Walton is a small town about three hours away from New York, nestled into the Western reaches of the Catskill mountains. The village has most of the things you’d expect – the ACE Hardware, a tiny restaurant claiming to be the region’s #1 hot dog destination, a gas station, a drug store, and a Big M Supermarket. It’s a sleepy main street, and one that is prone to flooding, we were told. In 2006 the nearby Delaware River busted its banks and wreaked havoc on the town of Walton and the surrounding farmland.
Just off the main road, there’s also a small cheese house, though driving by you’d never know it. Jos Vulto likes it that way. A seasoned cheese making detective/stalker might find it – there are a few telltale signs if you know what to look for. The the Toyota Tundra backed up to the nondescript door – large plastic tank in the pickup bed, still sweating after being emptied of the morning’s milk. The stacks of plastic molds, stainless steel tools, and myriad Croc-like shoes standing at attention waiting to be donned if one were to spy through the windows. And then in through the next set of windows, a wood-sided stainless steel vat – paddles rotating in an orderly fashion, stirring an impossibly large quantity of golden-yellow milk.
On this morning, Jos had beaten us on the drive up from Brooklyn by just a few minutes. He splits his time between Brooklyn and Walton, though these days his time in Walton is greater due to his booming trade in raw milk cheese. He sources the milk for his cheeses from a neighboring farm – a 25 cow dairy in the hills of Delhi, New York. The farmer is also his insurance agent. After the day’s cheese make, we visited the girls – serene Jerseys with their copper colored toupees – some seeking shelter from the heatwave in the barn, some grazing the impossibly green pasture that makes their milk so delicious.
They say that making cheese is 90% dishwashing, and ‘they’ are not wrong. After suiting up in our requisite hair nets, crocs and rubber aprons (cheesemaking is also incredibly glamorous) we were tasked with washing and staging molds – hundreds of plastic cups, rings, nets, and stainless steel weights – perfect shiny and surprisingly heavy blocks salvaged from Jos’s former career as a metalsmith in Williamsburg. There was no music – Jos says he would find it too distracting – so I took it upon myself to fill the silence with questions. I am pretty good at doing this. Jos is a man of few words, but he humored my barrage of inquiries until the milk was ready for culturing.
Here are the things that I learned: Like Jos’s operation, many creameries in France are located in villages, even if the farms are in the surrounding countryside. Jos has been a licensed cheesemaker for four years. He spent the previous four years making cheese in his Brooklyn apartment, honing his skills*. After coming to New York with an art-making grant from the Dutch government in the early 90’s, he settled on metal working as a trade and made high end interior finishes for wealthy New Yorkers. Before deciding on cheese making he thought of raising yaks for meat on his land. You could say he’s a bit of a renaissance man…
After the culture and rennet was added to the milk, we whiled away the intervening hour in the cheese cave – a large square room with cement walls chilled by lines of cold water running behind them. Being in a cheese cave is wonderful – all the more so in the summertime, when the temperatures outside approach the sauna-esque. In addition to the cold, there is the smell of cheese aging – a wet stone, earthy, fruity ammonia-laced scent that is heavenly to inhale.
There were racks of Miranda – orange cupcake-like forms washed in absinthe made at the Delaware Phoenix Distillery just down the road from the creamery, Ouelout – squat and flat washed rind wheels that can make grown French men cry with the memories of the Alsatian Munster their grandmothers used to serve them, Hamden – furry and rustic little beasts that would rival the best Tomme de Savoie, and Andes – big and brash wheels of Alpine-style cheese that are covered with an earthy rind spotted at times with fluffy white cloud outcroppings of mold growth. The cheeses are like little beings – each quietly holding onto some superpower imparted by the milk, the fermentation, the washing. They each have their own history – how the curd was hooped, how the wheel was washed, where it was put on the rack to age – communicated through flavor when finally eaten.
Miranda, Ouleout, and Hamden are all made from the same curd – the difference in the finished product is due to the size and shape of the cheese, how the curd is treated when being ‘hooped’ or placed into the molds, and how long the curd sits in the vat continuing to acidify. After all of the dish washing and all of the waiting for invisible microscopic magic to happen, we returned to the cheese room to make the day’s cheese. The curd was cut and we dove (quite literally) into the cheese vat to stir the curd by hand. When you’re working with one ton of milk, one’s arms, if you’re on the taller side, barely reach the bottom of the vat. Stirring the curd is like therapy – a warm, mindless, but meaningful exercise that results in arms covered with butterfat and, of course, curds ready to be made into wheels of cheese.
After about twenty minutes of stirring, the curds had reached more or less a uniform size and texture and were ready for the next phase of their cheesy lives… The hooping of the curd is fast and furious – the antidote to all of the waiting and calm and peaceful stirring in the hours before. In just fifteen minutes or so, the vat full of curd was dispersed amongst hundreds of molds and forms, the last of which reserved for the wheels of Hamden – made from the last curds on the bottom of the cheese vat, unceremoniously squashed into molds. All the forms filled with curds, we took turns weighting, unmolding, flipping and re-molding cheese until Jos was satisfied that the work was done.
I’ve now been in this business for 13 years – and have made cheese many times with many different cheesemakers, both here in America and abroad. And I can still say that for me there is no better way to spend a day – the work, the smell, and the lovely fatigue that follows a day of making cheese is like a balm. And makes sitting down and eating a wedge afterwards all the more delicious.
*The first time Jos came to visit me at the shop, he brought a small plastic take-out container with slices of many of his homemade cheeses. A man of few words, I accepted his gift, not without some hesitation. After all, the mention of homemade cheese inspires weird thoughts of cheese being made in bathtubs, aged in strange re-purposed refrigerators (How did he get the mold to grow on them? Does he know what he’s doing?! Is his kitchen clean?!?) and etcetera. But I ate them all the same, and was totally and completely blown away by how different each cheese was, and how good they all were!