Voices: The Big Cheese

by Ross McKinney '08

April 10, 2008

When I e-mailed Judy Schad about my visit to her Capriole Farms—the source of cheeses featured on the menus of gourmet restaurants in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City—she had warned me.

"I can’t give you a particular time, because we have such a hectic schedule here," wrote the woman whose cheeses have been featured on National Public Radio and in magazines from The New Yorker to Martha Stewart Living to People, a woman who has earned more accolades than she has room to display.

"If I’m there, I’ll talk with you," Judy said. "But you might not catch me."

At first, I didn’t.

My colleagues and I found her place after a four-hour trek from Wabash to Greenville, Indiana—tack on an extra hour for getting lost—after being directed to "the goat factory" by a Minit Mart employee.

His description, at least the "goat" part, seemed on the mark as we drove up the lengthy driveway—no signs, no parking lot, and no traditional mercantile accoutrement. Just a house, several barns, a flat-roofed block building and about 500 goats.

We were directed to the "storefront," a room no larger than a Wabash dorm room, decorated with copies of stories featuring Judy and Capriole Farms.

There we met an intern from Transylvania (another was from France, another from Poland, as most of her interns are European; they come from Europe to Indiana to learn how to make cheese!). She put together a platter of $70 worth of cheese for us to taste. Through heavily accented English she described the three general types—fresh, aged, and rind-washed—and told us the names and types of the nine cheeses presented, including fresh goat rounds (with and without herbs); O’Bannon, a fresh chevre aged in chestnut leaves that have been marinated in bourbon and named for Indiana’s former governor; Wabash Cannonball (close to our hearts), with a double rind of ash and white mold; and the Mont St. Francis, an aged, washed-rind cheese with an absolutely phenomenal taste and aroma.

Then Judy Schad entered the tasting room.

At first she seemed hurried. Just returning from town, she was only stopping to make sure our service was adequate. I introduced myself, she remembered my e-mail, and she slowed down a bit. She took the cutting knife and began instructing her intern on the correct method of slicing through the rind and the outside of the cheese to where the flavor was concentrated.

"It is crucial for everyone to experience this, the brulee," she explained as she sampled the cheese with us. She was obviously and unabashedly in love with it. She knew every single flavor profile of every cheese. She explained that each batch is different and has its own character to offer.

Then, after speaking and tasting with us for 30 minutes, she suddenly remembered that she had left her car running! Our questions, her comments, and the cheese itself had entranced all of us, even Judy, in her 30th year as a cheese maker.

Judy Schad has a degree in English Renaissance Literature. Her husband is a lawyer, and he was instrumental in funding the business for the first couple years. But Judy wasn’t making any money, so she had to become more efficient. She stopped operating under a business model and began focusing solely on her product. She took full control of the process, from beginning to end. She bought her own goats, and now she supervises the entire process, from the birth of the goats to the shipping of the cheese.

As she walked us through the herd, she seemed to know the goats on sight. She could tell us which one she thought might be getting sick, and another one that was sick and so wasn’t being milked. She knew which ones were pregnant, and the date on which each was due. Judy seemed to love her herd as much as her cheeses.

Four hundred of the goats were grazing freely out in the pastures and woods of the farm. Soon they would be brought in for milking.

Then, just when we expected to be sent on our way, Judy offered us beverages and a seat. We proceeded to discuss the highly debated and often-contentious subject of raw milk products. She spends more than $5,000 a year for non-required testing of her cheeses and animals. While the FDA is satisfied with far less, it is not enough to keep Judy confident that her products are safe. The arguments are complicated, but Schad is persuasive in arguing for the continued availability of raw-milk cheeses.

The conversation astounded me. A dedication to sustainable and efficient practices just makes sense to Judy Schad. Much of her world-class cheese is sold to cheese mongers and restaurants in cities such as New York and Chicago. Word of Capriole Farm makes its way across the Atlantic when Judy travels to Italy, France, and England to explore her desire for great cheese. Most of the world’s best cheeses come from individual farms and individual cheese makers, who focus on quality and traditional cheese- making procedures. Judy Schad and her colleagues are not fixated on the "bottom line," or on producing cheeses that end up being melted over burgers in some fast-food chain’s "value meals."

Judy once told a reporter, "What limestone does for Kentucky bourbon, it also does for my goat milk. The limestone base makes for sweet grasses, alfalfa and clover—and more flavorful cheese. Real food reflects a real place, real people, and real animals. Ours is not just a label signifying nothing, but a reflection of a real place."

I will remember that place whenever I taste a sample from my Capriole cheese-stocked refrigerator, but my lasting impressions will be of Judy Shad’s inspiration and dedication to her craft. Capriole makes the best cheese I have ever eaten, because Judy pours her heart, soul, and wit into it.

Hear Judy Schad on NPR’s The Connection:
http://www.theconnection.org/ shows/2002/04/20020412_b_main.asp

Read more at www.capriolefarms.com

Ross McKinney’s research is part of the College’s Present Indiana program, funded by Lilly Endowment, Inc.

 


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