Something to Smile About at Vintage Cheese Company in Traver
Say CheeseDecember 2014
By Candace Feely
Photos: Jacki Potorke
“It starts in here, in our milk room.” Ryan Davis, owner of Vintage Cheese, steps into the chilled room housing a 5,000-gallon milk tank. No matter what type of cheese is the end result, it begins the same.
“It’s all Jersey milk that comes in,” Davis explains. “The Jersey milk is a higher fat content, and so it yields more cheese and gives a stronger flavor. It’s something that makes us unique.”
It’s not only the milk from the recognizable brown cow that sets Vintage Cheese apart. It’s the process, most of which can be observed from the viewing room at Bravo Farms in Traver, home of the Vintage Cheese factory.
Each week, a load of Jersey milk arrives, and at 3:30 am, the transformation begins when the day’s first cheese maker pumps 600 gallons into the pasteurizer. While other factories heat the milk to a higher temperature and then flash pasteurize it in less than a second, Vintage Cheese takes its time.
“It’s the equivalent to cooking your food in a microwave versus the oven. So we do it slower at a lower temperature, which is going to leave a lot of the natural flavors in the milk,” Davis says. “It’s less efficient. But it makes it taste better.”
After the milk is pasteurized, it’s pumped into one of two vats, where it cools. A cheese maker adds cultures, stirs it for a couple of hours and then adds the rennet, which helps turn milk into Miss Muffet’s favorite snack: curds and whey.
Once the whey is drained, the curds are pressed to the side of the vat and cut into pliable strips. If the cheese is a drier cheese, they’ll spend hours flipping and pressing the strip, much like wringing out a washcloth. Eventually, the strips head to the curd mill. Salt and flavors are hand-mixed with the curds, the final step before pressing.
And then the waiting begins.
A delicious cheese doesn’t happen overnight. At Vintage Cheese, cheddars age for up to five years, so to enjoy a taste of really fine sharp cheese, you have to be patient.
Unless you’re a fan of “squeakers.” In that case, no waiting is required. Squeakers are cheese curds, named for the sound they make when you bite into them. Popped straight out of a tub or battered and fried, squeakers are quickly becoming one of Vintage Cheese’s top sellers. “People call us on a weekly basis and ask us what day we’re making cheese,” Davis says. “They want to come in and basically get the curds right out of the vat.”
From fresh squeakers to chipotle cheddar, Jack to Gouda, there is a science, even an art, to making cheese.
“There are lots of small nuances that you learn just by doing it over and over again,” Davis explains, noting the many years of experience his cheese makers have. “It’s a lot like baking. You get to the point where you don’t even really have to measure anymore. You just kind of know. When you see small differences in how the product is turning out, you can adjust on the fly pretty easily.”
The fact that everything is made by hand in open vats seems to make this possible.
“You can take our cabernet cheddar, for example, and it’s got a marbling. We mix the wine in during curd phase, by hand, and so it’s carried all the way throughout the cheese,” Davis says. Other plants may offer a cabernet cheddar, but often the cheese itself is soaked as a last step. That natural marble coloring is only accomplished by making cheese by hand.
Vintage Cheese makes on average 15 to 20 types of cheese, producing up to 400,000 pounds a year. They’ve branched out to include cheese made from goat and sheep milk, yet another element that makes Vintage Cheese unique.
“I never pictured myself in the cheese business,” Davis says, “but I love it.”
Those who love cheese can understand, and can likely appreciate the simple philosophy Davis holds: “Our goal is to make cheese that tastes better.”
Now that’s something to smile about.
Vintage Cheese • 36006 6th Street, Traver
(559) 897-4634 •www.bravofarmstraver.com/vintage-cheese
Find Vintage Cheese at all Bravo Farms locations:
Visalia, Tulare, Traver, and Kettleman City