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Mountain Home Magazine

The Alchemy of Farmstead Cheese

Jun 01, 2024 09:00AM ● By Caleb Williams

At the end of the day, it’s all cheese. And at the beginning of the day, it’s all cows and milk. What happens during the day—the alchemy of turning milk into cheese—is determined by bacterial cultures, temperatures, cooking times, and curing times, all gently guided by cheesemaker and new owner of Backroads Creamery in Ulster, Kirsten Feusner. The current Backroads menu of cheddar, feta, mozzarella, and flavored cheese curds all feature textures and tastes unique to this small-batch creamery. They are, emphatically, not like the cheeses produced by the ton in large factories.

At an early age, Kirsten knew she wanted to work in the agriculture sector. Having come up through the 4-H program as a youngster, she had been showing cattle for several years at all the fairs and shows, and one of her Jersey cows won a Grand Championship Premier Junior in Pennsylvania. The next step was the regional show, competing against other state champions. No sooner had Kirsten arrived at that highly competitive regional show than an astute cattleman from California bought her Jersey cow—right off the trailer—for a significant amount of money by any standard: over thirty thousand dollars. The cow went on to win a Grand Championship award at that show. This was right before covid, and that transaction led to several years of Kirsten working with that buyer and trucking high-value cattle to fairs and shows all over the United States. It was during one of these trips that she had her first exposure to farmstead milk processing. She was at a farm in Connecticut that processed its own milk. Her thought at the time was, “Hey! This is pretty cool!” She was soon enrolled in and earning a bachelor’s degree from Penn State’s online course in agricultural business, which, she says, is the foundation for all her subsequent success.

It was at a cattle show when Kirsten met Amanda Kennedy, who had inaugurated the Backroads Creamery Cheese brand, and who approached Kirsten about buying her business. After a couple month’s apprenticeship, the equipment was moved to Kirsten’s newly built processing room, located on the other side of the milk house wall in her mother’s milking parlor. Kirsten began making her own cheese in July of 2023.

She buys all the milk for processing from her mother, Denise Feusner, who had started her dairy farm in its present location in 2016. Kirsten buys about 25 percent of the farm’s total milk production to process, at a price above the market. The dairy herd of thirty cows is mostly Jerseys, with just a couple Ayrshire and red and white Holsteins mixed in. Denise and Kirsten like to keep the herd small, since their animal husbandry goals emphasize a close personal relationship to, and the health of, the individual animals, whereas a larger herd would not allow the kind of care the family seeks to provide.

Most cheese is made from the coagulated casein proteins of milk. Kirsten starts her day by pasteurizing the milk that she will make into a finished product. She uses the long form of pasteurization, which does not heat the milk to as high a temperature as “flash” pasteurization. Once the milk is cooled to cheese processing temperature, a strain of lactic acid bacteria is added to digest the milk sugars into lactic acid, which creates the possibility for long term storage—it is akin to “pickling” the milk. The ingredient that is crucial to the cheese making process is the rennet, an enzyme that coagulates the milk proteins into a solid in about fifteen minutes. Using knives that are sharp on one side, and dull on the other, attached to the concentric stirring apparatus of the cheese vat, Kirsten cuts the curd to form the “curds and whey” that made Little Miss Muffet so famous in the nursery rhyme we all learned as children. The size of the curds and length of time that they are cooked in the whey determines the moisture content of the cheese, which in turn determines how long the finished cheese can be cured before consumption. The feta cheese that Kirsten makes is the most moist, using large cheese curds that are barely cooked to expel moisture. The cheddar curds are not only cut smaller and cooked longer, they are also allowed to form a solid mat that is then run through a “cheddar mill.” This device re-cuts them before adding flavorings to be sold as fresh curd, or put in a cheese form to be pressed into blocks for long term curing of up to nine months for sharp cheddar.

When asked what appealed to her about the idea of farmstead cheese making, Kirsten says that, first of all, she loves working with the cows. On-farm processing allows for the possibility of adding value to the milk the farm produces. And, she continues, there is great satisfaction in the knowledge that she is feeding her neighborhood. Plus, since the milk of Jersey cows is richer than the milk of most commercial dairy farms, the cheese produced here in the farmstead tradition has a richer flavor.

It’s one thing to talk about it, but the taste is worth a thousand words.

Backroads Creamery products can be found in local grocery stores, markets, and restaurants, online thru the Delivered Fresh website, or directly at the farm located at 2590 Codding Road, Ulster.

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