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Sunday, May 2, 2010

Small Farm, BIG Cheese

As consumers we often miss the big, or in this case, small picture. As you drive up into the hills of Sonoma Country (Valley Ford specifically), it’s easy to look around at the vast amounts of green with small herds of cows and flocks of sheep dotting the countryside and wonder to yourself how such a celebrated name like Bellwether Farms could come from such a small plot of family-owned land. That though, is exactly the case. We're not talking about a huge several-hundred acre farm, with a tireless pool of labor, but instead a tiny family business, still run by the family themselves. We're not talking about a simple locally-known dairy who supplies products to the local farmers markets and delis in their immediate area. Bellwether Farms cheeses are served and incorporated into dishes in some of the finest restaurants in the country, and have been featured in publications such as The New York Times, Martha Stewart and Williams-Sonoma (among others). Ask any Cheesemonger worth her (or his) salt, and they will tell you that these cheeses are both artfully crafted and highly sought-after. In fact, demand has risen so much in the past few years, Bellwether has had to partner with a couple of neighboring dairies for additional milk supplies to meet the demands of their devoted fans.

Meeting the family
When visiting a farm that provides cheese for the finest tables from San Francisco, Chicago and New York and some of the most famous purveyors of fine foods in the nation you may be expecting a large room full of workers busily cranking out wheel after wheel of cheese. Instead, you'll be greeted by a smiling face and the sounds of sheep relaxing in their pen around the corner. As we drove in, a woman in a small SUV smiled and nodded at us as we approached the building. Her name is Cindy Callahan. Cindy, who was a former nurse, established Bellwether Farms back in 1986. Along with her family, the farm and creamery are still under her watchful eye.

Walking into the creamery, there is a wall with 6 or 8 hooks holding the white coats worn by the employees in the cheesemaking room. Each hook has a handwritten name displayed above it. This is not a factory farm with a long list of shift-working employees. The folks you'll find in here work right alongside the family, handcrafting each cheese as they have been doing for years. 
As Lenny, who is in charge of Education and Marketing for the Farm walked us into the cheese making room, she pointed out several buckets of curds and whey lined up, waiting for their final cutting and then transfer to their molds. She took us into the aging room where the Carmody (Bellwether's Cow's milk cheese) ripens for about 6 weeks. We were soon joined by Liam Callahan, Cindy's son. He is the cheese maker at Bellwether. He talked to us about the family and the farm, and about how the production methods of each cheese have been developed and evolved over the years. Next we went to the room where the Sheep's milk cheeses age. San Andreas and Pepato (studded with black Peppercorns) are carefully crafted and aged 2-4 months.

The cellar was an education in itself.. The room is less than two years old, and allows them to age the San Andreas and Pepato in a way not possible in the past. Their method, transferring the cheeses from youth to readiness, sees the cheese move several times among the wooden shelves, which are fairly neutral and don’t interfere with the yeasts and cultures in the cheese.

We left the cellar right about the time Liam was to go finish cutting and molding the Crescenza, the buckets of curd we'd seen as we walked in. Using a specially crafted cutting tool, he cut the curd into large chunks, perfect for creating the texture and flavor he was looking for in this Italian-inspired soft ripened cheese. The unique thing about the soft and rich Crescenza, is it will continue to ripen and evolve without the use of a rind. This recipe and process was developed by Liam following a trip to Italy back in the mid-1990s.

As we drove down the hill back to reality, swapping spoonfuls of the finest sheep yogurt you might ever feast on, we were reminded by the quiet and ever-present greenery and solitude that beautiful, unique cheeses and dairy products come in small packages. May that never change.

Cheese Wench Recipe: Fusilli with Bellwether Crème Fraiche and Asparagus

1 ½ C Fusilli pasta

1 Tbsp fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped

1 tsp fresh Thyme, picked from stems

1 Tbsp fresh Oregano or Marjoram, chopped

1 Tbsp roughly snipped Chives

½ C Bellwether farms Crème Fraiche

1 bunch of Asparagus, top 2 inches only (I save the stalks for soup or juicing) blanched and shocked

1C Pea shoots (optional)

Sea salt to taste

1 Tbsp Olive oil

Directions: Cook the pasta according to package directions. Meanwhile heat the oil in a skillet and sauté the pea shoots  2 minutes and remove from heat and season to taste with salt.  Drain the pasta and immediately stir in the crème fraiche, herbs and asparagus. Season to taste, and top with pea shoots. Serves 2.