The Accidental Cheesemakers

Holly and Eric Foster check the fragrance of their cheese, made from raw milk.
Holly and Eric Foster check the fragrance of their cheese, made from raw milk. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 27, 2006

EASTON, Md. -- The first time Holly Foster visited Cowgirl Creamery in downtown Washington, she slowly examined the high-end offerings produced by some of the country's most respected cheesemakers. She marveled at the handmade cheeses arranged on the store's countertops, and she tasted Cowgirl's own buttery Mt. Tam triple-creme from Northern California. Then she walked out.

Excited but intimidated by the artisanal displays, Foster called her husband, Eric, who told her to turn around and take her own cheese into the shop. "It's not good enough," Holly remembers saying. She had been seriously making cheese only for a year, and she couldn't possibly compete.

"Take your cheese inside," Eric insisted, and so Holly did, nervous and awestruck and tripping over her words. Within a few minutes one of the shop's co-owners was asking to stock Chapel's Country Creamery cheese.

"I almost fell on the floor," Holly says. "I was like, 'No way!' I didn't even believe I was talking to her. I flipped out. Who would have thought: a stay-at-home mom, four kids, married a farmer, and now we're talking to the owner of Cowgirl Creamery? My jaw was literally on the floor."

Now she laughs at the memory as she watches her husband milk several of the couple's 100 Jersey and Holstein cows. To her right is what they hope will become a functioning creamery early next year; Holly now drives to Pennsylvania twice a month to make her unpasteurized cow's milk cheese with the help of an Amish cheesemaker.

Behind her is the garage where she once hand-milked Rainey, her first dairy cow, a Jersey whose face is plastered on virtually every piece of Chapel's cheese. Outside the garage is a van that shuttles the Fosters' four kids around Talbot County on Maryland's Eastern Shore and that also brings back about 500 pounds of cheese after every 200-mile round-trip journey to Pennsylvania. The license plate reads "Cheeses."

Which all seems rather amusing to two unlikely cheesemakers. Holly, 37, was born on the Eastern Shore but had never handled a cow before she met Eric in 1988; the first time she was surrounded by cows, she froze in terror. Eric, 36, grew up on his father's dairy farm, trains racehorses for a living and has spent much of his life around animals, but he, well . . .

"I hated cheese," he says. "Kind of a crazy world, isn't it?"

Holly spent her 20s and early 30s raising the couple's children, and while she would help her husband with farm chores, she didn't pay much attention to gourmet food, let alone artisanal cheese.

"What would she spend her time doing? Cleaning the house, stuff like that," says 13-year-old Lee, their oldest child. "Just a house mom."

The Fosters bought their current property about a decade ago and initially raised replacement heifers there for dairy farmers. Looking for extra income, in the early 2000s they began attending conferences and researching dairy farming, focusing on value-added items such as ice cream and cheese. In 2002, Holly, who had never been farther west than Ohio, went to a cheesemaking seminar at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. She was mostly unversed in the world of specialty foods; one of her classmates planned to make sheep's milk cheese, and she remembers thinking, "The guy's gonna milk what?"

After another seminar in Massachusetts, she began a series of kitchen experiments, making one- to two-pound batches of farmhouse cheddar and mozzarella, queso blanco and ricotta, and feeding the results to her children and friends. Eric, who had never tasted much beyond Kraft slices and Velveeta, began to participate in the experiments. Friends and family members soon began requesting gifts of cheese, more than Holly was able to produce, and what she did make often vanished before she had cleaned the pots.

At first the milk came from supermarkets or from a nearby dairy farmer, but Holly wanted to control the quality of her product from beginning to end, and so three years ago this week, her husband woke her on Christmas morning and invited her to go outside to milk her new cow. She had never touched an udder.

"That's how it all got started," Holly says. "I mean, if he had brought this ornery cow home for me to get used to really being around cows, we might not have gotten this far. If the cow had kicked or anything, I would have said, 'I don't want to have any part of this milking.' But he had to get the best cow around."

While working with Rainey's milk, Holly continued amassing a library of books about cheese, and the Fosters traveled to food shows to taste different varieties. Together they stayed up until the early morning, making cheese in their kitchen, then aging it in their sunroom and in the extra refrigerator in their garage.

When the milking became all-consuming, they expanded their herd and began selling the milk to dairy cooperatives. The sales paid for outside labor, which in turn allowed Holly to focus more on cheesemaking.

The Fosters wanted to make only unpasteurized cheese, both because of what they consider its superior flavor and because of a more lucrative artisanal marketplace. Maryland regulations prohibit the commercial manufacture of raw-milk cheese; the Fosters worked out an arrangement with Henry Lapp, an Amish producer in Lancaster County, Pa. They used his equipment and aged their cheese in his caves, and about 18 months ago they began preparations to officially launch a commercial cheesemaking operation, named after their address on Chapel Road.

And, in a development that still amazes Holly, people liked the results. Before she began making cheese she had been inside the District only two or three times in her life, but she began weekly trips to the Penn Quarter farmers market, which helped land her products in Cowgirl Creamery and on cheese plates at 1789, Poste and Clyde's restaurants.

"The thing is, her cheese is fantastic," says Cowgirl co-owner Peggy Smith. "We'd be crazy not to take it."

Through a local farmers market, Holly met executives from the Eastern Shore's Tidewater Inn, who this fall invited the Fosters on a road trip to Murray's Cheese Shop, one of Manhattan's most prestigious cheese retailers. Murray's asked to stock Chapel's Cave-Aged Cheddar, one of two cave-aged bloomy-rind cheeses the Fosters produce.

"I was like, 'No stinkin' way!' " Holly says of their reception at Murray's. "I can't believe our cheese is going to New York."

And what now? Within the next six months the Fosters hope to buy cheese vats and presses, molds and draining tables, and to begin making substantial amounts of cheese on their farm. The front room in their newly built 2,500-square-foot facility will be used for production, and the back room will serve as a packing and distribution center. The middle room -- which now houses several children's bicycles and scattered toys -- will be used for aging; Holly hopes to build a climate-controlled cave underneath the concrete floor.

She has begun asking Maryland delegates and health officials to reconsider the state's ban on raw-milk cheese production, and she is optimistic that her creamery eventually will produce unpasteurized cheese. And, with a cheesemaking facility right outside her home, she hopes to spend more time launching the sorts of experiments that have filled her refrigerators for the past five years.

"That's what makes it fun and interesting," she says. "Sometimes, you don't pick the cheese. Sometimes, the cheese picks you."

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