Small Business, Big Cheese

Mary Faulk Makes Magic With Sheep's Milk and Mold

Mary credits the various cheesemasters she has come to know through her travels. "I fell head over heels for the cheeses in Madeira, Spain," she says. "Those are the cheeses I first modeled ours after, especially when I experienced firsthand the similarities between our sheep. Spanish sheep eat only grass, no grain, and live in extreme climates like ours--hot, hot or really cold. I admired the passion and simplicity the Spanish cheesemakers brought to their work. When I got home, I determined to keep our sheep grazing for as long through the fall as possible. We realized the importance of developing a sheep that could not just survive, but would thrive in this region. Their milk is better because they're healthy, happy animals."

To this end, Dave and Mary established a hybrid flock. A cross between the Orange Dorset and Romney breeds, their Trade Lake sheep are sturdy and small and give very sweet milk. Relatively disease-resistant and able to withstand wild temperature swings, they graze happily until the snow flies, when their diet is augmented with organic grain.

(The Faulks are encouraging nearby farms to raise the Trade Lake sheep, advising other farmers on how to boost sheep-milk production, manage their pastures and equipment. And they are guaranteeing a market for the milk. "My agenda is to save the local family farms," says Mary.)

There is a season for sheep cheese: late July through September, when the milk is richest thanks to the animals' diet of lush grasses, clover, flowers, herbs, and berries. Unlike cow's milk, sheep's milk is lactose free; its fatty acids are different from cow's milk and may actually aid cholesterol metabolism. It is especially rich in calcium and phosphorus. And sheep give less of it. While a cow gives 8 to 20 quarts of milk per day, a sheep gives only 1 quart of milk a day (and less, if any, in the winter). Because it takes about 16 quarts of milk to make four to five pounds of cheese, it takes more sheep to make less cheese.

In addition, the farm's environment offers unique opportunities for aging the cheese. Dave's fresh-air caves siphon in a multitude of different pollens and the heavy "toolie fog" that blankets the area in the mornings, imbuing the cheese with the spicy, sweet flavors of the land. Mary has perfected a "dry cure," rubbing the cheese with a mix of salt and herbs, to season and encourage the development of a natural rind. She does not dip her cheeses in wax, choosing instead to allow them to continue to "breathe" and mature.

"There is a certain Zen to cheesemaking." Mary says. "I understand cheese and respond to it, listen, and try not to panic. This is a process. I just trust my palate and keep pushing the flavors until I have a cheese I want to eat."

You can get LoveTree Farmstead cheese at Whole Foods, topping off at $16.00 per pound (right up there with the imports), in season at the St. Paul Farmers Market for a little less, or via mail. (To order call 715-488-2966 or fax 715-488-3957.) The Faulks stopped selling through Lunds and Byerly's because "they price us out of the market," Mary says. "It's marked up to $20.00 per pound, more than what retailers sell it for in New York City. They aren't willing to cut their profit to support local farmers and it's one of the reasons our local growers and producers are in such trouble. At that price it sits on the shelves and goes bad."

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