The Callahans of Bellwether Farms started the first licensed sheep’s milk dairy in California in the late 1980’s. There are now five. Considering that I still occasionally get a raised, suspicious, eyebrow when telling people that the cheese before them is made with sheep’s milk, and no, it’s not Manchego, this is no small feat. Beyond representing high-butterfat, nutty milk in the earthquake state and inspiring others to realize their sheep potential, Bellwether dairy makes the top pecorino-style cheese in the country and the most seductive whey-based sheep’s milk ricotta I’ve had outside Italy. Here, I interview Liam Callahan, who put California’s first sheep’s milk cheese in the shops in 1990. Thank you Liam!
You were just finishing up a degree in political science at UC Berkeley when your mother invited you to learn about sheep milking and cheese making with the animals she recently brought to the family farm. You left the land of academia and political science to work with sheep, and found yourself loving the life so much you stayed. With so much opportunity elsewhere, what kept you on the farm? Do the same things still inspire you today?
I had approached college as a way to be exposed to interesting ideas and diverse viewpoints rather than as part of a career path. When I was getting ready to leave school I was not sure if I would be staying in the Bay Area. I was not interested in pursuing an advanced degree and was trying to avoid an office job at all costs. I had been helping with our sheep since my mother bought her first ewes in 1986, but it was not until we started planning for the dairy and creamery that it began to make sense for me to stick around. The challenge of making cheese and the process of turning milk into our various products is still exciting. I love having something at the end of the day that I made with my hands.
When you first decided to start making cheese, you were unsure about what style to craft. After doing some traveling abroad and finding your passion, you started crafting the cheeses that you’ve made your name with today- San Andreas, Pepato, Crescenza and Ricotta. What drew you to these cheeses?
When we first began to make cheese in 1990 we focused on the most basic cheese to make – Fromage Blanc. We would make small batches and add various seasonings to the cheese and sell it at Farmer’s Markets around the Bay Area. We had been selling lamb to local restaurants for a few years by that point and began to sell a bit of our new cheese as well. Several of our chefs pointed us towards the sheep cheeses of Northern Italy when we mentioned our interest in making aged cheeses. In the spring of 1992 my parents took a month long trip to Italy to learn about Tuscan cheeses. They went with the hope of learning enough of a recipe that we could begin to make a Pecorino Toscano. They visited with several small creameries and we began to make our Toscano. I thought people would want more than one type of cheese at the Farmer’s Markets so we added the Pepato and another with crushed red pepper.
I returned to Italy in the spring of 1994 and again in 1996 to increase our general knowledge of cheese making. These subsequent trips helped me get a different perspective on our aged sheep milk cheeses and led to my decision to stop trying to make an ‘Italian style’ pecorino. In Italy you can often find many small cheese makers located very close to one another, making and marketing cheese using the same name. This is the case for Pecorino Toscano. I visited many of these creameries and was struck by how distinct each of their cheeses was from each other. It made me realize that if cheese makers a couple miles apart could not make the same product is was foolish for me to try from 6,000 miles away. When I returned we began to consider what characteristics of our cheese we enjoyed most. We started to vary moisture and acidity, then switched to raw milk and most recently (2 years ago) developed a natural rind for our sheep cheeses. Once this process of experimentation began we started using the San Andreas name. We kept the name Pepato because it was descriptive of the cheese.
Making ricotta was a natural extension of making aged sheep cheeses. All the creameries we saw in Italy made ricotta with their whey and it made sense for us to do so as well. Once we started making our cow’s milk cheeses I developed our recipe for our jersey whey ricotta. We take great care in making our ricotta and within the last 18 months added a whole milk jersey milk ricotta to our lineup. When ricotta is made in the traditional way it is one of the most delicious dairy products you could have. It is a real shame that so much industrial ricotta is out there for such a low price – it is like a different product entirely.
At the time your family started Bellwether, you were one of the first sheep’s milk dairies in California. The second, I believe. What kinds of hurdles did you have to overcome to become one of the most highly respected creameries in the state and nation? Did you have to have to preach the gospel of sheep’s milk to a public that grew up on cow’s milk?
I think we were the first licensed sheep dairy in the State – at least that is what our inspectors always told us. But being the first was never a goal. We had sheep and milking them seemed like an interesting thing to try. We had heard that many millions of pounds of sheep milk cheeses were being imported and discovered that some of our favorite cheeses were made with sheep milk. I think the hurdles for small creameries are similar regardless of the milk type.
It is difficult to get to a size that you can make any money and it is difficult to get money to start.There was not a lot of money out there from lenders and we relied on my father’s life insurance policy and credit cards. If I received a credit card offer in the mail I would take it. At one time I had over $250,000 on credit cards. We used them like a line of credit and eventually paid them all off. When we finally did get a real line of credit from a bank it was for only $15,000.
Another hurdle is that there is a lot of work to do. You are left to do everything at the creamery, and if you have animals, that is a whole different job that needs doing. After all that you need to market your products. Farmer’s markets are great but are very time consuming. Eventually you will need to get your product to stores.
We never tried to market our cheeses as better than cow’s milk, or that sheep milk had some qualities or health benefits that people needed. Rather, we just made cheese and let people decide for themselves. Certainly people were curious and many had preconceived ideas about how it would taste but, most were open to something new, and many were surprised to know that they were already enjoying imported sheep milk cheeses like Feta, Roquefort, Romano and Manchego. We have been very lucky that people have enjoyed our cheeses and supported us over the years. The time really has flown by.
It’s spring. Could you speak to the effect of the seasons on sheep rearing, milking and cheesemaking?
The seasons of the year affect the milk from both the cows and the sheep. In the spring the solids drop but the grassy aromas increase as they are in the fresh grass. The milk from the Jersey cows gets even more yellow color. When the animals are on the fresh grass the curd tends to be a bit softer. As the year progresses the solids in the milk increases but the volume decreases – this means you get more pounds of cheese per gallon of milk, but fewer gallons of milk per animal.
As artisan cheese lovers everywhere know, the FDA is scrutinizing (some might say bullying) creameries who focus on raw milk cheeses, and there’s been talk of them considering banning raw milk cheeses altogether in hopes of “protecting” American consumers against foodborne illness. How do you feel about this, and as someone who specializes in unpasteurized, aged, sheep’s milk cheeses, how do you see this affecting you? How do you see it affecting even smaller creameries around you?
I worry about the affect this FDA action could have on small cheese makers. The position the FDA is in is a difficult one. Obviously, it is trying to protect the public from any threat to their health that cheese potentially presents. Once is identifies a potential threat it must try to ‘solve the problem’. Whenever there are outbreaks of food borne illness fingers are pointed at the regulators. Some of the assumptions that have been made for years about the safety of raw milk cheeses have been called into question. Specifically, it is now in doubt that the ’60 day aging rule’ guarantees no survival of pathogenic bacteria. Some cheese makers produce only pasteurized cheese because they are fearful of the liability issues this situation creates. To date there has not been enough science to determine what aging conditions are ‘safe’ and which are insufficient. However, the problem extends beyond raw milk cheeses. Bacteria can easily come into the creamery on shoes and clothing or dirty hands. Most cases of food borne illness occur due to pasteurized milk being contaminated post-pasteurization. The best a creamery can do is to try and rid their facility of the bacteria that is most threatening, and double check the sanitation program with environmental testing. The necessary testing is a financial burden on the smallest cheese makers – lab work is expensive.
Last spring, when there were several high profile FDA actions against small cheese makers, we were inspected as well. It was the most thorough inspection we had ever had. It lasted more than two days with samples being taken from all over the creamery, even places no cheese can come into contact with. They told me that the huge peanut recall of 2009 had heightened awareness. For days afterwards I was holding my breath because what they were testing for can’t be seen with the naked eye. Fortunately, all tests came back negative. Hopefully, the FDA will develop a standard protocol that can be adopted by both small and large creameries, but any solution will still come down to the diligence of the creamery.