Women in Cheese – A 5 Minute History

The Future (and Past!) of Cheese is Female

Throughout history, women have played a crucial role in cheesemaking. From European cheesemaking traditions spanning many centuries to our nascent artisan cheese boom here in the United States, the role of women in cheese cannot (and will not) be understated! In honor of Women’s History Month, Saxelby Cheesemongers is celebrating women in cheese – past, present, and future!

In Europe, the making of many traditional cheeses was seen as women’s work. The division of labor on the farm was simple – men performed the ‘outside’ labor – caring for the animals, the land, and the farm’s facilities and equipment. Women did more of the ‘inside’ work – which consisted of homemaking, child rearing, and in the case of dairy farms, cheesemaking. Of course there were (and are) exceptions to that rule – shepherds high in the Pyrenees and Alps milked their animals in the field and made larger-format traditional cheeses like Pyrenees Brebis and Comte, but many of Europe’s most famed cheeses are the work of women’s hands.

In America, women were the force behind the artisan cheese movement, which began in the 1970’s as a drop in the proverbial pond. Over the past 40 years that drop has swelled to a tremendous wave of delicious cheese that can rival the best of the best from Europe or anywhere else. Those early American tastemakers have been affectionately dubbed ‘the goat ladies’ – and include icons like Laura Chenel and her famous chevre, Mary Keehn of Humboldt Fog fame, Judy Schad of Capriole Dairy, Alison Hooper of Vermont Creamery, Laini Fondiller of Lazy Lady Farm, Barbara Brooks of Seal Cove Farm, Jennifer Bice of Redwood Hill Farm, and Paula Lambert of the Mozzarella Company. Their reasons for making cheese ranged from wanting to provide their families with healthful and wholesome foods – an extension of the ‘Back to the Land’ movement, to a desire to replicate and further the reach of fabulous goat cheeses tasted while traveling, to a love of goats and goat breeding, or some happy combination of all three.

Starting with zero in terms of resources – they shared information, bootstrapped their young businesses, and conjured a goat cheese revolution out of thin air. Back in the seventies and eighties there were hardly any decent milking goats available, much less the milking equipment and cheesemaking supplies necessary to make goat cheese. All of the country’s top dairy minds had been focused for more than a century on a different dairy animal – the cow – and how to optimize breeding, milk production, and equipment. Through sheer willpower and and a LOT of elbow grease, these ‘goat ladies’ pioneered the craft of making great goat cheese here in the US, and inspired generations of cheesemakers to follow!

Chefs were the first to gravitate towards these fresh goat cheeses – Alice Waters and Thomas Keller were some of Laura Chenel’s first customers. Allison Hooper of Vermont Creamery made her first batches of chevre for chefs in Vermont and Boston who craved it but had no source for it. Chefs paved the way for the ‘civilians’, regular folks who might not have travelled abroad and tasted goat cheese before, but who trusted the chefs and restaurateurs who demystified this delicious cheese for the American palate.

Today, some of the finest minds (and hands) in the American artisan movement are female. Check out a few of our favorites below and read up on women making their mark in the American artisan cheese world!

Grayson – Helen and Kat Feete

Grayson is made by a dynamic mother-daughter team in Galax, Virginia. Helen was the first cheesemaker in the United States to make a supple, stinky, washed rind cheese, and was told by a few along the way that she couldn’t do it! After some tutelage from European cheesemakers, particularly Giana Ferguson of Gubbeen cheese in Ireland, Helen perfected her craft.

Ascutney Mountain – Jeannine Kilbride

Ascutney is made at Cobb Hill Farm, an intentional community conceived by Donnella Meadows, a thought-leader in the world of systems thinking and ecology. This community is dedicated to sustainability, and cheesemaking is one of their communal pursuits. Today Ascutney is made by Jeannine Kilbride, a talented cheesemaker in her own right!

Burrata / Mozzarella – Johann Englert

Maplebrook Farm was started by Johann Englert, a woman with good taste and a lot of gusto! After tasting some of Mike Scheps’ mozzarella in his Manchester, Vermont store, Johann decided to launch a business to distribute his cheese to shops in the Boston area in a newly purchased Chevy Tahoe. Johann and Mike joined forces and now produce award-winning mozzarella and burrata from the milk of Vermont family farms.

Kunik – Sheila Flanagan and Lorraine Lambiase

Sheila and Lorraine purchased Nettle Meadow Farm after deciding to ditch their ‘normal’ jobs in favor of farm life. Kunik, their signature cheese, is truly one-of-a-kind. It is a triple-creme blend of goat’s milk from their farm, and cow cream sourced by a neighboring farm. Nettle Meadow Farm is unique because in addition to being a working dairy farm, it is an animal sanctuary where Sheila and Lorraine can care for animals – both retired dairy goats of their own as well as other animals who need a good home.

Cremont / Bonne Bouche – Allison Hooper / Adeline Druart

Allison Hooper, co-owner of Vermont Creamery, spent time in France learning the rudiments of cheesemaking, and in 1984 launched her business with Bob Reese. For years Vermont Creamery stuck to making fresh cheeses, but when Adeline Druart, a young dairy science intern from France, joined the team, she decided she wanted to up the ante and produce mold-ripened goat’s milk cheeses in the French style. Adeline, Allison, and Bob’s passion has yielded a stellar lineup of soft goat and cow’s milk cheeses that rival anything from across the pond.

Noble Road / Elsa Mae – Emily Montgomery

Emily Montgomery got bit by the cheese bug after working as a dairy science consultant to some of America’s biggest dairy companies. Her family’s 6th generation dairy farm in Wayne County Pennsylvania was ailing, so she came up with a plan to add value to the farm’s top quality milk by turning it into cheese! Now Calkins Creamery is thriving and produces a lineup of award-winning cow’s milk cheeses that Saxelby is proud to serve.

Marieke Premium Gouda – Marieke Penterman

Marieke and Rolf Penterman emigrated to the United States to start a dairy farm in Wisconsin. The cost of land in their native Holland was just too high, and their love of dairy farming was so great that it lured them across the sea! Rolf quickly established a thriving dairy herd, but Marieke missed the cheese from back home. She began making Dutch-style raw milk gouda from the herd’s milk, and a new business was born!

Tres Bonne – Anne and Susan Gervais

Sisters Anne and Susan (maiden name Gervais) are two of fifteen children in the Gervais family. The family has farmed in the northwestern reaches of Vermont since the 1960’s, and in 2007 Anne and Susan launched Boston Post Dairy to convert the farm’s cow and goat milk into top quality cheese.

Pawlet – Angela Miller / Leslie Goff

Angela Miller, a successful literary agent, and her husband Russell Glover purchased Consider Bardwell Farm with the dream of restoring it to its cheesemaking glory. Consider Bardwell is the site of Vermont’s first cheesemaking cooperative, and carries on that tradition today, sustaining the farm’s herd of milking goats, plus cow’s milk from two neighboring farms in town. Cheesemaker Leslie Goff has been working at Consider Bardwell since she was 15 years old, and learned the craft of cheesemaking from Peter Dixon. Today she is the force behind the farm’s cheeses, and is in our humble opinion, a bit of a badass.

Weybridge – Patty Scholten

Patty Scholten (one half of the dynamic duo behind Scholten Farm – the other half is her husband Roger) came up with the idea of turning her farm’s superior quality milk into farmstead cheese. In 2007 they sold the herd of cows that had come with the farm and replaced them with a herd of organic Dutch Belted cows. This bright & cheesy idea lead to a partnership with Jasper Hill Farm, who now age their diminutive discs of Weybridge cheese to fudgy perfection.