Food & Drink

Northern California cheesemakers chased a dream and found their whey

In the small concrete-floored room, Seana Doughty plunged her arms into a 200-gallon vat of sheep’s milk and let out a contented sigh.

“This sure beats sitting in front of a computer,” she said. “I love making cheese.”

And cheese lovers can’t get enough of her products. Since its debut five years ago, Doughty’s Bleating Heart Cheese has become an international sensation. And it’s not just her company’s amazing backstory.

“How we started already has become kind of legendary in the cheese world,” Doughty said with a smile. “People introduce me at events as ‘the woman who drove 10 pregnant sheep from Wisconsin in the back of a truck to California so she could make cheese.’ Who else would do that?”

Doughty and her husband, Dave Dalton, chucked their previous lives in academia in suburban San Diego to move 500 miles north to Marin County. Two self-described “city nerds” with a background in science and love of good food, they went from white-coated laboratories and research centers to country life, with its share of muck and back-breaking work.

After making cheese at night and on weekends, they took over an abandoned creamery and dairy on a 1,000-acre sheep and cattle ranch to devote themselves full time to their handcrafted classics. From that unlikely landing spot, they produce some of the state’s most honored cheeses.

“Five years ago, it was very hard to envision all of this,” Doughty said as she worked on a batch of her flagship Fat Bottom Girl. “What’s still surprising – and delightful – is even though we’ve tripled production this year, people want more. We don’t know when demand will level off, maybe never.”

At the 2014 State Fair, Bleating Heart swept both Best in Show awards in the annual professional cheese contest. The company’s Fat Bottom Girl topped all sheep’s milk cheeses. Moolicious Blue – Bleating Heart’s new blue cheese – took top honors among cow’s milk cheeses.

Fat Bottom Girl, a creamy yet nutty semi-hard cheese, also was honored with a “Super Gold” medal at England’s recent World Cheese Awards. It was one of only seven American-made cheeses to achieve that honor in those international championships.

Andrew Hillman, owner of Sacramento’s The Cultured & The Cured, served as a judge for the State Fair contest, but he already was a fan of Bleating Heart. He’s visited their remote creamery and sells lots of their cheese in his shop.

“They’re very nice people,” Hillman said. “They couldn’t have found a better place for a creamery; it sits down in these fog-covered rolling hills. The weather is just right. It’s just phenomenal how they approach cheese and their ability to get the right balance. They did their homework and had the ability to put it all together.”

Fat Bottom Girl, a squat 13/4-pound wheel with a “heart” on top, stands out in the cheese case. (The heart is imprinted with a mesh cutout in the initial molding process.) Its name was inspired by its rounded bottom – and Queen’s 1978 song.

“Their format is different; small and round but tall, not super giant wheels,” Hillman said. “(Doughty) puts her curd in baskets and that gives a certain look to the cheese.”

And the taste? Said Hillman, “It has floral and earth notes with a nice, clean sheep’s milk flavor and a very clean finish.”

“Excellent, mature, balanced, fruity,” wrote food and wine expert Darrell Corti, who served on the State Fair’s judging panel, in his description of Fat Bottom Girl. “Bloody splendid cheese.”

Bleating Heart earned more raves earlier this month at New York City’s 60th annual Fancy Food Show, where Doughty said she was swamped by requests for her specialty cheeses. Closer to home, Bleating Heart will be among the competitors at next week’s American Cheese Society national conference in Sacramento.

Five years ago, Bleating Heart started with 300 pounds of cheese as its total annual production, made in 20-gallon batches.

“Last year, we made 10,000 pounds,” she said. “This year, we’ll top out somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 pounds – and we could sell a lot more. We’re limited by how much sheep’s milk we can get, and space.”

To accommodate the increased production, the couple expanded their cheese-aging space with three 40-foot refrigerated cargo containers in April. Every rack is already full. They invested in a $30,000 cheese-making vat; previously, they had to rent equipment and time at other facilities.

Doughty and Dalton found Bleating Heart’s current home when they discovered this little dairy, unused for many years, in the middle of a massive cattle ranch. Reopened in 2013 with the help of rancher Marissa Thornton, the dairy supplies Bleating Heart’s milk just steps from where the cheese is made. Sheep-milk season lasts only six months a year; the remaining months, Bleating Heart uses Jersey cow milk.

“We’re probably the only dairy that milks both sheep and cows in the same shop,” Dalton said. “We started with 10 sheep. Now, we’re milking 80 plus.”

Before their Bleating Heart evolution, Dalton didn’t know anything about sheep or dairy production; he grew up in Oakland. Likewise, Doughty was a city girl, raised in Anaheim Hills. The couple met at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, where he was an accomplished research chemist. she was a research administrator. They had no prior farming or food processing experience when they decided to plunge into cheese making.

“I was working 40 hours a week in front of a computer – and hated it,” Doughty recalled. “The highlight of my day was always lunch.”

Laid off from a similar job at another research institution, Doughty had the opportunity to follow her inner foodie. She talked her way into a job at a cheese shop in Del Mar. (That shop now sells her cheese.)

“That’s where I found my passion,” she said. “I was fascinated. There are thousands of cheeses and they all start with four basic ingredients: milk, culture, rennet and salt.”

Moving to Northern California, the couple dove into cheese making, taking classes at UC Davis and other agricultural schools while immersing themselves in dairy life. They started making their own cheeses and experimented with recipes. She came up with the name Bleating Heart from a list of dairy words.

“I didn’t even know that was the sound a sheep makes,” Doughty said. “I just thought it sounded like a fun name.”

The couple use their innate practicality to temper their big dreams, but also help make them come true. While using their scientific backgrounds, they approach their business and new challenges with light hearts and whimsical spirit from doing what they enjoy.

“We try to have fun with everything,” she added. “We’re only serious about cheese.”

Sheep’s milk – which has twice the fat of cow’s milk – is expensive: $10 a gallon or more. California also has way more cheese makers than sheep dairies. Compared to cows, sheep are stingy. They produce only a half-gallon to one gallon of milk per day; Holstein cows produce seven to 10 gallons daily.

That’s what led to Doughty’s fabled sheep purchase. She could not find a reliable source of sheep’s milk, so she decided to start her own dairy. On Craigslist, she found pregnant ewes in Wisconsin. She bought the sheep – and a truck to get them home.

“I drove day and night with my sister so we could drive straight through,” Doughty said. “Halfway home, we realized: What do sheep eat?”

When they arrived in Sebastopol, they unloaded the sheep into their suburban backyard. The ewes immediately jumped onto the deck and started munching on everything in sight.

“It was kind of like ‘Green Acres,’ ” said Dalton, referring to the 1960s TV show.

In addition to their own flock, they now get milk from another sheep dairy. They need 200 gallons for a batch of Fat Bottom Girl. It will produce 132 rounds plus a couple of large wheels – about 280 pounds of cheese. The finished product goes for about $40 a pound retail.

Doughty estimates that 16 hours of labor goes into every little round. “People wonder why cheese is so expensive: That’s why. The ingredients and the labor – there are no rich artisan cheese makers.”

Rotating through seven different cheeses, Doughty makes two batches a week. The milk is gently warmed in the stainless steel vat. Cultures (good bacteria) and rennet (an enzyme that clots milk) are added. As Doughty closely monitors the process, the curd starts to separate from the whey.

“It makes me angry when people say, ‘This is where the magic happens,’ ” she said. “It’s not magic; it’s science. If it was magic, you’d never be able to reliably replicate the process.”

Soon, the warmed milk reaches a custardlike consistency. Doughty rested her hand lightly on top of the mixture and it left an imprint like a memory foam mattress. “That’s when you know it’s ready to cut,” she said.

Two-foot-long curved mechanical knives slice through the custard, chopping it into curd and separating the liquid whey. Once it is the consistency of crumbled feta, the curd is ready to pack into molds. Led by Doughty and Dalton, Bleating Heart’s five-person staff quickly packs plastic baskets with curd, squeezing out excess moisture. It’s the start of a lengthy process that converts that raw curd into finished cheese.

“A tremendous amount of care goes into each piece of cheese,” Dalton added. “We do everything manually. Each cheese has to be washed and flipped at least twice a week.”

The aging process takes at least 60 days. Cameron Dalton, Dave’s son, has become an affineur. It comes from the French word, affinage.

“It means ‘to refine,’ ” Cameron explained as he carefully brushed another 2-pound wheel. “My job is to age and ripen the cheese, to refine it from the fresh product to the finished cheese. It’s a labor of love.”

Removed from its rack, each wheel is dunked by hand into water, then lightly scrubbed, forming the rind. A giant humidifier blows a steady stream of moist fog over the racks to keep the cheese comfortable as it ripens.

Said Cameron, “You learn to love cheese when you work with cheese all day long. Now just looking, I can tell when it’s ready. You develop a strong relationship.”

He waved an arm over a rack of well-aged Fat Bottom Girls, ready for packaging. “My babies have all grown up,” he said with a smile. “They’re ready to go out in the world.”

Doughty feels the same way about her cheese and cheese making. “They’re all like my children; I love them all.

“You have to love it; it’s a ton of work,” she added. “You can’t do this kind of work if you don’t love it. I made a lot more money at a desk job, but I was miserable. Now, I make a lot less money, but I’m way happier. And I make something I know makes other people happy, too.”