Yes She Can
From doctoring to dog breeding and now dairying, Pat Elliott proves it's never too late to make cheese
At the dirt road entrance to Pat Elliott’s address in Rapidan, Virginia, there are two signs. One is a large, handsome plaque advertising Dr. Patricia Elliott’s on-site practice in family medicine; the other, tacked above, is a small homemade shingle with hastily painted lettering that reads “Everona Dairy.” One is clearly meant; the other ad hoc. For those who know Elliott’s story, the contrast in signage isn’t surprising—it’s emblematic, marking the difference between a best-laid plan and one that’s improvised. Thirty-three years ago, when Elliott moved from the city of Richmond to this rolling ten-acre patch of land in the Piedmont region, professional doctoring was her trade and her intention. Becoming a sheep farmer and award-winning cheesemaker were not. In fact, Elliott admits, “I didn’t really know much about cheese.” And she knew even less about sheep.
All that changed several years later, after a chance meeting with a dog. While strolling through a local food festival, Elliott happened upon a border collie trial, showcasing the breed’s natural instinct for herding. On impulse, she bought one of the puppies. Then, Elliot recalls, “the dog needed something to do, so I got her some sheep.” Elliott’s brood of collies grew as she became more involved in trials and breeding the dogs. But having more dogs also meant keeping more sheep. One day, the plain-spoken Elliott remembers, “I was standing out in the pasture with the sheep and started to wonder if they could make money . . . and pay for themselves. I thought maybe [I] could milk them.”
A lifelong do-it-yourselfer who makes her own beer, soap, fruit preserves, ice cream, crackers, and bread (80-year-old Elliott hasn’t bought a store loaf in more than 50 years), the doctor already had some basic experience making cheese using cow’s milk. When she tried the same methods using raw sheep’s milk, the results were remarkably good.
Encouraged, the doctor went looking to other breeders for practical information about milking and operating a sheep dairy. But in those days—the early ’90s, before the artisanal cheese movement gained ground—most American sheep keepers did it for the meat, not the milk. Elliott found few mentors. “It’s a very particular kind of person that has a sheep dairy,” she muses. “Usually they’re really interested in food and don’t mind a lot of hard work with few results.” As if describing herself, the doctor continues, “They’re often people who have quite a lot of education and other experiences in the world . . . and who want to live in the country.”
Although firsthand dairy advice and information was scarce in those trial-and-error days, Elliott credits a well-worn copy of the industry primer, Practical Sheep Dairying, originally written by Olivia Mills in 1982 (now out of print), with teaching her good dairy practices. “That book is very helpful to the newcomer. Olivia went all around the world and watched what sheep farmers were doing. . . She collected a lot of information about raising and caring for sheep.”
Tackling the details of animal husbandry was one thing for Elliott; creating great cheese was another. But characteristically—for this native Midwesterner who has raised seven children, adopted two more, graduated medical school (at a time when women stayed home), built a private practice, got married and divorced twice, and then packed it all in and moved east—she welcomed the challenge. As her all-purpose assistant, Betsey Brantley, remarks, “Pat really thrives when the universe is throwing stuff at her.”
And when it does, the doctor responds with her trademark logic. In this case that meant going back to school to learn how to be a professional cheesemaker. At age 67, Elliott became a student again in a class for apprentice cheesemakers at the University of Wisconsin. The course gave her the technical know-how for the trade as well as invaluable industry connections. And she also discovered the American Cheese Society (ACS), with its ever-widening community of cheese folk. “Now I know a lot of experts I can call if I have a problem,” she says.
It took the doctor several years to produce her first market-worthy aged sheep’s-milk cheese, named Piedmont, after the region of gently rolling land between the mountains and the Tidewater region of Virginia where Rapidan is located. The cheese is Elliott’s signature product; it won first place in the Farmhouse category for sheep’s milk cheese at the ACS 2005 competition, and Elliott sells all the Piedmont she makes. (Nonetheless, Elliott says she’s still “perfecting” it.)
Influenced by Pyrenees-style sheep’s milk cheeses, Piedmont is made from raw milk and a mesophilic culture—one that thrives at moderate temperatures. Aged about two months, the firm cheese delivers a nutty, sweet-earthy flavor with a mellow tang. Its balanced taste and sturdy texture also make it a great base for crafting flavored versions, of which Elliott makes more than a dozen, including black pepper, herbes de Provence, chive, dill, sun-dried tomato, truffle, and others. Beyond these value-added variations, Elliot also makes several derivatives of Piedmont—one bathed in local red wine (Pride of Bacchus), and another layered with ash (Everona Marble).
In addition to Piedmont, Everona offers three other distinct rawmilk cheeses: Stony Man, named for the highest peak in the Blue Ridge mountains, is a smooth, densely textured cheese with pronounced tang. As it ages, the finish becomes sweeter. Shenandoah, which took third place this year in the U.S. Cheesemaking Championship, has a firm yet creamy texture that showcases the sweeter sheep's milk, overlaid with notes of butter, grass, hay, and nuts. Lastly, Elliott’s Blue Ridge cheese, created in 2008, is produced in small quantities, primarily for the local farmer’s market. Its soft, buttery texture is similar to Fourme d'Ambert and Stilton.
FROM MILK TO MARKET
Everona creamery is a small white outbuilding that stands like a bright Post-it note among a patchwork of animal pens, improvised fencing, feeding troughs, and open fields. Sheep enter one side door for milking; months later, cheese exits another. That’s the short version; the full story reveals a never-ending routine of handwork inside the little white building that makes this transformation happen.
Carolyn Wentz, Elliott’s daughter-in-law who inherited the job of cheesemaking three years ago, works in the tiny “make room” in the creamery, equipped with little more than a 60-gallon vat and a stainless steel sink. Once or twice a day (depending on the milk supply), Wentz dons a hairnet, clean hospital-issue garb, elbow-length gloves, and sterilized wellies—the hygienic dress code of all cheesemakers who must prevent bad bacteria from overtaking the good, lest the cheese be corrupted.
For a batch of Piedmont, Wentz starts with raw milk that she collects from the next-door milk cooler in five-gallon buckets. Wheeling the buckets into the make room, Wentz’s small cart leaves behind a trail of diluted iodine—Elliott’s disinfectant of choice for the creamery and all its equipment. “Most people use bleach,” the doctor remarks, “but I don’t think it’s good for cheese.”
After pouring the milk into the heat-jacketed steel vat, Wentz gently warms it to 90°F, being careful to take its temperature regularly; a few degrees off either way can change the texture and flavor of the cheese. Not that it would necessarily become bad cheese—it just wouldn’t be Piedmont.
Next, the culture is added and the machine’s stirring paddles are turned on for 10 minutes; this step starts the acidification of the milk and the development of the flavor of the cheese. Animal rennet, the coagulant, is added and the mixture is left to rest for thirty minutes. Meanwhile, Wentz records everything—the date, time, temp, pH (acidity), and comments for every step and every batch—on a clipboard chart.
When the curd has softly jelled, Wentz drags a gloved finger through the mixture to see if it leaves a crater; when it does, the texture is set and she can start cutting the cheese by hand using a tool made of metal wires.
After several minutes of vigorous cutting to create ½-inch pieces of curd, Wentz turns the paddles on again and reheats the mixture to 98°F. The soupy whey begins to “cook out” at this point, separating from the curd. After reaching temperature, the whey is drained off and Wentz quickly starts scooping the curds into perforated molds. Moving the filled molds onto a flat steel surface, she uses her full strength to press down forcefully on the curds, kneading and turning to squeeze out the sweet-smelling whey. Speed is essential now, as the curds naturally knit together and will create a premature firmness if left too long. It’s as if, Wentz jokes, “they’re in a real hurry to be cheese.”
After being wrapped in a thin plastic mesh that gives the cheese a textured surface and hides any imperfections, the new wheels of cheeses are then brined for forty-eight hours. For tracking purposes, each wheel gets a number, hand carved into its side.
Finally, the nascent cheeses are moved to the cool cave—a dark closet inside the creamery—where they’ll rest on wooden shelves for at least sixty days (the minimum aging time required by the U.S. health department for rawmilk cheeses). Wentz will also set a few wheels aside and age them longer—as much as thirteen months—to create variations in Everona’s line. The cheesemaker also likes to experiment with flavors and textures. “I took a sixty-day-old Piedmont, shredded it, and mixed it with a new batch,“ she shares, pointing to a dark blond wheel on a top shelf in the cave. “It’s about four months old now. . . I’m hoping it’ll have some complexity when we cut into it.” With Elliott, she’s also working on a creating a sheep’s-milk cheddar.
Everona’s three other raw-milk cheeses are crafted in much the same way as the Piedmont, but with variations in the type of culture, timing, temperature, and technique. Stony Man is made using a thermophilic culture—one that thrives at a higher temperature (115°F to 120°F)—during the second heating, creating a denser cheese; Shenandoah is a washed-curd cheese, for which one-third of the whey is partially drained off during cheesemaking and replaced with hot water to modify its acidity. Instead of going directly into the cave for aging like the other cheeses, Shenandoah spends five days at room temperature (65°F to 70°F). This treatment creates small holes throughout the wheel; hence Shenandoah is referred to as a Swiss-style cheese.
The last standalone product in Everona’s line, Blue Ridge, is a semisoft blue cheese aged for two months. Wentz uses the traditional Penicillium roqueforti culture, but applies it to the rind rather than piercing the cheese with it, as is common in blue cheesemaking. For Blue Ridge, the culture penetrates the cheese via natural fissures and tiny cracks.
With her daughter-in-law deftly managing production in the creamery these days, Elliott shuffles her time between tending to her patients (yes, she still has a medical practice) and her animals (the resident sheep, dogs, cats, fish, and birds). She dotes on everything four-legged, but on a recent visit during lambing season, it was clear that Everona’s 140 Friesian sheep were getting the doctor’s undivided attention. Indeed, Elliott even sleeps with the ewes each night during the weeks of lambing, camped out inside a small plywood cubby in the barn with a few blankets, a reading lamp, and the doctor’s simple comforts—good coffee and excellent poetry (A book of Mary Oliver’s verse is her current favorite).
Mother to mother, Elliott sleeps with one ear listening for the telltale groans of the expectant ewes, who will each deliver two to three lambs. “The babies are often born at night,” Elliott explains: “They’re wet and the barn is cold so they can die if you don’t warm them. And the first lamb is always at risk. You’ve got to get it out right away.” Standing in the barn among some of the youngest of the 300-plus lambs born on her watch this past spring, Elliott adds, “There’s an anxious moment when they first arrive and the lamb doesn’t breathe. And you wait and hope they can do it on their own . . . sometimes you have to help. In the middle of the night, there’s a real advantage to being right there.” As the baby lambs noisily baa and bleat beside Elliott, you get the feeling that they wholeheartedly agree.
Pat Elliott and her assistant, Betsy Brantley, sample Piedmont at a D.C. farmer's market.
Written by Elaine Khosrova
Photography by Wil Edwards