Cheese, please

From fromage blanc to queso fresco, Orland Farmstead Creamery adds flavor to your plate

Orland Farmstead Creamery co-owner Valerie Miller hangs cheese to dry. The whey is captured in a tub below to be fed to the pigs.

Orland Farmstead Creamery co-owner Valerie Miller hangs cheese to dry. The whey is captured in a tub below to be fed to the pigs.

Photo courtesy of Orland Farmstead Creamery

Visit the creamery:
It’s open to the public on the first Saturday of each month. Tours on the hour, from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. $5, includes samples of cheese. See Facebook for more info or to buy tickets in advance.

Valerie Miller has always been a cheese-lover, a trait she says runs in the family. She remembers when she was young, putting together a gift basket of a variety of cheeses for her grandfather, who was particularly enamored of the stinkiest one of all: Limburger. Her go-to after-school snack, she says, was ricotta mixed with spices and spread on crackers.

“My mother laughed when I made ricotta with garlic and dill,” she said last week by phone. Now a cheesemaker by trade, Miller noted that variety is one of her best-sellers. “She said, ‘You made this when you were little!’”

Miller is co-founder and -owner of Orland Farmstead Creamery, which specializes in soft, cow’s-milk cheeses ranging from fromage blanc and feta to queso fresco and Miller’s own concoction: ricottage, a hybrid of ricotta and cottage cheese.

Creamery co-owner Paul Schmidt stirs cheese in a vat. He bought the dairy farm in 1977 and completed the cheese plant in 2009.

Photo courtesy of Orland Farmstead Creamery

“People were asking for cottage cheese, and they were asking for ricotta,” she said. But the creamery, which opened in 2012, is a Grade B dairy, meaning its milk can be used in dairy products like cheese and butter but not for drinking. Cottage cheese is considered a fluid milk product, and therefore requires a Grade A. Ricotta, on the other hand, needs to be heated all the way to 190 degrees, something the creamery couldn’t accommodate with its existing equipment. And so ricottage, which uses cottage cheese culture but is dried to a consistency that resembles ricotta, was born.

In fact, much of Orland Farmstead Creamery’s success has been built on similar creative thinking. Paul Schmidt, a third-generation dairyman, bought the Orland dairy farm in 1977. In 2005, in an attempt to survive as other dairies in the region succumbed to economic pressure, he began building the cheese plant. He completed it and had it licensed for manufacturing in 2009. Plans to attain Grade A certification in order to sell fluid milk proved too costly, so he set his sights solely on cheese. Around that same time, Miller, who’d been making her own cheese using milk from her daughter’s dairy goat, began teaching classes on the art through the Chico Area Recreation and Park District.

Schmidt, not knowing much about making cheese, learned from a neighbor who was using his facility to make queso fresco how to make that variety of mild, crumbly cheese often used in Mexican dishes. He succeeded and began selling it to local restaurants. It was so good, in fact, that one of the chefs started asking if he could make mozzarella as well. For that he needed more expertise, and his search for a teacher led him to Miller.

“He asked if I would come out and teach him how to make it,” she said. “We messed around with it for a couple of months and I finally said, ‘Why mozzarella? It’s the hardest cheese there is.’ So, we thought about making other cheeses and working on mozzarella on the side.”

A partnership was born.

When they aren’t being milked, which is just once a day, the creamery’s cows are free to roam the open pastures.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

Out on the farm on a hot morning last week, assistant cheesemaker Terri Anne Moore offered insight into the creamery’s day-to-day operations. Outside, many of the cows—all Holsteins—huddled in the shade by the barn, but others roamed across the fields, which are rotated for grazing and span 40 acres. Sharing the space were pigs of all sizes, including piglets that were spied naughtily running from one pen to another, the largest one struggling to fit its plump belly through the hole they’d made in the fence. When they’re big enough, they’ll be sold, most likely to local families who use them for meat.

Moore, who started working at the creamery last May and moved on-site in September, explained that the cows—there are 60 on the farm, but only 30 are milked at any one time—get milked once a day, as opposed to the standard twice.

“It’s less stressful for them,” she explained while walking through the milking parlor, which was empty, save for a few cats, at the time.

Once-a-day milking also yields a higher butter fat content, Miller said. Since Holsteins are typically not used for cheese, as their natural butterfat content is low, moderating their milking has multiple benefits. Butterfat, she said, affects the texture, coagulation and chemical composition of the end product.

“It’s not as consistent as, say, buying cheese from Kraft,” she said. “At Land O Lakes or Kraft, they’re getting milk from a bunch of different dairies. They test it and adjust it so it’s consistent. Being an artisan cheese company, we don’t do that. As milk varies, we adjust our recipes, but sometimes the texture of the cheese, or the flavor, changes.”

Terri Anne Moore, assistant cheesemaker, shows some of the inventory in stock. Because most of their sales are preorders, there’s no need to keep much on-hand.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

Every two days, they have enough milk to start making cheese. A hose transports the milk from the parlor to a huge vat in the corner of the largest room in the factory. A variety of instruments are used to gauge temperature and record readings as the milk is pasteurized—basically heated and then cooled to eliminate bacteria. It’s then diverted into the smaller vats spread out in the room.

Each cheese-making day, Moore said, she consults her inventory as well as a list of orders to determine how much of any one cheese needs to be made. The cooler that holds the creamery’s inventory is small; with most of their product being sold wholesale, there’s very little left over, meaning minimal waste.

When the milk has been treated with its intended culture—a consistent element that gives each cheese its unique character—it’s again heated and cooled, seasoned as needed, then hung to dry. The collected whey—the watery byproduct of cheese—is then fed to the pigs. Once dry, the cheese is placed in molds, cut and packaged. About half of it makes its way to grocery stores from Sacramento to the Bay Area all the way to Oregon. The other half goes to local restaurants. In Chico, Crush and Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. use the most. You can also find it at Farm Star Pizza, Grana and Tin Roof Bakery (where Moore once served as pastry chef), among others.

Over the years, Miller has watched Orland Farmstead Creamery grow from selling at farmers’ markets to being on the shelves at Raley’s. “When he started, Paul was pasteurizing 500 gallons a month,” she said. “Now we pasteurize over 500 gallons a week—about 600 to 800 gallons a week.”

The goal is to continue to grow, she said. They’re approaching it organically, by increasing the herd naturally. It’s a niche industry in this area, as raising cows here is more difficult than it is on the coast, where the weather is more moderate, Miller said. Ten to 15 years ago, Glenn County was home to many dairies, she said, but most closed because they weren’t profitable. They’ve succeeded by maintaining their farmstead values—meaning all their cheese is created from milk from their own, on-site cows—and not selling their milk to larger companies.

“It’s not very profitable,” said Miller, who finally did perfect a mozzarella recipe; it’s one of the five cheeses they make. “It’s definitely a labor of love. We’ll have to increase our volume to ever make it profitable. But Paul and I really enjoy it, and Terri does, too: the lifestyle, the challenges, the rewards.”