Today we stop by Valley Shepherd Creamery, the Park Slope shop owned and operated by a dairy farm and cheese making outfit in Long Valley, New Jersey, only a short hour and a half west of Brooklyn, but a world apart…For most of us anyway. Manager Samantha Safer has the best of both, splitting her time between the farm and the shop. These days, she’s loving the Somerset, an alpine-style cheese made with the distinctively rich, yellow milk from the farm’s pastured Guernsey cows.
OK Samantha, what’s good today?
We’re mostly known for our sheep milk cheeses, but we just got a wheel of our Somerset in the other day, and it’s a really great cows’ milk cheese. The farm owner, Eran Wajswol, makes this cheese himself. It’s kind of his obsession these days. He went out of his way to purchase a bunch of Guernsey cows, just to make this cheese.
Guernseys used to be very popular in the Northeast because of their rich, yellow, fatty milk, but like in most places, they’ve been almost entirely replaced by Holsteins, which produce a higher volume of milk that’s not quite as fatty and creamy.
This cheese, the Somerset, is based on a traditional European alpine style. It’s aged for a year, and it’s got a really beautiful nutty, flowery, grassy flavor, and a little crunch from these little crystals that form in the cheese as it ages. It’s really great on its own, or melted on a sandwich or in a fondue, or any way, really.
Alpine style cheeses are traditionally made in really big wheels, and we do ours that way too. Each wheel is between forty five and fifty five pounds. Every time we make this cheese we start with a batch of thirteen hundred pounds of milk from the Guernseys. Out of that we get four wheels of cheese. So from thirteen hundred pounds of milk we get just under two hundred pounds of Somerset.
When you make the cheese, you start with the milk and you add cultures and rennet and it starts to solidify. You then keep removing more and more moisture from the curds until they’re dry enough to go into the cave to begin aging. You remove less moisture for creamier cheeses, and more for harder cheeses. The Somerset is a pretty firm cheese, so a lot of the moisture has to come out of the curd. Eran engineered a special press just for this cheese. It’s this elaborate device that presses the cheese against a teak board for hours to dry it out until it’s ready for aging.
This wheel just came out of the cave at the farm on Saturday. We cut it today. It smells so good.
Can you tell us a little about the farm and how you make the cheese?
Sure. The farm is in Long Valley, New Jersey, about an hour and a half west of here. It’s a very hilly area. Right when you pull into the farm, you see the farm office and shop, and some hoop houses for pregnant or nursing sheep, or sick ones that have been pulled out of the herd for whatever reason.
The sheep and goats live up in the hills. They’re moved around to fresh pasture whenever they need it, and they’re brought down to the milking parlor for milking twice a day, at five in the morning and five in the afternoon. See that screen on the wall behind you?
We had a live video feed of the afternoon milking set up for a while. We’d just turn the thing on and show the milking happening live at the farm. It’s not working right now, but it’ll be back.
So the animals are milked in the milking parlor, and the milk is pumped directly into the cheese making room, where we make cheese every day. The cheese is pressed overnight in the pressing room, and is moved to the caves the next day.
The caves where we age the cheese are up in the hills too. They were actually built into one of the hillsides. Eran literally blasted the caves out of the ground under one of the hills on the farm. Our caves are at capacity right now, so we can’t make any more cheese than we are making now until we build new caves. We have specific caves for specific cheeses. There are just rows and rows of cheeses aging in each cave inside this big hill. Some cheeses need a little more humidity and warmth, others need less. But each has to age at very specific temperature and humidity in order to come out just right.
The Guernseys, actually, are grazed and milked at a neighboring cow dairy farm. We already have sheep and goats, and there’s no way we can milk cows as well right now, because each animal requires different milking equipment. It would be difficult for us to purchase and install everything we’d need to milk the cows and to find space for it along with the milking equipment for the sheep and goats, so it just makes sense to have the neighbors, who already have everything we’d need set up, just do it for us.
We’re actually about to start raising hogs as well. Hogs love whey, which is the liquid byproduct you get when you’re gathering the curds and pressing the moisture out of the cheese before putting it into the cave. Pigs love the stuff, and we have tons of it. So we’re getting some pigs to eat the whey to add another layer of sustainability to the farm. The meat from pigs that eat whey is phenomenal. So it’s just another way to use everything on the farm, even the byproducts, to grow more, produce more. It just keeps getting bigger! [laughter.]
And why did you decide to open a shop in Park Slope? You don’t often see a cheese maker setting up their own retail operation in the city…
Cheese is a very sensitive product. We put a lot of effort into raising our animals and making our cheese exactly a certain way in order to produce the best possible cheese we can. Opening the shop allows us to be in control of everything from the animals, to the pasture, to the cheese making and aging, on through to selling it directly to the people taking it home and enjoying it.
When I need a cheese I call the farm manager Pierre directly. He goes up to the caves and he’ll pick the wheel that’s most perfect, ready to go. He’ll bring it here and we’ll take care of it. If it’s a cheese that should be sold quickly, we’ll sell it quickly. We’ll make sure it’s not sitting on a truck or in a warehouse or in the case for too long. Since it’s our own cheese, it’s really great to be able to be in control at every stage, and to be able to explain what we do and why we do it that way to our customers.
So how did you end up working here, at Brooklyn’s first farm-owned cheese shop?
I’m from New Jersey. I went to college in Boston. I got my bachelor’s degree in photography, and my big photo project focused on farming and sustainable agriculture. I was working at the cheese counter at Whole Foods up there, and between that job and my photo project, I started learning more and more about dairy science and cheese. So it started as a photo project and it turned into my life [laughter.]
Before the shop opened here, I was living a few blocks away, and I was having trouble making it all work. I wasn’t making enough money to stay in the city. I was about to move out, to move back in with my parents.
I saw a job posting by Eran, for a position that was listed in New Jersey. It didn’t mention anything about the shop, and I don’t even think anyone knew about his plan to open something yet. I thought, “OK, I’ll move back to New Jersey and live with my parents and I’ll go work on this farm.” Not the worst thing in the world, right?
When I spoke to Eran, he said, “OK, meet me at 7th Avenue and 3rd Street in Park Slope.”
I was like, “Wait, what? That’s four blocks from where I live. I thought this was about a job on a farm in New Jersey!”
He said, “Actually, I’m opening a shop at that location, and I really need to find someone who knows something about cheese to run things there. I’m looking for someone who wants to be in it for the long haul. Someone who wants to come to the farm to work too, to learn everything about what we do, and who will explain it all to our customers in the city, and take care of the cheese once it leaves the farm, and take care of the shop.”
I was like, “Seriously? So I can work on a farm, and in the city, at the same time!?” It’s like the best of both worlds. It’s perfect. [laughter.]
Valley Shepherd Creamery‘s Park Slope shop is located at 211 7th Avenue, between 3rd and 4rd Streets, in Park Slope.
Photography by Heather Phelps Lipton. All rights reserved.