I first met Jeff & Vicki Simpkins four years ago, when they drove to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture in a snowstorm to discuss blueprints for a farmstead cheese factory they intended to build on their land near St. Croix Falls, Wis. They were both working in the medical field and had plans to retire, live off the land, milk some sheep and make some cheese.
Sounds idyllic, doesn't it?
But, life has a way of throwing us curve balls, and through no fault of their own, the Simpkins hit a few snags in their grand plan. Today, however, I am ecstatic to report the Simpkins are milking 66 sheep with plans to expand to 100 next year, Vicky has earned her cheesemaker's license, the farmstead creamery is built and up and running, the cheese aging cave is operational, and Shepherd's Ridge Creamery is making cheese.
And not just any cheese, but an amazing sheep's milk cheese called Oliver's Reserve.
Named after Vicki's grandfather, Oliver Olson, an award-winning Wisconsin cheesemaker who ran his own factory called Poplar Lake for years (her father was also a Wisconsin cheesemaker), Oliver's Reserve is a sheep's milk Asiago, crafted by Vicki in 10-pound wheels and aged for four months.
How did I come to taste this mythical cheese, a cheese four years in the making, you ask? It was handed to me today in an unmarked brown paper sack by a friend who discovered it at the Wisconsin Sheep & Wool Festival in Jefferson over the weekend. A fellow cheese geek, she snagged a slice, put it in a ziploc baggie, put it in her fridge, and surprised me with it today at lunch.
I felt like I had just won the lottery. Even in non-pristine condition, this cheese is amazing. AMAZING. (Keep in mind that by the time I tried it, it had undergone several changes in temperature, a couple episodes of wrapping and re-wrapping and was not in what I would describe as stellar shape. But even through all that, this cheese was buttery, rich, nutty and boasted a fresh, clean finish. Complete keeper.
When I called Vicki tonight to rave about her cheese and encourage her to find a retail outlet (she has a few wheels that will be ready in 30 days), she sounded surprised. I guess after four years of learning to milk sheep, making different test batches of cheese, and tinkering with humidity levels in a self-built aging cave, she's learned not to get her hopes up too high.
But Jeff and Vicki deserve to celebrate. Oliver's Reserve is going to put Shepherd's Ridge Creamery and another Wisconsin farmstead woman cheesemaker on the map. Just you wait and see.