CULT OF TASTE: A CHEESEMAKER’S FANTASY CAMP
PHOTOGRAPHY BY RICHARD ADAMS
e’re not bound for the Brazos Bingo Hall next door or looking to service our jet skis at Frog’s Power Sports. We’ve come to this narrow storefront tucked off the highway leading out of Granbury to visit Eagle Mountain Farmhouse Cheese, where we will take part in the most intensive cheesmaking workshop in Texas. Our instructors, Larry and Linda Faillace from Three Shepherds Farm in Vermont, are here at the request of their former student, Dave Eagle, now an award-winning cheesemaker himself. In addition to making cheese, the Faillaces have been teaching and consulting for almost 15 years, and their three-day workshop is a participatory plunge.
The class is a condensed version of the one Eagle took when he quit his law practice in 2009 and started Eagle Mountain Farmhouse Cheese, making European-style cheeses. Two years later, Eagle’s wheels of Birdville Reserve—the same buttery color as the historic Granbury courthouse façade—won first place at the American Cheese Society competition in Montreal.
It was during a summer trip to Europe in 2008 that Eagle became inspired by the simple pleasures of garden vegetables and hand-made breads and cheeses. He admired the rootedness and fulfillment he saw in communities of artisan producers.
Back home, he hatched his own cheesemaking plans: “I said, ‘I want to find a small dairyman. And he can provide me with some good milk, and I can pay him a fair price.’”
In Bridgeport, Eagle found local milk producers Mike and Debbie Moyers and their naturally raised Brown Swiss dairy cows at Sandy Creek Farm.
He also discovered the Faillaces and their hands-on Vermont workshop.
“When I came back from their class, I was really hyped up,” he recalls. “One thing led to another, and before you know it, I said, ‘I think I can do this.’” The business is now a family affair that includes Eagle’s son Matt and nephew Corey Miller, who work alongside him, making and aging cheese in the shop and covering the local farmers markets on weekends.
What struck Eagle when he took the Faillace’s class was the camaraderie – “the new friends, the relationships, the overall like-mindedness of people who are as dedicated or serious about where their food comes from.” He wanted to replicate that synergy.
“You meet the best people doing these classes,” Linda Faillace says. According to her, the groups tend to divide into thirds: aspiring home cheesemakers; people who want to make cheese commercially; and folks who just want to learn more.
In our group of 11, only half have driven less than an hour to get here. One woman has a 160-cow dairy in Mississippi and is transitioning from milk to cheesemaking. Another owns 45 acres of land in Panama and plans to milk goats and make cheese there now that her last child is in college. Some are interested in cheesemaking as a second career or remember their grandmother’s cows and feel the tug of the land. Many of us simply love to cook and have perhaps attempted a few batches of ricotta at home. We’re all united by a passion for cheese and a desire to learn.
“We’re dealing with a product that’s alive,” Larry Faillace says. “You never stop learning. You just keep looking down the rabbit hole.” Larry, who has a Ph.D. in animal physiology, has come a long way from the days when, in his Texas Tech dorm room, he made what amounts to queso: Cheddar and RO -TEL firmed up in a Christmas- tree-shaped mold. His first “real” cheesemaking was Super Bowl Sunday, 1997. (The Green Bay Packers were playing, incidentally.) “I had no idea what I was doing,” he says.
Most of us feel the same way. But the Faillaces are patient and encouraging. They lead us through temperature readings and milliliter measurements as we make feta, quark and mozzarella, covering the major cheesemaking processes.
The workshop can seem like an exercise in action verbs. Sporting hair nets, shoe-booties and aprons, we culture, scoop, drain, flip, salt, scald, press, cook, wash and brine, scribbling notes as we go. A squeegee person mops whey; a clock-watcher calls time; a rennet-stirrer paddles our steel vat full of milk.
We also wait. Milk, cultures, coagulants, salt — and time: From these simple elements comes all our wealth of cheeses.
“A startling revelation was that it’s so process-related,” rather than about ingredients, says Larry Metcalf, a flavor chemist who recently moved to Dallas and whose cheesemaking forays have included, like for many of us, a few botched batches of mozzarella. Each cheese starts as a vat of milk, and small changes determine whether it becomes a soft, fresh quark or a crumbly feta.
“We overshot the temperature by two degrees – and we made a totally different cheese,” Metcalf says. He’s referring to the second day, when we set out to make Gouda, but brought the milk temperature up too high. No problem, Larry said. Adjust a few steps, eliminate the scalding, and we’re making Old Brabander instead. “It’s process, process, process,” Metcalf says. “I thought that was fascinating.”
It’s easy to flounder without hands-on coaching. Cheesemaking recipes “all sound exactly the same,” and “there’s no way that pictures or words can tell you when a curd is the consistency you want in a certain cheese,” says Vicki Brown, who makes cheese, as well as beer, wine and charcuterie in her Fort Worth home. Eagle agrees: “Unless you actually see it, you’re not going to understand it. Somebody’s gotta show you first.”
“We overshot the temperature by two
degrees – and we made a totally different
cheese,” Metcalf says. He’s referring to
the second day, when we set out to make
Gouda, but brought the milk temperature
up too high. No problem, Larry said.
Adjust a few steps, eliminate the scalding,
and we’re making Old Brabander instead.
Dave Eagle (left) of Eagle Mountain Farmhouse Cheese with
instructors Larry and Linda Faillace from Three Shepherds Farm
Our class has a keen interest in mozzarella so on the last day we’re shaping mozzarella balls that weren’t on the original program. Larry’s expertise allows for these improvisations. “For me, he’s like the musician who can play any kind of music,” Eagle says.
Along the way, we learn the history and lore of crafting cheese, and Linda orchestrates a sumptuous cheese tasting. But what’s most intoxicating is seeing what we can do once we harness the elements of cheesemaking. We savor our fresh quark with maple syrup. One evening, we make fresh ricotta for pasta within 45 minutes. The hunger to learn more is strong.
The Texas-Vermont partnership started with a sold-out beginner class last spring. They were up to two classes in the winter. This spring’s visit included a beginner class followed by an advanced one. “It didn’t dawn on me that someone would go ahead and – boom – do them back to back,” Eagle says. But a handful did, opting for almost a full week of cheese-intensive days. The advanced class ramps things up, with multiple “makes” happening simultaneously. “We even threw in butter. We made two different kinds of butter while we were making the cheese. It was nutty,” says Metcalf, who took both classes.
He admits he was “mentally and physically pooped” by the end of six days of hands-on learning. But it was worth it. “I’m psyched,” he says. “I’ve got my little test cave going. I’m going for it.”
For cheesemakers like Brown, who has already made Cheddar, Brie and Emmenthaler at home, the advanced class includes troubleshooting. “I now know what I did wrong,” she says of the blue that she brought for critique.
Ultimately, Eagle’s goal is simple: “I hope they take away much more than they thought they would,” he says. “This cheesemaking business is like an onion. You just keep peeling off a layer.”
Eagle Mountain Farmhouse Cheese
Granbury, TX · (817) 579-0090
Three Shepherds Cheese
Warren, VT · (802) 496-3998
EVE HILL-AGNUS teaches English and journalism and is a freelance writer based in Dallas. She earned degrees in English and Education from Stanford University. Her work has appeared in the Dallas Morning News, D Magazine, and the journal Food, Culture & Society. She remains a contributing Food & Wine columnist for the Los Altos Town Crier, the Bay-Area newspaper where she stumbled into journalism by writing food articles during grad school. Her French-American background and childhood spent in France fuel her enduring love for French food and its history. She is also obsessed with goats and cheese.