Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Monkeyflower Ranch - 1/21 &22/2013

Monkeyflower Ranch signature shot
Heritage pigs 
Our day at Monkeyflower Ranch, an artisanal cheese making operation, began with introductions to the various animals on the property. Heritage pigs came first—unlike conventional animals, which have become leaner per consumer demand, this traditional variant has a higher fat content. Pigs are useful to Monkeyflower Ranch because, among other scraps, they eat the whey that is produced as a byproduct in the cheese making process.
One of the sows had just birthed a litter the previous day, and thus we had the good fortune of viewing day old piglets. Of course all newborn animals are miniscule compared to their mothers, yet I was struck by how tiny the piglets were relative to the new mama—indeed, owner Rebecca King informed us that it is frightfully easy for the mother to roll over unassumingly and crush the new litter.
The day old piglets
It was lambing season, indeed—the “maternity ward” housed heavily pregnant ewes, and other pens encased week old lambs, tottering on spindly legs, and their doting mothers. This year, Rebecca and crew orchestrated the breeding process so that not all births occur at once—she noted the chaos that ensued when in previous years, 100 lambs were born in a week, 50 of them within a 48 hour span.    
  Ten years ago, University of Wisconsin imported ten Lacaune sheep from southern France, and one of the rams at Monkeyflower Ranch is this specialty breed. European food culture dictates that Roquefort cheese must be made with milk from the Lacaune breed in this particular region of France, and thus Monkeyflower Ranch possesses quite the specialty animal. Mixed breeds, however, are often more hearty than purebred animals, and thus the flock, about 150 animals in total, is mixed Lacaune and East Fresian, a breed known for its high milk production.
The rams
Sheep’s milk has double the amount of solid matter present in cow and goat’s milk, and the higher fat content facilitates the cheese making process. After viewing the vacant milking station, we entered the adjacent cheese making room. Garden Variety Cheese, the artisanal product of Monkeyflower, is made with raw sheep’s milk and hence the liquid must be quite fresh—using milk that has sat around for any more than a couple of days gives the cheese a funky flavor. As a devout lover of cheese, I am embarrassed to admit that I previously knew little about the process behind one of my favorite foods. Luckily, this informative session somewhat filled my knowledge void.
The pasteurizer
Cheese making begins with raw milk and cultures, which are all just variations of a slim few; subtle flavor differences come from the process itself. After allowing the cultures to grow in the raw milk at roughly body temperature for half an hour, cheese makers add rennet, an enzyme traditionally found in the stomach of baby animals. Vegetarian versions of rennet can be grown in the lab, but they do not lend to the highest quality cheese—Garden Variety uses an animal variant imported from Germany. Next, this thickened mixture is separated into whey and curds using a paddle with square slats—the mixture becomes heterogeneous, curd cubes suspended in whey liquid. This is where subtle manipulations create entirely different flavor—for instance, drawing off the whey and adding water yields mild gouda cheese, whereas heating the mixture to a higher temperature and rendering further whey from the cubes is the “cheddar-ing” process. When beginning her business, Rebecca did not set out to make certain varieties of cheese—rather, she experimented with the ingredients and conditions unique to her operation and developed her signature recipes through trial and error. She has a cheddar-style called Black Eyed Susan—each cheese is named after a sheep in the flock—and a Gouda-esque variant called Petunia, but each product is a true Garden Variety. 


The milking corral
Weeding the upper pastures occupied much of the afternoon. Our job was to eliminate camphor weed—the vibrant dandelion-like flowers are pleasant to the eyes, but the sheep are disdainful of the plant’s taste and thus coveted irrigation water gives life to a weed of little tangible valuable. The camphor hacking and pulling up was wholly satisfying, mainly because the plant has long, solid roots that let out a resounding pop when uprooted properly. Sheep milking occurred concurrently with our afternoon weeding session, and pairs of us cycled in to help with the milking process—refilling grain in the six milking stalls, attempting to hand-milk each gargantuan udder to test for infection, and when clear, hooking the animal up to the mechanized milking machine.   
Sheep milking in action
January 22nd: Today was very similar, as camphor weeding consumed our morning —how time flies out in the field! We set up neat rows of irrigation in the newly bare field, and some of us, myself included, got to drive the tractor used for pipe transport. A relaxing lunch, complete with a small-scale cheese tasting—we sampled Holyhock, a mild cheese with hints of pistachio and brown sugar, and Moonflower, the eight-month aging process giving this variant a sharp edge. Back to the field, and finally, the production room. I got up close and personal with freshly made yogurt cheese, placing hefty dollops in individual containers for farmer's market sales. We concluded our day by cradling some of the baby lambs. They are exceedingly rambunctious, but once these babies are held firmly in adoring arms, they relax, eyes half closed in the late afternoon light. 

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