Valley Shepherd's Eran Wajswol has blasted out the side of a North Jersey hilltop with dynamite in his quest to make the ultimate cave-aged cheese. So how hard can it be to bring a steady milk supply into the Reading Terminal Market, where he plans to begin making cheese this summer?
"It's a nightmare," he says, the remnants of his Israeli-Belgian accent lilting with enough drama to make clear he's also thrilled by the challenge. "To do this in a 120-year-old building, to drill a 15-foot double pipeline through the wall into our milk tank in the basement — it's like making the Holland Tunnel. You pick a spot from both sides and just hope you meet in the middle."
When that pipeline finally does connect and Wajswol (Why-sole) cranks up the 150-gallon cheese vat upstairs in the glassed-in production room being built at the rear of the market, local cheese aficionados will be in for something special: a working raw-milk creamery in full view of visitors, and a retail outlet with a grilled cheese panini counter for one of the most innovative and sophisticated cheesemakers on the East Coast.
"It will be Willy Wonka-ish in cheese form," says market general manager Paul Steinke, who's counting on Valley Shepherd to be one of the showpiece anchors for the ambitious "Avenue D" renovation project that is soon to inject new life into the market's eastern edge. "There's nothing like this that can be observed anywhere else in the city."
Claudio's mozzarella store in the Italian Market notwithstanding, Steinke's claim is more than just hyperbole. Valley Shepherd Creamery, set in the rolling hills of Long Valley, Morris County, is one of the most distinctive artisanal cheese producers in the country, from its focus on using the milk of 600 dairy sheep, to the extraordinary hillside cave where 40,000-plus pounds of various cheeses age to moldy perfection in the dank chill, to Wajswol's unconventional business model.
For one thing, Valley Shepherd, which he opened eight years ago with his wife, Debra, rarely sells cheese through retail stores. It opts instead for a direct route to consumers through 23 farmer's markets, a Valley Shepherd store in Park Slope ("very hip Brooklyn stuff," says Wajswol), and more than 200 chefs in the New York area who clamor for his firm and nutty Shepherd Basket, the sublimely creamy Crema de Blue, the stinky, ale-washed Square Pants, and any number of his 30-plus other varieties, not to mention their sheep's milk yogurt, ricotta, and butter.
"We can make so many varieties because we make small batches," Wajswol says. "Distributors want large volume at half the price. We want the opposite: small volume at retail prices. We can play around, and so we do. Because we don't make enough to sell beyond this region. "
Wajswol, 55, spent most of his career building high-rises in Hoboken before throwing himself into the 80-hour weeks of dairy farming and cheesemaking ("and this was supposed to be my semiretirement project after real estate," he says with his patented eye roll). And he knows he must sell Valley Shepherd's "grass to consumer" farmstead story for the business to work.
"You have to educate people if you want to sell them cheese for $20 or more a pound," he says, while leading a well-attended weekend tour of the farm.
Of course, Wajswol has a secret weapon: lambs.
About 900 of the tiniest, fuzziest, most cuddly little creatures will be born to the Valley Shepherd's dairy sheep this season, drawing to the farm a steady stream of tourists, school groups, and Girl Scouts (at $6.75 to $8.75 a ticket) through the end of lambing season in summer. (The farm's annual shearing festival will be held Saturday.) In fall, hayrides lead through the pastures to the cave nearby. Tours get to watch the days-old newborns frolic in the hay of the lambing house (where petting is definitely allowed), and watch the ewes take a merry-go-round ride on the custom-made milking carousel, which milks 600 animals in two hours twice a day, and tracks every sheep's production by computer.
Around the corner, visitors peer into the glass-enclosed production room where the cheeses are made, and French-born Pierre Lesaulnier was hand-pressing 45-pound wheels of Comté-like Somerset and flipping them as if they were pancakes. And then, at last, a tasting tray appears with nearly a dozen varieties of the farm's current offerings.
"After seeing what goes into this, and tasting it," Wajswol says, "they usually say, 'Hey, $20 is not so bad.' "
Indeed, following the tasting, the visitors pour into the farm's extensive cheese store, the Sheep Shoppe, wallets open, hungry for more.
Valley Shepherd also has about 100 goats and 50 cows as well, whose milk is used in other cheeses (like the Somerset, made from the high-fat milk of Guernseys). But the primary focus on sheep's milk is clearly what sets this farm apart from most other American cheesemakers.
"The curd is so nice and heavy in your hands, sheep's milk is the best," he said. "The amount of protein in these curds makes a very dense, complex cheese that will also mature faster than any cow's-milk cheese."
Wajswol, who studied nuclear engineering before going into real estate, is essentially self-taught, having made cheeses with friends in 10 European countries. His affinity for sheep, though, was particularly inspired by the Basque cheeses of the Pyrenees mountains, down to the rennet he makes himself by salt-curing and air-drying the stomachs of Easter lambs, which then get ground into a paste used for coagulating milk.
"It's essential for that sheepy, barny taste," he says, referring in particular to the Shepherd Basket, which looks like Manchego from the herringbone print on its exterior, but has a creamier, herbaceous paste similar to an unsmoked Idiazabal.
Given the fact that sheep produce milk only six months out of the year, however, compared to cows, which produce year-round, Wajswol's aging cave is the other essential element that shapes the complex and earthy character of Valley Shepherd's cheeses. Made from a crater blasted from a hillside in the forest, which Wajswol then dug out with backhoes, the concrete-lined cave's four rooms run 120 feet into the hill, lined with wooden plank shelves that hold thousands of aging cheeses.
It is only here, in the deliberately humid 52-degree chill of the cave's low light, that one gets a true sense of the stunning variety of Valley Shepherd's repertoire, as cheddarlike cylinders of sharply tangy, clothbound Valley Thunder rest near paprika-rubbed disks of firm Red Goat, and densely creamy orange Perlitta (inspired by Mimolette and as old as two years) reside near the Shepherd Basket, whose transformation from wax-colored young cheeses to silvery mold-encrusted specimens is astounding.
"People have been making cheese like this for thousands of years," he says.
Most, if not all, of these cheeses will be available at the Reading Terminal location when it's completed, hopefully by July's end. Wajswol will also be able to craft two or three new cheeses on site — a clothbound cheddar and a Stilton-style blue among them — made with raw cow's milk drawn from a 45- minute radius of the city. (Valley Shepherd's farm, he says, is too far away for the transport of raw milk.)
Because they'll be made with raw milk, they will also need to age a minimum of 60 days, but probably as long as nine months before they're ready. That means the Reading Terminal Market, aside from getting the dairy pipeline version of the Holland Tunnel, is also getting a "mini-cave."
"The more I talk about it," he says, "the crazier it sounds."
As if that ever stopped Eran Wajswol in his pursuit of the perfect cheese.