Alex Jones, Value Chain Coordinator
Fair Food is based in the heart of downtown Philadelphia, but we work to build markets for food producers all over central and eastern Pennsylvania and south and central Jersey. We’ve been working with some of these farms and food artisans for the past 16 years; others are newer on the scene. One of our staff’s favorite activities is getting out of the city to see our constituents’ work up close. Recently, I had the chance to spend the day making cheese with our region’s newest cheesemaker, Stefanie Angstadt of Valley Milkhouse Creamery in Oley, PA.
I’ve been a fan of Stefanie’s cheeses ever since I heard she had set up shop at Covered Bridge Farm, not far from the part of Berks County valley where her ancestors settled three centuries ago. I added her selections to the Fair Food Farmstand’s all-local cheese case, and her aged and bloomy rind cheeses proved to be an exciting addition (new dairy farms and cheesemakers just don’t pop up that often around here).
Our cheesemaking day—crisp and cool, but with spring flowers in full bloom—started with draining Clover, a bright, creamy, fresh cow’s milk cheese made in the style of fromage blanc. Stefanie uses milk from Dutch Meadows, one of her two sources for organic, 100-percent grass-fed cow’s milk, because the milk from their heritage breed Dutch Belted cows has smaller fat globules that make for a smoother, silkier finished product.
Using cheesecloth, we drained the curds and whey from the vat where they had incubated since the night before, then hung the bundles from a rack so their whey would drain into several five-gallon buckets that Stefanie saves for a neighbor who raises pigs. A small amount of remaining curds and whey went to top off the draining molds of Witchgrass, a cow’s milk Valencay-style cheese that’s shaped into a truncated pyramid and rubbed with a layer of vegetable ash before aging.
Soon, Stefanie’s partner Owen, who runs an acupuncture and Chinese medicine practice at their 18th-century farmhouse a short drive from the creamery, arrived with a delivery of fresh milk from Spring Creek Farm in nearby Wernersville. After cleaning and sterilizing the vat and other equipment (a step you can mentally insert between just about every step in this post), we hefted the heavy milk cans and dumped their contents into the vat, taking steps to minimize the agitation of the milk, which can break up those fat globules and impair the structure of the cheese as it ages. This milk—from a mixed herd of Jersey and Ayreshire cows—would be used to make the year's first batch of Thistle, Valley Milkhouse’s brie-style cheese.
While we waited for the vat to come up to pasteurization temperature, we set out a layer of plastic mesh on a draining table and topped it with dozens of molds. (While Thistle started out as the region’s only raw-milk brie-style cheese, Stefanie is now experimenting with both raw milk batches of Thistle for her farmers’ markets and pasteurized batches that will have a longer shelf life for her wholesale clients.) Once the milk in the vat had been pasteurized and then cooled a bit, Stefanie added tiny amounts of culture and rennet. While we waited for the milk to set into a gel, we took a break for lunch in the farmhouse with Jess, a farmer who grows produce, herbs, and flowers on a portion of Covered Bridge Farm’s land called Meadowsweet Acres.
When break time was over, we checked on the vat; it was time to cut the curd. Stefanie used a curd cutter—a long, metal grate with a handle—to make horizontal and vertical cuts that would separate the gelled milk into curds. After gently hand-stirring the curds and whey, we filled the waiting molds with pitchers full of the mixture and left the wheels of Thistle-to-be to drain.
Next, I helped Stef prep for a week's worth of deliveries, picking up wheels of her Goldenrod Gouda from a nearby aging space and cutting, wrapping, and labeling pieces of Blue Bell. We took a break from packing orders to flip the Thistle, carefully overturning the open-ended molds while keeping the draining curds inside. If all goes well in the aging room, the batch of Thistle we made in late March will be showing up at market this week!
Our last activity of the day was portioning cultured butter, a product made by only two dairies in the Philly area (the other one is Bobolink Dairy in Milford, NJ). Stefanie adds culture to rich cream from her source farms, lets it culture and thicken for a day or so, then churns the substance to produce the butter and its delicious byproduct, cultured buttermilk. On my cheesemaking day, we only scooped out mounds of cold butter from a refrigerated bucketful, then shaped them in muffin tins (ingenious!), stamped some with an antique wooden butter shaper for a special customer, and wrapped and labeled the half-pound pats for sale.
Our 10-hour cheesemaking day was over. And that’s just the cheesemaking—Stefanie’s phone was blowing up the whole day, and returning emails and calls, not to mention administrative duties and delivery miles, are also part of her job. We were both ready for a beer, which we enjoyed in the spring sunset by the Manatawny Creek.
Besides getting to see the cheesemaking process up-close—something I’ve tried to replicate on a nano scale in my own kitchen—I came away with a new appreciation for this work, which is just as emotional as it is physical and mental. Cheesemaking seems to be the closest that food can get to art, and the thought, labor, emotional investment, and care that goes into each recipe from milk can to cheese plate is a wonder to behold.
Find Valley Milkhouse’s aged cheeses—like Blue Bell, Goldenrod Gouda, Lady Slipper Tomme, and Ivory Bell Reserve—in the Fair Food Farmstand’s cheese case. Source her raw milk Thistle, cultured butter, Clover, and cream-top yogurt most Saturdays at the Clark Park and Chestnut Hill farmers’ markets in Philadelphia and the Easton Farmers’ Market in Easton, PA.