Making cheese by hand, with heart

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Lynn Greene | May 31, 2015

TOWN OF LINN -- Terry Woods isn't from Wisconsin. He didn't grow up on a farm. His profession, after a stint in the Navy, has been tied to the computer.

Woods has lived in California and Chicago and, in 1984, bought an old farm four miles south of Geneva Lake. He, wife Denise and daughter Aubrey made the move to Wisconsin to a new life. He put some Jersey cows in the barn and started work on his dream of making the best artisanal cheese around. He named it The Creamery at Highfield Farm.

Laura Jacobs-Welch, proprietor of Brick Street Market in Delavan, stocks her store year-round with small, farmstead cheese from Wisconsin and around the globe. She's been tracking Woods' progress.

“We need more artisan cheesemakers,” she said.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Wisconsin maintained its ranking as the nation's top cheese-producing state in 2014. At 660 million pounds, specialty cheese accounted for 23 percent of Wisconsin's total cheese production. This was an increase of 19.7 million pounds over 2013.

Woods has been making cheese, experimenting with different flavors and textures, but he can't sell it yet. So, he's trying to be patient and continues to work with bytes of data while he waits to offer bites of his cheese to Highfield Farm customers.

“We'd love to carry his cheese here,” Jacobs-Welch said. “I think we could sell it like crazy.”

Anywhere else in the country and Woods already would be selling his cheese, but Wisconsin requirements are stringent.

“My 105-gallon vat is somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean,” Woods said. “It's on its way to New York and then here. We should get it sometime in early June.”

He needs the vat to meet health requirements. Once it's installed, the state will inspect it and give its approval to the facilities.

The vat is used for curing the milk, the first step toward becoming cheese. The milk is pasteurized in the vat, heated to 145 F and kept there for 30 minutes. A digital reader measures the temperature of the milk and the air temperature in the space above the milk while it's in the vat. The vat that is making its way to Wisconsin was made in Amsterdam and was shipped in mid-April.

Woods would have liked to buy his equipment in Wisconsin, but after research covering five countries and 23 creameries, he settled on a company that's been making this equipment for more than a hundred years. There's something to be said for that kind of history.

 Wisconsin also is the only state to require cheesemakers to be licensed. The aspiring cheesemaker needs to take five university-level courses, apprentice with a licensed cheesemaker for 240 hours and then take a written test. Critics argue that this licensing process is overly burdensome and not necessary. It's more about the large cheese factories than about helping the smaller, artisan cheesemakers, they say.

While Woods is one such critic, he has gone through the process and has earned his cheesemaking license. The type of traditions Woods is concerned about are the ones that make sense to the cheesemaking process.

It starts with the cows, of course. While the dairy industry uses Holsteins almost exclusively, Woods uses Jerseys, a breed whose milk has a higher butterfat content, important to the flavor of the finished cheese.

“They're also a smaller cow and easier to handle,” Woods said.

Once you've got the cows, it's how you handle them. Woods milks 12 of his herd of 15 or 16 cows. He milks them once a day most days and twice on Monday and Wednesday -- not the two to three times a day every day milkings that are common to most dairy farms. The cows are on pasture most of the year and are fed hay in the winter. They come and go in and out of the barn as they wish. They are milked two at a time, the milk gravity fed into the vat in the creamery five paces away.

“We milk once a day and stop in the fall like nature intended,” Woods said. “We don't use a pump -- it's too hard on the milk.”

Every time milk is pumped into a truck for hauling or to get from here to there, it is damaged through turbulence and cavitation. The pumping breaks down the membrane around the fat globules, releasing enzymes that break down the fats and produce rancid flavors.

“You can't make good cheese without good milk,” Woods said.

It's amazing how many different products you can get using the same milk -- hard cheese (a grating cheese like cheddar or Swiss), blue cheese (if you love it, you know it), bloomy rind cheese (soft-ripened, like a brie), filata cheese (stretched curd) and cheese curds (complete with a freshness squeak). Asked to describe the Highfield Farm cheeses, Jacobs-Welch, who has been privy to tasting the farm's products, said Woods makes his cheese more in the English tradition.

Woods is originally from Ohio, not England, but he travels to England a couple times a year. And he appreciates their traditional cheeses and methods. He even describes his cheese molds -- the forms used to shape the cheese -- as moulds, the way the English spell it.

But Highfield Farm will be making its own reputation.

“We'll have a couple bloomy rind cheeses,” Woods said. “And one with a blue center giving you the best of both worlds.”

 He's named that cheese the Narrows. Pub Crawl and Shore Path are both washed rind cheeses. The first is washed with dark ale from a local brewery and the second with brine and a special adjunct that turns the rind a beautiful orange color.

Liz Thorpe, author of “The Cheese Chronicles” believes artisan cheese is the next big wave in food trends.

“We finally discovered wine, but cheese is about 20 years behind,” she wrote.

Highfield Farm is a true farmstead making artisan cheese in the strictest sense of those words, which often are misused as marketing gimmicks.

“We'll be the only true artisan farmstead in southeast Wisconsin,” said Woods, who expects to produce about 10,000 pounds of cheese a year. “Farmstead means the cheese is made on the same farm where the cows are housed and milked. Artisan means our cheese is made by hand in small batches.”

Highfield Farm will sell direct to the consumer once they are up and running.

“We'll have a retail space in our cut-and-wrap room,” Woods said. “Most farmers wholesale their milk, which goes to distributors. We're doing it different.

“We'll be delivering cheese to shops and restaurants around the lake in a 1930 Model A panel van.”

In addition to selling cheese direct to consumers, Woods will offer classes on making cheese and give farm tours.

Woods was talking on his cellphone, touring his pastures as he finished up the interview for this story. He explained how his cows were coming in from the pasture, how he loves this part of the day, the contentment it affords a person. He counts the calves as the mamas and babies gambol on in. They are giving new life to this old farmstead.

“Gotta go,” he said. “We just had a calf born this afternoon.”

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