Will wwoof for cheese

Those that know me well know that I have a thing for cheese.  Other than a lifelong love of cheddar, a more in depth romance started while repping for a sustainable beef and dairy ranch in southwest Colorado called James Ranch.  As part of my job I got to educate customers on the sustainable agricultural practices of the farm and the health benefits on grass-fed meat and dairy.  Dan James, resident artisan cheesemaker and national award winner, makes Belford cheese, similar to a gouda style that is sold at 3 different ages.  Those who taste cheese like sommeliers taste wine will know the kind of cheese Im talking about: the kind that hits your palate with a buttery sharpness, then dries out your mouth a little, meets your teeth with crystals from the aging process, and finishes with a different flavor then when you started with just a little sour and sweet at the same time.  It’s a journey of flavor hinting at microbial processes and food chemistry.  As I led customers through cheese sampling, telling the story of how these cheeses came to be, and watching the cheesemaking behind a large glass window that separated the cheesemaking facility from the market where I worked, I became enamored with cheesemaking.  It is an act of alchemy, turning one thing into another and it is a very nourishing ritual to be a part of from feeding the animals to milking them, to preserving that milk in a way that celebrates flavor, tradition, and the art and science of cheesemaking.  There are festivals, magazines, societies, schools, and national competitions devoted to this dairy product.  See my article the joy and importance of tasty things.  Having always been a cheese enthusiast and growing into a cheesemaking enthusiast I took the opportunity to wwoof at a goat dairy in Northern California at the end of a summer position with a non-profit organization.

I visited Yerba Santa Goat Dairy in Lakeport, CA and lived and worked there for almost 3 weeks.  The two brothers who own the dairy, Daniel and Javier Salmon learned cheesemaking from their father in Peru and later started their current farm.  My routine was to wake up, drink coffee, milk goats, take the goats for a walk, help with cheesemaking or clean up, have dinner with the Salmon family and their children and tell stories of family and farming.  I learned about the farm’s herd of dairy goats, animal husbandry, and the five cheeses that they make:  queso fresco, chèvre, crema, chevito, and a shepherd’s cheese.  All the while I had the company of a kitten named Tigress who had shown up on the farm and decided it was a good place to stay, and that I was a prime target for cuddling.  I also got to talk to Javier and Danny about cheesemaking, carrying on a family tradition, finding the right market for their products, and the current economic climate for a small-scale dairy.  In an Edible Magazine that came out while I was staying at Yerba Santa was the story of three California dairies who had scaled up throughout their lives and recently sold to a Swiss company.  When I asked Javier what his thoughts were on scaling up, he replied simply that he was the size that he wanted to be.  The number of his herd was a number that he felt he could have eyes on every day and notice when something was wrong, and keep good track of new kids when they were born.  He couldn’t keep that close of watch if he had more goats.  His size and production allowed him to sell out of product at the 5 farmer’s markets he frequented.  He had tried scaling up once before and with more employees and more paperwork, he decided he liked staying small and being a goat farmer and cheesemaker.  That was the lifestyle he chose and wanted to enjoy.

It was easy to see why Javier likes his life and business and why the public, the foodies, and farm groupies are all so enamored with the farm life.  As I would stroll to the milking parlor in the morning I would hear Javier singing to the goats.  Once the motor of the milker was turned on we would switch on the equipment that lends rhythm to the whole operation-the pulstron- adding a soft percussion suggestive of electronica to the morning, and the pumping action to the machine.  From learning how to extract milk from a teat, to being up to my elbows in warm cheese curds and whey, to waiting and manipulating the curds with just the right technique to get them to the right size and shape, to waiting for just the right temperature and time to add rennet or cut curds, making cheese is one of the most nourishing activities I have ever participated in.  By the end of this experience, I understood why some friends who were cheesemakers were so chill.  Not only is your soul nourished by milking an animal (truly I think playing with mammary glands and milk satisfies a primal curiosity, playfulness, and need to connect with the mother), but there is patience and precision required to successfully make cheese.   Nothing can be rushed or hurried.  There is sitting and waiting.  There is cat napping.  There is time to contemplate but not time to get distracted by other things.  You have to remain focused, present, responsive, and patient.  In this way, cheesemaking is a yoga, a discipline.  It happens every day without fail, no matter what is going on.  From the rhythm of the pulstron, to that of the day, the milking season, the breeding season, the rainy season, the kidding season, you are always moving to a natural rhythm outside yourself.

A brief ode to farmer cuisine to part on.  Do you know the experience of tasting a real tomato?  Like an heirloom that someone just pulled out of their garden, picked at the peak of ripeness that you can just bite into it’s so sweet, balanced, tangy, and flavorful?  You may have eaten a store bought suggestion of a tomato at some point, but biting into a REAL tomato you go, “Holy shit!  Now THAT’S a tomato!”  Imagine every meal bursting with that sensory awakening.  Almost everything we ate at Yerba Santa was grown on the farm, or traded at farmer’s markets for other produce or meat.  Whether it was omelettes made with eggs from the chickens on the farm, snacks of herbed goat cheese on ripe pears grown in the valley, fresh figs (which I had never actually eaten before), plums, peaches, tender spinach, Elodie’s creamy rice pudding, or sliced cucumbers and radishes with a tiny bit of cream and salt, everything I ate was loaded with the flavor that comes from growing organically in healthy soil and growing varieties that don’t have to withstand shipping or being picked before they are ripe.  When food is rich in flavor and dressed with fresh herbs, a small amount satisfies.  I felt like I was eating like a king in balanced and mostly vegetarian proportions.  There is something so healthy about eating, living, and working on an organic farm.   My experience at Yerba Santa has only fueled my love for cheese!