Artisanal 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.
Matthew Brichford of Jacobs & Brichford Farmstead Cheese is an ardent proponent of ethical and sustainable farming. A vocal advocate for these positive practices, Brichford feels like-minded farmers are working against a food system that stands in the way. “Without my wife working and the support of my family, it’d be difficult to do [what I do]. If we want to feed Americans differently, trying to get people to switch to organic farming or more natural styles of farming, they’ve got to be rewarded for doing that. If they have to go out and work as hard as I have . . . they can’t,” he said during a recent culture interview.
Brichford has worked in agriculture his entire life. Though his father was a professor at the University of Illinois, Brichford felt the familial pull from his mother’s side to take over the family farm. By 1981, he was leading the farm that had been in his family since 1819. It was from his grandfather, a cattle farmer, that he learned to see his cows as more than just profit. “When you start raising livestock you enter a commitment to provide. When you have a puppy, you take on a responsibility [for] that animal. Multiply that by a hundred.” Much of Brichford’s ideals come from this history.
Though his creamery is only four years old, Brichford’s cheeses have already taken home honors from both the Good Food Awards and the American Cheese Society Judging & Competition. Culture chatted with Brichford about the development of his first recipes and balancing the financial demands of his business with the desire to make unique artisanal cheeses.
When Brichford started his creamery, he first sought the guidance of consulting connoisseurs. To develop his own spin, he combined their insight, his own research, and a multitude of recipes.
Those first three cheeses, I got recipes from either [consultants] Neville [McNaughton] or Brian [Civitello]. Those guys helped me develop those first cheeses and of course, we tweak them. I’m picky, I have a picky palette so I get things the way I like them to taste. We started making Adair a couple of years ago and it’s styled after a Reblochon. There’s a few people making that style in this country but it’s not real common. It’s a 45 [day aged] cheese in France and to [legally] have a raw milk Reblochon here, it’s gotta be [aged] 60 days. I was able to get a bunch of recipes for Reblochon, both industrial and artisanal, and then the farmstead cheese recipes. I synthesized all of those and came out with something that we thought we could age a little longer. Those recipes call for a lot of B. linens (Brevibacterium linens) and we got B. linens coming out of our ears in our milk so we omitted all of that.
Brichford tailors his cheese to his own taste and makes a product that won’t be completely foreign to customers but will also be new to the market.
They’re the cheeses I like. I wanted to do something that was slightly different. We definitely wanted to be appealing to the gourmet artisan market and we wanted to do some that weren’t as common. [The cheeses we make are] well known enough, but not real common. We’re here in the middle of the Midwest and trying to find things that appeal to more Midwestern palates. I’m not selling everything I’m making at this point in time so we’re throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. We’ve come up with a couple new cheeses this year. We’ve added a tomme and a soft bloomy rind thing and also started making feta. Even in the big cities in the Midwest, there’s a much more conservative palate. So like Ameribella, it’s a strong cheese and we have plenty of people in the Midwest that like it [but] we sell a lot [more] of [the] cheese in the Bay Area. In the Midwest, you know, if it’s outside of Colby and cheddar it gets a little weird [for people].
Product development is difficult in the aged curd world when your final product can only be taste tested months later.
Making cheese is kind of like driving down the road and only looking in the rearview mirror because you’re going to have to wait. We monitor the make process and know what our pH is and of course what our culture blend was, but we’ve got to wait for a while before we can get any inkling on how it’s going to taste. You may have had made several other batches since then. Flavor wise, we’re generally fairly close to where we want to be when we start and if it’s salty, you can adjust brine times or brine strength and things like that. As far as culture, you can find that out before you start. We tweak all the time. I would never say anything is 100 percent done because you’ve got to change it all the time. We’re a seasonal herd so the consistency of our milk changes throughout the season.
Brichford curated his own group of critics for an outsider’s perspective on his cheese. Still, he wishes that the community would be more comfortable providing constructive criticism to help his products grow.
Unless it’s really bad, people don’t give you too much negative criticism. I wish they would. Just say, “It’s all right but it needs a little of this.” I do seek out a lot of criticism from people whose opinion I value. I’ll send them cheese and I tell them to rip it up and let me know what’s going on. I have friends that are cheesemakers who have been doing it longer and they’re well known and everything, they never have to worry about selling cheese. I’m not there yet so I’m always trying to find something that will move.
An avid proponent of raw milk cheeses, Brichford ponders whether he should move into pasteurized products both for the health of his business and his community.
One thing about [pasteurizing] is that right now I make healthy food for wealthy people and I’ve always thought it would be nice to be able to put our milk into cheaper product. Pasteurizing it would allow me to get something out the door quicker and for a more regional market. I’m talking with some people now about possibly making cheese for them and doing a premium grass-fed cheese. Some of them would be raw milk but a grass-fed cheese with a more Midwestern appeal flavor-wise and a cheaper price point.
Culture asked Brichford about what inspires him to make a specific cheese. It’s balancing creativity while not losing sight of maintaining the quality of existing products.
I have seen some people make a lot of cheese and none of them are very good. I don’t want to get into that situation. It’s certainly not boring making the same cheese because it’s a different batch every time [even if] you may not have to change much. Making a high quality product is number one. It’s intellectually stimulating to do different cheeses . . . but I’m not doing it because I’m bored. I’m doing it because I’m trying to find a market for my milk. When I first started I thought I’d just make a couple kinds of cheeses, do them real well, and sell it all. But it hasn’t worked that way. I’ve got to find other things that I can take pride in doing but get them to sell as well.
Brichford advises curd lovers to embrace the unknown and appreciate a quality product for what it offers and not overemphasize price.
I think people should trust their own palate. A lot of times people like something more if somebody’s opinion they respect likes it and it helps to get past that. Trust your taste buds and be adventurous! [Something to consider with] handmade food is that somebody went through a lot of trouble to make that for you and yes, you did pay for it but there’s a lot that goes into [it]. That’s something wrong with our food economy now. People want cheap and fast and health and sustainability come from slow and with attention to detail. I think we’d be a healthier people if we paid more attention to what we eat and if health and sustainability were the bottom line rather than profitability. So consumers need to support people that are trying to further those ends.
For Brichford, the right concoction of art and science is 50/50.
I would say it’s pretty close to 50/50. My milk, my cheese tastes like it does because of the way I farm and the genetics of my cattle so that’s science, too, but it’s more to use the term “art,” it’s more of a craft. We practice good technique both in sanitation and we do what needs to be done at the right time and do it properly. That’s the technique, which would be the art side [as well as] the science. You’ve got to have both. The creativity and satisfying your palate, that’s a very subjective sort of artistic thing. It’s difficult to quantify because it’s how you blend [art and science] that makes the difference.
Feature Photo Credit: Leslie Jacobs