“This is the most exciting part of the cheesemaking process,” Rebecca Williams said as she muscled the five-blade curd knife through the 200-liter coagulation vat of semi-soft cheese.
Curds were forming and floating in the yellowish whey. “And now we pour them in the molds, and we’ve made cheese!”
Williams, owner and head cheesemaker at Many Fold Farm in Chattahoochee Hills, was demonstrating how they make their Rivertown sheep’s milk cheese, a creamy, Camembert-style product with a buttery flavor reminiscent of Brie.
Williams and her husband Ross own and operate the only sheep creamery farm in Georgia. Nationally, there are about 12.
Tasting is a key part of the process. “Even though I taste the same type of cheese, I detect differing flavors and textures based on the sheep’s diet and the time the cheese spends in the aging caves,” said Tim Gaddis, who left his cheesemonger position at Star Provisions to become manager at Many Fold Farm in May.
Monthly, Gaddis and others at Many Fold Farm do a cross-comparison of the same cheese over different aging periods.
During a tasting of Condor’s Ruin, the farm’s ash-ripened cheese, 12 tastes produced wildly different flavors. The cheese from May 12 was balanced but had a tangy finish and the rind was too thick. The June 6 cheese had a crumbly texture because of more time spent in the drying room, giving it a fuller flavor profile.
“Tastings are important because we get an idea of what needs to be sold,” Gaddis said. “Plus, when we find a flavor we really like, we can replicate it based on our notes from the cheese-make sheets.”
Gaddis concentrates on managing inventory and rotation, and getting the cheese out the door. He provides cheese samples to restaurateurs in Atlanta at least once a week. Since he began, he’s introduced Many Fold Farm’s cheese to Perrine’s Wine Shop, Murphy’s and No. 246.
“It’s interesting, because more of our cheeses are on cheese boards in New York City than Atlanta,” he said. “But I am definitely noticing that people in Georgia are beginning to care more about the local cheese production.”
The labor in cheesemaking is surprisingly simple: a little bit of stirring, pouring into molds, salting and ashing cheeses, and flipping over the molds often.
“I’d say 30 percent of the job is just flipping,” cheesemaker Carol Anderson said. Flipping assures that the cheese attains the correct moisture level for surface molds and yeasts to form. “The other 60 percent is a lot of cleaning.”
The creamery room is stark white, and as sterile as any hospital’s operating room. Anyone who enters the room is required to wear scrubs, shirt, boots and a hairnet.
“You only want the mold that you want on the cheese,” Gaddis said. “If any foreign bacteria gets in our cheese room or aging caves you lose cheese, money, and it could make people sick.”
The farm’s cheeses are primarily made from pasteurized milk. A sheep’s milk cheese is higher in fat, protein and lactose, which leads to a much more distinct flavor.
The farm’s 97 milk-producing ewes are milked daily. At 6 a.m. and 3 p.m., the ewes are loaded into stalls, where two employees milk them using a milking machine.
When the milk is done pasteurizing, it is hand-scooped out of the pasteurization vat and into the coagulation vat, where rennet (enzymes) is added. It took 20 minutes for flocculation, a reaction to measure curd formation, whereupon Williams calculated the hardening time for the curd.
After the curd hardened, she used the curd knife to release the whey. The smaller the curds, the more contact with the whey, which translated to varied acidity and moisture levels in the cheese.
Cheesemaking is not labor-intensive as much as it is time-consuming, and beyond chemistry, it involves a watchful eye. But it is a skill that requires careful practice.
“Cheesemaking is meticulous science and you realize how passionate these cheesemakers are and how very much their art translates to beautiful cheese,” said chef Asha Gomez, who visited the farm for a hands-on tour.
Gomez will be using the cheese at Spice to Table when it opens this summer.
“I think it gives you an appreciation of the final product when you can experience from sheep to cheese how many processes are put in place to make a beautiful artisan cheese,” Gomez said.
The farm is eager to invite chefs down to the farm to take part in the cheesemaking process precisely for that reason.
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