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.
Laini Fondilier spent her early 30s as an illegal immigrant in France, where her life steered unquestionably toward cheese. “I had never eaten cheese before or even really thought about cheese. It just opened up a world,” she said about her time in Europe. The adventure came to an halt after she and her three-years-expired tourist visa were discovered by the police. She was forced to travel home, cheese forms in tow. It took her years to save up the seed money to start her own farm, Lazy Lady Farm in Westfield, Vt.—she was earning only $125 a week at the time. Her journey is filled with innumerable plot twists. When sharing her history with culture, she would casually interject thoughts such as, “I was a rug maker so I raffled off a rug to get the money,” right after talking about her days being kicked around in cow dairies. She surprised us with the sheer breadth of her adventure (a detailed telling of which would surely take days) and left us wondering what other interesting endeavors Fondilier has to share.
A pillar of the Vermont cheesemaking community, Fondilier has been a member of the Vermont Cheese Council since 1997 and served as president from 2009-2010. Constantly honing her craft, she’s made more than 50 different cheeses at Lazy Lady Farm. We met with her to discuss how she goes about designing a new cheese and the difficulty of balancing artistic creativity with running a small American creamery.
Fondilier was quick to delve into the gritty details of her recipe development process. Her fast speech showed how intuitive it is to her.
I might be after a texture. [Texture] points you in a direction of [deciding] what form you’re going to use. It’s your form because that also involves your drainage, [which] affects your texture. Also, texture is ripening time, so size of the form [matters]. The smaller the [form], the more quickly it will ripen. Then [I] move on to temperature set. Supple versus runny [depends on] temperature set. Another thing that affects texture is the cutting and the stirring. It might be rest for five minutes, stir for 10, and get [the curds] into pea size, let it sit another 10 minutes. [This process] is going to get you a little bit drier so you can have a soft supple [cheese]—almost gouda but not quite.
Open any cheesemaking book and you’ll see recipes that ask for two or three cultures. Fondilier showed us her notebook with cheeses that use a cocktail of more than 10. This is how she intricately tunes to the exact flavor she seeks.
With cheesemaking . . . you have lots of cultures, which facilitate flavors. What’s going on with that rind also is involved with the flavor, how it ripens, and the texture, because some rind cultures, Penicillium candidum in particular, may be more proteolytic than the others. Proteolytic [means] something that will break down protein more. If you go online, say you want to look up a Reblochon, you’ll find 10 different ways of doing it. And so, I kind of take a snapshot of that and [use] my little guide: LH (Lactobacillus helveticus) helps with cheese flavor, nutty; LD (Lactococcus diacetylactis) brings out openness, aroma development; LB (Lactobacillus bulgaricus) texturing, [and to] stabilize [the] cheese curd.
Fondilier wasn’t born a cheesy savant—her process evolved as her experience grew.
A light bulb went off four or five years ago that I’ve got more leverage in development of a really refined flavor [by mixing several cultures]. It took me a while to figure out what each of these [cultures] would do when, and how, and where, and why. [In the beginning] I had farmers’ market cheese, and I had pig and chicken cheese. [If] I couldn’t use it I fed it to the pigs and chickens! Of course, I didn’t like it! All that milk gone to waste! But if it didn’t work, it didn’t work. If it was an aged cheese you don’t know until two months later! Oh, it was painful, there were some painful, painful [moments].
Fondilier’s new creations are late-night revelations. She shared how she decides it’s time to make a new cheese.
It gets boring doing the same thing for me. I’ve got some friends . . . they’ve been making cheese as long as I have, and they make one kind of cheese. One cheese! I say, “How do you do it? How in the heck do you keep from hanging yourself?” Holy crap! Thirty years, one cheese! Sometimes it might be the customer base. American customers are hard. They might get sick of a cheese. It gets harder and harder to sell. [Then] I think they want me to move on.
When asked if she’s ever changed a cheese based on consumer feedback, Fondilier was quick to boast that she alone decides what she produces. As fast as she made the stand, she admitted that sometimes a maker has to adapt for the customer even if the request doesn’t make sense.
No. I go my way. OK, so, I made a cheese, the Snyderbrook last year. [Retailers] didn’t like the size of it! They wouldn’t buy it. We battled back and forth and back and forth. So, I guess I’ll concede, because it was in this form, it was kind of like three-quarters of a pound or a pound, and for some reason they wouldn’t cut it up. Somehow they didn’t think they could cut it and I wanted to say, “Have you ever heard of a device called a knife? It’s long, it’s sharp.” So I’m going to be making it into a larger format. A 2-pound wheel. There can be little, little things that will drive retail people—and hence consumers—over the edge . . . and it can drive you nuts.
True cheese innovation can be difficult when caseophiles are pushed outside of their comfort zone.
There have been times I’ve just cried! I made a cheese two years ago called Twilight. I made it in the winter, and I made it in a cone shape, and I mixed blue with a geo [Geotrichum culture] so it was a wrinkly blue rind. They would not touch it. I threw out I don’t know how much. We couldn’t get it sampled. They freaked out! I’d be at the farmers’ market fighting. This one lady [said], “I just can’t get it, are you sure this blue is OK?” I’m like, “Ma’am, do you think I’d do this to you? Try to poison you?” Sometimes the retailers and the customers will dig in their heels. I’ll create a cheese and they say, “No way, baby! We ain’t buying it!” It’s tough. There’s some mindset out there about what a cheese is supposed to look like or be. They got a bee in their barn about blue being on the outside of the cheese. I think [the blue] is beautiful.
Photo Credits: Ryan Kaminski-Killiany