Q and A with the Cheese-maker/Composer: Soyoung Scanlan
Elegance, patience, admiration, appreciation: these are just a few words that come to mind when I think of Andante Dairy. The name andante, a musical marking meaning “a moderate tempo, strolling walk”, when uttered in the small walls of our shop roars like a lion to all of our taste buds. Just the sight of the brown UPS boxes stamped “California” alone makes me want to jump out of my skin. I’ve come to realize since I’ve been working around cheese that there are just some cheeses that DO NOT EVER disappoint. Then there a very small percentage that always (and I mean always) impress you. These small delicate cheeses stand like David to all the Goliaths at DiBruno. The way that most musicians feel their music is never complete, the same seems to apply with Soyoung Scanlan, the in visionary, the composer, the cheese-maker, and the musician.
So from what I gathered, you have a degree in biochemistry. What made you decide on becoming a cheese-maker?
I wanted to work with my hands and senses and something related to food. There were a few other options, bread making, wine making, etc, and I chose cheesemaking.
It seems all of your cheeses are like pieces of music, each and every-one carefully given a special touch. Do you feel like being a musician affects the way you make cheeses?
Yes, in many ways. When you love something profoundly, it gets into your life. Making cheese is very similar to making music: a lot of practice is required, and at the end, we are trying to make a wholesome piece. I feel I am doing a live concert everyday; we can’t play the music exactly same way twice.
Also, is there an actual presence of music in the cheese-making facilities? If so, what kind of music is being played?
I mostly listen to music when I work by myself on weekends. I never had chance to learn how to appreciate modern popular music, so I always listen to classical music. I listen to one CD repeatedly for weeks. These days I am mostly listening to Bach’s ‘Well tempered Clavier’.
I keep hearing people talk about this idea of terroir (a combination of factors including, feed, climate and environment that gives a cheese its distinctive character). Do you feel like the area in which you make your cheeses have a big impact on the final outcome of the cheeses?
It should be. My dairy is located on the top of the hill surrounded by beautiful hill in Marin County. It has very good climate and other natural settings for dairy farming. I do not standardize milk (which means I use milk directly from the animals on the same day, usually within few hours from milking.). The milk and the weather and other conditions of cheesemaking change everyday. I try not to control the condition too much. Terrior in the final product is the expression of the relationship between the artisan and the nature. How much you allow the nature speak up is depending on the artisan’s will. I guess I have the tool to remove all the natural factors in milk and cheesemaking, but what’s the point?
Do you feel like your cheese would be as great as they are if say, you where making them in Vermont?
If I make cheese at the different place, it would be different. I don’t know if I’d make better cheese depending on the location. However, I’d make better cheese if I have better customers. Sometimes I think of making cheese in the East Coast since I have a lot of great customers in NYC and, of course, in Philadelphia. I want to show them how the terrior in the East Coast is going to be expressed in my cheese. It would be interesting. One thing I would not do is making cheese in the city. I need good air and proximity to the milk source.
What are some of your favorite styles of cheeses?
I love mountain cheeses, Beaufort Alpage and Ossau Iraty style from Pyrenees. I’ve been a climber and spent a lot of time in the mountains in Korea, and I have a great fondness to mountain people.
What kinds of Goats/Cows milks are used in the making of your cheeses? What made you decide on these kinds of milk for your production?
The goat milk is from very mixed breed (almost all kinds of common dairy goats), and the cow’s milk is from 100% Jersey breed (organic). I didn’t choose the milk, per se. I rather picked the dairy farmers I could work with. I’ve had only one source per milk from the start, over 13 years, because those two dairy farmers were the people who didn’t laugh at me when I asked 40Gal of milk per week. Spring Hill Jersey dairy sells their milk only to me and uses the rest for their own cheesemaking, and Volpi Ranch is where my dairy is located next to the milking barn. The owner John Volpi built the cheese plant next to his barn 6 years ago. It takes a special breed of farmers to keep their family dairy and not to mind working with someone like me. These are the people who work for pride, and I built a strong friendship with them. From next Jan, I will start working with a new sheep dairy farmer in Petaluma. I am very excited about working with fresh sheep’s milk. I’ve done cheesemaking with frozen sheep’s milk for three years but gave up since I simply hated frozen milk.
Your cheese’s have amazing textures from soft to hard. Any insight on how you achieve these textures? Do you feel like texture is just as important as overall flavor?
I can say that the texture is the body holds the soul (flavor). Without a good/healthy body, your soul can’t be expressed well. Good texture shows the discipline and the skill the cheesemaker has. Milk is very delicate, so it takes gentle touch. I use very fresh milk and do not use any pump at the dairy; we still carry cow’s milk in the pails and all the curd is hand scooped and individually ladled. It’s a lot of work but the best way to conserve the integrity of the milk to make proper final texture. For soft ripened variety, each piece needs to be tended all the time. I can’t be away from cheese more than 15hr for first 8 days of its life, so I work everyday without day-off when there is any cheesemaking going. For hard cheeses, the cheesemaking itself is quick, but we work with each wheel pretty much everyday for up to 10 months. The aging needs to be very slow, but the cheese needs to be cared constantly. When I need to travel, there is no cheesemaking at my dairy. Not many people think it’s sustainable, but I’ve been doing it for 13 years.
The U.S. has very strict laws cheese producers. Has this hurt/hindered the production of your cheeses? With American cheese stepping more and more into the limelight and becoming more prominent on cheese plates both domestically and internationally, do you feel like these laws might ease up or become even stricter?
I don’t think the US has any stricter laws for cheese making itself. When I visit European dairies, the cleanness and their self-regulation for quality control surprises me. US government is more focusing on raw milk usage than anything else. I wish to have the freedom to use raw milk freely for cheesemaking. However, I’d use raw milk only when I know the milk well and get from very close source. 60 day aging rule is not scientific. I wouldn’t be surprised if the government bans all raw milk cheesemaking in the US (unfortunately pursuing convenience has been the focus of American culture, not preserving tradition and integrity.). It’s sad but you need to follow the rules if you want to play the game. There is a certain limit with pasteurized milk, but pasteurized milk makes different cheese not exactly inferior. Artisan’s job is making the best out of what we have, and there is a lot of room for pasteurized milk which I have not explored yet.
On the topic of domestic cheeses, do you have any favorites?
I’ve had a few cheeses, but, unfortunately those cheeses had changed when they got more recognition and increased production. I occasionally have very good domestic cheese but rarely twice.
As a musician I feel like I can constantly do better and I can continue to hone my skills. Music is continually carrying on throughout my life. Do you feel this way towards cheese-making?
Yes. I wish I make better cheese everyday. When I started making cheese, I had only one goal: being an honest and good craftsman. You can’t play the same music twice, and I don’t think I can make exactly same cheese twice. The beauty of artisan cheesemaking is, like making music, working with the object utterly perishable but nothing more alive than that. It’s not an easy task but paradoxically rewarding.