Meet the Maker:

Stephanie Diamant

Milky Way Farm
826026 Mulmur-Nottawasaga Township Line
RR#3 Shelburne
Ontario L0N 1S7

Julia: It's my understanding that you are a first-generation cheese maker. How, why and where did you learn the craft?

Stephanie: I always knew I'd return to the family farm and do something. When the opportunity presented itself in the late 90's the search was on to find a farming occupation that both Phil and I wanted to do. I had spent a summer in France in the mid '80's working on a pig farm and was amazed at their attitude towards food and the variety of cheeses they enjoyed-my favorite being Roquefort a wonderful sheep cheese. So, after a bit of investigation we discovered that there were already a few people milking sheep in Ontario and a developing Artisan cheese market. During our investigations of dairy sheep and cheesemaking we discovered a wonderful woman called Olivia Mills in the UK who had almost single handedly re-established a dairy sheep and traditional sheep cheesemaking industry there in the early 80's. So, with her guidance we headed to the UK in the early spring of 1998 to learn about their adventures to rediscover their cheesemaking traditions.

Our first stop was at Olivia's farm Weild Wood in Oxfordshire for a quick intoduction to dairy sheep and her cheesemaking operation. The next stop was to a dairy near the Isle of Skye in Scotland run by a transplanted English couple, the Biss's, who have a small dairy where they make sheep, goat and cow cheeses as well as offer training to want to be cheesemakers like ourselves. During the 4 days we were at the Biss's she took us through the basics of cheesemaking and customized the process for us even indulging Phil in how to make Devon Cream! After leaving the Biss's we travelled southward and stopped at several sheep dairies until Phil had to go back to Canada and I stayed on for another month to do a short apprenticeship with Mary Holbrook of Sleight Farm near Bath. Mary milked about 150 sheep and 100 goats and processed all the milk on-farm into a variety of raw milk cheeses. It was an incredible hands on experince learning both about the animal husbandry and cheesemaking. She would do a bi-weekly trip into London to dleiver her cheeses to the best cheese shops in the UK: Neal's Yard and Harrod's.

When I got back from the UK, we spent most of our time getting ready for the arrival of our new sheep and the start of milking the following spring, 1999. Once the milk came I spent a lot of time experimenting with making cheese using many of the cheeses Mary made as my models. In August of '99 I had a delightful visit from a Greek aunt for a weekend and she graciously taught me how she made feta and Mizethra in the village. In 2001 I took the Cheesemaking Technology course with Art Hill at Guelph.

J: Describe a typical working day during the cheese-making season...

S: Our days during the milking season (March- November) are defined by the milking of the sheep at both ends of the day. Phil does most of the milking these days though when we started, he was in TO working and I did the milking during the week. Since we process the milk at a licensed kitchen nearby in 100 L batches we use both fresh and frozen milk and I take the milk there and make the cheese for about 5 hrs. Cheesemaking is an ongoing process unlike many other food processes and once the cheese is made there may be months or years of care before they are ready to be sold. I spend most of my cheesemaking time during the season "babying" the cheeses and cleaning up after them! At least half of cheesemaking is cleaning and washing a fact any would be cheesemaker should be aware of!

J: What are the opportunities and challenges of raising dairy sheep? Is there much history of this in Ontario?

Stephanie: Ontario is a funny place Agriculture wise. It is very diverse agriculturally and generally prosperous. Thus, non-traditional farming industries such as dairy sheep have a tough time trying to "break" into the agriculture scene here. It is also complicated by a very strong and established cow dairy industry that has well defined regulations and marketing structures. Historically, cows we're the primary dairy animal in Canada from it's colonization unlike other parts of the world where sheep and goats are often the primary dairy animal. Thus, Canada has had no tradition of milking sheep until recently (early 1990's) and therefore no regulatory structure for them both from a milking and cheesemaking perspective. In areas where sheep have been milked for centuries, there is an inherent knowledge and experinence which defines how their industry is reglulated. Issues such as milk quality and raw milk cheeses are well established and accepted by consumers and regulators alike. We are trying to develop these regulations here without this traditional knowlege and experience and rely mainly on how it is done in the cow dairy industry which is now much different than it once was. A one-size-fits -all model is the norm and makes it very difficult for small on-farm dairies to develop
Though the regulatory climate may be challenging here in Ontario, the market and desire for the types of products we can produce is overwhelming and what I think will make it all possible in the next few years. If our farmer's market is any indication, it is obvious that people have a genuine interest in having people like us provide unique foods for them. This is our weekly motivation to try and overcome the various challenges here.

J: How do you cope during the months when the sheep don't give milk?

S: There is no doubt that seasonal milking has advantages and disadvantages. The advantages are you don't have to drag yourself out of bed in the morning to a cold barn to milk sheep at -30°C, the disadvantage is you have to manage the cash flow much more diligently than if you were milking year round. Sheep are generally still very seasonal in nature and it will be at least a few years before they manage to get them to breed and milk year round. It took the cow guys at least 50 years to get to where they are today. Winter milking is expensive in terms of extra feed and energy and there is not much of a price bonus for doing so. Most European countries still milk their sheep seasonally though it is during the dry, hot summer season that they don't milk. For millenia farmers have dealt with seasonality by making the best of when the milk is flowing by producing a variety of cheeses to last for the year, using the fact that ruminants in early gestation don't require much feed and making lots of hay when the sun shines.

Our aim is to make enough cheese to last through the winter and try and keep expenses (feed and energy) low during the off season. We enjoy doing other things (spinning, painting, printmaking) and the slower pace of winter will I hope allow us to do that.

J: I love your Violet Hill, and I believe you developed the recipe for Ewenity's Ramembert, but I've only read about your other cheeses. Tell me about the range of cheeses you make, and (if it's not top-secret) about cheeses in development...

S: We make:

Violet Hill (mould ripened lactic cheese with ash);
Creemore (mould ripened camembert type similar to Ramembert);
Feta (brine ripened greek cheese);
Honeywood (raw milk natural rind hard);
Lavender (raw milk blue veined cheese);
Brebis Frais (fresh lactic cheese).

These are the main ones though I do occasionally make a sheep milk mozzarella, paneer and ricotta/mizethra when time permits and the spirit moves! I would love to find a a way to make all our cheeses raw milk ones, mainly because pasterization has various regulations that are complicated and I inherently like to keep things simple. The problem is that 2 of our best selling cheeses, Violet Hill and Creemore, are best eaten when less than 60 days. I'm hoping to try some experiments this winter to see if the Creemore at least could be made to last 60 days. Also, there are other cheeses I'd like to experiment with especially some that use local ingredients such as herbs and leaves as wrappings.

J: I was thrilled to see that Andy Shay of Shay Cheese is featuring Violet Hill in his current Cheese Box. Where else can people get a hold of your cheeses?

S: During the Creemore Farmers' market the best place to get our cheeses is at our booth there, but come early we often sell out (Victoria day weekend to Thanksgiving weekend). When the market isn't on we try and keep a stock of cheeses at the farm and recommend people call first to confirm we have what they want. As we process more cheese we will expand to small specialty shops in and around TO and other outlets such as Andy Shay. At this point we want to stay local and supply our local markets first before venturing further. I think it's important to be able to put a face to our cheeses and that's why we'll always try and sell them directly to people.