Ricotta (Bellwether Farms)
Family owned and operated by the Callahan family, Bellwether Farms is located in the rolling hills of Sonoma County, about an hour north of San Francisco and a few miles from the Pacific Ocean. Having raised a family and had a career as a nurse, in the early 1990's Cindy Callahan made the decision to change direction, starting a sheep farm. After initially focusing on lamb production, the Callahans were encouraged to develop their sheep into a milking herd. This, combined with a trip to Italy where they had the opportunity to taste many local sheep's milk cheeses inspired them to start to experiment with cheesemaking. The sheep at Bellwether Farm consist mainly of East Friesian ewes. The ewes give birth to between one and three lambs each year and the lambs stay with their mother for 45 days before the ewe joins the milking line. Each ewe gives, on average, slightly less than one gallon a day and they are milked for eight months before the cycle begins again. The sheep graze freely year round in addition to being given grain and alfalfa as necessary. Cindy's Callahan son Liam oversees cheese production while his wife Diana manages the office and Cindy focuses on taking care of the sheep. In addition to making a range of sheep's milk cheeses, the Callahans also buy in local Jersey cow's milk in order to make a range of cow's milk cheeses. Renowned for its rich, buttery characteristics, Jersey milk has a higher fat and protein content than most milks, which gives the cheeses a wonderfully rich, balanced flavor and creamy mouthfeel. Although Bellwether make a couple of varieties of whey based ricottas, these are only sold locally. In order to fulfill national demand, Liam has developed a whole cow's milk ricotta, made using cultured milk that has been allowed to acidify naturally for many hours until its ready to begin the heating process. Making ricotta this way requires constant attention. Once heating begins, Liam stands at the vat watching for just the right moment to stop stirring, letting the curds form. The curds are then hand scooped into small ricotta baskets and allowed to drain naturally under their own weight. In keeping with Italian tradition, the ricotta is sold in the same basket, resulting in the minimum of disturbance of the curd and the maximum retention of moisture. This gives the finished ricotta a remarkably delicate, soft texture and lactic flavors of cream and butter with a clean finish that leaves you longing for more.