Interview: Jenny MacKenzie of Tomales Farmstead Creamery

IMG_0358Jenny MacKenzie in the barn at Tomales Farmstead Creamery
Photo Courtesy Jenny MacKenzie

          Four miles inland from the mighty Pacific ocean, a small Marin County dairy is making some of the best cheese in America. Tomales Farmstead Creamery is a 160-acre sheep and goat dairy in Tomales, California. Founded in 2003, owners Tamara Hicks and David Jablons dedicated four years to the restoration of the land, and after careful coordination with sustainable land management organizations, the farm became an Animal Welfare Approved goat and sheep dairy in 2007.

This year, Tomales Farmstead won second in its category at the American Cheese Society conference for Atika– a sheep and goat blended cheese with a beautiful, basket-weave natural rind. At the helm (or vat, as it were) for this winning batch: assistant cheesemaker Jenny MacKenzie. In my quest to better understand the world of West Marin cheese producers, I reached out to Jenny for an interview this month. Jenny is an East coast transplant with a love of cheese and sustainable agriculture. What’s the story of a micro-dairy cheesemaker whose work wins a national award? Continue below for Jenny’s story!

August 26th, 2018

Marin Co. Monger: What brought you to the world of sustainable agriculture?

Jenny MacKenzie:  I started making cheese in 2014 on a very small, farmstead goat dairy, Appleton Creamery, in Appleton, ME. Working on such a a small farm and being surrounded by other types of small organic/sustainable/diverse farms at the farmer’s markets where we sold cheese really sparked my interest in sustainable agriculture. After attending the Common Ground Country Fair in Unity, ME that same year I really fell in love with small sustainable farms. Just being immersed in agriculture and learning the harms it can cause but being fortunate to see how it can be done correctly with little to no impact was so fascinating to me. I really don’t see why anyone would want to farm any other way!

MCM: Given your love of farming, why focus on cheese?

JM: I‘ve always loved science, and cheese making really satisfies that part of my brain. I just really fell in love with the entire cheese making process, and I don’t see myself getting bored with it for a long time. There are so many combinations of cultures, rennet, and affinage techniques to explore and experiment with! I’m glad to be working on a farmstead again and can help on the farm during kidding and lambing and get all the animal time I want to satisfy my other interests.

MCM: Your biography on the Tomales Farmstead website says you’re originally from San Diego, and you spent time in Maine. What brought you to Northern California?

JM: I’m actually originally from Maine! I was born there and moved to San Diego when I was about 10, so when I went back to Maine to apprentice at Appleton Creamery it really wasn’t as random as it sounds since I have a lot of family and friends there. After I finished my apprenticeship I moved back to San Diego short term. I knew that not much cheese making was going on down there but I needed to save money and figure out what my next step was (thanks mom and dad!). My cousin who lives up here got in touch with me a few months after my apprenticeship and said he was working for a goat dairy and encouraged me to send in my resume. It turned out to be Redwood Hill! I got the job and I’ve been here ever since!

unnamedJenny & the Kids
Photo Courtesy of Jenny MacKenzie

MCM: What was it like learning cheesemaking at Redwood Hill Farm? It’s such an iconic Northern California goat dairy! How do you think Jennifer Bice’s operation has impacted the goat dairy industry?

JM: Working at Redwood Hill was definitely a  shock for me! I went from making maximum 30 gallon batches of cheese to 1000 gallon batches of feta. It was a bit overwhelming. I felt out of my element at first but once you get your head around the scale it was just learning the new equipment and their specific techniques since I already had a solid understanding of the basics needed to make their styles of cheese. I actually didn’t really know that much about american cheese makers when I started so when I applied at Redwood Hill I didn’t really know how iconic they were up here. I was still pretty new to the entire industry at the time. Jennifer and everyone at Redwood Hill definitely helped goat dairy into the mainstream. Goat cheeses are so much more common now than they were when she started.

MCM: Tomales Farmstead is unique for our area: it’s on MALT land (note: Marin Agricultural Land Trust), and is a certified farmstead sheep and goat dairy. What does this mean to you?

JM: This means everything to me! I would never want to work on a farm that I didn’t morally agree with. Our food is so important and I really want to put out the best quality products that I can. This farm will always be a farm thanks to MALT. This space will be preserved for our food system instead of developed. Our Animal Welfare Approved certification is also so important to us because it lets YOU know that we are raising healthy, happy animals. Its another way for our customers to get to know us and to know that we are treating our animals the best that we can. I really encourage everyone to research the certifications and terminology on their food labels.

IMG_0354Tending the curd at Tomales Farmstead Creamery
Photo Courtesy of Jenny MacKenzie

MCM: Congratulations on your win for Atika! Do you remember making the winning batch? What do you think made this batch on the one that took home second at ACS?

JM: I have no recollection of making that batch of Atika! It was actually during an incredibly busy time at the creamery when our head cheese maker was out on maternity leave and I was a little short handed so that whole month (April) was a blur. I think everything we do here contributed to that cheese bringing home 2nd in its category. The farm works so hard to take care of the pastures and care for the animals which provides us with incredible milk, our staff is amazing and really stepped up to help out in the creamery when we really needed it this year to keep things going, and a wonderful affineur who takes care of the cheeses after we’ve made them. In every aspect this was a team effort.

Atika: 2nd place! Category: Washed Rind Cheeses Aged more than 60 days- up to 42% moisture, made from mixed, or other milks

Photo Courtesy Tamara Hicks

MCM: You worked as a monger for a while– does this experience inform your work as a cheesemaker?

JM: Working as a monger has helped a little in cheese making. Mostly when developing a new recipe with a certain cheese style in mind it has helped me know what I want to aim for. I know what texture or salt content or flavor I want in a certain cheese based on the hundreds I tasted behind the counter.

MCM: What are your top five, desert-island cheeses?

JM: In no particular order: Winnimere (Jasper Hill), Granite Kiss (Appleton Cremeamery), Midnight Moon (Cypress Grove) and Roquefort. The last cheese is one that sadly I can’t remember the name. It was some kind of camembert, perfectly ripe, runny, and smelled like a barn (in a good way! grass and hay with a little bit of  funk). It was at a dinner party long ago and I have a picture of the packaging lost on a hard drive somewhere. Hopefully I’ll find it again some day!

Maybe someday she’ll recreate that cheese! Thank you, Jenny, for your dedication to the art of cheesemaking, and for contributing to the integrity of our West Marin food system! Support local producers!

Be sure to visit Tomales Farmstead Creamery online and follow them on Instagram @tomalesfarmsteadcreamery !

logo                                                    Logo Courtesy of Tamara Hicks

Photo of Tomales Farmstead Creamery sourced from CA Cheese Trail

@MarinCoMonger on Instagram
August 27th, 2018


Interview: Sarah Marcus of Briar Rose Creamery

Cheesemaker+Sarah+Marcus                      Photo courtesy Cheese Chick Productions

Briar Rose Creamery (Dundee, Oregon) is an artisan producer of beautiful goat and cows-milk cheeses. Sarah Marcus, proprietor and curd-nerd-in-chief, started in the industry as a monger for Cowgirl Creamery in 2005. In 2010, she founded Briar Rose Creamery. Curious about the transition from monger to maker, I reached out to Sarah with a few questions.

Marin Co. Monger: How did being a monger first influence your approach to the cheese you make?

Sarah Marcus: I knew I wanted to make cheese but needed to develop my palate in order to know what good cheese really tasted like. What better way to do this than by selling cheese at Cowgirl Creamery?  Peg and Sue have always been supportive from my first days behind the counter at the Ferry Building.  I knew NOTHING about cheese but I know how to sell , I can articulate vague flavors into words, and I’m a quick learner.  I kept a notebook and wrote down everything I learned day by day as I rode home on Muni.  I memorized my tasting notes cheese by cheese as I moved around the counter.  I kept cheese labels as reference for my future cheese business, I met tons of cheese industry people as they visited the shop. I worked my butt off, but I loved it.  I knew I was building a great foundation for what I wanted to do in the future.  My experience as a monger really helps me dial in the cheeses that I make because I have a reference point to draw from.  That’s why I still sample cheeses as often as I can, so I can keep building my vocabulary and knowledge base.  

MCM: You have some of the best cheese names in the biz. How did you connect Callisto to the particular attributes of this cheese?

SM: Every cheese has a distinct personality.   I try to tap into that personality and find a name that really fits that cheese.  I spend hours doing internet searches, pouring over reference books, and mulling over possible names.  Most of my cheese names come from legendary beings, goddesses, flowers, and songs that I love.  Often a cheese name has several layers to it.  Lorelei, for example, refers to a river siren/mermaid on the Rhine in Germany, Lorelei is also a song by the Cocteau Twins as well as the Pogues – both bands I love.

Screen Shot 2018-05-01 at 12.39.05 PM                              Callisto, taken from my Instagram

 Callisto has a lot of strength and depth of flavor,  There’s a sharp note to it, too.  I knew I needed a strong name for this unique cheese. Callisto and Maia are actually closely tied together in Greek Mythology. Callisto was one of Artemis’s attendants.  She caught the eye of Zeus, got pregnant, and gave birth to baby boy. Artemis got very angry that her attendant was not a virgin and before she could harm Callisto, Zeus (or possibly Hera) transformed Callisto into a great she-bear.  The baby boy was raised by the nurturing goddess Maia in her cave.  The boy grew up, and years later he was hunting and came across a giant she-bear.  As he unknowingly fired his arrow at his mother, Zeus saved them both from a horrible fate and transformed Callisto in to stars of Ursa Major – the Great Bear or Big Dipper, and her son into Ursa Minor – The Little Bear or the Little Dipper.  They’re forever together in the stars.  

Callisto is also one of characters on the TV show Xena, Warrior Princess.  She was the mentally unstable, but bad-ass nemesis to Xena.  So there’s that, too.  

MCM: Do you source your Ayrshire milk from a nearby farm? What’s the name of that farm?  

SM: All cow’s milk comes from Perrin Family Farms outside of Woodburn, Oregon.  They’re 35 miles east of the creamery on the other side of the Willamette Valley.  They’ve been farming organically for decades and are currently milking 180 Ayrshire cows.  They’re the only organic herd of Ayrshires in Oregon.

 MCM: What’s it like being a cheesemaker in Oregon? 

SM: Making cheese in Oregon is great.  The state is very supportive of this industry.  The Oregon Cheese Guild is also a great vehicle that helps cheesemakers work together to raise awareness of our small group of 24 cheesemaker guild members, too.  I love being an hour from a great city like Portland, making cheese in an area of great beauty and fantastic wines.  The rainy weather makes the grass grow very well and that makes great milk to go into my cheese.  What’s not to love?

Support artisan American cheese producers!