Story and photos by Melissa Schilling
They taste so good. But how much do we really know about the significance of cheese in our daily diet?
If you really want to know cheeses, whether as a taster, a cheese maker, or an affineur (a specialist in the curing and maturing of cheeses) you’ll want to start by asking where the milk comes from: A cow? A goat? A sheep? Perhaps—as we learned in the last issue of Edible East Bay—from raw nuts? Excluding questions about the nuts, you might then also want to ask about grazing practices, body chemistry of animals, and the effect of the seasons, since these all influence flavor.
To illustrate these points and others, let’s take a virtual tour of sheep cheese production.
In the Classroom
Professor Robert Rutherford, sheep specialist for the Animal Science Department at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, takes a holistic approach to managing the university’s sheep livestock unit.
“In grass-based, free-range, holistic dairies, seasons change and grasses change, so the cheese of each season will be different depending on what the animals are eating,” he tells us. “You should embrace the uniqueness and diversity of each end product.”
Rutherford explains that the rich diversity and specific arrangement of variables that go into holistically produced cheeses offer human beings a way to return to a more nutritious, healthful diet. Paying attention to soil composition and soil health, using organic cover crops, and eschewing unnatural hormones all lead to a better final product. If nutrient density is something you’re concerned about, eating cheeses from grass-based dairies is a step in the right direction.
Rutherford also believes in the value of sourcing foods from close to home, so on the way back to the East Bay, we’re stopping off in Royal Oaks, a picturesque farming community situated between Gilroy and Santa Cruz, and home to a herd of East Friesians.
At the Farm
The sun is winking at us as we drive the road toward Monkey Flower Ranch. Groups of pigs, dogs, birds, and sheep, as well as the occasional goat are visible on adjacent meadows and hillsides. An old fence winds up a country lane lined with tall trees and bales of hay.
Farmer Becky, otherwise known as Rebecca King, can be seen at the end of the driveway. Her beat-up cowgirl boots carry her down the dusty paths bordering the milking parlor and sheep pen.
“Cheese . . .”
King moves that word around her mouth slowly, the way one might inquisitively sip a fine wine.
“Cheese is a place-based food product. Weather, feed, techniques, breeding, milking schedules . . . each wheel of cheese is different based on a number of variables independent of each other.”
Behind her, dotting the pastureland, is her grazing flock of East Friesian sheep. East Friesians are one of two sheep breeds available worldwide for commercial cheese production. The other is Lacaune, but our domestic sheep milk cheese is sourced primarily from the East Friesian breed. Originally from Germany and the Netherlands, these sheep are hardy, durable milkers, with the highest yield of all commercial sheep breeds.
The milk-fat solids in the milk these sheep produce hover around 6 to 7 percent. Living as long as a dog (10 to 20 years), an East Friesian ewe peaks in her milk-producing capacity at age three and she continues giving milk until six or seven years old.
“My sheep are pasture-raised, so hay will not motivate them to get into the milking parlor, willingly. But organic brewer’s grain does the trick,” says Farmer Becky.
King’s ewes munch through two barrels a day of spent organic brewer’s grain while they are producing milk. King likes her sheep to be fed on it while being milked, as the barley adds protein to the milk. It’s also an incentive to get the sheep to move into the milking parlor. She believes that stress can be reflected in the cheese, so she tries to keep things as breezy as possible.
After increasing cheese production from 5,000 to 7,000 pounds from last year to 2011, King now hits five farmers’ markets per week to sell the results. Her offerings include an array of 100 percent raw sheep milk cheeses, which may include most of the following:
Moonflower: washed rind, aged 4–5 months, with a dusky tangerine-colored rind and sweetly dense, dry, and pungent innards.
Black Eyed Susan: aged 4–5 months, with a fruity and buttery center and mouth-coating finish.
Hollyhock: aged 8+ months, with a smooth texture and a flavor reminiscent of roasted pistachios and brown butter.
King has also ventured into yogurt making, and recently released her first pasteurized sheep milk yogurt. In addition, she makes one cheese that is not 100 percent sheep milk. Toward the end of seasonal lactation, when the ewes’ milk is a bit funky and full of fat, she stretches the season by blending in some cow milk. The result is Beau’s Blend, which two to three months’ aging gives a sharp and dry texture and flavor. Farmer Becky highly recommends it for morning omelets.
In the Shop
Through a large picture window, we see a brunette in farmer’s jeans and the signature cowgirl boots. Her hands flying, Farmer Becky is stressing something important about cheese to the students enraptured in front of her. They sit around a large wooden farm table. Behind them are stacks of honey, jams, crackers, and cookbooks, as well as refrigerated cases of cleanly wrapped cheeses.
It’s the Introduction to Cheese class at the wonderful new Sacred Wheel Cheese Shop in Oakland’s Temescal District. Rebecca King began teaching there during the summer, and she’ll continue until spring when her milking ewes will require every last iota of her attention and energy.
The shop is owned by Jena Davidson Hood, who a year ago, with the support of her family, built custom countertops, upcycled an old 1930’s truck bed into a cupboard for holding jams, and commissioned a mural. She’s put equal attention toward the selection of weekly featured cheeses as well as to other foodstuffs provided by local, small-production artisans.
“It’s been really fun and challenging running my store,” says Hood. “The best part has been changing the idea of what a cheese shop is. I think they are generally viewed as bourgie/expensive places frequented by the well-off. We have really created ‘the People’s Cheese Shop’ by keeping things casual and fun. Focusing on mostly local and domestic product keeps it a bit less intimidating.” •
Sacred Wheel Cheese Shop
4935 Shattuck Ave, Oakland
Writer Melissa Schilling speaks in sparkles and her ideas are known to cause tremors of activity. Having spent the last 10 years restlessly roving the planet, Schilling, a published writer and photographer, has begun spending every other month in Haiti working on sustainable gardening projects with orphans in the Carrefour slum of Port-au-Prince. You may learn more about her project at: www.projecthopeart.org