by Kimberley Thompson, Tastemaker in Residence
The day began with an email from Jodi...
“Hello! It has stopped snowing here and we’re hoping the roads will be clear for all of you by the time you head out today.”
Yes! Today was my long anticipated “Inside Look at Artisan Cheese-making” class at Shepherd’s Way Farms in Nerstrand, Minnesota.
And... it’s January 18th and “Minne-snow-da,” the weather had brought snow, ice and colder temps overnight. But being equipped with an insatiable curiosity regarding all things cheese, I was prepared with boots, blankets, 4 wheel drive and my big brother as fellow classmate and navigator.
Upon arrival at the farm, four fuzzy, little heads watched curiously as we slowly pulled off the gravel road into the yard. Their jaws chewed in rhythm over the worn wooden fence. The white washed barns; one simple wood, the other with its brown brick lower level giving permanence to the view…somehow anchoring my anticipation to the reality of this being a real working farm. (More on the barns later…the story must unfold.)
We went to Shepherd’s Way Farm; a SHEEP dairy farm that specializes in blue ribbon winning artisanal cheeses. It is owned and operated by Jodi Ohlsen Read and Steven Read since 1994. Jodi is the cheese master and Steven the herd master. Their 4 boys do it all, from animal husbandry, to manure moving to snow plowing to land tending to manning the booths at local farmer’s markets.
And that is how my journey here starts: farmer’s markets. More specifically the Mill City Farmer’s Market in downtown Minneapolis; on the plaza right next to the world renowned Guthrie Theatre. I was scouting the market, looking for just a little something to snack on. The display of cheeses caught my foodie eyes. Limited selection, only about 5 or 6 varieties; which didn’t seem to bother the crowd gathered around the case too much. I pushed my way forward just in time to sample something called “Big Woods Blue.” Not expecting much, I popped the sample in my mouth. I believe my jaw did a complete gawp before I could shut it around THE MOST FLAVOR-ABLE blue cheese I have ever tasted. Salivation was immediate. The desire for more was even quicker. Creamy and piquant with slight salt pops in the mouth. Smooth.I nonchalantly ordered a pound; actually had to restrain myself from slathering it all over anything edible in a 10 foot radius. I also asked about a hard cheese that looked like a cloth-bound cheddar, labeled “Burr Oak” It broke into shards from the wheel. In the mouth: nutty, slightly salty, rich and grass-like. But not the mown grass gag of alfalfa…more the sweet dry odor of the hay loft filled with fresh hay.
I scuttled back to my vehicle; but not before I ascertained the name of the producer of my heavenly cheese finds. Shepherd’s Way Farms. Which led to the “why” I was present on a bitter day in January at a country farm; sitting in a very cool room listening to Jodi Ohlsen Read talk about her life as an artisan cheese-master. The labor, the regulation, the successes (major cheese society blue ribbons on at least 4 of her cheeses…all favorites of local chefs), the trial and error, the laughs and the disasters. (Here is where I get back to the barn.)
The heritage lambing barn is old; just NOT old to their farm. They moved the 120 foot long barn 4 miles from the Big Woods State Park (where it was slated for demolition) because in 2005 the Reads suffered the complete loss of their lambing barn and approximately 500 head of ewes and lambs due to an arson fire. It was not until the spring of last year that everything was finished and ready to produce back at a larger scale.
Jodi walked us through the milking parlor and milk storage areas; we then had to “suit up” in hair nets and foot coverings for the cheese-make rooms where we would make fresh ricotta and assist in the second day of a cheese-make. She is a delightful teacher; combining the factual recipes and outcomes with her personal takes on cheese. (And I thank God she does it the way she does!)
We peered into the brining and aging rooms; where there were wooden racks of somnolent cheeses waiting patiently for their day of delivery. Seriously, Jodi ages the Burr Oak for over 1 year!
At the end of the 4 hour class, we came back to the farm office and sampled all the varieties of Shepherd’s Way Farms cheeses:
- Shepherd’s Hope
- Shepherd’s Hope with Herbs and Garlic
- Big Woods Blue-best blue in my opinion
- Hidden Falls
- Shepherd’s Ricotta
- Burr Oak-now my family’s most requested cheese
Writing this article is a double edged sword for me: I want increased success for Shepherd’s Way Farms, but I don’t want “my cheeses” to become so popular that they change what they are now. So look for them at your local cheesemongers and farmer’s markets; but promise me that you’ll only tell those who really love cheese about Big Woods Blue and Burr Oak.
Just makes more for me.