Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Cheese Stands Alone--Monte McIntyre

“The farmer in the dell.  The farmer in the dell.  Heigh-ho, the derry-o, the farmer in the dell!”  This children’s nursery rhyme and game tells of a long series of events, with the farmer taking a wife, the wife taking a child, the child taking a...well, everyone knows this popular chorus.  However, at the end, the cheese is standing alone.  This may be a bit of a stretch, but it really is what came to mind when I visited with twenty-five year cheese making veteran Monte McIntyre, who now lives in the Black Hills after retiring from his years of making sure cheese could stand on its own.

            Born and raised on a dairy and cattle ranch south of Gregory, South Dakota, it wasn’t necessarily a stretch that Monte was a professional cheese maker for twenty-five years.  However, the road Monte took to get to this profession was a lengthy one.  After high school graduation and attending the University of South Dakota for one year, Monte did not know what he wanted to do as a career, but he did know what he wanted to do as a hobby…and that was travel!  He went to Colorado but landed in Mexico for a period of time doing “mission work” (which is what I am sure he told his Catholic mother), but in all actuality, he had a lot of fun “bumming” around the beautiful, tropical country. 

Still unsure of a career path, Monte enlisted in the Army, which offered him many more opportunities for travel.  In the late 1960s, he ended up in Europe on an “extended vacation” and traveled through France, Spain, and Portugal, enjoying the excellent food, cheese, wine, and beer.  After the Army, Monte again enrolled in USD, this time choosing history teaching as his major.  After a teaching assistantship at the university, he decided that vocation wasn’t for him either.  He ended up with a business degree, working first for an electronics company, then in ag-related business.  The agriculture crash of 1983 devastated most of his rancher clients, and Monte’s business crashed at the same time. 

He was then divorced from his first wife and looking at starting over from scratch.  Yet there was something that had always in his life—the love of agriculture, food, wine, and cheese.  Monte met Beth (his current wife of nearly thirty years), who was the program director for the South Dakota Dairy Council.  Through her, Monte saw numerous “kids” in agricultural-based educational programs getting jobs left and right.  Monte decided his stint in construction (the job he was working at the time) was over and enrolled in South Dakota State University, graduating in 1990 with a degree in diary manufacturing—finally finding an occupation that blended all of his interests. 

Monte took his first job at Maytag Dairy Farms in Newton, Iowa, making Maytag Blue Cheese.  He enjoyed this job, but left after a decade to take on a new challenge: being the cheesemaker for a brand new company just getting started.  Monte—with Beth, of course—arrived in California on July 4, 2000, to begin making cheese at Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company.  The first vat of cheese Monte made at Point Reyes was in August but was not quite ready for consumers.  In December of 2000, Point Reyes chees hit shelves, first at farmer’s markets in San Francisco, where the high-quality cheese sold out in less than two hours. 

A wonderful cheese plate, including some blue cheese.

In northern California, where artisan products were a way of life, cheese makers like Monte were almost treated like celebrities.  He would try to keep his job a secret when he and Beth went out to dine because if he was found out, restaurants would comp their entire meal!  This was an environment in which “people were interested where food came from,” and Point Reyes' cheeses did very well.  The cows milked for the cheese were right on the same farm where the cheese was produced.  Consumers loved this; it was part of the lifestyle where fresh oysters, artisan baked goods, and boutique wines were around every corner.  Though the days of a cheese maker were filled with long hours and hard work—often starting at 2:30 a.m. with actual cheese making, then a break for lunch before going back to the “office” to fill orders all afternoon—Monte and Beth loved the lifestyle and environment in which they lived.

However, as the cheesemaker at large companies, Monte’s housing was always provided.  When he and Beth moved to California, they never purchased and invested in a house of their own, so once it came time to think about retirement, they had no house to sell to reinvest wherever they were going to live out their golden years.  Then, in 2008, like so many others, the McIntyres’ 401ks took a hit and looked more like “101ks”--as Monte said--so returning to the Black Hills where he and Beth had already purchased a house for future retirement living was not yet an option.  Instead, after ten years at Point Reyes, he became the cheese maker at Swiss Valley Farms in Wisconsin.  The large operation made excellent cheese, some that can even be found in shops in the Black Hills.  Finally, after almost five years there, it was time to officially retire.  Monte and Beth (also a South Dakota native) arrived in Hill City the week after Atlas, the crazy blizzard of October 2013, dumped several feet of snow on their home. 

Retirement has been more of an adjustment than the weather, as Monte originally had thought to open up a commercial cheese production facility here in the Hills.  However, there is no dairy farm close enough to produce the amount of milk necessary for a large-scale business; also, the upfront capital needed to build a cheese factory was not in Monte’s retirement plans.  He does still make small amounts of cheese for his personal use…and some to give to family and friends.  (I can tell you from experience that Monte’s house-made blue is some of the best I have ever tried.  I was lucky enough to receive a chunk on two separate—very lucky—occasions.)  Beth also has gotten in on the at-home cheese making.  She often makes mozzarella, ricotta, and fromage blanc; she and Monte even taught a cheese making class at Someone’s in the Kitchen, Beth’s current employer. 
Chef Beth's quiche--with caramelized onion, bacon, and cheese (of course!).

A light lunch prepared by Beth, with cheese and a fresh baguette as a large part of the meal.
Testified by the fact that Monte still makes it, blue cheese has always been his favorite cheese to produce.  He also considers white cheddar and goat cheeses some of his preferred cheeses to make.  However, he loves to eat all sorts of cheeses.  He loves Affinois, a Brie from France; Vella dry jack and mezzo secco, from a Sonoma cheesemaker he personally knew; and Bellwether cheeses, made from sheep’s milk.  A true blue cheese connoisseur, he only likes blue cold, not warm or cooked in other recipes.   Beth, on the other hand, also loves blue cheese, but in any form!  She makes a wonderful blue cheese and honey crostini that used to sell out at her Maytag (appliances) cooking demonstrations.  Beth, the chef of the family, uses many different cheeses in a multitude of ways—in salads, soups, Italian-style pastas, homemade mac and cheeses, and (of course) grilled cheese sandwiches.  Still, both Beth and Monte love to let the cheese stand alone, with a great glass of wine, usually from their favorite producer—Mettler Family Vineyards (a winery in Lodi, California with a family connection to Beth’s ancestors).  In addition to Mettler wines, they both enjoy (mostly reds) from Kenwood, Coppola, Louis Martini, Brown Estate, and J Lohr (fellow South Dakota native), among many others they were able to experience while living in California.   
A small glass of Mettler Petit Sirah.

Monte and a block of his house-made blue--a wonderful cheese!
            Even in retirement, cheese has a major role in daily life for cheese maker Monte McIntyre and his wife Beth.  The road to cheese making was a long one, but this long road led to a lengthy career in a field which Monte found somewhat later in life.  He may have been born as the son of the farmer in the dell in Gregory, South Dakota, but retiring to the Black Hills after twenty-five years in cheese production is a very unique way to wrap up a lifetime of occupations related to agriculture.  Yes, for Monte McIntyre, the cheese truly does stand alone. 

How to Make Cheese…For Amateurs

I had Monte explain the basic process of how to make blue cheese.  I would say this was how to make cheese for dummies, but since I was the one asking…well, you know.  Anyway, Monte said that making cheese is all about ph and time, depending on the cheese and the cheese maker.  Here are the basic steps.

1.       Purchase all cultures, molds, milks, etc. before beginning. There are businesses that specialize in the selling of all things cheese making.

2.      Add starter cultures to milk. 

3.      Heat milk to a medium heat—around 95 degrees.

4.      According to those magical factors of ph and time, add blue cheese mold.

5.      According to ph levels, add coagulant. 

6.      Cut into various size cubes.

7.      Set for a certain amount of time, then stir.

8.      As curd firms, check ph.

9.      Draw out whey.

10.  Put in forms, usually of four to six pounds; cheese now in chunks.

11.  Turn the chunks for up to three days.

12.  Salt for three days.

13.  Pierce holes in the cheese to aerate so mold will grow.

14.  After mold develops, seal cheese in bags or wax.

15.  Put in long term storage, anywhere from three to eight months.

16.  Cut, serve, and enjoy!

*It is important to note that all of this is done by hand (by most artisan cheese makers, anyway), so it is a very labor-intensive process.