In 2012, farmers Brad Lunn and Dan McMillen had an excess of sheep milk on their hands and no one to buy it. Their dairy business in Southwestern Ontario's Oxford County was struggling after unexpectedly losing some of their customer base. "We were at a crossroads in our farming career," says McMillen, which is when they decided to turn their milk into cheese and Crossroad Farms Sheep Gouda was born.
An eight-month-old wheel speaks of good milk and good cheese making with creamy, fruity notes that develop in complexity, evolving from an approachable combination of buttery sweetness and slight tang into deeper smoky, nutty notes. Pleasingly mellow but never boring, it will be equally at home on a cheeseboard or as an after-school snack.
With no cheese-making experience, McMillen approached Oxford County cheese producer Shep Ysselstein of Gunn's Hill Artisan Cheese for help. Ysselstein, who has studied cheese making in Canada, the U.S. and Switzerland, has been producing small-scale handmade cow's milk cheeses under the Gunn's Hill label since 2011. He hadn't considered making cheese for other people but liked the idea that he'd only be responsible for making and aging the cheese while Crossroad would take care of marketing. McMillen suggested using the sheep's milk to make a Gouda and the style integrated well with the cheeses Ysselstein was already making, allowing him to use moulds he already had.
A test batch of four wheels was made in February, 2012 before full production began that April. Ysselstein knew they had a quality cheese before even tasting it. "When you first open a wheel, it has a really nice floral aroma," he says, which made him confident it would age well. Although McMillen and Lunn were also happy with the initial result, it was nerve-racking to give the go-ahead based on only four young wheels. "When I said, 'let's do it' it was only two months old. It was a let's jump in and sink or swim," admits McMillen.
This past February, their one-year cheese-making anniversary, they cracked open one of the inaugural Goudas. "Boy was it good," says McMillen.
Greedily chipping away at the eight-month wedge in my fridge, I feel grateful (and a bit guilty) that the two farmers were forced into cheese making. Meaning, when shopping, buy a bigger piece than you think you'll need.
Available in Ontario at: Leslieville Cheese Market (Toronto), Alan's Butcher Shop (Whitby), Country Cheese (Ajax), Smiths Cheese (Covent Garden, London) or check the Crossroad Cheese Facebook Page for updates.
Sue Riedl blogs about cheese and other edibles at cheeseandtoast.com.