Girls Run The (Cheese!) World

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Women have been making cheese since the 17th century, primarily because it was almost always the woman’s job to make cheese. Women did it all—they milked the cows (and goats, and sheep), they churned the butter, they formed their various cheeses by hand and even came up with creative ways to age them. When industrialization rose and ye olde “cheese factories” started having a rising presence in America, that’s when the decline of women in the cheese “industry” started…but it didn’t last. Nowadays, the industry is full of inspiring women, from those who paved the way with the American goat cheese revolution in the late 80s to the present day founders of major cheese companies (such as Vermont Creamery below) and makers of some of the most award-winning cheeses in the world. Today we’re highlighting some wise cheese words from a few of our favorite ladies in the cheese biz.

Sue Miller — Birchrun Hills Farm

Cheese to know: Birchrun Blue, Fat Cat, Red Cat

Birchrun

Tell us a little bit about how you entered the world of cheesemaking.

I entered the world of cheesemaking because of my love for our herd of cows. Out first generation dairy farm had been struggling financially because of the challenges of selling milk on the commodity market. I literally woke up one day and my first thought was that I was going to learn how to make cheese as a way to add value to our milk.  I took a cheese making class and began to make cheeses that express the integrity of our milk and never looked back.
My mother always told me that this is the life I was meant to live.  I didn’t grow up on a farm but I love the challenges and the rewards of farm life.  The cheesemaking is a bonus! There is a special connection in growing the feed for our cows, milking the cows, making and aging the cheese and then handing that wedge of cheese directly to our customers, that is the most gratifying experience.  I’m fortunate to have a career that I love that isn’t just a job but is a way of life.

Are there any mentors or peers you credit with either bringing you to cheesemaking or helping you along the way?

My very first wholesale customer was Emilio Mignucci of Di Bruno Bros. (Hey, we know that guy!)  He has been encouraging and supportive as I’ve grown as a cheesemaker.  Emilio pushes me to get out of the cheese room and off the farm to make time to talk with customers and taste the cheeses of the world every time I step into a Di Bruno’s store. Peter Dixon from Parish Hill Creamery in Westminster West, Vt. taught me how to make cheese. He selflessly shares his knowledge to help dairy farmers utilize their milk to make beautiful cheese. He does this to help preserve the fabric of family farms across the United States. He is my mentor. I’m also inspired by many women cheese-makers who have paved the way for artisan and farmstead cheese producers. Peggy Smith and Sue Conley from Cowgirl Creamery in California have been a huge influence. They make amazing cheese and support a network of cheese-makers from across the United States.

Is there one cheese you wish you had created? Why?

I make all cow’s milk cheese because we milk cows at our farm.  I’ve put together a group of cheeses that express our milk, the location of our farm, and are cheeses that we love to eat.  The one cheese that I would like to make is a sheep’s milk cheese. I’m working on a collaboration with another amazing woman, Stef Angstadt from Valley Milkhouse in Oley, Pennsylvania to bring this inspiration to life. Stay tuned….

 

 

Shaleena Bridgham — Four Fat Fowl

Cheese to know: St. Stephen

If you come into the store and tell us that you’re a fan of butter, St. Stephen is likely the cheese that we’ll recommend to you. This little cheese hatchling from the Hudson Valley is a creamy dream, and it’s made by the inspiring Shaleena Bridgham.

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Tell us a little bit about how you entered the world of cheesemaking.

My husband, Willy Bridgham, and I found our passion for cheese in 2001 when I started working in the sales department at the Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, founded by Tom & Nancy Clark.  Shortly after, Willy joined me at OCSC, doing the farmer’s markets in 2003. We quickly fell in love with artisan cheese, and over time Willy started making cheese at OCSC and I was managing their inside sales department. We started to dreamily discuss the possibility of opening our own creamery someday. Our discussions began on family vacations and continued over the years… then one day Willy’s sister, Josie Madison, said, “You guys can do this and I’m in – Let’s do it!” With Willy’s cheese making knowledge, my sales experience and Josie’s willingness to do whatever it took to help get a family business started, our ‘family vacation’ conversations began turning into reality. Now in 2017, our majority female-owned business is 3 years old and we’re in the beginning stages of a creamery expansion expected to be complete by the end of the year.

Are there any mentors or peers you credit with either bringing you to cheesemaking or helping you along the way?

Yes.. many, many peers…  As a majority woman owned business I can’t help but think of all the great ladies that have personally inspired me, unbeknownst to them.  Mary Keehn of Cypress Grove, Sue Conley & Peggy Smith of Cowgirl Creamery, Allison Hooper of Vermont Creamery, Kate Arding of Talbott & Arding (and so many other great things) and Judy Shad of Capriole are the first that come to mind.  Their care and attention to cheesemaking and the industry have not gone unnoticed.  They inspire me to dig deep and give it all we’ve got!

Is there one cheese you wish you had created? Why?

We are one of the lucky few who got to create the one cheese we wanted to…  A NYS triple cream was the cheese we wanted to create and to date is the only cheese we make.  Why?  Well honestly, we just couldn’t find a NYS triple cream that we thought was super delicious.  There are some good ones for sure but mostly double creams.  The best domestic triple cream, we thought, is a California cheese produced by Cowgirl Creamery but when you live in New York State you want to buy NYS products – so St. Stephen was created!

 

Betty Koster – L’Amuse

Cheese to know: L’Amuse Gouda, Brabander, Wilde Weide

In 1989, Betty Koster founded Fromagerie L’Amuse with her husband Martin. Their shops in Santpoord-Noord and Amsterdam feature rare, small-production Dutch gems like Wilde Weide and the unusual goat gouda, Brabander. Betty’s long-term connections to Dutch farmers, cheesemakers, and affineurs have given her access to an unparalleled range of cheeses. She exports a handful to America, including her signature two-year warm-cellar-aged Gouda L’Amuse – last year’s March Madness champ….and potentially this year’s as well??

Betty Koster

Tell us a little bit about how you entered the world of cheesemaking.

My grandmother had a cheese shop, where I as a little kid helped out as soon as I could. Either on the market where they had a stall or in the shop. That was round and about 44 years ago! As soon as I was old enough, I read everything there was to read about cheeses, and was allowed to take a part in buying.

Do you recall a moment of clarity when you realized you had found your calling?

I was about 18 when I realized that being a cheesemonger was a real job if you want it to be! Get specialized in every way you can, visit producers, and learn French to learn about their cheeses.

Are there any mentors or peers you credit with either bringing you to cheesemaking or helping you along the way?

My first mentor was my grandma! She taught me everything about sales and Dutch cheeses.  After that, the producers became my mentors. There was no school for cheese at that time. At the age of 24, I started up the cheese department in a wholesale store for restaurants. I met all of the well-known chefs, learned from them what they were looking for, taught them all the ins and outs of cheese production, maturation, and presentation. After 3 years, it was such a success, the manager wanted me to be a buyer for all the stores. That meant no chefs anymore, no handling cheese, but an office function. Then I choose to start my own business; L’ Amuse!

Is there one cheese you wish you had created? Why?

The cheese I would like to have created would be Lancashire! The technique, quality, endurance, and patience come together to a surprising wheel, making everybody think they cut an old cheese, but the paste and the flavors then surprise you when tasting it! It’s fresh like yogurt, creamy like butter, and earthy like autumn, with a touch of fruitiness.

Allison Hooper — Vermont Creamery

Cheeses to know: Bonne Bouche, Cremont, St. Alban’s

After thirty-plus years in the business, Allison Hooper is still making some of the best-aged goat cheese out there. She spent one college summer in France, earned her room and board by working on a dairy farm in Brittany, and there learned the fundamentals of cheesemaking. Years later, while working at a dairy lab in Vermont, her friend Bob Reese called her, desperate to find a chevre to be served at a Vermont Agriculture dinner. Allison made him the cheese (a lifesaver!) and everyone adored it so much that Vermont Creamery was born. All these years later, it continues to grow, and the cheese continues to please turophiles everywhere.

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photo via Vermont Creamery

Tell us a little bit about how you entered the world of cheesemaking.

 I worked on a small Farmstead cheese dairy in Brittany, France between semesters in Paris. I wrote to organic farmers looking for a place to live in exchange for work. I milked goats, worked on fences, harvested hay and sugar beets, made cheese, prepared farmers’ markets and made charcuterie.  I loved the cheesemaking and aging most of all.  After college, I returned to that farm and also worked in the Haute Alps making Picodon.

Do you recall a moment of clarity when you realized you had found your calling?

I was only 19, so I wasn’t really looking for my calling. It kind of just naturally evolved into more and more cheese activity. When I worked on a farm in New Jersey taking care of a goat herd, the farm owner was having some success when she started to play around with a French-style chèvre. I quit my job and headed to VT, thinking that I could get something going with goat cheese in this dairy state.

Are there any mentors or peers you credit with either bringing you to cheesemaking or helping you along the way?

In the very early days, I made trips to France to visit cheesemakers and ask questions.  They were very kind to share their knowledge, notably Pascal Jacquin, who showed me everything and then visited in Vermont. We hired a French farmer/cheese consultant and a goat cheesemaker from Rocamandour to spend a week making geo-rinded cheeses.  Once I knew enough to be dangerous, Adeline Druart arrived as an intern from the French Dairy School.  She took all of the geo-rinded products to scale and led that cheesemaking team.

Is there one cheese you wish you had created? Why?

I did some experiments with a Goats’ milk Fontina-style cheese. When it was good, it was great Of course once we stopped making it, people asked for it. Good business sense had us focused on going deep with one type of lactic cheesemaking. Those were the little geo-rinded cheeses. It is important to choose to be expert in one style of cheese, so that’s what we do now.

 

Stefanie Angstadt — Valley Milkhouse Creamery

Cheeses to know: Clover, Thistle, Lady’s Slipper

Tell us a little bit about how you entered the world of cheesemaking.

I started as a home cheesemaker while I was living in New York city after college. I was working a corporate job and was not feeling very passionate about it. I always loved cheese, having grown up with a Belgian mother who instilled at a young age a love for the good stuff. I tinkered in my home kitchen with it for a couple of years before I got excited enough to quit my day job and pursue an apprenticeship with Avalanche Cheese Company in Colorado, and that’s where I started gaining professional experience. I loved being in Colorado and working with an award winning creamery, but I missed my family and friends on the east coast. In spring of 2014, I converted a retired milkhouse in the Oley Valley of Berks County, my ancestral homeland, into a creamery and started Valley Milkhouse.

I am, never was, the most experienced in the flock. I was guided primarily by a taste memory of the cheeses I grew up with, the ones my mother introduced me to on visits to Belgium and France. People warned me about all of the things: the hours upon hours of dishwashing, the fact that the regulations are getting stricter, the lack of local demand for premium foods. I floated above these cautions with  the inflated sense of optimism that has carried me through to this point. I wanted to be an artist in a studio, situated so perfectly between the farm and the kitchen. I wanted to turn grass into cheese, the most refined food in the world.

Do you recall a moment of clarity when you realized you had found your calling?

There are several moments I can recall: meeting with the Stricker family and realizing I had found the ideal dairy partner, watching those first wheels of Thistle bloom a white cloud, cutting jello like curds that bounce on the palm of your hand, feeling such a connection to the cheesemaking community, the most fun-loving and passionate industry in the world.
The reward of understanding the process and feeling like you are harnessing milk’s natural tendencies to produce this richly refined product has also been incredibly gratifying. And I love seeing how people melt over good cheese. There’s always one farmers market customer each Saturday who says “I am transported to Europe.” That makes me feel like I have found my calling.

Are there any mentors or peers you credit with either bringing you to cheesemaking or helping you along the way?

Sue Miller is responsible for so much of my success. She brought my under her wing when I as first starting off. She allowed me to shadow her in her creamery, shared advice on getting started, connected me to wholesalers in the city looking to branch out. She has been such a mentor and friend, and I feel lucky that we now have become partners in crime through our Collective Creamery venture. Wendy Mitchell at Avalanche Cheese Co. in Colorado took a risk on me when I wanted to enter cheesemaking for the first time, and for that, I will be forever indebted to her. Jerry Pisano, formerly of Highland Farm in Chester County, sold me his family’s suite of cheesemaking equipment and gave me advice on starting out and making sheep’s milk cheeses. I was influenced by Brian Futhey of Stone Meadow Farm in Central PA and his beautiful herd of Jersey cows and his luscious Taleggio style. There are so many others! Too many to name here. We are so lucky in this industry to be surrounded by such passionate people.

Is there one cheese you wish you had created? Why?

I wish I could continue working on a traditional Gouda style. I tinkered with this style for several months last summer, and due to limited aging space, couldn’t continue making it. It is at its best from 6-8 months of maturity when it starts getting nutty and sweet. The reason I want to return to it is because it has a special place in my heart. I learned how to make it in Belgium while working alongside a cheesemaker in Flanders two spring seasons ago. Since my mother grew up in Belgian and I spent a lot of time there growing up, it feels appropriate to be producing this cheese in my own operation. I know that I will pick it back up in due time.

 

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