What I love as much as eating cheese, is learning how to make it. I was elbow deep in a vat of whey, feeling the curds that floated around. I was making cheese with Shep Ysselstein in his brand new cheese factory in Woodstock, Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese. The pearl white mini curds tasted like creamy vanilla pudding – yum!
Shep is one of the youngest cheesemakers I know, at 28 years old, he’s honed his cheesemaking skills in Vermont, on Vancouver Island and even Switzerland. Next he spent a few million dollars on a cheese plant on his family Holstein dairy farm. From farm to cheese plant it’s approximately 200 metres. It’s a perfect fit.
The cheese cave at Gunn’s Hill is filled with hundreds of yellow disks of cheese ageing on wooden boards and the air is of musty cream and salty earth. It’s here they wash the cheese with a brine solution. As the salt penetrates the skin of the cheese, it cures it and turns it into seductive, rich semi-firm cheese that Shep hasn’t named yet.
Now Shep drains the curds and the whey gets pumped into a holding tank. A farmer down the road will use it to wean his baby pigs. Presses go onto the cheese to extract as much water as possible. Now the cheese is tasting like crème brulèe, oh yummmm!
I had lunch at Stonecroft Farm, a Berkshire pig farm where owners Kevin and Allyson Rivers also offer home concerts in their beautiful, century old farmhouse. Today, it was used to host a group of neighboring farmers and a smaller group of food writers.
Lunch was prepared by chef Eric Boyer of Six Thirty Nine Restaurant in downtown Woodstock. Eric has agricultural roots so it makes sense that Six Thirty Nine has become the place to eat in Oxford for the most delicious, freshest local cuisine. Lunch was a just picked salad, and pulled pork on a bun. The pork was from Stonecroft Farm and it was luscious, soft, meaty and fork tender.
The salad was picked fresh that morning by 2 farms; Red Barn Berries & Veggies and Lettuce Alive. The heirloom tomatoes grown by Sue Hillborn were still warm from the greenhouse, the asparagus crisp and cucumbers tender. Eric Maaskarat from Lettuce Alive grows a variety of hydroponic lettuces of which all were represented in the salad. He has an entire acre under glass and supplies Oxford county with fresh greens year round.
I sat across from Matt Heleniak of Norpac Beef who explains they’re a group of 70 Ontario family cattle farmers who only deal in premium beef. Their new line is called ‘Family Farmed’ and it’s hormone and antibiotic free.
Next to me was Rein Bos, of Bos Smoked Fish. Rein takes fish from Goossen’s Trout Farm and a variety of lake fish, smokes them to perfection and sells them to deli’s and independent grocers in the region.
Also in the room was Ellis Morris. On his farm he raises almost 400 head of sheep. Ellis distributes and markets raw sheep milk to the industry but his new venture is an uber thick, creamy, tangy and seductive Greek-style, sheep-milk yogurt and a few new cheeses.
There was goat farmer, Ian Mayberry who is part of the Ontario Dairy Goat Cooperative. The cooperative is comprised of 14 goat processors who produces goats milk, cheese and a new drinkable yogurt under the Mornington label.
Mary Jakeman was there with her award winning maple syrup, maple sugar and her delicious blend of maple syrup and icewine. Jakeman’s is the exclusive supplier of Disneyland and Starboard Cruise Lines.
Local food is personal, it’s about a new trusted source of food, knowing your farmers and it’s about being engaged with your food. Today, I got to know eight more people responsible for growing, raising, processing and distributing our food and learned a bit about what it takes to make the best. It makes me more particular about what I eat, more appreciative about the food I buy and more excited about the seasons. When was the last time you dined with the people who made your food?