The dairy down the road

Rhonda Headon makes local sheep’s cheese at the Cheesiry in Kitscoty.

The first thing you notice traveling around eastern Tuscany is the storybook landscape — medieval hill towns standing sentinel over tall columns of cypress marching up hill and down dale amidst rows of orderly vines. The next thing you notice is sheep, lots of sheep, dotting every available hillside.

Small rounds of creamy, semi-hard pecorino (sheep’s cheese) are as ubiquitous as Chianti in these parts. It’s in pasta, on pizza, in a panini, eaten for a snack with a bit of tomato or fruit. It is the everyday cheese of the area. Some have achieved PDO (E.U. certification of unique qualities) status but most of the pecorino eaten here is made by hand, and it’s from the dairy down the road.

It’s a landscape that captivated Rhonda Headon on her first trip to Italy. The idea that you could make cheese, using milk from your own sheep and sell it to your neighbours — that you could be the dairy down the road, captivated her next.

“I celebrated my 30th birthday in Italy, and I visited a farm near Pienza,” says Rhonda. “It was a beautiful location and they did so many things themselves: wine, a certain breed of local pig, olives and their cheese. They had a campsite and people came for dinner. It was an agriturismo, intriguing to me. Their cheese was just for the local area. They were milking about 100 sheep. I brought Brian (we weren’t married yet) to visit. Then I came with my mom.

“I came back and worked for room and board, for six weeks, working with an Austrian cheese maker for two weeks. Then I was on my own to make the cheese. I spent my time in the aging rooms, washing the cheese, daydreaming something like this.

“When I came back, people would say ‘what are you going to do now?’ I would jokingly say, ‘I’m going to make cheese.’

“So I did.

“It made sense. Brian’s family had a dairy farm until 1997. We still had 24 stalls for milking and all the infrastructure and knowledge. We renovated the barn for sheep, then brought sheep from southern Alberta. Our sheep are an East Friesen cross, which are the Holstein of sheep, good milk producers.

“They spend all year on grass. We have three 30-acre pastures and rotate on mixed grass and alfalfa. Hedge Haven (Brian’s family farm)cattle also graze here.”

It looks more like Ireland than Tuscany the day Café de Ville’s chef Tracy Zizek and I drive out to Kiscoty in the pouring rain. Fields and pastures are every shade of green found in nature. Rhonda usually requires several days milk for a batch, but with the spring rains they are making cheese almost every day. As the summer comes and goes, this slows to two batches a week until late fall when cheese making stops completely. Then it’s time to breed the sheep.

Rhonda and her assistant Alyssa Belter spend two days on each batch — heating the milk, adding culture, adjusting with rennet, cooking the milk, drawing the harp through the curd to break it up and loosen the whey, then moving it all to the incubator where they will spend several hours filling molds and squeezing out the whey.

Moving the harp through the setting milk to release the whey.

“We flip the molds every 15 minutes, to keep a good shape,” says Rhonda. “We’ll come back twice tonight to flip again, then next morning they go into a brine bath.

“After we finish here, they go into the aging room for two weeks. We’ll wash and flip two times per week. Then we’ll move to the big aging room where they will be flipped and washed every two weeks until the two month stage (cheese made from raw milk cannot be sold until it is two months old). We’re the only raw milk cheese in the province, at this time.”

The spotless room smells fresh, like sweet milk. Alyssa and Rhonda concentrate on every pull of the harp, checking the curd, the temperature. When it’s time to move to the next stage, the two muscle the incubator, essentially, a large stainless steel vat made by the local Hutterites, to its position on the floor.

It’s grueling, physically demanding work, yet strangely contemplative. Each batch determines it’s own timing, not by the clock but by the milk. The rhythm in the cheese room echoes the rhythm of the seasons.

The Cheesiry also offers a soft fresh cheese called Fresco, in plain and garlic chive flavours. “We pasturize the fresh milk, then add culture and rennet. We let it sit overnight to let the cultures grow to get the right texture, then salt and package. It keeps for two to three weeks.

The young La Bianca. is a surface-mold ripened cheese, only available in summer/fall at Paddy’s. “It has an edible rind and a rich and creamy inside, like Camembert, younger and softer with rich flavours.

“Our aged cheese is the Tuscan-style pecorino which is not like the hard Pecorino Romano, which most — chefs especially — are familiar with.

Squeezing whey out of the curds to form cheese.

Rhonda’s cheese has a delicate grassy floral flavour complimented by a pleasantly earthy undertone. Try a wedge with wine, use with any pasta dish, or on a cheese board. “Our cheese has really great flavour for pizza,” says Rhonda.

Cheese making is finished for the year, and Alyssa has gone back to the coast, working again at Farmhouse Cheese in Agassiz. Rhonda is accepting applications for 2013 assistants. Be prepared to work extremely hard, and be governed by the rhythm of the milk.

Find Rhonda’s hand-made cheese at Paddy’s Cheese, Everything Cheese, Blush Lane, The Good Food Box, Janice Beaton Cheese Shop in Calgary, and at several restaurants including the Bothy and Café de Ville.

— Mary Bailey

Mary Bailey likes La Bianca with fettucini and black pepper.