Planet Cheese is a weekly blog devoted to everything cheese: products, people, places, news, and views. James Beard Award–winning journalist Janet Fletcher writes Planet Cheese from her home in Napa Valley. Janet is the author of Cheese & Wine, Cheese & Beer, and The Cheese Course and an occasional contributor to culture. Visit janetfletcher.com to sign up for Planet Cheese and view Janet’s current schedule of cheese appreciation classes.
Fresh, spreadable goat cheeses are a dime a dozen. But a little tub of lemony sheep cheese that tastes like the most delicate cream cheese ever? Well, that’s something to get excited about. With Danish rye and radishes…or bagels and lox…you will quickly be scraping the bottom of the tub.
Green Dirt Farm’s fresh sheep cheese is about the simplest sort of cheese one can make. The pasteurized milk is cultured and left to ferment overnight. The acidity slowly builds, a tiny bit of rennet helps things along and eventually there’s curd. As gently as possible, the curd is scooped into bags, hung up to drain for eight hours, then salted and packed. Ta-da. The date stamped on the bottom of the tub is 60 days from the make day, and the fresher the better.
I sampled a month-old tub recently and it had a bright, clean, cultured flavor with no sheepy aftertaste. The texture was tender and less dense than most fresh chèvres, lighter and less sticky than cream cheese. The only other time I have tried it, it was fluffier, so probably younger. Keep an eye on that date stamp. The creamery makes flavored versions—one with nettles and garlic, another with chilies—but give me the plain.
Like so many American sheep dairies, Green Dirt Farms has struggled to thrive, but this year the owners have a promising new strategy. They are attempting to shift their 120 ewes to July lambing, instead of having the usual baby boom in late winter to spring. If it works—and so far, so good—the creamery will have fresh sheep’s milk in the fall, in time to meet the holiday demand for cheese.
“About 40 percent of artisan cheese sales happen in November and December,” says Sarah Hoffman, co-owner of this Weston, Missouri, farm. “That’s when we have only hard cheese to sell and low or no inventory on fresh cheese.”
Hoffman’s breakthrough idea was to partner with some other sheep farms in the area. They will provide her with spring and summer milk, until the Green Dirt Farm ewes, their lambs weaned, report to the milking parlor in the fall. The objective is to have a milk supply year-round, which could finally make the business pencil out.
Hoffman and her husband, John Spertus, met as medical students in San Francisco many years ago. They moved to rural Missouri in 1996 to raise their young children on a farm. Hoffman no longer practices medicine—she was an internist—but Spertus, a cardiologist, still does. (Let’s hear it for cheese-loving cardiologists.) Alas, their land wasn’t suited to farming row crops, so they turned to sheep and Hoffman began teaching herself to make cheese.
Mistakes were made, including trying to improve their flock by cross-breeding with a hardier non-dairy breed. “That was quixotic,” admits Hoffman. “You really have to milk dairy sheep.”
Making beer-washed cheese in the same facility as yogurt also proved unwise. The beer yeast invaded the yogurt and shortened its shelf life, so they have had to suspend yogurt production until they can segregate it.
Getting ewes and rams to do their thing in the “off season” requires a rather complicated dating ritual, but the method is natural and it’s working. If Hoffman succeeds with this novel approach, it could be a model for other sheep farms wrestling with the bottom line.
In Northern California, look for Green Dirt Farm fresh sheep cheese at Star Grocery (Berkeley); Freestone Artisan Cheese (Freestone); SHED and Dry Creek General Store (Healdsburg); Woodlands Market (Kentfield); Mill Valley Market (Mill Valley); Market Hall Foods and Sacred Wheel (Oakland); Cowgirl Creamery (Point Reyes Station); Driver’s Market (Sausalito); Sacramento Natural Foods (Sacramento); and Bi-Rite Market, Cowgirl Creamery, Gus’s Community Market, Other Avenues, Say Cheese, and William Cross Wine Merchants (San Francisco). Or buy online at www.greendirtfarm.com.