Rachel Fritz Schaal makes it her business to fight for the little guy—namely, microbes. “I can go hard here,” she says, when asked to explain the merits of native dairy cultures, “so I’ll back off.” Schaal, along with her husband, Peter Dixon, and sister, Alex Schaal, is co-owner of Parish Hill Creamery in Westminster West, Vermont. Their claim to cheesemaking fame is their exclusive use of homegrown cultures—Parish Hill Creamery propagates autochthonous clabber cultures, to be exact. One of the four pillars of cheesemaking (in addition to milk, salt, and coagulating agents), cultures literally bring cheese to life. The bacteria, yeasts, and molds used to curdle milk into cheese are readily available to home cheesemakers and professionals alike, commercially produced by a handful of biotech companies and deemed food-safe by the FDA. But some small-scale producers like Parish Hill Creamery are pushing back against industry-wide homogenization by cultivating their own microbial menageries at home; as Schaal says, “I think it makes it harder to [justify selling] a really expensive piece of cheese if, in the end, you’re just doing the same dang thing that the big guys are doing.
Fighting the good fight takes the right equipment. We asked Schaal to name some of her essentials, the can’t-live-without-’em items that bring her joy and make this “the best job I’ve ever had.”
“I love Parish Hill Creamery and I love what we do, but what thrills me to no end is working with other cheesemakers and encouraging people to go backwards, to really look to traditional methods. Look at what they were doing, look at the resources they had on hand, and really try to make the most of those.”
“I love cookbooks, but I love them as literature. I’m really terrible at following recipes, but I love to read them. All those Ottolenghi cookbooks are so divine. I love a cookbook that’s full of stories.”
C. VAN ’T RIET CHEESE PLANES
“I’m particularly fond of cheese planes because, especially with real hard cheeses…it’s so nice to be able to get that super-thin slice so you can pop it in your mouth and it just melts.”
“It’s all about the cultures. The very thing that I am most passionate about now is the thing that I doubted the most. And now, I truly believe that the flavors, the intensity, the breadth and depth of flavor that we achieve in our cheeses, are directly correlated to our cultures.
BOSKA PROFESSIONAL WOODEN HANDLE DUTCH CHEESE KNIFE
“Peter has a Dutch knife that he was given as a gift from Boska because he was [a Cheese Heroes] calendar boy a few years back. And we use that thing at least every week because we make these big, giant, hard cheeses, so cutting with a regular knife is bullshit.”
VERMONT CHEESEMAKERS FESTIVAL CHEESE TASTING “GO BAG”
“I have these insulated bags, like a lunch bag, but it’s big enough that I can put a little cutting board in it, and then a couple wedges of cheese, and a knife, and a little cheese plane. You’ve got your little guerilla tasting session right there.”