Twenty years ago, American sheep cheese encountered a lot of raised eyebrows. (You can milk a sheep?) I’d say we’ve made progress, thanks in part to pioneer cheesemakers like Jodi Ohlsen Read. Despite a tragic setback just as her sheep farm’s notoriety was spreading, Read and her husband, Steven, are about to celebrate 20 years of cheesemaking at Shepherd’s Way Farms in Minnesota. I’ve admired her cheeses from the get-go and ached for the couple when tragedy struck. The path back to a healthy farm and normal life has been arduous and, to those of us watching, inspirational. “I’m not good at quitting,” says Jodi.
Recently, on a sales trip to California, Jodi sat down with me in my Napa kitchen for a long chat. I wanted to know what changes in consumer attitudes she has witnessed over those 20 years, and how she and Steven rebuilt their lives after an arson fire in 2005 decimated their barn and 800-head flock.
How have consumer tastes evolved over the years you’ve been making cheese?
In 1998, nobody was familiar with sheep cheese, and nobody was familiar with natural rinds. So we waxed Friesago (pictured above, right). When we introduced Big Woods Blue, it was an opportunity to start doing natural rinds so we shifted Friesago over. The rind allows the cheese to develop more character and to reflect where we are.
When I first saw the orange mold on the rind, I was alarmed. What is this bad player doing in my cheese plant? I brought it to the university and they didn’t know. There happened to be a Mold Day with Benjamin Wolfe in Madison, so I went and spent the day nerding out over mold. At the end, you could bring your cheese up to him for consultation. I was so nervous that I might have a mold I had to get rid of. I set my cheese down and he went “Whoa!” And my heart sank. Then he said, “Beautiful!”
I’ve had a store send a wheel back because of that mold. Even when I explained it, the cheese was still too outside the realm. Even now, sometimes, inspectors will not be familiar with natural rinds. I had an inspector a few years ago who said, “That looks like mold!” And I said, “That’s blue cheese. It’s okay.”
I look at cheese pictures all the time on Instagram, and people are more open to anomalies when the cheese comes from someplace besides America. “Look at this super-rustic cheese with the crack in it! It’s so beautiful because it was made on a farm in Italy.” If I sent out a cheese like that, it would probably get sent back to me. People look for more uniformity here, and I don’t know why. The cheese isn’t ruined because there’s a small crack.
Investigators never solved the arson fire? Who would burn down a barn with sheep in it?
Probably somebody not right in their mind. They had suspects, not related to us, who had criminal histories. After the fire, we had tons of people who came to help, in all kinds of ways. One woman stands out in my memory—an older farmer. She told me that a disgruntled employee had burned down her dairy farm. He was caught and sent to prison, but in two years, he was out. She said, “Don’t waste a minute thinking about who did it and whether they get caught. It doesn’t matter.”
That was a nice gift; she helped me put those thoughts away. The farther we get from the fire, the more it’s just a part of our story and not the story anymore.
Far more good came out of it than bad. It was devastating, with outcomes that we still carry with us, but the outpouring of generosity and kindness was overwhelming. Who are all these people? I had never thought about how big our food and farm community were. It was humbling to see that the little thing you do ripples much farther than you know.
We thought, “Oh, we have insurance. We’ll rebuild.” Well, you can’t just go out and buy dairy sheep, and you never have as much insurance as you think. It’s good that you can’t foresee all the obstacles, so you just keep chugging along. People say, “If you had known what was going to happen, would you still have done it?” Well, who would? But that’s not how life works, thank goodness.
What keeps you going? What do you love about cheesemaking?
I love that, every day, you can look back and see what you did. I love the connection from soil to animals to milk, and then the transformation into a table full of cheese. The tactile part is satisfying, when you take the wheels out of the hoops and they’re warm and feel alive. You put them in brine and they bob around and look weirdly like they’re happy. And when they don’t do what you want, it feels like they’re misbehaving, like there’s a willfulness.
When I do get out and see my cheeses in a store, I feel sort of shocked. It’s like when you would see your teacher at the grocery store. Wait…they exist somewhere else?
I was at a farm-to-table dinner in Minneapolis once and the guy across the table said, “Is it weird to you that everybody right now is putting something in their mouth that you made with your hands? That’s really sort of intimate.” It was an astounding thought, that I’m strangely connected to so many people.
Cheese teaches me a lot of lessons. I like the illusion that I’m in control, but sometimes you have to say, “I’m done” and let go. Four kids didn’t teach me that, but my cheese did.
These farmstead cheeses from Shepherd’s Way Farms are all 100 percent sheep’s milk.
Shepherd’s Hope: moist fresh cheese released at about two weeks; tender and tangy; like feta without the brine; irresistible. Serve with tomatoes.
Morcella: Ohlsen Read’s newest cheese is a made only in spring and early summer, with local dried morels; tender, with a delicate aroma.
Friesago: aged wheel with a rustic natural rind; scent of nuts and light caramel; firm, brittle paste and concentrated flavor.
Big Woods Blue: modest veining; rich and mellow; moist and succulent; an approachable blue with restrained salt and pungency. One of my favorite American blues.