even want to try.

My mode of operation boils down to American innovation with European inspiration. I first have a concept in my head, and then I try to execute it. I have this thing/talent/skill where I can smell and taste something in my mind, and I use this with my cheesemaking. I basically make cheese that I want to eat, getting inspiration from various places, with a firm commitment to not copying others- I wont ever do knock-offs!

SeanaDoughty To be continued…

Timanoix: Walnut Liquor & Cheese Have a Baby

Timanoix cheese

Timanoix cheese

Some might write off a cheese that has been weaned on walnut liquor, fearing perhaps that the booze got to its head or affected its ability to know itself as a cheese first, and as a partner to alcohol second. With so many boozey cheeses out there exuding scents of cheap bars rather than buttery milk and balanced liqueurs, spirits, or wine, this is understandable. A cheese is easily influenced.

The high number of under-par cheeses being sold that have been doused in alcohol in their youth to hide inadequate flavor doesn’t help the case for this style either. Dunking a low-quality cheese in two-buck Chuck will not make the wheel any better. It does, however, attract more fruit flies.

But when fresh, high-quality milk meets monk-made walnut liquor from Brittany, rest assured that your cheese is in good hands.

I had never seen Timanoix before I walked into the Pasta Shop one day looking for a photogenic cheese. My friend Stephanie over at Wasabimon offered to show me how camera terms like f-stop, aperture, applied to me, so I was looking for something pretty that I wouldn’t have to kick off the cheese plate later. A wedge of Timanoix caught my eye.

With a rind the color of chestnut shells and a milky, buttery smooth interior, Timanoix makes one of the prettiest cheese slices you’ll ever see. The rind is thin and firm and the inside is a silky, semi-firm paste with occasional holes, that melts beautifully in a grilled cheese sandwich.

The first taste of this sixty-day aged cheese reveals sweet walnuts and chocolate. Then, the sweetness fades and a rich, earthy character takes over. Last, you’re left with a milky freshness on the tounge.

Trappist monks in southern Brittany make Timanoix by rubbing the pressed cow’s milk cheese down with a walnut liquor also produced at Abbey Notre Dame de Timadeuc. Washing down cheeses is an ancient trappist practice. Monks started rubbing down the rinds in hopes of keeping the wheels from cracking. After they discovered it produced dynamic earthy flavors that could replace meat during their fasting periods, the practice caught on.

Gotta love those monks.

After the monks, but  before the cheese gets to us, affineur Pascal Beillevaire ages the cheese in his cellar. This cheese has been blessed two-fold.

If you want to try this with wine, I’d suggest a Viognier or Chardonnay- something with a bit of nuttiness to match the cheese. As for beer- think trappist styles like Chimay.

What to you like to eat and drink with your trappist cheeses?

Transhumance: What Goes up Comes Down Cheese

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Sheep migration during June in Bonperrier, from the Vers Autre Chose website. Click on photo to be linked.

My favorite of the many sessions I attended at the American Cheese Society Conference late August was a love letter to transhumance. It was a damn good love letter, and I’m going sum it up for you.

Hosted by Daphne Zepos, cultural anthropologist Sandra Ott and Alpine cheese importer Caroline Hostettler, and coordinated by Sara Vivienzo of the San Francisco Cheese School, the session focused on transhumance’s transformative effect on cheese and culture.

Defined as the seasonal migration or movement of humans and their livestock from lower to higher pastures in spring and summer, transhumance is when pastoral people or shepards move with their animals to take advantage of the seasonal landscape. The session focused on the migration in the Basque and Alpine areas of France.

In the summer, shepherds head up the hills with their animals. They  hang out, get a little sun, revel in the wild herbs, and make a little cheese. They migrate for four main reasons:

1. Varied vegetation grows at different elevations, and when the snow melts in the spring, tasty herbs, grasses, and flowers beckon the animals uphill. As a photo shown at the session of a cow eagerly eying the spring sky after being cooped up in a barn during the winter, animals are eager to prance around in the fresh fields and eat their favorite spring treats. We like strawberry ice cream and asparagus. They like wild herbs and flowers from the tops of the hills.

2. Pastoral people take their livestock uphill to save the lowland grasses. There is only so much vegetation, and often a small village can’t support the feeding needs of their animals in the lower, open pastures. If the shepards head towards the sky, this means that the grasses nearer to the village can be saved for the animals during the winter, when the animals and people want to tread less on the rocky hills. In the case of the Alps, the cows also act as a lawnmover for the ski season, helping to trim the mountain grasses on the slopes.

3. Pastoral people do this because it is a part of their culture. It is a tradition and a choice to preserve a way of life. Could the shepherds make it so they don’t have to climb the hills as much? In an era of vitamin pills, antibiotics, and additives, hell yes. But the imbedded values within transhumance and the benefits the honored tradition brings to cultures makes the practice invaluable. Not to mention healthier than the alternatives.

4. They do this because it makes good cheese. Or they make cheese because transhumance produces good milk, which is the key to good cheese. Plus, cheese has traditionally helped their cultures serve during rough winters. It’s part of a beautiful cycle.

Why good milk? When the animals are eating the fresh grasses and varied seasonal herbs and flowers, they’re healthier, happier, and their milk tastes better. Just as important, you can taste what they’re eating in the cheese. More chives on the hills? You’ll taste it in the milk. More dried grasses in winter? The cheese is less vibrant.

For example, during the session we tasted an Alpine cheese imported by Caroline Histettler. It was made from the milk of cows that feasted on the summer grasses that a shepherd pulled from the hard-to-reach rocks of the Alps. The cheese was intense- it smelled of sweet milk, hay, herbs, citrus, and pineapple. I’ve tried cheeses that exhibit similiar flavors, but this seasonal cheese made only in the summer time was like those, times five.

Another bonus of the conference- a homemade video by the Histettler’s son. This eleven year-old spent a summer shepherding during the transhumance migration and wanted to share it with the session’s attendees. He stressed the importance of supporting the pastoral lifestyle, paid tribute to the hard work and values it stood for, and told us that because he believed eating artisan was so crucial, he hadn’t eaten junk food in three years. And yes, I did say he was eleven.

There is so much more to the story, but only so much posting space, so I hope you’ll look into it on your own. I urge you to try cheeses from these regions that practice transhumance, and to check out the ethnography anthropologist Sandra Ott wrote on her time with Basque shepherds.

Plus, here is a Greenpeace link questioning the role of GMOs in some AOC cheeses (many transhumance cheeses are protected AOCs). You can translate it through google.

Do you have any experience with transhumance you’d like to share?