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12.12.07

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Photograph by Will Mosher
Lacaunian Theory: The cheeses Rebecca King makes from the milk of her Lacaune sheep reflect the subtle influences of climate and place.

Counting on Sheep

Former Café Gabriella executive chef and all-around food queen Rebecca King turns shepherdess and cheesemaker.

By Christina Waters


The allure of animals is powerful. Especially in places where humans seem to exist only as accessories to the sky, soil, grass and flocks. Eco-artisan Rebecca King works such a place in the Watsonville foothills. On pastures leased from Deep Roots Ranch, King has begun an adventure that will soon reward local food fans with handmade, farmstead sheep cheeses of the sort that made Roquefort and Manchego famous.

King's personal relationship with four-footed herbivores—Lacaune sheep in particular—is the key to her plan for making cheese from organic ewe's milk. That mysterious transformation from sheep grazing on this autumn hillside to the complexity of cheese is why I'm here. I gently make my way through a flock of inquisitive, brilliantly feathered heritage turkeys and chickens with names like Buff Orpington, Maran, La Fleche and Golden Wyandotte. Almost tripping over a sleeping quartet of Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs, I meet King next to the pasture where her flock of year-old ewes clusters in close-knit woolly formation. One hundred pale gray eyes follow our movements as we wander and talk about King's fledgling foray into a very ancient craft. A friendly ewe named Dandelion lets me pet her soft, creamy fleece. My hand soaks up the warmth of her head. King admits she can spend hours lost in the movements and individual personalities of her animals.

After taking honors in biology at UCSC and spending a season with the university's agroecology program, King has followed the dream of growing her own animals and making her own traditional foods since working with Sea Stars, local makers of goat cheese. After a job with the Organic Farming Research Foundation, King got her hands dirty at several CSA gardens on the East Coast, came back to get a degree from the California Culinary Academy, learned butchering as an intern at Chez Panisse and then cooked as executive chef for two years at Gabriella Café before converting her savings and a few family loans into the start of a farmstead sheep cheese business. And all before she was 30 years old.

King shows off her new lambs, gobbling up grasses with the pregnant ewes King sequesters in a separate pasture. "They actually bounce," she points out happily. The little lambs do so on cue, adding adorable joie de vivre to this pastoral setting nestled against Mt. Madonna.

Ten years of farming, gardening and cooking are about to come together in King's new commercial enterprise, Garden Variety Cheeses. A rustic water tower with thick-walled foundations will convert nicely into a cheese aging and storage site. A central yard next to King's silver Airstream will become the milking parlor. Meanwhile, the sheep (brought from Wisconsin) are breeding—thanks to two rams—and King is about to show me the results of her debut cheese-making efforts.

At the picnic table that forms King's open air office and tasting room we sample the first cheeses, aged for over 90 days and already showing distinctive ripeness and terroir. "Domestic cheese-making is now where wines were 10 years ago," she says, offering me a slice of a firm young cheddar, pale yellow against its black wax coating.

King is joining a pioneering tribe of farmstead food producers in this country using European techniques to maximize the unique flavors of their regions—these grasses, these sheep, during this season. "From a business point of view," she admits, taking in the luxurious pastures surrounding this hilltop farm, "this is a good place to be in.' Black geese drink nearby from a child's wading pool. The ranch's rosy-cheeked patriarch brings us a bag full of Fuji apples from his overflowing trees. I think I'm in heaven.

"With sheep's milk," King continues, "the quality varies dramatically in terms of fat content and protein content. That's what makes this an art form." She bites into a wedge of nutty Basque-style cheese. "It's really a product of place and time." My palate agrees as I compare the influence of wild cultures and washed rinds on the cheese King has made.

"This is place-based food," she says. "Ultimately I want to make some simple cheeses, like the cheddar, a fresh table cheese and a few more sophisticated ones." One such would be the Ossau-Iraty with its pebbly fragrant crust. It tastes of the barnyard I'm sitting in. The Castello blue, delicious with its soft blue mold veining, is alternately sharp, salty and sweet. Living food.

King's work is richly varied, from the raising of the animals—including rams that will be sold for organic, natural meat—to the creation of the cheeses. Every step influences the results. "The temperature of the milk is important. How small you cut the curd. Whether it's pressed or heated. Whether the cheese is waxed or washed, or whether salt is mixed into the curd. Small variations," she smiles, "make a huge effect."

Farmers markets and restaurants are lined up waiting for the first of King's farmstead sheep cheeses. It is a small and rarified niche, even in the small realm of handmade organic products—no one else in the area specializes in artisanal sheep cheeses. The variations I taste are both subtle and vivid, and already clear representatives of what this region tastes like, transformed by sheep and coastal elements. The samples I take home create an indelible magic paired with an old vine zinfandel made just up the road from King's land. The experience gives new meaning to the phrase "local and sustainable"—and new depth to my sense of this place we call home.

Christina Waters writes about food, wine, organics and local personalities at http://christinawaters.com.


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