Lifestyle

Vashon farmer learns the fine art of cheesemaking

Boo, a Jersey cow, enjoys a snack. - Amelia Heagerty/staff photo
Boo, a Jersey cow, enjoys a snack.
— image credit: Amelia Heagerty/staff photo

Take a turn on Beall Road and you may stumble upon a small Vashon dairy farm with an old-world charm.

Two enthusiastic dogs rush to meet incoming cars, and chickens squabble in a pen nearby. A few historic buildings are scattered on the gently rolling property, and young bulls are visible a few hundred yards away.

The real jewels of the farm, however, are the doe-eyed brown Jerseys who graze peacefully in a large enclosure while waiting for their evening milking.

A simple milking room is housed near the tank where milk is stored; just next to that is the room where cheese is mixed, molded, flipped and aged. Kurtwood Farms, once known for its raw milk, is now devoted to the creation of cheese.

The fresh farmstead cheese produced at Kurtwood is Vashon’s first commercially available cheese, and it’s being sought out by both cheese connoisseurs and fans of local foods.

Farmer Kurt Timmermeister named the Camembert-style cheese after the farm’s first cow, Dinah.

Dinah’s Cheese — creamy, buttery soft cheese with an edible white rind — is carried at Vashon Thriftway, as well as at several high-end stores and restaurants in Seattle. Though Vashon’s grocery store sells the cheese, 90 percent of Timmermeister’s business comes from Seattle shops and restaurants, which have jumped at the chance to carry the new cheese.

“The appearance of a new local farmstead cheese is something to

celebrate,” wrote Jonathan Kauffman in a recent Seattle Weekly food blog. “And Kurt Timmermeister, of Kurtwood Farms, has just come out with a good one.”

Dinah’s Cheese is unusual — it’s produced on a tiny scale, compared to the typical factory-made American cheese, which can be made in batches thousands of gallons at a time.

Timmermeister’s cheese — aged 25 days before it’s sold — is made 48 rounds at a time, a few batches a week.

“Ninety-nine percent of cheese comes from big factories,” Timmermeister said. “This is a super-small dairy.”

So small is Kurtwood Farms that there are only eight milking cows, each a Jersey with a fuzzy coat of brown fur this winter.

Washington dairy farms with more than 500 cows are common — they produce 77 percent of the state’s milk, according to Dairy Farmers of Washington. There are fewer than 40 smaller scale artisan cheesemakers in the state.

Timmermeister, 47, takes pride in his small-scale operation, which he began in earnest about six months ago.

An Islander for nearly 20 years, his dairy farm was a producer of raw milk for years before he transitioned in June to a cheese-only operation.

Selling milk “is not particularly interesting,” Timmermeister said. “You have cows and you milk them and you put it in a bottle and you sell it. I wanted to make cheese.”

He hopes to make his living crafting cheese, he said.

He began learning the art of cheese making this year, and purchased specialized cheese making equipment from Slovenia, the Netherlands and France to launch his operation.

The equipment needed for such small-scale cheese production isn’t made in the United States, he said.

For example, most dairies store their milk in tanks of 500 to 1,000 gallons; Kurtwood Farms’ tank is 40 gallons, and one recent Saturday, was only half full.

In contrast, places like the Darigold cheesemaking factory in Sunnyside, Wash., produce millions of pounds of cheese each year, said Blair Thompson of the Washington Dairy Products Commission. Washington is a “major cheese producer,” he added.

Homegrown operations like Kurtwood Farms are much less common than giants like Darigold.

Timmermeister, former owner of renowned Seattle restaurant Septieme, is the only cheesemaker on Vashon who sells his product commercially, though Sea Breeze Farm makes cheese seasonally and sells it at La Boucherie and the Vashon Farmers Market.

Most of the vendors of Timmermeister’s cheese heard about the new product by word of mouth and sought the farmer out to carry his cheese, he said.

Dinah’s Cheese “is a high-quality domestic cheese. They’re relatively few and far between,” said Shelley Hibbard, who works in the cheese department at Vashon Thriftway.

“It has a traditional Camembert flavor, but it’s a little cheddary, too — very creamy, very smooth,” she said. “It has several different flavor notes: There’s a milky note, the cheddar, the butter, and it’s a little salty.”

Hibbard said she predicts much success for Timmermeister, based on his first type of cheese. The dairyman is already developing a second, Parmesan-style hard cheese, but he needs to build a cheese cave to age the cheese in before he can begin making and selling it commercially.

“If he continues the way he’s going, he’s going to be a real force in the domestic cheese world, based on his production of this cheese,” Hibbard said.

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