These Couples Have a Passion for Cheese and Each Other | culture: the word on cheese
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These Couples Have a Passion for Cheese and Each Other

Is there anything sweeter than a couple who makes delicious cheese together? With Valentine’s Day in mind, we asked four cheesemaker couples across the U.S. to share their love stories, including how, where, and when they met. As co-business owners these hardworking teams divide and conquer, focusing on the tasks that suit them best, all built around a passion for cheese.

Mike Koch (left) and Pablo Solanet

FireFly Farms | Accident Maryland

American Cheese Society president Mike Koch met his future husband, Pablo Solanet, in 1995—in a bar. They were both working in Washington D.C. “I was in the middle of a soul-sucking corporate career and Pablo was a chef,” Koch recalls. “One of the things we bonded on was food and a love for farming.” For Koch, that meant summers at his grandfather’s Iowa farm while Solanet grew up on a farm in Argentina.

Two years later, they snapped up a 130-acre farm in western Maryland. At first, the pastoral setting merely offered a lifestyle switch from the busy city. But after milking the neighbor’s daughter’s goats, they experimented with making goat cheese, and soon, FireFly Farms was born. While they grew their goat herd from 30 to 450, the couple no longer keeps and milks goats. Now they work with local farmers to make their cow’s and goat’s milk cheeses—including many multiple award winners. “We source fresh milk from 17 family farms,” says Koch. “This is my source of pride.”

Solanet handles the culinary and hospitality side of their creamery—they also manage two FireFly Farms retail markets, including one in Baltimore’s Mill District—while Koch enjoys tinkering with spreadsheets and tracking numbers. FireFly Farms celebrated its twentieth anniversary in 2022.

Rachel Fritz Schaal (left) and Peter Dixon

Parish Hill Creamery | Putney, Vermont

With love, it’s all about timing. And when Rachel Fritz Schaal and Peter Dixon first met in 2009, sparks were definitely there—but neither made a move. “I thought he was taken so I didn’t say anything and he didn’t say anything,” says Fritz Schaal, who was working for the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. Dixon was hosting an advanced cheese-making workshop.

“Six weeks later, I received a handwritten letter he had written by oil lamp at an Amish farm,” says Fritz Schaal. Among the letter’s contents were these two statements: he was no longer with his then-wife and he thought he was in love with Fritz Schaal. Their first date was on Halloween and shortly after she moved to Vermont, where she worked for the Vermont Cheese Council for four years. In 2013 they made their first cheese together.

The raw milk for Parish Hill’s celebrated cheeses comes from Elm Lea Farm at The Putney School five miles from the creamery, and all of their cultures are derived from the same milk. “We both make cheese,” says Fritz Schaal. “I do the bookkeeping and the marketing, and he does the milk hauling. I make the smaller cheeses. He makes the larger cheeses. We work together on some cheeses but there’s no way in hell I’m making a 40-pound wheel.” She and Dixon do things their own way, but are also highly collaborative. Cornerstone, a now-iconic cheese originally produced in 2016 as a joint project with Cato Corner Farm and Birchrun Hills Farm (all three creameries made the same cheese to explore the impact of terroir), won a Gold at the 2022 World Cheese Awards.

Sheila Flanagan (left) and Lorraine Lambiase

Nettle Meadow Cheese Company & The Kemp Animal Sanctuary | Lake Luzerne, New York

It took a career change and cross-country move for Sheila Flanagan and Lorraine Lambiase to find bliss in life and as a couple. They met 25 years ago in the San Francisco Bay Area. “I was practicing corporate law and she was a legal secretary,” says Flanagan. “We both had a love for animals, and not so much the legal profession. We could not afford any of the farms on the West Coast, so we decided to come back to the East Coast, where we’re both from.”

In 2005 they found their dream property in New York. They updated the buildings, retired the resident goats, and turned the place into an animal sanctuary and creamery. Now, small family-owned farms provide the milk for their cheeses, including the wildly popular Kunik, a goat’s milk and cow’s cream bloomy rind Esquire dubbed “the sexiest cheese in the USA” in 2010. A thousand people visit the farm every year to see 150 or so animals, including horses and llamas.

Although happy to have left a legal career behind, “we didn’t realize it was going to be twice as much work,” says Flanagan. The couple used to deliver cheese in their Honda Element throughout New York and Boston but now contract 20 distributors around the country Forty-three employees and four cheesemakers are on staff. Flanagan enjoys running the Hitching Post (their tavern-style restaurant) and supervising cheese production while Lambiase handles farm labor and paperwork.

Leslie Cooperband (left) and Wes Jerrell

Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery | Champaign, Illinois

A big part of making cheese is science, which is also how Leslie Cooperband and Wes Jarrell met—as University of Wisconsin, Madison soil-science professors. When they moved to Central Illinois it wasn’t to make cheese, but for Jarrell’s new job at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. “It got us thinking about having our own farm (five miles outside of town),” says Cooperband, adding that she doesn’t think soil and cheese are all that different. “They’re both microbial-driven processes. I was smitten by cheeses and wanted to understand how to make them.”

When they launched Prairie Fruits in 2003, it was Illinois’ first farmstead goat cheesemaking facility. Cooperband now works at the creamery full-time, and is more involved with production, while Jarrell handles big-picture operational matters, but is still committed to studying soil. “Climate-friendly animal husbandry practices is his passion,” says Cooperband. Their cheeses—including the 2022 American Cheese Society Gold Medal winner Fleur de la Prairie—are sold through their website and wholesale throughout Illinois, along with select shops like The Bloomy Rind in Nashville and Rubiner’s in Western Massachusetts.

Kristine Hansen

Based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Kristine Hansen is author of Wisconsin Cheese Cookbook: Creamy, Cheesy, Sweet, and Savory Recipes from the State's Best Creameries (Globe Pequot Press, 2019) and covers food and travel for outlets that include Milwaukee Magazine and the websites for Architectural Digest and Travel + Leisure.

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