Hello, readers! I am SO excited about this blog post because today, my photographer buddy Gavin and I teamed up to bring you a behind the scenes look at one of my favorite cheesemakers: Bellwether Farms, maker of delectable sheep’s milk yogurts, scrumptious cheeses, and my favorite basket ricottas! They also make jersey cow’s milk cheeses, including their illustrious Carmody, sourced from Mountain View Jerseys’ milk just down the road.
This trip started out like many others: Gavin and me in a car, kind of groggy in the early morning, and trying to follow Google Maps navigation in rural areas where Google Maps doesn’t work very well. We passed by Carmody Road in Petaluma, California, after which its famous Carmody cheese is named. We knew we were at the right address when at one point we saw a shed sheltering dozens of sheep. Lenny Rice Moonsammy, director of Sales & Marketing at Bellwether Farms, greeted us, and led us through a tour of the facility. Actually, first she yelled at us (very nicely!) to move our car out of the way because a delivery truck had to move into the spot where we’d just parked.
I think what struck me the most when I walked into Bellwether Farms’ cheesemaking area was the size. Bellwether products, with their fine packaging, large variety, and big brand presence, are everywhere in the Bay Area, and yet, the cheesemaking area of the creamery is relatively small, maybe the size of a 2-bedroom, single level home. How Liam Callahan and his team of dedicated about 25 cheesemakers (some of them there for 10+years) craft so much fine product is a culmination of skill, dedication to the craft, and operational excellence. Each movement seems calculated for efficiency. As we walked through the make rooms, the cheesemakers completed their tasks silently. “They know each other so well, they can anticipate each other’s movements. They almost don’t need to speak to each other,” Lenny explained.
The other thing that struck me was how visible the company’s growth is. We began our visit in the original cheesemaking room, now a passageway between different cheesemaking areas. It was only about the size of a one-car garage. Since then, progressively, Bellwether Farms has added new rooms and equipment to satisfy its growing customer base. For instance, their new vat, where curds are coagulated, cut, and drained, comfortably fits Bellwether’s current needs, but can also probably accommodate up to twice the volume in case of growth. And seeing how Bellwether has been winning more and more hearts here and points east, I know growth is coming soon!
Lenny guided us past between the vat and the pasteurizing machines to the back of the first wing of the creamery, where ricotta is made. Two vats of whey were filled and heating. The sheep’s vat was just about ready, so we were able to see the cheesemakers hand scoop it all into small baskets. Next, we visited the ricotta cooling room where, immediately after cooling, the ricotta is sent to packaging. It is shipped as soon as possible so that the public can enjoy ricotta made that week. The ricotta cooling room is part of a group of cooling rooms for various cheeses—one for cow’s milk cheeses like Carmody, and one for the sheep cheeses. This is where the cheeses first go when they’re made before they head off to the main aging rooms.
Around this time, Liam Callahan, owner and head cheesemaker, stepped into the room and toward the vat. “You know it’s cheesemaking time when Liam comes into the room.” He and his cheesemakers cut the curds that had been developing in the vat, destined to turn into Carmody. An automatic turner agitated the curds along its length as humans made sure all was well. Cheesemakers were at one end of the vat, hooping the curds, then deftly flipping them in the molds several minutes later. The new cheeses will spend their early days in the cooling rooms (kind of like cheese nurseries), where they will be flipped and salted, and then move on to the cow’s milk aging room at the other side of the facility.
Ah, the aging rooms! There are several of them, mainly because aging sheep’s and cow’s milk cheeses require different environmental conditions. Because sheep’s milk contains more protein, more carbohydrates, more lipids than the same volume of cow’s milk, it needs to be handled differently thank cow’s milk cheeses. Believe me! The Bellwether team tried this and learned that lesson the long way.
Even at this end of the creamery, signs of Bellwether’s growth were readily apparent. Lenny shared that last year, they took on seasonal help as they normally do, but they were actually able to offer all of those seasonal workers year-round positions with the company. We took a peek inside the storage room where finished fresh cheeses go before being sent off. It was practically empty. Amazingly, Bellwether makes all of its cheese to order, so that every yogurt cup, every wheel, every ricotta basket, is already bought before it leaves the creamery. And cheesemaking happens here five days a week. That’s a lot of cheese! And that explains the motivation to make operations so efficient. There is simply no room for error with when so many clients are counting on Liam and his team!
In fact, Bellwether has just about outgrown its current facility, and is in the process of building a new creamery on the premises. It will be all-modern! But the best part for us, the adoring public? There will be an area open to visitors where they will be able to enjoy some casual eats (I hear there will be a pizza oven!), plenty of cheese, and take in the rich Sonoma countryside.
With that, we stepped over to the animal husbandry side of the operation. Bellwether Farm does have about 300 (East Friesian) sheep and six rams. They use as much of their own milk as possible, milking them twice a day, but to keep up with demand, they source sheep’s milk from neighbor Haverton Hill Sheep Dairy, and cow’s milk from Mountain View Jerseys, also just down the road.
If you come across any of Bellwether Farms’ products, be sure to snap them up. I usually do. There’s a lot to choose from: crème fraîche, fromage blanc (one of my favorites), crescenza, buttery, buttermilky Carmody, Tuscan-influenced ewe’s milk Pepato and San Andreas, sheep’s milk yogurts, and basket ricotta (made from both ewe’s milk and cow’s milk!).
At this point, Gavin and I didn’t want to bug Lenny any more, so we took our leave. Lenny gave us a handful of samples, so we were able to have a taste of strawberry and blueberry sheep’s milk yogurt right there on the farm. Maybe that made it taste better than enjoying it at home!
Thanks, Lenny, Liam, and the team for having us over!
If you want to keep up with more cheese-filled adventures, feel free to visit the Miss Cheesemonger blog! Miss Cheesemonger is also on Twitter as @msscheesemonger; Instagram as @misscheesemonger; and on Facebook as Miss Cheesemonger.