— The dominant feature of the next room is the rectangular 1250-gallon open tank -- about 12 feet by 4 feet -- filled with milk. A man wearing hair nets on his beard and head paces around the tank, eyeing the milk. "This is my son-in-law, David," Wesselink says. "He and my daughter Valerie are the cheese makers." He points to the milk on which a glossy, semi-solid surface is starting to form. "Here you see the milk has come in here. It was pumped in this morning, fresh out of the cows. Then they added the culture to it and the rennet that sets it up."

Wesselink's daughter, Valerie Thomas, who has walked in behind him, explains. "The culture is a bacteria specific to gouda cheese. If we were making another kind of cheese, we'd use a different culture. We get it from Holland. The rennet is an enzyme which helps in the firming up of our cheese. It's a necessary ingredient in our cheese-making. Many rennets are animal-based, usually from an animal's digestive tract. If you're making cow's milk cheese, you use rennet from cow origin. If we were making sheep cheese and using an animal rennet, we'd get it from a sheep source. Another type of rennet comes from a thistle plant. Another type of rennet is grown and harvested. Ours happens to be a vegetable-based rennet. Just by chance we started using that in the beginning of our cheese-making process. One of the benefits has been that people who are on vegetarian diets, who don't want meat products in their diet, can eat this cheese."

Valerie steps to a sink up against the wall of the trailer and begins scrubbing her hands like a surgeon before an operation. "She's going to test the cheese," Wesselink explains. "She's going to stick her hand in that mess, then lift up. If the curd breaks in a straight line, it's ready to be cut."

When Valerie has finished washing her hands she dips her right hand, index finger extended, down through the curd, then curls it back up. The glossy curd splits in a straight line along the length of her finger. She repeats the process all around the tank to make sure the whole batch has set up. "Sometimes it takes the milk 45 minutes to set up," she explains. "Sometimes it takes an hour, sometimes it takes an hour and 15 minutes to set up. You don't know. And you can't rush it. You've got to be on its time."

After her last test dip, she nods to David, who is standing by with a "knife" -- imagine a tennis racket but metal with a square head bent 90 degrees to the handle and strings running only up and down -- ready to "cut the cheese." With this knife he cuts the curds first side to side across the tank, then lengthwise. "See the pale yellow liquid coming up through the cut lines," Wesselink says. "That's the whey."

"Remember the nursery rhyme, 'Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet eating her curds and whey?' " David asks. "I remember thinking, 'What the hell are curds and whey?' When I started making cheese, I found out."

When David is done cutting the curds, he'll drain the whey out of the tank. It will go back to the dairy, where it's mixed with the cows' feed. After that first drain, he'll spray the curds down with hot water, which causes them to shrink and expel any more whey trapped in them. When they're the proper consistency, neither too hard nor too soft, he and Valerie will pack them into wheel-shaped molds. "Then the molds get stacked up four high over there," Jules says, "and they get pressed for about an hour and a half or two hours. Then we turn them over and press them for another hour and a half, two hours. We leave them overnight, and the next morning they go into the brine bath for two days. They're turned every 6 hours while they're in the brine. Then they're taken out and left to dry. Then we put the vegetable-fiber paint on them. From there they go onto the shelf for aging. From that moment on, they're just lying there being turned all the time."

This process produces 8000 pounds of cheese per month, cheese that sells for between $11.35 per pound for the "super aged" and $5.95 for the plain mild. Those are the retail prices. Wesselink won't divulge his wholesale prices.

Wesselink estimates that it would take $150,000 to set up a cheese plant like his. "That's with trailers," he says. "If you had to put up a building it would cost a heck of a lot more."

With four full-time employees and three part-time, Wesselink says his profit margin is narrow but adds, "We are making a living out of it."


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