It’s Sunday Morning: Time to Talk Cheeses – Interview with Stephen Hueffed of Willapa Hills Cheese – Marcella The Cheesemonger International Guilde des Fromagers
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It’s Sunday Morning: Time to Talk Cheeses – Interview with Stephen Hueffed of Willapa Hills Cheese

Family and Lambs

The Lady met Willapa Hills’ Stephen Hueffed and Amy Turnbull at the Oregon Cheese Guild’s “The Wedge” in October 2009. She brought me home two wedges of blues and a tub of yoghurt… we all fell in love with their cheeses. You can read my reviews here.

Located in Western Washington State, on the banks of the Chehalis River, which literally runs down the middle of their farm, Stephen, Amy and their three generations of family are living their dream.

They create cheese on beautiful land using sustainable methods. Stephen and Amy are truly “walking the walk”. In 2011 they enrolled seven acres of their  riverfront pasture in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program. This past February they planted more than 2000 native trees along their part of the Chehalis River to bring the canopy back to protect the river for the generations to come. They are growing more of their own hay to feed their herd and using more effective methods to decrease erosion and effectively manage waste. It’s amazing!! Please check out their Sustainability Mission.

Willapa Hills Farmstead Cheeses’ Big Boy Blue brought home the gold last week at the 2012 American Cheese Society Competition – taking First Place in its category.

I had the pleasure to sit down and chat with Stephen recently.

Spaulding:First of all, I want to thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions. Cheesemaking and farming are all-consuming. I know my readers will be thankful to learn more about you, your family and your lovely cheeses.

Chehalis River

Spaulding Gray: Why did you decide to make cheese? Did your education assist in cheesemaking and/or the business of cheesemaking?

Stephen Hueffed: A long story – a summary of which is on our website under “A Cheese Story.”  Suffice to say we had a dream that involved our family, a farm and the desire to hand craft something together that was delicious and profitable. Family, farm and hand crafted deliciousness: accomplished!    Profitable? The dream is still alive!

Spaulding: Tell us about the first cheese you made.

Stephen: Fresh With Ewe was our first cheese.  It is a 100% sheep milk lactic style cheese that starts out as a five ounce round.  We spray the surface with blue mold (it has no internal blue) and let it “age” for three to four weeks as the mold envelops the surface and forms a rind. It loses about 20% of its moisture during this time and goes to market drier than your average lactic style cheese – but then the magic starts.  As the rind ripens it breaks down the body of the cheese and soon a fabulous cream layer develops, eventually liquifying – if you wait long enough – the entire body of the cheese.  During this process the blue bloomy rind infuses the cream layer with blue overtones.  Eating the rind is optional at this point, but why select it if you are scared of blue? A secret: Right when retail is about to discard it because it is too soft and runny, it is at its best – creamy and gooey with a crazy rind that is not for the feint of heart! We still make it – not for everyone, but it has its passionate fans who wait for its return every year.

SG: What kind of rennet do you prefer to use and why?

SH: We have tried various rennets over the years.  In our fresh lactic cheeses we use a microbial rennet and have been very pleased with the set and the final flavor profile in these delicate cheeses. We started with the same rennet for our aged cheeses, but switched a couple years ago to traditional animal rennet.  Two main reasons – the set and feel of the curd at cutting and the taste of the curd – both young and when ready for market.  We just feel both are better served with traditional rennet. Call us old fashioned (sometimes).

Spaulding: What is the first cheese you remember eating?

Stephen: Both of us had traumatic cheese childhoods.  It has taken hours in the creamery to fully heal. Amy’s memory is of mass produced spongy mild cheddars. Stephen’s memory of the 70’s is seared with old Brady Bunch episodes and toasted cheese sandwiches made with Velveeta.  Does that count as a cheese? Let’s just say that we have never doubted what we did NOT want to make!

SG: Tell us about your farm and your animals.

SH: In 2005 we found a beautiful historic farmstead in SW Washington. At the heart of the farm is a nearly century old barn that houses our single 24 milk parlor and our creamery.  Many historic barns in the NW are dairy barns that have deteriorated significantly from the wet climate on the outside and the moisture of animals and dairying on the inside.  Our is an exception to the rule with a poured foundation, painted old growth cedar siding and a concrete floor you could eat off of when we arrived.  It is just a beautiful structure. Inspiring really.  We had the honor of meeting Louie Muller, the patriarch of one of the local Swiss families who passed away a couple years ago in his 90’s.  He had attended the barn raising as a child and remembered it fondly.  He assured me there is a bottle of scotch buried somewhere in the floor.  As of this interview, it has not yet been located…

In addition to licensed dairy processors, we are a Washington State Grade A Dairy. Our foundation flock of dairy ewes came from Dream Valley Farm in Strum Wisconsin – members of Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative. Our ewes are referred to as “high percentage” crosses of East Friesian and Lacaune sheep.  Many dairy flocks in the US started out as fiber or meat flocks and had a dairy ram bred into them to create dairy stock.  Thus, many flocks have not only the one or two primary dairy breed genetics, but small amounts of residual genetics from their original source flock. The particular mix of East Friesian and Lacaune is from the dairy sheep research program at the University of Wisconsin, Spooner Research Station . They have been cross breeding to get the volume of the East Friesian and the high butterfat of the Lacaune. We are milking about 130 ewes this year.  We also buy cow milk from a local family farm.  All our products are made on our farm in our creamery.

We are located on the eastern side of the Willapa Hills, with the Chehalis River running through the center of our farm.  Seattle gets about 35+ inches of rain a year.  We we get 70+. A few miles west in the hills there is a microclimate that gets 140 inches.  It rains here. We have about 80 acres in usable pasture and the rest of the farm is woodlands. The area was predominately settled by people of Polish and Swiss ancestry.  They farmed the lowlands and worked timber on the hills.  Our farm reflects history.

Willapa’s Farm Store

Spaulding: What cheese and beer or wine would you pair with Ondatra zibethicus ?

Stephen: Skin, soak in a salt brine overnight, pat dry, wrap ’em in aged Velveeta and grill ’em. Pair with some local apricot ‘shine. Dee-licious!

Spaulding: I wonder if I can get The Lady to do the skinning… probably not… Stephen, again, thanks for taking the time to site down with me. The Lady and I greatly admire what you, Amy and the entire family are doing for our Cheese Family.

You can “Like” Willapa Hills Cheese on Facebook!! You can even follow them on Twitter!!

If you live in Western Washington or are traveling along I-5 between Portland and Seattle, stop in at their Farm Store which is open daily 10am to 4pm. You can also find them and their cheeses at area farmer’s markets, Beecher’s at Pike Place and in select Whole Foods Markets.

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