Staring at me from a white sheet of wax paper is a blue- and white-speckled mass of Stilton. Drizzled alongside it are a few dots of lavender-vanilla honey.
“They say mold loves sugar, sugar loves mold: You know, it’s a good marriage,” Kristin Collins, owner of the Santa Ynez Valley Cheese Company, tells me on a recent Wednesday as she scrapes a little taste of Gruyère off a gigantic wax-bound block of cheese that takes two hands to lift.
- PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
- CUT TO ORDER: Kristin Collins, owner of the Santa Ynez Valley Cheese Company, cuts a wedge off a block of manchego cheese for a potential client to try.
Mold does love sugar. In fact, mold loves sugar so much that I’m dabbing up the last of the honey off the wax paper with my finger, and I can still detect that sharp, tangy taste of blue Stilton. My mouth is hanging onto the flavors. Savoring them.
My tongue wants more, but there are other cheeses to try.
Kristin has a stack of half blocks of wax-covered cream in various states of aged hardness. Manchego, chällerhocker, and Gruyère lie among them. She stands over the stack with plastic-gloved hands and a long red apron with the shop’s logo on it. She’s packaging little wedges for a meeting she has in 20 minutes with a potential client.
The cheese shop has been open a little less than a month in downtown Santa Ynez. So far, the cut-to-order cheese and cured meats business is good, but Kristin said people do ask for Santa Ynez Valley Cheese Company-made cheese. That’s definitely a part of the plan, and her husband, Russ, and she will ultimately be selling their own brand of freshly made cheese. That’s the second phase in their business’s evolution. The third and final phase will incorporate the sheep they raise.
But for now, everything they sell in the shop comes from other artisan cheese makers.
The Collinses moved their family—two young girls and a bunch of sheep—to Santa Ynez from Thousand Oaks a little more than a year ago. They currently run about 25 head of sheep on their property and have been experimenting with cheese making for the last five years.
Moving to the valley was both a lifestyle choice and a business decision.
- PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
- BLOCK HEAD: Blue Stilton is one of many artisan cheeses the Santa Ynez shop is selling.
The cheese thing started as Russ’ hobby. He just came home one day and started making it, Kristin said. It’s a lengthy process. It can take one or two days to get from the milk part all the way to the cheesy end of things. Soon, it became a family endeavor, and sheep’s milk cheese is Kristin’s favorite, so at one point they bought some sheep.
“Fresh-made cheese is just amazing, so I got into it,” Kristin said. “And we just started getting more and more sheep.”
Eventually, they had way too many sheep for the half-acre property they owned in Thousand Oaks, and they had to make a decision: Either they were going to sell off most of their sheep and keep a couple to feed their cheese-making hobby, or they were going to take the now-established sheep herd and turn it into a business.
“We decided to just go for it,” Kristin said.
They came to Santa Ynez and settled down with their sheep in tow, and embarked on their dairy-filled journey toward starting a cheese business in Santa Barbara County. Permits are tricky—as anyone who’s tried opening a business knows—so they decided to open in phases. The first phase is completed; it’s the actual retail end of things, also known as the cheese shop I’m standing in.
- PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
- HAPPY COMBO: Collins pairs blue Stilton with a lavender-vanilla honey.
The stinky smell of cheese is pungent, yet pleasing.
A refrigerated display case to the left of the front door is filled with a variety of soft and hard cheeses, freshly baked baguettes are fanning out of a basket on a table next to the case, and another display case filled with cured meats and other goodies—olives, etc.—is at the back wall.
Kristin starts talking about why sheep cheese is so good. Their milk is richer, she tells me. It’s got more butterfat in it than goat or cow milk, and less whey, so the finished product has a richer, creamier flavor. Manchego is made from sheep’s milk. She shaves a taste for me off the block she’s holding.
Of course, it’s delicious: creamy with a light sharpness.
Integrating a sheep dairy into the shop is actually the last phase of things. A state-approved cheese-making room comes next, and then the Collinses will get their dairy permitted.
While the plans are getting finalized for that special room, the duo is perfecting a few different cow’s and goat’s milk cheeses in their home kitchen. That includes, for starters, a fromage blanc of the bovine variety and a chevre from the goat variety; both are fresh and can be eaten the day they’re made. The Collinses are also working on a couple of aged specimens, which include a brie-style goat’s milk cheese and a slightly aged cow’s milk cheese soaked in red wine.
The latter is called Meadowvale, and will be a Santa Ynez Valley Cheese Company specialty.
“That’s just what happens when you’re making cheese,” Kristin said. “You kind of fall into your own.”
Contact Staff Writer Camillia Lanham at firstname.lastname@example.org.