MISSOULA – Hidden away from a smokey summer day, head cheese maker Allison Dembek looks over sheep milk cheeses aging in a cheese cave on the Tucker Family Farm, nestled between Victor and Hamilton.
“Cheese making is beautiful in its science. This perfect match of exact scientific precision and also for the finish, it’s creative and it’s collaborative. I honestly feel like I’m working with the cheese to get to what we are trying to achieve,” Dembek said.
To fully understand this Montana Made product, you have to start a few feet away from the cheese cave, in the parlor, where dozens of sheep are milked, starting at 7 a.m.
Tucker Family Farm Owner Tyler Tucker explained that it takes two people to do the whole milking process with the sheep. He’s usually one of them, along with the interns that are part of a teaching program on the farm.
Tyler is one of the owners of the farmstead creamery, which is part of a larger vision of providing sustainable food. He, along with his wife Kendra and father Jerry own the farm. And most days you’ll see Tyler and Kendra’s young son sneaking in a little extra food for the hardworking sheep during the morning milking. Outside of the milking parlor is the sheep dog Hector, who patiently waits for his owners on the other side of the parlor door.
According to Tyler, it was a trip he and Kendra took to Germany that cemented their dreams of operating a dairy.
“And so we all started the farm. And in those first two to three years, it was really only family helping and running the farm,” Tyler said.
Now, interns from across the country travel to the Bitterroot Valley for a one of a kind experience, to see, firsthand, how the product is created.
For the past five years, the family farmers have been raising animals to sell for their meat, and now, more primarily, are crafting award-winning artisan cheeses from their sheep’s milk. The milk is pasteurized and aged in a building that’s a short walk from where the sheep graze and are milked.
Dembek started as an intern on the farm a few years ago and is now head of cheese making.
“A cheese day starts at five in the morning. We go and collect the milk from the parlor and move it up to the creamery,” Dembek said.
And then the milk is pasteurized and cooled.
“And then we start to make cheese and we have a make sheet for cheese we have made before and just going through a detailed process. Each cheese kind of has an overriding philosophy about it with what we are trying to achieve. It needs to be moist. It needs to be soft. it needs to be dry. And all of that guides us through our cheese day, “ Dembek said.
One of their most iconic products is the Harbinger. It’s easy to recognize by its colorful rind and nutty, smooth flavor. Customers even enjoy eating the rind, which has been washed regularly during the aging process with Missoula’s Draught Works beer.
The Tucker Family Farm stand may be just one of many in a sea of Farmers Market booths in western Montana, but their product is unique.
Tyler said there are a few misconceptions about sheep milk cheese, especially in Montana where it’s less common than other parts of the U.S.
“It is still in the gaining popularity phase in Montana. So a lot of people don’t realize you can milk sheep and make sheep milk cheese. Sheep’s milk is more like cow’s milk, with more protein and fat in it, so it is just a richer milk,” Tyler said.
The product represents much more than a delicious addition to a dinner party. Those involved say it is about creating a product close to the source, in the most healthy and humane way possible.
“Local cheeses are reflective of our environment and of our state, especially when you have a farmstead creamery, everything is reflective of who we are so it is wonderful to support that. You’re supporting farms, first of all, which is so important and the ability to create our own food is also so important. So to be able to support that means a lot to us, as farmers, and we work hard, and we love it and we just want to share it. And also, will support the future of our industry,” Dembek said.
MTN’s Ariana Lake