When you first turn in to Tyler Tucker's 84-acre farm, it kind of feels like the animals have the run of the place. You are first greeted by a traffic jam of turkeys and chickens who don't feel the need to move from the road just because you're driving a car toward them.
Once you get around the poultry, a herd of sheep comes into view, happily grazing in the shadow of the Bitterroots. That's when you notice the shiny new building nestled into the hillside above the pasture, half of it underground. This is where our thousands of years of sheep husbandry really has paid off: the cheese cave.
Let's back up a moment, because the cheese starts with the milk. The Tuckers milk their herd of 90 sheep twice a day, seven days a week, in their newly built creamery. You get a lot less milk from sheep than you do from cows, but according to Tyler, sheep have both high protein and high butterfat in the milk, "so you also get a lot richer cheese."
"I just really like cheese, and I also like raising the animals," Tucker says as he walks those 30 yards from the creamery to the cheese cave. "And I think it's a really neat thing when you raise the animals on-site, you're feeding them from your site. That milk's just getting transported right up the hill to be made cheese."
He's describing what the American Cheese Society classifies as "farmstead cheese," a special designation only used when the cheese is made at the farm, with no milk from outside sources.
The cheese cave is the dominion of the farm's resident cheesemaker, Stig Hansen. A former corporate chef and cookbook author, Stig left the corporate world to learn how to make farmstead cheese in the early 2000s. Now, as he stands next to the pasteurizing cheese vat, talking about whey in his light Danish accent, it's clear that Stig is right where he wants to be. "I just love cheese," he says. It seems to be a theme with these guys.
The first cave is the "blue room," as in blue mold. There are too many little bries aging on the shelves to count, all in different stages of their development. The young ones still look curdy, like feta pressed into the shape of a brie. As they get a little older, they start to go through a gnarly stagelet's just say they look like they were forgotten in the back of your college refrigerator. They emerge from their awkward phase as perfect white-rinded bries, but with a twist. Stig pokes holes in them as they age to make room for blue mold to grow inside. The effect is creamy and mild, the blue giving the brie a light burst of flavor.
The second cave is for Stig's washed rind cheese. A washed rind cheese is often considered a stinky cheese because the technique and the cultures used result in, well, an odiferous effect. "If someone tells me the cheese stinks, I take it as a compliment," Stig says. He adds that we must be careful in this cave—the b. linens culture used in the process would, much like Tyler's animals, have the run of the place if given the chance. "If you put anything else in there, it just jumps over and has a happy day growing on other cheeses."
Before you decide that you hate the idea of stinky cheese, consider this: Stig's washed rind cheeses have had their 15 minutes of fame. A cheese he made for his old business was featured on Anthony Bourdain's TV show (Bourdain called it 'incredible') and a distributor out of San Francisco has already placed an order, even though Stig hasn't even completed the first batch.
Also on the menu are the Tucker Family Farms' fresh sheep ricotta romana and a delicious, creamier-than-your-average feta. That ricotta though ... it's made from 100 percent whey, or the liquid leftover once the fat and protein solids are removed from the milk. The result is so sweet, nutty and creamy, it almost tastes chocolatey. My goodness, it is good.
Tucker Family Farms sells the blue brie, feta and ricotta (did I mention you should try the ricotta?) at the Clark Fork Market and the Hamilton Farmers Market, and their selection will grow in the coming weeks as more cheeses mature in Stig's cave. Once they figure out what we like to buy, Tucker envisions running products much like a brewery, with four or five staple cheeses and rotating seasonals.
In the meantime, Stig and Tyler are simply excited to finally be bringing their products to customers. "We're just like a couple of kids on Christmas morning," Stig says while preparing for market. The funny thing is, customers feel the same way.