Artisinal Alchemy is a series of interviews with award-winning American cheesemakers across the United States. We discuss their journeys to the industry and how their origins and ideals impact their approaches to curd design and development.
Country Winds Farm in Zeeland, Mich., is a family business that turns out goat cheeses with milk-forward flavor. This summer, the four-year-old creamery’s crottin and tomme brought home two awards from the American Cheese Society Judging & Competition—it was the first time they entered. At the ACS conference, John and Mary Windemuller, the husband-and-wife team behind Country Winds, found themselves wondering how to answer the frequent question from fellow makers: Are you a hobby farm or a business? They hadn’t previously defined themselves in any particular way. While they certainly turn a profit, the Windemullers consider the enterprise something they do together as a family that grew out of a passion for raw milk.
The origin story for Country Winds Farm is not exactly sunny. In 1997, when Mary Windemuller was recuperating from a serious car accident, the family purchased three baby goats they could care for together while she convalesced. The pastime became even more dear to the children when the matriarch was diagnosed with breast cancer only two years later (she has since recovered). As the herd grew and fresh dairy become a staple in the Windemuller diet, the family became accidental raw milk advocates. Soon, the Windemullers set up a goat share to legally sell raw milk—customers become part-owners of a goat and receive its milk—and expanded their herd to meet raw milk demand through the winter, when milk production is lowest. In turn, during the summer months they found themselves with more milk than they could handle; the fridge full of homemade butter was feeling a bit excessive. They had to make cheese.
Culture talked to John Windemuller about how he develops award-winning recipes.
When John first started making more complex aged cheeses, he turned to cheese greats like Peter Dixon for advice but relied on his own tastebuds to achieve desired results.
John Windemuller: “I had taste-tested tommes from other cheesemakers, whether it was at a restaurant or at farmer’s markets. I [found a] maker in my area [who] had some tomme, and [when] I tried it I said, That ain’t bad! I started searching and researching recipes. There’s a lot of information online, [from] different cheesemakers. Peter Dixon is the primary one for me. You have to do a lot of reading.”
In the early days of developing what is now his decorated tomme, John struggled to find the perfect balance of mold and moisture.
JW: “I didn’t know or understand completely the mold process and controlling the molds [at the time]. I had coolers with humidity and temperature control I had put on myself. The cheese was molding prolifically! I had crazy mold! Eventually, I learned to keep them washed more. I used a brine wash to control [the mold] and dampen it. You’ve got to understand how the whey is being relieved during the stirring and the heating process from the curd and how you control the moisture of that curd before you bring it to the form. Watching the pH is another one. Having a good pH meter so you can watch the cheese as it acidifies in the mold [is important]. The biggest improvement I made was our home aging cave.”
John’s recipe development is informed by his keen eye, practical experience, and a bit of trial-and-error—not by a textbook.
JW: “I’m more of a hands-on person than I am a research person. I wish I had a better understanding of the science of everything. Ultimately to me it’s my hands being in the vat, understanding the moisture presence in the curd, and knowing the amount of time to stir. Now, cheesemaking [has become] more of a formula, a pattern that you have to follow. You have to be aware that your milk is always changing, especially with goats. Goat’s milk is a very seasonal product, so we’re following that lactation curve. You get to summer and you’re getting a lot of milk, you’re really in a flush of milk, but your solids are way lower. Now, we’re coming into the fall season, my volume of milk is going downwards and my solids are coming upwards again. You get a little bit more cheese for the same amount of milk. Understanding that part of it to me is the artisan side of it.”
John discussed the balance between innovation and salability of his products.
JW: “From a business perspective, something very common like a cheddar is going to be an easier product to move than a product that is new to people. Even with our crottin, it’s still a new product to a lot of people, but many of them who are a little bit daring will try it. To see the restaurants in the Grand Rapids and Holland area [of Michigan] that are putting them on the menu [is exciting]. But it’s something so different to get people to try, [it requires] big steps. People are willing to take a bite of cheddar. That’s not going to scare them. If you put something runny in front of them, something with some funky mold on it—No, I’m not doing that, I’m not going there. And it’s out of a goat?! That’s the struggle: You want to experiment, you want to try new things, you want to have something that’s outstanding, and people are being pushed a little bit to try it—but from a business perspective it’s not always the best choice.”
We asked John what cheese lovers should consider when finding a new favorite wedge.
JW: “To me, it’s know your farmer. You have to . . . know their practices and trust who you are dealing with. It goes back to the milk practices, cleanliness. If there’s one cheese I want to taste from a cheesemaker it’s going to be their fresh chèvre. If the chèvre don’t taste good, they’re not starting out with a good product. To have a nice clean, light flavored chèvre that has a sweetness to it, you’ve gotta have great milk. If you’re going to have chèvre that’s tart or that people will say tastes goaty, there’s something in the milk or your process that you don’t have right.”
When discussing art vs. science in cheesemaking, John was shy about identifying as an artist but believes that curd creation is an art.
JW: “I would have to say . . . 70 percent art and 30 percent science. The art of cheesemaking is understanding your milk. You’ve got to observe everything you’re doing. You’ve got to be able to feel it. You’ve got to be able to see it. Watching the molds. Watching your rind on the cheese and how it develops. Develop that formula, be able to follow that pattern, understanding your milk—for me it’s less of a science and more of an artform in that way. Where do you want to be and how do you get there? I read somewhere in a magazine, be the captain of your vat. You’ve got to steer this milk to become cheese. You’re driving that vat. You have to steer in the direction you want to go. You’re using the science as the artist. You’re using the science to make it happen.”
Photos Courtesy of Country Winds Farm