Essays by Chris Loughran Edited by Anaïs Saint Andre Loughran
About Valley Milkhouse
Before I ever knew these people, I loved their cheese. Blue Bell has been a favorite of mine since the first time I tried it, with its notes of sweet cream and easy going earthiness. I knew immediately this was something I had to bring to the Bloomfield Farmers Market, a Pennsylvania cheese worth highlighting. Marigold, grassy and wonderful, has really hit its stride in recent years, and is among our shop’s favorite domestic alpines. But when I think of Valley Milkhouse, I don’t think first of cheese, I think of warmth. Of people. I think of Stefanie Angstadt and Brie Best (what a cheese name!) and the idea of community. And I think of the big choices we make in life, what it means to dedicate yourself to something, especially something as difficult as raw milk cheesemaking in the United States, of building something from scratch and then maintaining it.
As a shop, we’ve taken two “field trips” to Valley Milkhouse, as they graciously host (for free!) a small class for people in the industry; the workers of the cider houses, restaurants, and shops that carry their cheese. It is here that we struck up a friendship with Lindsay from People’s Provisions in Elliottsburg, PA, and met a handful of other like-minded cheese enthusiasts. Building community, connecting people to each other and to the land through artisan cheese, is the most personally rewarding part of our job as cheesemongers, and it’s moments like these, gathered out on a patio on a beautiful day, helping to slice the bread when no one can find the good bread knife, laughing and joking and drinking local cider and eating artisan cheese, Valley Milkhouse cheese, moments like these that keep us going, fill us with joy.
Valley Milkhouse opened in May of 2014, but like any good cheese story, its roots can be traced back centuries, or at the very least, to a home brewing supply shop in Brooklyn. It was a beginner’s cheesemaking kit that sparked Stefanie’s passion for the artisan craft, and started her on a journey that took her to Colorado (a cheesemaking apprenticeship), to Penn State University (a cheesemaking course), to dairies in Europe and Southeast Asia… and eventually to the Oley Valley in Southeastern Pennsylvania, where her German ancestors first settled in 1743. It is a long way from home project to commercial cheesemaker, with so much to learn, and Fate, apparently, loves a complete journey.
The creamery building is a resurrected long-retired milkhouse resting on the Yoder-Cleaver homestead, a farm dating back to 1743. It is one of several restorations on the property, which is situated in the heart of the Oley Valley, beside the Pleasantville Covered Bridge, built in 1852. The place is simply beautiful, I am sure the whole year long, but especially in May when we’ve visited, and the lush green countryside rolls on and on, an idyllic, fertile landscape.
Valley Milkhouse sources their milk from two farms, depending on the season. In the winter months, they receive milk from Meadowview Jerseys in Lancaster County, 35 miles from the creamery. It is a 100% Jersey herd that is intensively grazed in summer and hayfed in winter. In the summer months, they partner with Keith Brooks Farm, only 13 miles down the road. This is a mixed herd of Jerseys, Ayrshires, and Holsteins, also intensively grazed.
They receive milk twice per week, processing it into two batches on each day for a total of four batches per week. They use a small stainless steel milk tanker (400 gallons) on a trailer to transport milk, which they pick up at 7am. By 8:30, they’ve pumped the milk into their vats, and start the cheesemaking process. In all, they produce 500-550 pounds of cheese each week, which may seem like a lot of cheese but is still very small for the industry.
After almost ten years of cheesemaking, Valley Milkhouse still faces challenges on a daily basis. The nature of working with raw grassmilk means that the composition and behavior of the milk changes with every week depending on many variables; the lactation cycles of the herd, their feed and grazing schedules, the weather… to name just a few. But it is the challenge that also drew Stefanie to artisan cheesemaking in the first place, keeps it interesting. She says they’re constantly learning, adapting and tweaking their process, reacting to the story that the milk tells. It’s a sentiment we agree with.
In the end, it is all about these stories, ever changing. One of the most difficult hurdles to overcome in the artisan cheese movement is that we must redefine expectation. Unlike the mechanizations of industrial cheese, standardization is not the goal of artisan cheesemaking. The goal, of course, is to make great tasting cheese, but it is clear that that can mean different things on different days. This can challenge our palettes, when, for example, no two wheels of Blue Bell will ever taste exactly the same. But consider that each Valley Milkhouse cheese takes its name from a local flower, a beautiful symbol and reminder of the seasonality of it all. Something to ponder while you enjoy these lovely creations from a creamery we deeply admire.
A Brief History of Cheese
There is a famous quote from American writer Clifton Fadiman that describes cheese as “ milk’s leap toward immortality.” For the vast majority of human existence, food production was (and in many ways and places still is) a great struggle. The development of cheese as a means to fend off spoilage and extend the life of valuable protein was an act of necessity, of survival. For thousands of years, all cheese production was what we would consider farmstead cheese: cheese produced on the farm where the animals are raised and milked. With few exceptions, this was the case until the mid-to-late 1800s, when the industrial revolution combined with the incentives of capitalism sent cheesemaking on a path toward a factory-based model.
This was not, strictly speaking, a bad thing. Long before the modern cheese factory came into being, French cheesemakers in the Jura mountains established “fruitieres” where they produced giant, eighty pound wheels of Comté from milk supplied by the farmers of the village. In many ways, this is merely an extension of cheese’s original purpose: preservation.
Unfortunately, in the hundred-and-seventy or so years of the factory-model, we have lost so much; from nutritional value to healthy gut bacteria, from animal welfare to soil degradation, the list is long. But also lost in all of this: the true history of cheese.
Before the advent of commercial dairying, cheesemaking was the province of household women. In her research presentation Women’s Work: The History and Legacy of Women in Dairy, Mary Casella explains the etymology of dairy, “it stems from words that meant ‘female servant’ and later ‘woman in charge of making butter and cheese.’ The very word we use to describe a whole food group and industry is tied to women.”
The subsistence agricultural systems of pre-industrial times meant that very little cheese was made for commercial purposes. Some was bartered, a very little was sold, but the vast majority was produced for household consumption. And it was made by women. The craft and knowledge of cheesemaking was passed down generation after generation through the matriarchy. Today, even in a small artisan creamery, we have modern machinery to do much of the heavy lifting. Developments in modern science, and inventions as simple as the thermometer and the pH meter, helping to guide and monitor the cheesemaking process. By contrast, the original cheesemakers, dairymaids, had only what their eyes could see, their hands could feel; generational knowledge combined with intuition and the art of paying attention. Like much of life during those times, the work was grueling and necessary for survival. Above all, it was work, the work of women.
The development of the modern cheesemaking factory would have been impossible were it not for the collective knowledge of these women. In his book Cheddar, Gordon Edgar describes the development of the first cheddar factory in America:
One often overlooked part of history is that, while Jesse [Williams] got the plaque and the credit for the first whole-milk-to-cheddar-cheese factory, his wife, Amanda Williams, was also regarded as an exceptional dairy worker. They had actually been making cheese on their farm since 1830 and studying the best practices of others in the region. Jesse did a lot of the touring, seeking converts to associated dairying. History remembers his name more than his wife’s.
Why? A further question we might ponder is whose best practices? As the cheesemakers of the time were predominantly women, it is crystal clear that the best practices compiled to develop the operational procedures for the factory-model was drawn entirely from the wealth of knowledge held by women. It wasn’t until the factory model was fully operational that women began to be cut out of the work of cheesemaking in favor of men.
This is not a phenomenon exclusive to the dairying industry, of course. We can see it throughout our modern economy, in almost any form of commercialized work. Peer into any restaurant kitchen, and you’ll see a similar effect. To this day, chauvinist expressions such as “women belong in the kitchen” continue to degrade women, yet professional men are glorified as “genius chefs”. As if they aren’t all just repurposing their grandmothers’ recipes.
Once again, it comes down to the stories we tell. So let me tell you this, the modern artisan cheese scene is driven by women putting their stamp on the movement. It is of no coincidence that the values we associate with artisan cheese, such as nurturing and caretaking, are those our culture has deemed feminine. Values that capitalism has taught us to ignore, and that nature is calling us to hear once again. It is a theme that can be traced back to the dairymaids who could feel with their fingers when milk was at the right temperature or the right texture for the next step of the process. It comes back to what Stefanie Angstadt calls “reacting to the story of the milk.” And while the proportion of women cheesemakers in the United States is still an underwhelming figure, 23.5% as of 2021, the number of influential women in artisan cheese is substantial. We hope to tell more of their stories, because if cheese is milk’s leap toward immortality, it was women who taught milk to jump.
Witchgrass is a lactic-set cheese, a type of cheese that uses little-to-no rennet, and produces smaller format cheese, typically those served fresh or slightly aged. To make Witchgrass, pasteurized cow’s milk is warmed in the cheesemaking vat, and the cheesemakers add starter cultures and rennet. This is left to ferment for 20 hours into a yogurt-like consistency. They then ladle the fresh curd into cheesecloth bags and allow it to drain whey and thicken for another 20 hours. On day 3, they salt the curd, which is then shaped into cylindrical camembert molds and allowed to drain for another 24 hours. Here, Witchgrass sets into these little cylinders. On Day 4, the cheese is removed from the mold and dusted with vegetable ash. Traditionally, vegetable ash was used by cheesemakers as a way to deter insects and other pests from contaminating (stealing!) the cheese. Today, and here in the case of Witchgrass, it is used because it looks cool! But not just that (although come on, that distinct earthy gray color is beautiful!)The ash helps develop a mineral aroma, while neutralizing the surface pH which promotes the healthy growth of molds and yeasts.
After the Witchgrass is dusted with ash, it is moved into the bloomy aging fridge to begin their 10-day journey in “blooming” where a white fluffy cloud of penicillium candidum envelopes the cheese. This process is quite striking!
Once the cheese is fully bloomed, it ripens for an additional 10-14 days. Then it’s wrapped in special ripening paper which allows it to continue to ripen without drying out. This paper is almost like a second aging environment because it allows for air exchange and moisture retention even at refrigerator temperatures. The cheese is at its peak texture and aroma between 3 and 4 weeks.
These wonderful, pillowy marvels are perfect on some crusty bread with the warm spices of the Cherry Chai spread.
In the cheese case at our shop, you will find a very limited selection of cheeses with any flavor added. It’s not so much a blanket statement on the whole concept of adding things to cheese, but we find the typically grocery store so overrun with so many hot-pepper-this and herb-rolled-that, that there’s not much room for an artisan flavored cheese to make enough of an impression. There are always exceptions, and Honey Bell is one.
What we have here is a Witchgrass rubbed with dried chamomile flowers. We appreciate the tight thematic fit, the addition of a literal flower to the lineup of flower-named cheeses. And further, the complexity of flavor change between Witchgrass and Honey Bell, the way the chamomile adds not only herbal notes but a pleasant sweetness, it’s just simply worth eating. Delicious with the semi-sweet Effie’s Oatcakes.
Marigold is an alpine style tomme, drawing its influence from the mountainous cheeses of France and Switzerland. Traditionally, tommes were made with skimmed milk leftover from the production of butter or other higher-fat cheeses, or alternatively when excess milk needed to be put to use. Tommes are also made in a smaller format than their eighty pound wheel cousins; Comté, Gruyere, and the like. Like any widespread tradition, what exactly is a tomme, can be hard to define (and if you’re in Italy, it’s Toma!). Although plenty of tommes have their dedicated fanbases, there is no One Tomme To Rule Them All. In the case of Marigold, as the largest cheese made by Valley Milkhouse it is not a cheese of necessity like the traditional tommes started out, but a cheese of intention. The results are wonderful, grass-forward, a smooth buttery paste, nuttiness. Everything you’d want in an alpine.
Made with raw milk, Valley Milkhouse culture and rennet the milk and then cut the curds by hand into 1/2 inch cubes. Those curds are then gently stirred and slowly cooked up to a temperature of 115F, and then held at that temperature for up to an hour or until they like the springy feel of the curds. Determining when the curds are done cooking and ready to hoop is a tactile evaluation that comes only with experience. At this point, they drain off the whey and ladle the curds into large Kudova forms to create 30-lb finished wheels. The wheels are then pressed in their forms at 15 minute intervals up to 5 bars of pressure, which creates a closed rind and closely knit texture in the final cheese.
Pressed wheels are brined for several days to complete the salting process, then they are placed on wood aging boards in the aging cave. Their cave is banked into a hillside, so it’s 2/3 underground which gives it beautiful natural humidity and cooling. They use ash for our aging boards because of the tree’s local abundance. Marigold wheels are washed with Frecon Farms cider lees twice per week for the first six weeks to develop a peach-orange rind and to give the rind a yeasty aroma. Then the wheels are simply turned twice weekly and dry-brushed as needed to help maintain the rind. Their peak maturity is between 6-8 months.
Marigold is a perfect cheese to snack on all by itself (but what cheese isn’t?!) , but would also be nice with the Carrot Cream, with it’s slight citrusy notes and subtle spices.
Blue Bell, a fudgy dense blue cheese, was developed based on a Stilton recipe, a classic British cheese dating back to the 1700s. Due to its Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), a cheese calling itself Stilton must be made only within three English counties (Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire). But the style has caught on with many artisan cheese makers in the United States, and some of the very best blue cheeses produced here are made in this (blue!) vein, Blue Bell certainly ranked high among them. Like any borrowed recipe in the cheese-world, it is only ever a starting point. Ultimately, artisan cheese is a reflection of terroir and a cheesemaker’s personal style. And that is the case here with Blue Bell.
Made with raw milk (unlike Stilton, which must be produced with pasteurized milk… yet also very much like the old tradition when Stilton was made with raw milk), the cheesemakers add culture, rennet, and blue mold (penicillium roqueforti) to the cheese. Once formed, the curds are cut by hand into ½ inch cubes before being gently stirred at 95F for 30-40 minutes until a springy texture is reached. Then, they drain off the whey and toss the curds with coarse salt. Really working out the clumps encourages the ideal curd structure and individuality which is critical for making a blue cheese. If you’ve ever wondered about the “veins” of blue cheese, this is the reason! Penicillium roqueforti can only grow in between the curds in the finished wheel. Once the ideal structure is achieved, the curds are ladled into tomme molds to make 6lb wheels. They are not pressed (again, to maintain a good open texture for better blue veining), and simply flipped several times before settling in overnight.
The next day, the wheels are salted on the surface with coarse salt. This helps to develop flavor and to contain the blue mold within the wheel. After the salting process, which takes two days at room temperature, the wheels are moved onto wooden boards into the cave. They are flipped twice weekly and dry-brushed as needed to encourage even rind development. On day 15, they are pierced with a needle which introduces oxygen into the wheel of the cheese. This is what will allow the blue mold to grow and thrive within the body of the cheese. The peak maturity for this cheese is between 3-4 months.
With notes of sweet cream together with rustic earthiness and salt, Blue Bell is a relatively friendly blue cheese, even for blue cheese beginners. If you are new to blue cheese, or have had some in the past you’ve not enjoyed, we hope you’ll give Blue Bell a shot! Serve it with Chestnut Tree Honey, a rich and nutty honey that is perfect for standing up to a blue cheese!