Cindy’s Curds & Whey
Artisan Cheese-Making in North Idaho
by Kathleen Mulroy of Sagle, Idaho
Having donned a hairnet, tied on a clean plastic apron, slipped on rubber shoes, and washed her hands thoroughly, Cindy Burgess is ready to do something she loves: Make artisan cheese!
About a year ago, Cindy, her husband Vince, and two young-adult sons moved from Chewellah, Washington, to a 112-acre dairy farm complete with 100 head of dairy cows. The couple’s two married children and four young grandchildren visit regularly.
Vince had been in the dairy business for over four decades, but he’d always dreamed of owning his own farm. So when an opportunity in North Idaho arose, the couple decided to go for it. Located in the lush, quaintly-named Hoodoo Valley, not far from the popular resort town of Sandpoint, Idaho, the property included a cheese factory which hadn’t been used for a few years. Cindy says she and Vince planned that “one day” they would produce artisan cheese as well as milk. But the national economic downturn pushed “one day” to “right now,” as milk prices dropped from $16 per hundredweight in November ’08, then to $13, and finally to the current, all-time low of $9. The Burgesses figured they could just make a living by selling milk at $14 per hundredweight, but below that price, running a full-scale dairy farm just wasn’t feasible. So, sadly, they made the decision to sell most of the animals through a government-sponsored herd-reduction program. About five months later, their 13 heifers had freshened and would produce enough milk to start Cindy’s artisan cheese-making business.
Cindy was well-versed in the business side of dairy life, having been married to Vince for nearly 30 years. And, she says, they have “always been 4-H parents, along with helping out with Future Farmers of America. It got so that county and state fairs were our family vacations!” But Cindy didn’t have any training in cheese-making; her formal education had been in the field of social services. Having enjoyed working with nursing home patients for over 10 years, she was comfortable with talking and listening to people from all walks of life. Those people skills would definitely help out when it came to marketing “Cindy’s Curds & Whey.” First, though, she would have to learn how to make cheese!
During the winter of ’08-’09, Cindy taught herself the art and science of this ancient craft. All it took was lots of research, countless hours of experimentation, plenty of milk, and, she grins, “Lots of praying!” It was nearly six months before she had products that she felt were ready to be sold at the Sandpoint Farmer’s Market. Fortunately, she says, “I didn’t lose a lot of batches, though there were a few that went to the pigs!” She adds, “Every time I go through this process, I learn something.”
The first cheese Cindy made – using two gallons of milk – was cottage cheese. According to Wikipedia, this is a cheese curd product with a mild flavor; drained but not pressed, so some whey remains and the individual curds remain loose. Also according to the online encyclopedia, The term ‘cottage cheese’ is believed to have originated because the simple cheese was usually made in cottages, from any milk left over after making butter. The term was first used in 1848. Curds and whey – made famous in the Little Miss Muffet nursery rhyme – is a similar dish.
To get the cheese-forming process underway, a starter – Cindy prefers fresh cultured buttermilk – must be added to the milk. The starter converts the lactose in milk to lactic acid, which produces controlled ripening. Next, a coagulant called rennet is added. Available to home cooks in the form of junket tablets, rennet can be purchased at drug or grocery stores, often in the pudding section. One fresh tablet will coagulate five gallons of inoculated milk. There is also a liquid extract for larger-scale operations, available only from cheese-makers’ supply houses.
Rennet’s properties were discovered long ago, when, presumably, the first cheese was produced by accident. After milk had been stored for about a day in a bag made from the stomach of a young goat, sheep or cow, the milk would curdle, yielding solid chunks (curds) and liquid (whey). When the ancients discovered that the curd-chunks could be separated out and dried, they realized that milk – an extremely perishable food – could be preserved for later use. The addition of salt preserved these dried curds for even longer periods. Until 1990, rennet was produced the old fashioned way, either from calves’ stomachs (abomasums) or from various “vegetables,” some of which include the microorganism Mucor miehei. Homer suggested in The Iliad that the Greeks used an extract of fig juice to coagulate milk. Other possibilities include nettles, thistles, mallow and Creeping Charlie. These days, rennet is often produced from genetically engineered bacteria.
Now that she’s making cottage and regular cheese on a larger scale, Cindy has switched to vegetable rennet. She says, “Many health-conscious folks prefer it, and, of course, vegetarians require it.”
“I was astonished by how much science and math is involved in producing cheese!” Cindy says. When she started the process for getting the factory certified, she admits to being “a little overwhelmed by the mechanics – not being particularly mechanically inclined!” But she overcome these obstacles, and today she and Vince sell several artisan cheeses: Farmstead (“Made on the Farm”) Plain Cheese; Chipotle, Gallant Garlic, Farmer in the Dill and Lil’Jack -LottaHear Cheeses; plain curds; and Farmsted cottage cheese.
Eventually, Cindy would like to make raw milk cheddar, which takes two months to age. But for that she’ll need more time, a different type of shelving for aging, and special brushes. Why brushes? In order to stop the cheese from molding while it’s aging, each day one must gently brush the outside of the cheese with soft brushes. Eventually, a rind forms where the cheese has been repeatedly brushed.
During their first long, snowy winter in the Hoodoo Valley, besides learning how to make cheese Cindy and Vince were kept busy caring for heifers and getting their farm up to speed. They even had to be on-the-spot plumbers when, “Nearly every pipe on the farm broke because of the low temperatures. We spent plenty of time and money at hardware stores last winter!”
The Burgess dairy farm and cheese factory are sustainable operations, meaning that nearly every by-product is re-used or recycled. For example, the usually-discarded whey goes to feed their own pigs, producing an exceptionally tasty, lean pork. Whey is the liquid portion of milk that develops after the milk protein has coagulated, and contains water, milk sugar, albuminous proteins, and minerals. Lots of hot water is used in the factory, and it’s recycled to the dairy operation. Why so much hot water? Well, as Cindy says, “It’s all about cleanliness in a cheese factory.” Pausing, she grins, “Which is funny, because cheese is all about bacteria!”
Since the Sandpoint Farmer’s Market ended in late-October, Cindy has been spending the fall months traveling around North Idaho as a “sample lady” – sharing her cheeses and cottage cheese with the curious and the hungry. She says, “For some reason, most people who taste my products are amazed that I’m both the owner of the business and the cheese-maker. I love the interactions with people; especially seeing how much they like our products!” Fortunately, Cindy took copious notes while perfecting her cheeses, making it relatively easy for Vince to step in as head cheese-maker when she is traveling.
Cindy and Vince hope to be able to sell their products on-line soon. In the meantime, if you live in or travel to the Inland Northwest, look for Cindy’s Curds & Whey in supermarkets and natural food stores.
If you’re interested in making your own cottage or fresh cheese, Cindy suggests reading “Home Cheese Making” by Ricki Carroll. But be prepared to spend many hours in your kitchen!