Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Kelli Estrella

Family Dairy: The Estrella's Love Affair with Cheesemaking

Picture courtesy of Estrella Family Creamery Website

Interview with Kelli Estrella: Artisan Cheese Maker Extraordinaire at the Estrella Family Creamery, Washington.
(This is an article I wrote for Ancestry magazine) Photos courtesy of News Tribune.

Check out this photo slideshow at the News Tribune:

Kelli Estrella says she remembers when her cheeses started to become “special.” It happened after convincing her husband to knock out a section of the floor of their new home to dig out a cheese cave in the traditional way of aging cheeses. She wanted a place where her cheeses could mellow and ripen better than in the refrigerator. Though her husband wished she had asked months earlier when their home was being built, he granted her request.

“At breakfast the next day, he fired up a chainsaw and cut a great big hole in the floor,” said Estrella who has now become a star among cheese makers because of the magic she works in her cheese caves.

Initially her cheese venture was a way of using up the excess milk from her two backyard goats, but it’s turned into is a 164-acre dairy farm where she and her family carefully milk backyard-grazed cows and goats, curdle milk and lovingly tend cheeses in the yeasty cheese caves below her home.

Estrella began making cheeses the old-fashioned way because she recognized that doing so turns out finer artisan cheeses than the standard industrial method. She believes the old fashioned pattern that cheese makers followed 100’s of years ago still holds true today: aging cheeses in cheese caves, keeping your operation simple and giving cheese a lot of tender loving care all make for superb cheese. Estrella also liked the idea of raising her six adopted children on a farm. She wanted to give them the chance to work together as a family as many families did historically on farms.

The Estrella’s bought a 100-year-old dairy farm two hours south of Seattle: blessed with 18-feet of topsoil, rich grasses, wildflowers and a branch of the fresh Wynoochee river. It is, she thinks, a perfect place to graze cows and goats for the purpose of making cheese.

The Estrellas keep their operation simple. They’ve pasture 20 cows and 20 goats and process about 80 gallons of cow and goat milk a day with an old-fashioned bucket milking machine.

Without an industrial-like piping system, Estrella says her milk is cleaner and they aren’t required to use the chemicals larger cheese makers use.
Kelli and her husband Anthony and their children wake up at 4:30 in the morning and haul buckets across the pasture into the creamery. Cheese making, when done the old-fashioned way requires a great deal of tender loving care and produces some of the most complex and delicious cheeses on the market.

The Estrellas dump the buckets into two 60 gallon vats or one 40-gallon vats. Then they add cultures and rennet to the vat, which produces the curds and whey. Then they cut the curds with a big wire whip to expel the whey and cause the curd to shrink up. The whey gets drained off and the curd is then heated up at a temperature that depends on the kind of cheese they seek. After this, the curds then get pressed into cheese molds then placed in the cheese cave a dark, dank cheese cave.

The cheeses must then be flipped every 15 minutes for the first two hours. Next, the cheeses begin the aging process. A fan is used to dry them. Some, like the cheddars, are wrapped in clothe. The blues have to be pierced (punched with holes). The Estrellas then frequent the caves to wash the cheeses. Some get washed in brine, others like a stinky cheese called Red Darla, gets washed in wine every day, then alternating days for about 60 days until it produces a natural rind.

Hundreds of cheeses are housed in the cheese caves under her home. Over time, the walls of the cheese cave become covered in a special brand of “Estrella creamery” mold that helps the cheeses develop the award-winning fruity, yeasty taste that makes them so special. The curds are handled in different ways depending on what kind of cheese they want to create.

Cheese takes on a life of its own and Estrella says she considers it an art. She remembers throwing away $10,000 worth of blue cheese that was wonderful in the prior, but became sticky and flavorless in the winter. “A bad blue is the nastiest stuff you can imagine,” she said. She panicked and called all the cheese experts she knew for advice. Their advice? “Follow your cheese-maker’s instincts” they told her. It wasn’t anything she could learn from a book. “Stir a little longer, heat a little less.”

“Cheese-making is largely about using your senses, those things that you learn from your ancestors.” Estrella says. She believes this is why the best cheese makers historically were generational operations since the best techniques were passed down from family to family.

To learn more about old-fashioned art of artisan cheese making, Estrella recommends the PBS documentary, "The Cheese Nun: Sister Noella's Voyage of Discovery."