Thursday, July 16, 2015

Sheep business

So many choices at Valley Shepherd Creamery!

Bring on the cheese, yogurt and ice cream!

By now you know that I love wool and all its permutations, but there is more to sheep than fleece and lamb chops. A visit to Valley Shepherd Creamery in Long Valley, NJ had been on our bucket list for too long a time. 

It was a perfect day trip. Once off the expressways and spaghetti interchanges, the road took us through some of Somerset County's historic villages and beautiful countryside. 

Set on 120 acres, the Creamery offers tours of its operations. On summer weekends, they're on weekends. Unfortunately, we were there on a day when only the shorter 45 min. tour was available. It allowed us to see the cheesemaking room, the milking parlor and a view into one of the sheep sheds, but was restricted to the main shop building. The website does not provide details, so if you go, I'd recommend a phone call to the farm to find out when the full tour is scheduled as the cost is the same for both.

A day for a picnic

Picnic on the porch
As suggested on their website, we took a bottle of wine and picnic basics, planning to feast on bread and their cheese. We bought an excellent soppressata (not made locally) and Creamery cheeses that would not be on the tasting tray. We tried Oldwick Shepherd, a Basque-style sheep cheese, two goat cheeses--Very Goat and a chèvre cheese--and Crema de Blue, a Jersey cow milk cheese and American Cheese Society award winner. Then we finished our lunch with sheep's milk gelato. Yum.

Behind the cheese case

Valley Shepherd Creamery Milking Parlor
The Creamery has steadily grown since its beginning 15 years ago. It makes goat and cow cheeses, but sheep's milk cheeses are its legacy and at the heart of its artisanal cheese-making business. 

Sheep milk is richer than cow or goat milk and, according to Sheep101yields more  cheese due to its higher in fat content, solids and protein. 

By their own description, the Creamery is a  small operation with a flock of 600 Dutch Friesian Milk Sheep. Ewes are bred in the fall and lamb in the spring. Milking operations begin at that time and last until November, when the ewes stop producing milk. 

The milking parlor, which is described as the only one of its kind in the U.S., was designed by the Creamery's owners, who were trained as engineers. It looks like a high-tech merry-go-round. And it pretty much operates like one.

The ewes enter the apparatus single file. Once in a station, the ewe is stabilized and attached to the milking machine. Pacified with a small amount of grain in the feed bin, they circle on the milking parlor and exit about two minutes later via a second chute.

Cheesemaking central
Compared to cows, which produce between 55 to 100 pounds of milk a day for at least a  year, sheep don't produce a lot of milk. A Creamery sheep averages three to four pounds a day for about six months after lambing. 

When the sheep don't give milk, the Creamery doesn't make sheep cheese. But it also has cows and goats that provide milk to support ongoing cheesemaking.

Friesian sheep are noted for their dairy production. Not for wool production. Ewe fleeces average 9 to 12 pounds, reports, but the average fiber diameter is 29-33 microns, and a USDA wool grade 46's-54's. The farm shears its sheep and, according to its website, has blankets made from the wool. The shop had a few pelts for sale and a few yards of alpaca from their flock.

Farm to market

The Creamery's distribution channel is direct. It sells wholesale to restaurants and has steadily expanded its direct-to-consumer markets in the New York and Philadelphia regions. It has cheese shops in both cities and sells its products at more than 24 local farmers' markets in the region. A relatively recent addition to the Creamery brand is MeltKraft, a grilled cheese sandwich bar.

Now I'm ready for a trip to Reading Terminal Market for a grilled cheese sandwich.