Rebecca King, owner of Garden Variety Cheese near Monterey, California, with “Bubba,” the farm’s guard dog, tunnel-type sheep shelter behind.
Although Rebecca King calls her sheep cheese company “Garden Variety Cheese,” her farmstead product is far from pedestrian.
The unique cheese is sought after at area farmers markets and in chef’s specialty dishes at San Francisco’s high end restaurants.
The farm is nestled on 85 acres of rolling farmland in a snug valley east of Monterey where the residentsa flock of East Friesian and Lacaune breedsgraze on pasture grass and… a special delicacy: “I go to the organic Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing Company …and get the barley with its sugar removed due to the fermentation. It is the consistency of oatmeal, and called ‘spent grain’,” she said. “It’s high in protein and low in sugar and the sheep love it.”
Friesian and Lacaune ewes provide rich, sweet milk for Garden Variety Cheese.
Getting Into Sheep Cheese
King admits she wasn’t born into a farm family but rather a computer family in Silicon Valley. She was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area suburbs, attended University of California-Santa Cruz and majored in environmental studies and biology. During school she worked on a goat farm and organic farms as part of the non-profit Farm Research Foundation.
After graduation she attended the prestigious California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and worked as a chef. An introduction to sheep cheese began when she was employed at an upscale cheese shop in the city. This job opened her eyes and created a new career path.
“I worked along side a chef and cheese makers who brought together farming and food,” she said. “I knew this was the dream I wanted to pursue.”
Her family helped acquire the property and King secured a Natural Resources Conservation Service loan to pay for the initial farming costs. In 2007, she set a plan in motion with 50 ewes and two “contented” rams; building began the next year. The farm was certified organic in 2009.
She now serves on the board of the Dairy Sheep Association of North America (DSANA). “It’s the only place where there is information about milk sheep breeds, milking and other tools,” King said. “This is a young industry and it’s growing but unlike Europe there are not many educational resources available here.” Garden Variety Cheese was the third farm in California to be a licensed sheep dairy.
Today the flock numbers 85. “Bubba,” a blond multi-tasking Great Pyrenees, guards the sheep.
Earlier this year the sheep population exploded when 250 lambs were born within 48 hours and milking began 48 hours later!
King produces four varieties of sheep cheese and was the third farm in California to be a licensed sheep dairy.
King hand crafts cheese three times a week in a sterile 60 degree room with 90 percent humidity. Sheep milk is sweeter, richer and more concentrated than cow or goat milk. (The taste of sheep milk is something like sweetened evaporated milk.) Although sheep cheese is more expensive, King can make twice as much cheese from a smaller amount of sheep milk: One gallon of milk makes about two pounds of cheese.
“I begin with fresh, raw milk, add heat and begin the process. Enzymes and rennet are added and stirred until the mixture is solidified. The cheese wheelsweighing six to seven poundsripen one week before going into the high-humidity aging cave,” she says. “This is very labor intensive work and there are no shortcuts.”
Cheesemaking on the farm is a four to five hour process and one-third of that time is cleaning the receptacles. King admits there was a sizeable upfront investment in animals and equipment before the profits began to trickle in. She advises potential sheep cheese entrepreneurs to do their homework before setting out.
The productsfour hard cheeses and one feta styleare all named for flowers.
“Moonflower” is raw sheep cheese aged for four to six months. During aging it develops a washed rind which gives it a lovely orange color. It has a smooth texture, with a salty caramel flavor and a hint of pungency at the finish.
“Cosmos” is a raw-milk feta aged in brine for over 60 days. Sheep’s milk makes a rich and creamy feta which stands up well to the intense saltiness. King says she likes to sprinkle it over cucumbers, red onions, and fresh tomatoes or mixed into warm pasta with artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes.
“Black-Eyed Susan” is raw-milk sheep cheese aged for four to six months. The flavor, similar to a Manchego variety is very fruity and buttery, with a nice tang and a rich flavorful finish. The unique flavor compliments figs and honey, salami and brown ale.
“Beau’s Blend” is a blend of cow’s milk from nearby Schoch Dairy and our raw sheep milk. It’s aged three to four months and is pleasantly sharp and creamy, with small eyes. It’s great for omelets and gourmet hamburgers as well as paired with a full-flavored red wine.
Another raw sheep cheese is “Hollyhock” which is aged for about eight months. The extra aging gives it a full, rich flavor and a smooth texture. It is mildly tangy and reminiscent of brown butter and roasted pistachios. Dates, brown bread and a full-bodied red wine pair nicely with Hollyhock cheese.
These wheels of Garden Variety Cheese were first soaked in a brine bath before being placed here for aging. The farm sells the cheese at farmers markets and to upscale San Francisco restaurants.
“I am surprised that customers at the farmers markets know so much about sheep milk,” she exclaims. “However, often it is a ‘hard sell’ and I have to coax them into trying some samples. But once they taste the cheese they are hooked. Customers feel that buying our cheese helps support small farmers.”
She also adds some health reasons to the sales pitchsheep milk is easier to digest and both sheep and goat milk cheeses have smaller fat molecules.
After explaining about sheep milk and the cheese making process the majority still have a misconception about the goats. “They think a goat is a male sheep!” King laughs. “I do have one token goat on the farm and he is really a brat.”
Garden Variety Cheese brand sells cheese wholesale at $20 per pound and at Santa Cruz and Bay Area farmers markets for $30 per pound. The farm also sells the lambs for meat.
The farm acquires investors via the California Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Over the last 20 years, CSA has become a popular way for consumers to buy local, seasonal food directly from a farmer.
Here are the basics: A farmer offers a certain number of “shares” to the public. For most farms, that share consists of a box of vegetables, but other farm products may be included. Interested consumers purchase a share and in return receive seasonal farm products each week throughout the growing season.
This arrangement is a win-win relationship between farmer and customer: The farmers get to spend time marketing the food early in the year and receive payment early in the season, which helps with the farm’s cash flow, plus offers an opportunity to get to know the people who eat the food they grow.
Customers receive ultra-fresh food, get exposed to new vegetables and new ways of cooking, attend an open house at the farm several times a year and develop a relationship with the farmer.
“Our relationship with our customers is fantastic,” King says. “Each $300 investment gives customers $400 in actual produce. They come out to the farm once or twice a year and milk the sheep, feed the lambs and have a picture taken with “their” adoptive sheep. They also receive a cheese shipment each month, a whole lamb for the freezer and a wool comforter, made from our sheep wool.”