Shep Ysselstein is a cheesemaker, son of a dairy farmer, grandson of a Dutch immigrant who came to Canada to build a new life after WW2, starting a farm in Oxford County, the country’s dairy epicenter. I first met Shep several years ago at Taste of the Grand, a food fest in Brantford, where my wife was doing a cooking demonstration. I nearly walked by his small booth, a table filled with plates of cheese samples, however politely accepted one and had a bite. I stopped a few seconds later and went back to talk to this guy. First of all, he looks like what a marketing agency would seek out as the model dairy farmer, clean cut and innocent looking. Just one bite of his Five Brothers cheese had stopped me in my tracks and I knew I had to get to know this guy. We’ve since become friends and my respect for his work continues to grow, if Shep is the future of Canadian food production, we are in for good times.
Many years ago, I took a one-day cheese making workshop out near Cornwall at the Glengarry shop operated by Margaret Morris, a sort of cheddar guru, the Gordie Howe of Canadian artisan cheese. Although a short course, it was intense and hands-on, enough to get you interested and mostly, appreciate the work and finesse involved in this age old practice of preserving milk in a solid form. From that day, I understood the basics so felt it was the beginning of my cheese education.
Here’s the Coles Notes on making cheese: fresh milk will go bad in a hurry so by removing water from it, it can be salted and aged without spoiling. If you had one or more dairy cows way back, producing more milk than your family could consume in fresh form, it would be necessary that you understand how to make the stuff last longer. If you let fresh milk sit in a cool place, the cream will rise to the top (fat is lighter than water so gravity takes care of this). Cream can be skimmed off and used or separated by churning to produce butter. Remember, removing water from food is a way of making it last longer. Think about buying dairy at the grocery: you might buy butter every two or three weeks but likely buy milk every two or three days. On the other hand, if you take that fresh milk and change it in a way that sets the protein into a semi solid, you can turn that mass into one of many types of cheese. Variety of process can produce cheeses that will be eaten immediately, like cottage cheese, stretched and held in water like fresh mozzarella, allowed to form a bloom like Brie (only aged for two months) or pressed into hard cakes and aged, like Cheddar, Gouda or even Parmesan. Obviously, cheese varieties have a link to the geography and climate of that place from which they are named. Even something as obscure as Gorgonzola developed its unique characteristics from the cool limestone caves in which it aged.
Let’s get back to Shep. And this is the cool part. He grew up on a dairy farm run by his folks in the beautiful rolling hill area near Woodstock, Ontario. I can imagine him and his brothers running out way too early in the morning to help their father with milking and chores before going to school. And you know that Dutch Canadian household was filled with amazing home cooking smells and pies and jams and pickles. You know that stuff that is really hip and cool right now? Well that’s all they’ve ever known. Of course I don’t know this for a fact as I have never met his parents but I really doubt that I am too far off the mark. After high school, Shep got a degree in business from Western then started on a stagieres’ journey, working in cheese facilities in BC, Ontario, New York and Switzerland. The Swiss connection was formative, the capstone of his apprenticeship, where he developed his own style, his direction in cheese. Now he makes nearly a dozen varieties at Gunn’s Hill, his strength in those Gouda-Swiss hybrids that have become his calling card. Gunn’s Hill has started to gain fame by winning awards at the Canadian Cheese Grand Prix but I think his best work lies ahead of him. A recent new build has him working in a state-of-the-art plant with room to grow. An impressive site and good location for a tour, it is a rich educational experience for young and old, and I will encourage the young part as I really do think it is important to take young kids to places like this so they begin to understand that food comes from someone, somewhere, not a big mysterious factory in a far-off land.
Milk is delivered by truck every 2nd day from Friesvale Farms, just 1 km away. The milk is pumped into a vat that keeps the temperature around 2 C and has an agitator to prevent the milk from separating. When it is time to start making cheese, the milk passes through an in-line pasteurizer then through a heat exchange plate to cool it to a working temperature. Pasteurization heats the milk to kill any potentially harmful bacteria. Once the milk is pumped into one of the cheese vats (they look like giant hot tubs) it has a bacterial culture added to it. This helps develop likeable flavours in the cheese. Next, rennet is added to the warm milk. Rennet is a natural enzyme that curdles casein (milk protein) so that it goes from liquid to what looks like a gigantic tub of tofu. Once set, the cheesemakers cut this curd with outrageous looking knives either hand held or mounted onto spinning devices over the vats. By cutting the curd, this allows for the curds to be separated from the whey (watery part). In the case of the Gouda style firm cheeses, the curds are now gently cooked by heating up the vat slowly. This tightens the proteins strands and encourages the removal of water. Then the whey is drained off and those curds are put into a different vat where they will have a little pressure to start to form them into a workable solid mass. This is cut into consistent sized blocks and put into forms, different sizes for specific cheeses, and put under pressure for 20 minutes, flipped and then another 20. At this point the cheese is in a recognizable form, a wheel basically. The wheels are put into a cage and lowered into a vat of salt water. There has not been any salt added until this point. The cheese can be in the brine for hours or days, depending on the desired texture. And then for the part that would drive me crazy; the long wait. Cheese are stored in a series of rooms, with specific temperature and humidity under control. Some of the cheeses will eventually be washed with salt water and flipped, the washing removes any unwanted bacteria and develops the rind. Others are washed with red or white wine, some even with beer.
Walking through the different rooms is a wonderful experience for your sense of smell. At the mildest, there is a warm aroma of butter and slightly soured cream, and it the room where the Handek wheels can age for nearly two years, there is a punch in the face, intense nose, a pungent reminder that nature is at work here.