The smell was irresistibly wonderful. I was standing in the cheese room at Locust Grove Farms and didn’t notice the odor at first because I was distracted by cheese-maker Tim Clark’s explanations of the various items in the spotlessly white, 8 x 16 foot concrete-block room. But as I became aware of the redolent odor of aging cheese it became the distraction, until I interrupted Clark to exclaim, “It smells wonderful in here!”
Sadly, until this past Wednesday I had no idea Locust Grove even existed, although it’s only 15 minutes from my house, perhaps eight miles as the crow flies. I was reading the latest issue of Fine Cooking, which contained a short piece on the farm and its artisanal, raw sheep’s-milk cheeses. I immediately went to the farm’s Web site and then sent an e-mail to Clark asking for a tour. Three days later I met the cheese-maker.
Clark is a loquacious man with a broad open face and build reminiscent of his cheeses. He’s been raising sheep for 20 years — which I would guess is not quite half his life. He tells me he’s always wanted to make cheese, that milk and cheese have both fascinated him for as long as he can remember. Three years ago he finally made the plunge.
He’d learned as much about the process as he could from books. Then he lucked upon a partner in Sheri Palko, a software engineer who shows Border Collies. Palko got in touch with Clark looking for someone who would let her train her dogs on their sheep. One thing led to another and they formed a partnership. It turned out to be a fortuitous pairing as her engineering mind made her well-suited to setting up the systems they needed for tracking the cheese-making process and running a business, while Clark’s left-brained passion makes him the ideal choice as craftsman. Clark’s wife, Brenda, rounds out the team as the other cheese-maker and factotum.
Clark had spent years learning what he could from books and Web sites, but to finish his education he needed intense, hands-on training. He posted a note at a cheese-making Web site asking if anyone would take him on as a student and a year later master cheese-maker Allan Brown invited him and Brenda to Millaries Farm in Scotland for a sabbatical.
A Baptist minister, Clark describes cheese-making as a nearly holy act. I first read this comment on their Web site, but the passion in his voice as he talks about making cheese makes it clear this isn’t just marketing hype — this is his other calling. And when he addresses the sins of the iniquitous his eyes flash. Locust Grove isn’t certified organic. That certification is governmental nonsense, says Clark: A dairy can keep its animals locked in a barn up to their knees in their own excrement and as long as it doesn’t use antibiotics and feeds them organic grain it can be certified.
In contrast, the sheep at Locust Grove spend every day of their lives outside and eat grass for as long as it holds up. They do switch to organic grain and hay during the winter, but the sheep are still allowed to roam freely in their pastures. The result is the animals seldom get sick — a result often noted by those, like Clark, more concerned with the spirit of organic ranching than the letter.
As a former software engineer myself, I’m looking forward to eventually meeting Clark’s partner, Sheri Palko, but I was struck by the immediate connection this Baptist minister and I made. I was there for two hours, and while Clark did most of the talking and most of it was about the facts of the operation (which was proper because I was there to learn from him) I was completely caught up in his enthusiasm because it matched my own. The two hours simply evaporated.
Cheese-making begins by separating the curds (milk solids) from the whey (liquid); the result is the essence of milk and the rest of the process simply refines and tunes that essence. Meeting with passionate people such as Tim and Brenda Clark you find the essence of food creation, the liquid has been drawn off and you are left with the solids that have been refined and tuned over time.
You can read more about Locust Grove Farm and leave comments, thoughts, and remarks on my blog, Seriously Good.