Welcome to The Good Curd, where each month we’ll uncover and expound upon the myriad delights of cheese. Julia Ricciardi and Brett Bankson explore cultured cream in all its glory—creamy Brillat-Savarin, salty Pecorino, funky Maroilles, crumbly paneer, freshly made Burrata, or three years-aged Gouda . The forms and characteristics of cheese are as varied and intricate as the cuisines that utilize it and the folks who make it. (Did you know that women play a key role in cheese history in the U.S.A?) This series will explore women who make the stuff, as well as reviews, pairing suggestions, and tips for selecting the best cheese for any occasion.
This month, I traveled to Chehalis, WA to visit Lisa Jacobs of Jacobs Creamery. Lisa is a regular at the Portland farmer’s markets, so (if you live in Portland) chances are that you’ve seen her bright, bucolic stand downtown or around the city. After getting lost and subsequently finding myself amongst the foothills of central Washington, I spent a savory evening at the creamery sampling cheeses, talking about Lisa’s experience as a woman in the food industry, and getting insight on what not to do if you want to succeed as a cheesemaker.
Brett Bankson: Can you tell me why your labels are so colorful?
Lisa Jacobs: Well, I’ve stood at cheese counters in stores and thought to myself, “What makes me want to buy this cheese?” When people are looking at all these blobs of dairy in a cheese case, it’s an entirely different process from a farmer’s market where I can explain the cheeses in person. I love color, I love flowers, and I want that part of myself to be there selling my cheese. I want people to get excited about my cheese.
BB: How do you approach selling at farmer’s markets versus selling in stores?
LJ: Regardless of where I’m selling, I’ve learned that you have to move a lot of inventory just in order to subsist. Making and selling cheese is not glamorous.
BB: How do your Irish roots influence your cheesemaking?
LJ: I didn’t grow up with a cheese education or cheese course at dinner every night; I grew up with good cheese, just not always in my house. Now, I visit home in Ireland every couple of years. Since I’ve learned how to make cheese, I haven’t gone back so much to make cheese as to explore really great cheesemaking practices. [In Ireland] I grew up around these people who would just take their dairy and do all these things like making delicious butter and making delicious cheese.
BB: Was it your exposure to that kind of cheese that got you interested in cheesemaking?
LJ: You know, not at all. I remember being in kindergarten and sitting on the big mat and saying definitely that I wanted to be a lawyer. I knew what I wanted to do. But sometimes you don’t realize the reality of it, and I didn’t want to work for somebody else for the rest of my life. I was going to have massive school debt, work for a huge firm and have someone else take credit for my work. After leaving law school, I started a business gardening and baking, but I also started reading this book about a family farm in the Alps. In it, I read about how the grandmother took the granddaughter to learn how to make cheese, and it was one of those moments when you’ve never really thought about a certain subject in that way—it was my revelation with cheese. I put the book down and said “I want to make cheese.” So, I called up this cheese class and somehow got past a three-month waiting list. It was my birthday present to myself. I had no idea what I was doing and I was floored. I was really just intrigued by the whole process: you put some drops from the lining of the third stomach of an animal and then add some “pixie dust” and you have this delicious product.
BB: What’s your favorite part of the process?
LJ: Sometimes you screw it up, and you get to figure out what went wrong. It took me a long time to understand cream cheese as a concept, but a lot of what I do is just intuition. It used to take me a long time to measure out cultures and calculate stuff—I found out that there are a lot of hurdles. You mess up, you learn from your mistakes and you can figure things out if you just keep going.
BB: Can you tell me what it’s like being a woman in the cheesemaking industry?
LJ: I think it’s less that I am woman and more that I am a young woman. When I first started going to ACS (the American Cheese Society’s convention), people used to ask me “Who’s daughter are you? Who are you with?”. It’s more of an age thing than anything—I don’t know any other single, 29 year-old woman running a cheesemaking business! I do have to get special equipment sometimes because I’m too short for some of the usual machinery. My biceps are pretty good now, though.
BB: So you feel close to other cheesemakers?
LJ: Yeah! We go out to pub crawls and cheese tastings together. You get to know people. I never feel like I’m competing with people. I’ll tell you my recipe, my cultures, my equipment, but what’s really important is the dairy and where it's from. Unless you’re using the same milk I am, and making cheese in the same place that I am, we will always have distinct products. For example, right now in autumn, butterfat content is going up and it’s like an early birthday present for me. I only make my blue in the fall – high humidity and high fat mean that I’m not working against nature where I am.
BB: What about your business are you particularly proud of?
LJ: To be honest, I’m really aware of pathogens. I work really hard to keep my facility clean and safe. I read the FDA reports of plants getting shut down and that puts the fear of God in me. But really, what my business is about is getting that look on people's faces when they really like something. It’s like when you have friends or family over for dinner and you know you did a really good job and having that satisfaction is really intimate. That element, that interaction is what my business is about. All the stuff I do is about making this better, about making people satisfied in a way that just can’t happen without cheese.