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Women cheesemakers – trailblazers in the cheese industry

Posted by Alicia Baldwin, Byerly’s St. Louis Park cheese specialist
Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Cheese making has an extensive history, dating back thousands of years. Cheese was mentioned in Greek mythology, images were carved on Egyptian tombs, and documentation of its widespread existence throughout the Roman Empire was well recorded.

The most common story of cheese origin, but by no means the only, is accidental discovery. Back in the day, milk was transported in shepherds’ pouches made from the lining of calf stomachs. Rennet, an enzyme found in the lining, caused the transported milk to curdle and separate into curds and whey. Upon this discovery, the beginning of cheese history was formed.

During the late 1700s and early 1800s, cheese making took place in barns and larger farmhouse kitchens with women managing the business. Known as women’s work, most men wanted nothing to do with it at the time. By the mid-1800s, factories replaced small operations and employed at least one female cheesemaker. Because cheese making is a physically laboring job, men eventually took over as companies grew.

Fast forward a few hundred years to present-day. Of the 1,200 plus cheesemakers, 40 are female and only one is a Master Cheesemaker).

Notably there are a handful of women who blazed the trail for females in this industry. In honor of National Women’s History month, we’d like to give you an insight into three of our favorite leading ladies.

  • Laura Chenel was the pioneer for introducing goat’s milk cheese to the states. Her desire to combine a love of goats, creativity and rural living cheesemaking was a natural choice. Now retired, she began her career in the 70s. Living in Sonoma County, CA, Laura traveled to France, spending three months honing her craft. Later discovered by Alice Waters (well-known American chef and author), her cheeses were exposed to the restaurant scene and history was made. Her fresh chévres delight the senses and are worth a try on your next visit into one of our 22 stores.
  • Marieke Penterman, from Holland’s Family Farms of Thorp, WI, is another standout. Originally from the Netherlands, she moved to the states with her husband Rolf to establish a dairy farm and cheesemaking business. With backgrounds in dairy farming, they wanted to stay true to their Dutch heritage and make Gouda -style cheeses. Marieke earned her Wisconsin cheesemaking license in 2004 and went back to Holland for a period of time to learn and perfect her recipe. Raising her own herd and using a single-piping method to transport her milk from dairy to creamery, Marieke has created a line of Goudas with outstanding results. Her cheeses note hints of butterscotch, roasted nuts and a touch of sweetness. With 40 different awards under her belt and counting, we think she must be doing something right!
  • Finally, a local favorite is Jodi Ohlsen Read, who is cheesemaker and co-owner of Shepherd’s Way Farms in Nerstrand, MN, with her husband Steven. Running a small farmstead sheep cheese farm is not easy, but Jodi and Steven have kept this business going since the mid-90s. After a devastating arson fire took most of their flock and all of their livestock housing in 2005, they have kept the passion alive. Jodi is still creating award-winning big woods blue, hidden falls and small batches of other favorites for the local farmers markets. Using mostly Friesian sheep and rotational grazing, the Reads are making a fierce come-back. Come in and try some of their amazing fromagge!

I commend the many talented women that pepper this lovely trade. I’m honored to work the cheese counter where their delights are showcased daily and I look forward to the next vat of something special.

Tags: cheesewomen

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