Friday, August 14, 2009

Making Cheese with Brenda Jensen

Cheesemaker Brenda Jensen is the kind of person you like more the longer you know her. Passionate, innovative and dedicated to growing Wisconsin's sheep dairy industry, Brenda is a world-changer.

She's my kind of gal.

I had the utmost honor to spend two days with her and her husband, Dean, this past week, learning more about their sheep dairy farm and creamery in the heart of Amish country in western Wisconsin near Westby. (The Jensens just added a guest bed & breakfast suite to their farmhouse, which they plan to make available to people who want to stay overnight, see the farm, and milk sheep or help make cheese).

In addition to being sustainable land stewards in their farming practices, as well as heightening the reputation of Wisconsin quality cheeses (Hidden Springs just won 8 awards at the 2009 American Cheese Society for fresh and aged sheep's milk cheeses), the Jensens act as THE local liaison between the area's growing Amish population and the rest of the county's residents.

Over dinner Wednesday night, I learned they've taken countless Amish women to the hospital to have babies, transported many an Amish broken bone to the local doctor, and even spent hours making pancakes for out-of-town Amish families that magically appear at their neighbor's farm for weddings and funerals, expecting to be fed. Most people would look on these duties as burdens, but the Jensens don't - they know they have the honor of being asked by the Amish to do these things for them. It's hard to garner the trust of an Amish farmer, but the Jensens have done it.

Being part of the Amish community has also helped the Jensens. Each morning and night, Amish neighbor John Henry and his 5-year-old daughter, Lydia Ann, walk to the Jensens to do the morning and night milking. Little Lydia Ann runs barefoot out to the pasture to fetch the sheep while John Henry sets up for milking inside the parlor. No bigger than the sheep she is rounding up, Lydia Ann does an amazing job -- I caught a picture of her as she walked back to the parlor Wednesday night, trying to respect the Amish custom of not taking pictures of their faces.

In the morning, I got the chance to see John Henry's farm, as I rode with Dean to pick up milk for morning cheesemaking (Brenda buys sheep milk from John Henry to supplement her own herd's production). Dean piled a half dozen stainless steel cans in the back of the pickup and we drove about 1/4 mile to John Henry's farm, where his wife and six children were finishing the morning milking. We (and by we, I mean Dean and John's oldest son) loaded100-pound cans of milk onto the pickup and we were off. Then it was back to Dean & Brenda's creamery to transport their milk from the parlor in stainless steel cans to the creamery, about 40 feet away.

This trip was special, as my daughter, Avery, decided to come along. Turns out she's a pretty amazing apprentice cheesemaker. While we were waiting for the milk to heat up in Brenda's micro 200-gallon vat, Avery helped do all of the milk testing and then helped measure the cultures and mix the rennet. We were making a batch of Ocooch Mountain, an aged sheep milk cheese that just won a second place in its class at ACS.

The first few hours of cheesemaking consists of a lot of waiting around for milk to heat, cultures to work, and rennet to set. To keep us busy (and to keep Avery awake), Brenda had us wash and flip cheeses in her cave until it was time to cut the curd. Then we all took turns using the knives to swoop through the pudding-like curd mass, breaking it up into chunks of curds and whey. (I attempted to relate this process to Avery via the "Little Miss Muffet" nursery rhyme, -- "Little Miss Muffet sat on her tuffet, eating her curds and whey" -- but alas, was greeted only with an eye roll from my soon-to-be-teenager. Oh well, I tried.)

After a 10-minute "healing" period for the curd, we all got elbow deep in the vat, scooping and breaking up curd by hand as the paddles slowly made their way from one end to the other. Here's a short video of Avery getting her hands into the curds and whey for the first time in her life (she at first thought it was slimy, but after a couple of seconds, really got into it):

From here on out, cheesemaking is pretty exciting. After pressing the curd under the whey, it was time to drain it, cut the curd mass into squares and then squish curd into 3-1/2 pound forms. It took us about an hour to fill more than 60 cheese forms, weigh each one to make sure it was exactly 3-1/2 pounds, and then top, flip, and put them on the press. Here's a video of that process:

After another 30-minute wait, then it was time to release the weights, flip the cheeses inside the forms once more, and then put the rounds back into the press, where they were pressed overnight. (As a write this, Brenda is probably taking the final product from the forms and salting the rounds -- bummer that we're not there!).

Making cheese with people like Brenda reminds me of how amazing it really is that a big tub of milk can be transformed into cheese in less than 8 hours. Very cool. Thanks, Brenda & Dean for a great couple of days. I'll send Avery your way in a few years for her apprentice cheesemaker hours. :)

2 comments:

Lo said...

Absolutely fascinating!
I'm intrigued, primarily, by the idea that they live with the Amish. What fantastic synergy!

I think Brenda is my new hero too!

Dan said...

That looks absolutely fun. And it's great to hear about the ties the bind the Wisconsin countryside.