Deliciously Difficult Dinah
Overcoming the odds, one man creates his dream cheese
The ferry ride from West Seattle to Vashon Island takes just 15 minutes, but from the moment you disembark, you’re in a different world. The sleepy bedroom community, while inhabited by many tech-industry commuters, is a bucolic place, dotted with produce stands and swaths of Douglas fir forest. There’s a handful of working agricultural properties on the island, including tiny Kurtwood Farms, a one-man, four-cow dairy.
I first visited the farm and met the owner, Kurt Timmermeister, a year ago, while researching a story on local raw milk for a Seattle publication. Timmermeister, a native Seattleite and former restaurateur, had been selling raw milk to local businesses and at a city farmers’ market. What I discovered at the time, however, was that the 48-year-old dairy farmer had recently decided to pull the plug on his raw-milk business and begin a new venture: cheesemaking. He was now the creator of Dinah, a pasteurized, bloomy-rind, Camembert-style cheese named after his first (dearly departed) Jersey cow.
Timmermeister had been making cheese for his own consumption since he purchased Dinah the cow in 2004. Dinah the cheese was the result of his patient tinkering with batches of the cheese for three months, trying to create an end product that met his exacting standards. At the time of my initial visit, his efforts were beginning to pay off, as he’d just sold his first batch to Matt Dillon—not the actor, but the award-winning Seattle chef and owner of Sitka & Spruce and the Corson Building. While Timmermeister and I talked at the long, hand-hewn wooden table in his farm kitchen, he produced a rustic, eight-ounce disk of Dinah’s Cheese; it oozed an ivory paste when I cut into it. As I took my first bite, my eyes rolled back in my head at the satiny texture and lush, lingering, buttery taste. It was pure Jersey, but free of barnyardy funk; obscenely rich, yet clean, leaving no heavy coating on the palate.
The cheese was remarkable on its own, but even more so given the details of how Timmermeister, a city kid who possessed no formal training in cooking, cheesemaking, or farming, had succeeded in this new vocation. On a recent return to Kurtwood Farms, I listened as Timmermeister revealed the good, the bad, and the very bad accounts of making Dinah a marketable venture over the past year. It is a tale both inspirational and cautionary about what it takes to realize the urbanite’s fantasy of quitting the nine to five, buying a farm, and making cheese for a living.
The Road Home
Twenty-five years ago Kurt Timmermeister never would have imagined he’d one day be a farmer or a cheesemaker. A student of international affairs at what is now the American University of Paris, his passion at the time was food. With dreams of becoming a chef, he took a job as a pastry cook. Although he’d had a garden growing up in Seattle and made desserts at home, it was living in France that “galvanized the whole thing.” He returned to Seattle and worked a series of restaurant jobs; then in 1986 he opened his own place, Café Septieme. It became a Seattle institution over the next 18 years, but by then Timmermeister was “totally burned out.”
As a retreat from the restaurant, in 1991 he purchased four and a half acres of overgrown land on Vashon Island but had no real plans to farm. In 2001 he acquired an additional eight and a half acres, this time with a vague notion of working the soil. “I was very naive,” he admits now. “The farmers I had met were nice people, and it seemed like they were making money. So in 2004 I sold my restaurant, planted a garden, and started selling produce at some farmers’ markets and to local restaurants. What I didn’t know is that the soil here is terrible. I quickly lost my shirt, but I couldn’t go back. It wasn’t just my pride: I wanted to make this farm happen.”
That same year, inspired by a Vashon farmer who was making money selling raw milk and unable to keep up with the demand, Timmermeister bought Dinah. “I didn’t even know how to milk,” he laughs. “When I first got her back to the farm, it was 3 p.m. I didn’t comprehend that she needed to be milked in two hours.” Needless to say, he figured it out and soon purchased a vacuum pump to expedite the process. His raw-milk business thrived, he acquired three more cows and a dairy license, and he built a barn and milking parlor. He became a full-time dairy farmer.
Today his sole employee is herdsman Jorge Garnica, who grew up on a subsistence farm in Michoacán, Mexico. The self-sustaining Kurtwood Farms (Timmermeister purchases only sugar, flour, salt, pepper, and coffee) is lush with tree crops, vegetable and herb gardens (planted in raised beds of composted soil), pasture, and a menagerie of dogs, pigs, and poultry. Of his 11 dairy animals, only four are milkers; the rest are bulls, steers, or heifers.
By the fall of 2008, Timmermeister was bored with raw milk and didn’t see a future in it. He went online and started looking for cheese vats and recipes. “I’d learned to make a Camembert—rather unsuccessfully—from Ricky Carroll’s book [Home Cheese Making, Storey, 2002]. But I knew that was the style I wanted to sell, because it’s what I want to eat. I love rustic, gooey, messy cheeses. Since I already had the infrastructure in place, I calculated how much milk I could produce each day from my cows to produce X amount of cheese and created a business plan.”
Cheese Life Lessons
By early June 2009 Timmermeister had built a creamery: a 5-by-12-foot milk room, adjoined by a 14-by-14-foot cheesemaking room. He spent the summer experimenting with batch after batch, developing a recipe. “The early ones were ammoniated because I was wrapping too late. I didn’t realize they needed to age inside the paper for 15 days,” he explains.
The current production of Dinah’s Cheese involves pasteurizing the milk at 145°F for 30 minutes. After adding mesophilic cultures—Geotrichum candidum and Penicillium candidum—Timmermeister adds animal rennet to coagulate the milk. He hand-ladles the curd into molds, then flips and drains each mold three times over a 24-hour period. Next they’re salted, drained again, and left to age for seven days at 50 to 55°F. The cheeses are wrapped in breathable, double-layered paper and matured for between two weeks and 25 days, at a cooler 46 to 48°F. He makes 96 cheeses per batch, every other day.
In the midst of perfecting this production, last July Timmermeister’s right eye was swatted by a cow’s tail while he was milking. The result was a torn retina and loss of vision. The first surgery to repair the damage was unsuccessful. Three subsequent surgeries have reduced the scar tissue, but he still has no depth of field. When asked how it’s affected his work, he answers wryly, “I walk into branches a lot.”
In September of last year, Timmermeister was feeling confident enough to introduce Chef Dillon to Dinah. By December the cheese was on the menus of some of Seattle’s best restaurants and was being retailed throughout Seattle; one outlet alone was ordering up to 30 cheeses a week. That same month, however, disaster struck. “I knew something was completely off,” he recalls. “The cheeses weren’t setting; they were completely falling apart. But I still had just enough inventory to meet my current orders, so I thought if I could fix the problem immediately, I’d be okay.” Unfortunately, he continues, “if you’re inexperienced and you have a problem, it takes a long time to figure it out. There are almost infinite variables to cheesemaking. I tried everything, but I wasn’t able to make a batch for two weeks and lost $2,000 worth of business. I was freaking out.”
Through a painful process of elimination, Timmermeister eventually realized that his cultures were dead. “An experienced cheesemaker would have known that in a day,” he explains. In desperation, he had called his cheesemaking supplier, Margaret Morris, and she told him the problem was bacteriophage. This bacteria-infecting virus, while not a human health issue, renders cheese production impossible. Morris explained how to resolve the issue, which meant a complete revision of Timmermeister’s (already fastidious) creamery hygiene protocol.
Now he changes his shoes between the milking parlor and make rooms, uses an antiviral floor mat, and runs a HEPA filter 24/7. The concrete floors and walls are bleached often, and whey is removed immediately so that it doesn’t soak into the floor and act as a food source for bacteria. “I thought I was cleaning competently before the bacteriophage nightmare,” he says. “I really didn’t understand the scope of what I was doing, and I didn’t have adequate contacts to help me troubleshoot the problem.”
By early this year full production had resumed. In June a 330-square-foot cheese cave was completed, where Timmermeister now ages Francesca, a Grana Padano–style cheese, set for a 2012 release. His goal in making an aged cheese is to widen his distribution to include some shops in New York.
When Timmermeister isn’t milking or making cheese, he’s driving around Seattle delivering to restaurants and retail shops, accompanied by ever-present farm dogs Byron and Daisy. He delights in being a small-enough producer that he can personally hand his cheese over to clients. The worst part, he says, are the parking tickets he accumulates while harried chefs search for their checkbooks.
Right now, he finds himself in the enviable position of having to define where Kurtwood Farms is headed. “I’ve had a level of success and worked out most of the problems, but it’s still challenging, as well as fun. Now I have to decide who I am. I could get bigger in terms of production, but do I want to? I don’t have the glorious ending to my story yet.” He grins. “I have no idea what’s going to happen next.”
To follow more of Kurt Timmermeister’s cheesemaking journey, see his journal notes at kurtwoodfarms.com or look for his book, Growing a Farmer: How I Learned to Live Off the Land (W.W. Norton Co.).
Written by Laurel Miller
Photography by Charity Burggraaf