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Liam Callahan, 35, stands poised over a small plastic barrel filled with flanlike coagulated milk. The tool in his hand looks like an oversized potato masher. He plunges the implement into the curd, cutting a checkerboard of squares into the surface, then replaces the lid and moves on to the next barrel.
Early this morning, the milk was still in the Jersey cows on a neighbor's farm. Now it is on its way to becoming Bellwether Farm Crescenza, a creamy-smooth soft-ripened cheese meant to be consumed fresh, at about three weeks of age. It's one of just seven cheeses produced in a converted barn on 35 hilly acres near Petaluma, in Sonoma County. The Bellwether line also includes fresh Fromage Blanc, Ricotta and Carmody, a firm, buttery wheel named for the road that borders the farm. The critically acclaimed San Andreas, firm 3-pound wheels aged for eight months, is made from the raw milk of the farm's own 150 sheep.
Callahan's mother, Cindy, and late father, Ed, weren't thinking about cheese when they bought the property as a rural retreat in 1986. "We got sheep just to control the grass here," Liam says. At first, the Callahans sold lambs to Chez Panisse. Then one day, it dawned on Ed that his favorite cheese, Roquefort, was made from sheep's milk. "He never realized that before," Liam chuckles. "We thought we would try milking the sheep and making cheese." In 1990, Bellwether became California's first sheep dairy. The first cheeses, by all accounts, were awful. Like many other American beginner cheesemakers, the Callahans looked to Europe for guidance -- to Tuscany, in their case. "We didn't know if they would perceive us as competitors and not talk to us," Cindy recalls. "But I guess we weren't threatening to them. The cheesemakers there showed us everything. We spoke very little Italian, but we communicated with grunts and hand signals."
The Callahans learned enough to make a pretty good imitation of a Pecorino Toscano. Cow's milk cheeses, including Crescenza, came next.
Like all cheeses, Crescenza is simple to make -- milk is coagulated with a starter, curds are cut, whey is drained off in square plastic forms and the cheeses are brined and aged. But it takes years of practice to get it right. Liam, who got his B.A. in political economy at University of California, Berkeley, went back to school to take courses in biology and cheesemaking. Understanding the science helped him develop the San Andreas. "And I'm still learning," he insists.
As he lowers the trays of half-finished Crescenzas into small brining tanks, Liam talks about what it takes to make a cheese that's special. "You have to start with really great milk," he says. "You also have to feel what you're doing as you make the cheese. You can't do it by machine. Every wheel of San Andreas, every square of Crescenza, feels a little different. Every day's milk is different.
"In the end, even in a 4-year-old cheese, I still want to have the flavor of the clean milk. It's like wine -- you can't make a great one without great grapes."