Monday, November 18, 2019
Can You Say Sheep Cheese?
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Kendall Russell has been making small handcrafted batches of artisanal cheeses free of GMOS and pesticides since 2010.
 
Friday, October 11, 2019
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

Kendall Russell thought he’d follow in his father into dentistry. But a white elephant gift at a Christmas party—a cheesemaking kit—changed that.

Rather than regift the gift the following Christmas, Russell tried it out, employing his background in microbiology and chemistry to experiment with various bacterial starter cultures.

And, when his in-laws bought a sheep farm in the backyard of the Grand Tetons, he jumped at the chance to head it up.

 
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Sydney Darling carries out samples of sheep cheese, one of the fastest growing cheese types in the nation.
 

“They asked whether they should use goat or cow milk. “I said sheep milk—there weren’t that many people making sheep cheese,” said Russell, who now sells his artisanal cheese coast to coast in cities like  Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, D.C., New York City, Denver and Dallas.

Russell, whose Lark’s Meadow Farm sits near Rexburg, introduced participants in the Trailing of the Sheep Festival to the lesser known aspect of sheep—that of sheep cheese—during a cheesemaking class  Thursday morning.

He introduced them to samples of his cheese, including Dulcinea, a hard sharp cheese similar to that made in the Pyrenees that has won national awards from the American Cheese Society, as well as regional awards from the Idaho Milk Production Society.

He talked about the chemistry behind the cheeses, which he will sell this weekend at the Sheep Folklife Fair in Roberta McKercher Park and at the Sheepdog Trials on Quigley Farm. And he shared tips for cheesemaking as he had students make a giant pot of ricotta cheese and a few dozen lemon ricotta cookies.

 
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Kendall Russell added cardamom flavoring to this yogurt before it set overnight.
 

It’s simple to make cheese, he acknowledged. It has been for 8,000 years--ever since sheep were first domesticated and milk that was stored and carried in their leak-proof stomachs accidentally curdled.

Cheese is one of the few things in the world where you start with milk and end up with a very different product, he added.

“Chicken is always recognized as chicken. Same with beef. But not cheese. Civilizations that made progress were the ones with milk. Without milk, the Roman Empire wouldn’t have been what it was.”

Cheese that comes from animals that have been fed on pastureland contains all kinds of things that are good for your ticker, said Russell, tapping his heart with his fist.

 
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Amy Matthias, Jennifer Stahl and other class members taste the yogurt, which Kendall Russell created overnight with milk and yogurt in the Maverik container.
 

“When we feed cows corn in a feed lot, it’s like feeding us high fructose corn syrup—not the best for the milk or the cheese,” he said as he put in a plug for supporting farmers and ranchers who offer quality over quantity. “We get to vote every day of the year with our pocketbook. At the end of the day we support the things we really believe in.”

Most of cheese samples he offered, he said, cost $38 to $40 a pound to make by the time you include the farm mortgage and how much it costs to run the tractor, he said.

But Russell said he will never complain about the long hours that involve milking sheep twice a day, getting a half-gallon per ewe each day versus the eight gallons farmers get per cow, after spending part of his youth in Panama where his father served as a military dentist.

“I saw kids who lived in shanties crawling under the fence to get food form our dumpster so my problems on the farm nothing to that.”

 
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Kendall Russell spooned some of his ricotta cheese on toast.
 

The drier the cheese the longer it keeps, said Russell, who is assisted on the farm by his wife, five children and interns from the nearby college. Parmesan cheese, for instance, can keep as long as five years.

The yellow color indicates the cows or sheep ate grass, taking in beta carotene.

The bacteria in the forbs and alfalfa sheep graze on produce subtle flavor complexities, Russell said.

“The reason Swiss cheese tastes like Swiss cheese is because of certain cultures in that area. Modern-day biology has captured and recreated the flavor in a lab. Now, if you want to make cheddar cheese, you just add freeze dried cultures to it.”

You can also taste the seasonality in cheese, Russell said.

In Normandy, for instance, cheese has traditionally been made one time a year. The rest of the year, the milk produced there was used for butter.

Russell held up a slice of his own cheese.

“This gets pale in when I make it in the winter. There’s nothing wrong. It’s just a different profile. In spring, the cheese will take on subtle taste differences due to the wildflowers and herbs the sheep are grazing.”

Bleu cheese was accidentally created when someone left some cheese wrapped in rye bread for a few days and discovered blue mold on the bread had gotten on the cheese.

“Mold breaks down the fat, creating sharp flavors. The blue part is softer than the rest of the cheese. But any mold that grows on cheese won’t hurt you,” Russell said.

Under Russell’s tutelage class members poured six gallons of whole milk into big vat and heated the milk  to 180 degrees. They added some salt and some lemon juice. Then they turned the heat off, put a lid on and let the milk sit for 20 minutes as it curdled into ricotta cheese.

Sour cream is just as easy to make, Russell said. Add a few tablespoons of sour cream or yogurt culture to milk and put it on the top of the refrigerator, covered, for two to three days. The longer you dare leave it, the nuttier the flavor.

He picked up a large Maverik drink container, which he described as a $10 yogurt maker.

“Yogurt is cheese. It just hasn’t been drained yet. And it has zero lactose, making it amenable to those with lactose intolerant,” he added.

Cheese is such an ancient food it’s hard to be original. But that hasn’t prevented Russell from experimenting. He creates four or five experimental cheeses a year, adding nutmeg to the milk or, for instance, using thistle rennet, which historically has been made only in Spain and Portugal.

“I’m an artist. I don’t paint the same painting every year. I even aged one 14 years just to see how it would end up. It’s hard as a volcano rock. But grate it on salad and it brings tears to your eyes it’s so good. I tell myself I should make some more but I don’t want to wait another 14 years.”

One of the best ways to learn to make cheese is to go to a website such as Cheeseform or New England cheesemaking, Russell said.

“Little secrets make a difference. The more you read, the more you pick up.”

 

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