Monthly Archives: May 2011

Bellwether Farms Cheese Interview: Credit Cards, Seasonality & Raw Milk

Pepato, photo courtesy of Bellwether Farms

Pepato, photo courtesy of Bellwether Farms

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!

Liam Callahan, making San Andreas. Photo courtesy of Bellwether Farms

Liam Callahan, making San Andreas. Photo courtesy of Bellwether Farms

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.
4. 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.
5. 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.

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.

Valley Ford- Sonoma Hills, Baby Cows and Cheese

Valley Ford Jersey

Valley Ford Jersey

The cheese trips that I’ve been going on lately have made be thankful for many things.

1. The cheesemakers. Whether they devote their lives to tending animals and making cheese, or focus primarily on making cheese and leave animal husbandry to others, they make our delicious, daily lives possible. Plus, if they weren’t making cheese, I’d have to write about… beans… or …. radicchio.

2. The animals. They’re beautiful, even when they’re being a pain in the butt and not going into the right milking stall. They give us glorious milk. And they’re soooo…. cute when they’re babies (even, I recently found out, when they blow snot rockets that have a three-foot projectile).

3. Friends. I love having other people who are also passionate about cheese attend my cheesemakers trips. Because I love them, sure, but another reason is because when they’re in the car with me, they become official navigators. This is priceless because I get lost quicker than a child left alone in a supermarket. But even better- when my friends come along, they serve as photographer while I pester cheesemakers with questions. In the case of my professional photographer friend, Molly DeCoudreaux, this is the best news possible for everyone. All photos featured on this post are by her.

Mountain View Jerseys

Mountain View Jerseys- The dairy's name, it's been around for five generations of Bianchis.

Recently my pal MollyD and I drove up to say hello to cheesemakers Karen Bianchi-Moreda and her son Joe Moreda at Valley Ford on possibly the prettiest day ever. Do you remember Valley Ford? They were the cheese company that I wrote about in the LA Times this October that switched from being “just” a dairy farm to also making cheese to be able to cope with the ridiculous pressures of the milk market.

We found Karen pressure-hosing the barn when we arrived. Now, even though I was already impressed by her ambition and passion, I’m now also impressed by her guns. But back to the farm. Karen also introduced us to her cheesemaker son, Joe Moreda, who graduated from Cal Poly with an emphasis on cheesemaking and decided to return to the farm to join the family business. He and Karen are a two-person mean cheese machine.

Joe Moreda and Karen Bianchi-Moreda

Joe Moreda and Karen Bianchi-Moreda

ValleyFordGrand4

Valley Ford's yet-to-be released Grand cheese- cow and sheep's milk.

Then, she showed us her cheese room, and let us sample a bite or too from tasty wheels, like Estero Gold, Highway One, and the future release, Grand.

CutGrand3

Grand, cut.

BabyExpirement6

Baby Grand- they made it smaller ad are letting it age to see what happens.

Karen and I discussing something hilarious. You so had to be there.

Karen and I discussing something hilarious. You so had to be there.

The Valley Ford girls. Background looking familiar yet? Much of Hitchcock's The Birds was filmed on the Bianchi farm.

The Valley Ford girls. Background looking familiar yet? Much of Hitchcock's The Birds was filmed on the Bianchi farm.

A baby Jersey.

A baby Jersey.

Next, with eyes lit up like a kid in Willi Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, Bianchi-Moreda told us that she wanted to show us something. She led us towards a green and brown barn, the only original structure left from the first of the five Bianchis generations to live on the farm, and paused to glance at us with a wide smile. She slowly slid open the heavy door. Inside was around twenty stalls of calves. After waving us in, she introduced us to a two-day old Jersey that I like to call Ginger. When Karen opened her gate so we could scratch her a little under her chin, Ginger suckled. After a minute or two more of shyness that faded away with every chin scratch, Ginger got her visitor legs on and started polka-ing around her stall. Then she tried to prance out of her pen. “Oh, not so shy anymore are you?,” said Bianchi-Moreda, shaking her head and laughing. “Tthis is why I do this.”

All hail the baby cows.

Baby Jersey suckling.

Baby Jersey suckling.

Boots10

All photos on this post are by DeCoudreaux. Note to readers- she is a rockin full-time photo professional, and this sort of photo excellence is only linked to Molly navigating my cheese trips. But, if you want her to navigate your own photo trips, weddings, portrait sessions, food shots, you can contact her here.

“It’s Not You, it’s Brie” About Town

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Creamy cheese, as pictured on LA Times article below.

It’s been a long week(s). Many calls to an out-of-town roommate to try to figure out why the internet wasn’t working -roomie’s back, internet’s not (but while I’ve had a low web presence, hey, I planted a vegetable garden). An amazing trip with a photographer friend to Sonoma to visit three beautiful creameries- Achadinha, Valley Ford and Délice de la Vallée. Taught a Burgundy class at the Cheese School of San Francisco (CSSF). Finalizing trip details for Wisconsin (gotta love that cheese book research, twisting your arm, making you go to some of the best creameries in the nation). And there’s been more. A few of them not-so-great, like making herbalist appointments that require you to drink teas that taste like thick licorice-compost, but most of it has been very, very lovely.

It’s been action-packed around here lately.

And I’m here (a little late, for sure, but I’m okay with blaming the internet) to give you a little taste of recent “It’s Not You, it’s Brie” flavor. Next week, expect a photo tour of a recent California cheese trip or two. Shortly thereafter, you’ll see an interview with the uber-nice and talented Liam Callahan of Bellwether Farms. Yay…

In the meantime, here’s what’s going on around here:

Article in the L.A. Times

This Thursday I published an article in the LA Times all about lush, creamy cheeses that go the distance- Beyond the Butter Bomb. Here’s the opening lines below, and here’s the link the article. I hope you enjoy it, it was really fun to write (gotta love an editor who doesn’t scratch your Jake Gyllenthal references).

“Cheeses whose creamy centers give like a soft-serve cone on a hot day will always have dates to the cheese prom. The spreadable, sweet demeanor of crèmes leads to instant popularity, and their snowy rinds and plush interiors make them some of the best-looking wheels around…. [more here]”

EVENTS

I have two events coming up that I’m cooking for/leading, the first is at Solano Cellars, the second at the CSSF.

Pinot Pairing Battle: Oregon’s Ken Wright vs Burgundy’s Patrice Rion

Thursday, May 19, 7pm – 9pm, Solano Cellars – 1580 Solano Ave, 510.525.9463

What happens when you pit the best Pinot Noir producer in Oregon against a Burgundian, Nuits-Saint-Georges heavyweight and pair them to four courses of passed apps? A wine fight till death, that’s what. Ken Wright versus Patrice Rion. American against Euro. Smooth finish versus high acidity. Ripe fruit against barnyard funk. In a battle of Burgundies against American Pinot Noir paired to appetizers cooked by Solano Cellars’s Kirstin Jackson, who will win? Four appetizer courses, 8 wines. $65/person

Rieslings Rule

Wednesday, June 1, 

6:30 – 8:30 pm, The Cheese School of San Francisco, 415. 346.7530

Rieslings, with their delicate balance of acidity and sweetness, provide some of the best pairings for food, and cheese is no exception. Whether at the light and refreshing or full bodied and deep end of the spectrum, Rieslings tend to be floral and fruity, and their subtlety and low alcohol levels make many Rieslings a wonderful warm weather wine. The spicy, honey-like qualities of the typical Riesling grape also offer a lovely counterpoint to savory, washed rind cheeses in particular. Learn – and taste for yourself why ‘Rieslings rule’ according to many as the most perfect of all wines to pair with cheese.

Not mentioned in the CSSF write-up- the Riesling class will expand beyond sweet wines. Rieslings are only sweet if the winemaker wants them to be, and we’ll try a full repertoire from sugary, with dazzling acidity, to mineral and dry as a bone. Riesling hating because of sweetness = not a viable option. Prepare to fall in love.

See you all soon!

Minnesota Lovin: Because there’s Milk to the Left of Wisconsin Too.

Minnesotacheese copy

Minnesota's Donnay Chevre, St. Pete's, Shepherd's Way Queso Fresco

We all know that Wisconsin has some rockin cheese. And this is good. But sometimes I fear that its neighboring states could be in danger of having a Cooler Big Sister complex. What if Wisconsin is the Cool Older Sister- you know, the one with the glorious hair, great skin, who everyone that you like has crushes on, that gets straight A’s and still finds time to be on the swim team and go out after school- and the other states with great dairies feel overwhelmed because of her awesomeness, and shuffle their feet when it’s their time to shine, even though they too have beautiful cheese?

Well, it seems that my only-child imagination has again proved too active. Here, the awesome Jill from Cheese and Champagne tells us that Minnesota cheese does more than just hold its own. On occasion its so good, it steals the cutie pie from the big sis while she’s busy practicing laps. Dare I say watch out Wisconsin?… I’ve already got some on mail order.

Cheese and Champagne lays it out, Minnesota style:

While its eastern neighbor tends to get the lion’s share of attention when it comes to the dairy industry, Minnesota is quietly establishing a reputation for artisanal cheeses. However, if you don’t live in the Midwest, chances are you haven’t been exposed to these fine specimens yet. While I don’t have the time (or budget) to send you all care packages full of Minnesota cheese, I can offer you an introduction to three cheeses that hopefully will become more available nationwide as word spreads about their quality and deliciousness. As much as we Minnesotans love our local cheese, we’re willing to part with some so our fellow fromage-philes in the east and west can enjoy them, too.

St. Pete's Select

St. Pete's Select

St. Pete’s Select (Faribault Dairy) – If there’s one Minnesota cheese you may already find in your cheese case in California or New York, it would likely be St. Pete’s, a fantastic raw-milk blue made about an hour south of my Minneapolis home. Faribault’s claim to fame is its sandstone caves that overlook the Straight River and provide the perfect environment to age a blue cheese that dances across the tongue but doesn’t leave you shell-shocked. St. Pete’s deep blue veining ensures that every bite is sharp, but the luscious paste lends a creamy backdrop to the zing. It’s appropriate for blue-cheese newbies but complex enough for connoisseurs, and Faribault Dairy will mail it to you if you can’t find it locally.

Fresh Chevre (Donnay Dairy) – How fresh is Donnay Dairy’s chevre? When I stopped at the cheese shop last week, the mongers hadn’t even had time to scoop their newest shipment into individual tubs yet. I got to watch as my monger packed my 8-oz. container to the brim with thick, rich goat cheese. I first discovered Donnay Dairy chevre two years ago when we celebrated local goat cheese week on Cheese+Champagne, and now I have a radar for when it shows up at my cheese shop every spring. Made by fourth-generation farmers using organic milk from their own goats, the chevre tastes as clean and local as can be – the Donnay’s farm is about an hour northwest of my house. Per my co-blogger Colleen’s suggestion, I am now obsessed with spreading it on whole-wheat toast and topping it with a drizzle of honey. Heaven on bread.

St.Peters

Sheperd's Way Queso Fresco

Herb and Garlic Queso Fresco (Shepherd’s Way) – There is no better example of the tenacity of Minnesota cheesemakers than Steven Read and Jodi Ohlsen Read. They started making sheep’s-milk cheese in 1994 and built up quite the operation over the years, but a 2005 fire destroyed most of their flock and forced Shepherd’s Way Farm into foreclosure. Luckily for the Reads and Shepherd’s Way fans, the cheesemaking carried on, and the future of the farm looks bright. While Shepherd’s Way offers a range of cheeses, including a kickin’ blue, I’m partial to its queso fresco, particularly the herb and garlic version I recently had. The garlic flavor is subtle enough that the cheese could be classified as first-date friendly, and the cool, creamy paste slides down the hatch quite easily. I’ve been told that aficionados like to pair the queso fresco with thick slices of tomato. Of course, this being Minnesota, I’ll have to wait until late summer to sample that combination. For now, I’m satisfied to enjoy it solo.

So if you only associate Minnesota food with lutefisk, it’s time to wipe that stereotype from your mind. Minnesota makes cheese that even Wisconsinites like myself can praise. You can’t ask for a better endorsement than that.

Thank you Jill!

Readers, are there any Minnesota cheeses thought have caught your fancy? Teach us!

(all photos courtesy of Cheese and Champagne)