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American Cheese Corner
You’d think I’d be used to visiting cheesemaking operations, perhaps even jaded at this point. Think again. Plain and simple, I absolutely love it. But talk about back-breaking, exacting work, not to mention a boatload of cleaning along the way. Making cheese on a small scale never ceases to positively floor me.
And so it was one early morning when I observed the goings-on at Avalanche Cheese Company in Basalt, Colorado. You haven’t heard of Basalt? How about Aspen, located about eighteen miles east and a world away?
Wendy Mitchell is the founder and owner of Avalanche. Prior to that, she’d founded a successful burrito chain in Houston, which was the first of its kind to focus on fresh, locally sourced ingredients. Pretty novel for a burrito joint. She and her husband and two kids moved to Aspen, where she had this crazy notion of buying a farm, getting goats, and making goat cheese. And so she did. The farm is in Paonia, about two hours southwest of Aspen. This is farm and orchard country (think Colorado peaches). Wine country too. Avalanche’s first official cheese hit the wholesale market in 2008. The rest, as they say, is history.
On this day, Wendy and her co-cheesemakers, Brannan and Matt, were making three cheeses – fresh chèvre, Cabra Blanca (a natural rind semi-soft study in butter, mushrooms, and lemon), and Lamborn Bloomers, a rare and exceptional goat’s milk Robiola (think square-shaped and über creamy).
The Avalanche cheeses are made in a room the size of a small living room (if that), so timing is everything. The minute one cheese is either done or in process, another one is underway. Milk goes into the vat (the same one in which the milk is ripened, or acidified), after which a coagulant (rennet) is added, after which the milk is gravity fed through a hose and into plastic containers on wheels for easy mobility.
In the case of the Cabra Blanca, the curds are transferred to a stainless steel table, spread out, and then packed into molds aka plastic colanders (thank you, Tar-JAY), where they drain.
After the cheeses have drained, they will assume the markings of the colander and the shape of a somewhat flattened wheel. Three months later, the pasteurized cheese is good to go.
Wendy may not have been in business for long, but that hasn’t kept her walls from sagging under the weight of blue ribbons. Her rare bandage-wrapped goat’s milk cheddar is one of those ribbon-laden cheeses, be it a blue ribbon (or more) from the American Cheese Society (2012 and 2013) or a major shout-out (and award) from the Good Food Awards ®. Suffice to say, both are incredibly prestigious.
I spent about three hours at Avalanche, but the exacting nature of the make procedures combined with what I feared would be total ineptitude on my part meant I did not offer to dig my hands into the vat during my stay. No fool, I. Instead, I watched in awe as few words were spoken and productivity abounded.
This was no different than any other day at Avalanche, where cheesemaking gets underway at around 6am, seven days a week. Led by Wendy, the three of them do it all – make the cheese, nurture it as it matures, label and package it for shipping and/or delivery, sales and marketing, and, in the case of local customers, hand-deliver it.
As for the company name, Wendy and her family live on a steep slope, which has been the site of more than one avalanche over the centuries (have no fear – they built a sizeable wall for protection). Wendy originally thought she would make cheese on the property, and appropriately enough, called the company Avalanche. Not long after moving in however, she discovered the hill leading to the property was too steep for milk delivery trucks to navigate. The name of the company remained, but the location moved to terre flat. Now, the only avalanches are the curds that come spilling out of the vat. In time, those will be transformed into unique and extraordinarily delicious cheeses, made so because of the hands-on work, dedication, focus, and passion every single step of the way.
Click on photos below to open them in a slideshow