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Say Cheese And Say Quality At This Small-Scale Cheese Farm In Northeastern Washington

When giving directions to her farm, Lora Lea Misterly provided a pungent preview of the place.

“You’ll probably be able to smell it when you get here,” she said.

Lora Lea and her husband, Rick, produce about 5,000 pounds of their highly coveted Quillisascut cheese each year on a 36-acre spread near Rice, Wash., on the northern end of Lake Roosevelt.

Sure, the unmistakable aroma of barnyard wafts through the air at the farm. But that’s the kind of earthy odor your nose becomes easily accustomed to, especially after meeting the adorable sources of that smell - some 75 goats with names like Sassy and Sister. (Yes, they all have names.)

At this scenic spot in Pleasant Valley, with the snow-capped peaks of the Kettle range in the distance, the Misterlys live and work. They’ve built a flourishing business making hand-crafted, farmhouse cheese.

Those plastic-wrapped packages of artificially colored cheese that line supermarket shelves are massproduced in factories. The very idea of cheeses made by hand on a small scale is very European, but it has started to catch on in this country. There are now at least half a dozen boutique cheese producers in Washington, including the highly regarded Sally Jackson Farms near Oroville.

The increased interest has to a lot to do with diners stretching their palates. Quillisascut cheese is showcased on the menus of more than a dozen sophisticated Seattle restaurants, although it isn’t available in Spokane yet.

“When we first opened, we thought we could probably sell everything we made in Spokane, but it didn’t work out that way. We couldn’t get anybody excited about it,” Lora Lea said.

However, she’s hoping a tasting Tuesday at the Vino! wine shop here will spur some interest.

One of the Misterlys’ first customers in Seattle was Thierry Rautureau, owner of the acclaimed Rover’s.

“When Lora Lea came in my back door about eight years ago carrying a big basket of cheeses, I looked at them and smelled them and said, ‘Where have you been all my life?”’ he said in his thick French accent. “This is the real stuff, fromage. It’s really beautiful stuff and it’s hard to find around here.”

Rautureau is such a fan that he included a selection of Quillisascut cheese in an eight-course dinner he served to Julia Child last fall.

“Julia thought it was wonderful. She couldn’t believe that it was made in Eastern Washington,” Rautureau said.

The Misterlys probably never dreamed they’d inspire such enthusiasm when they bought their remote piece of property more than 10 years ago. They simply wanted to live off the land, making something that would support them.

Lora Lea had grown up on a dairy farm in Leavenworth, Wash., and she liked making cheese, so it seemed like a natural.

“I loved the taste of homemade cottage cheese, so I started with that and it grew from there,” she said.

The process of turning milk into something solid and savory is time-consuming, but fairly straightforward. Lora Lea compared it to making yogurt.

After giving birth (on the farm, they call it “freshening”) in the late winter, the female adult goats are milked twice a day.

A live culture is added to the fresh milk and it sets for about an hour at 90 degrees in a stainless steel cheese vat. Then an enyzme called rennet is added to the mixture. After setting for 30 minutes, it’s cooked slowly at a low temperature for an hour. This is where the curds and whey part company; the solid curds become the cheese, and the liquid whey is discarded.

While still warm, the cheese is then molded into various shapes and sizes - cheesecake-like forms, 5-pound wheels, tiny logs, even pyramids.

“They’re like little babies at that point. You have to take really good care of them,” she said.

When most people think of goat cheese, the image of a tart, creamy, feta-like substance comes to mind. But that is just one of four varieties produced by Quillisascut Cheese Co., named for the creek that flows near the Misterlys’ home.

“The Montrachet most people think of as goat cheese is fresh. It’s made to be eaten when it’s young,” Lora Lea said.

When goat cheese is aged, however, it loses moisture and becomes more dense, taking on a texture akin to Romano. It’s aged in a temperature-controlled cellar for around two months.

The cheese she produces the most of is a mountain-style cheese called machego. The recipe is Spanish in origin, but in that country it’s made with sheep’s milk.

Each 2-1/2 to 3-pound wheel of manchego takes on a different personality, depending on what ingredients are added.

Lora Lea adds herbs, such as lavender and fennel, or cracked black pepper. Chipotle peppers give another version a spicy kick.

Rick uses trimmings from their grape vineyard to smoke the wheels of manchego, which adds to its rustic character.

Yet another variety of their goat cheese looks like a science experiment gone haywire. To mold-ripen cheese, spores are sprayed on the outside, eventually giving it a fuzzy green coat.

“A lot of people are put off by that one, until they try it,” Rick said. “Then they feel like they’ve been really exotic. They’ve challenged their tastebuds.”

The Misterlys also produce a creamy camembert made with cow’s milk, a soft goat cheese aged in olive oil and an exterior-ripened cheese called a croute lave. For that, the outside rind is wiped with salt water, which triggers a ripening process. Over time, the interior of the cheese softens, resembling something similar to a limberger or a Muenster.

The flavor of their goat cheeses changes subtley over the seasons, depending on what the goats are eating.

“You can taste a difference when they’re eating hay and grain and when they’re in the pasture,” Rick said. This time of the year, the taste is much milder than when the animals are munching on grass out in the field.

When people refer to their products as stinky cheese, the Misterlys don’t take offense.

“People are almost afraid of smells in this country,” Lora Lea said. “But for some people, the stronger it smells, the more interesting it is.”

When the couple traveled with their daughter, Willow, to Europe last year, it was a working holiday. They let their noses lead them to cheese shops throughout France.

The fragrance eminating from small stores that displayed nothing but cheese just blew them away.

“Over there, there are people whose job it is to age cheese in the shops,” Lora Lea said.

When they returned, she organized a slide show and brought cheese to her daughter’s class.

“They were freaked out. They just looked at the cheese, they wouldn’t touch it, but it’s something they’ll always remember,” she said. “It’s important that people develop a relationship with different foods. At some point, they might be ready to try them.”

Brie and Bordeaux, a cheese shop and bistro in Seattle, routinely offers samples to help introduce customers to new flavors.

“It’s easier to be adventurous when you can try something,” said owner Alison Leber, who is a big fan of Quillisascut cheese.

She says some of the Misterlys’ goat cheese is better than what she imports from France.

“It’s extraordinary, and every time I taste them they’re better,” she said.

Even when people are sold on these pungent cheeses, there’s still the question of what to do with them.

At Rover’s, Rautureau combines the cheese with sun-dried tomatoes and wraps it in flaky phyllo dough. At Andaluca, another respected Seattle eatery, the cheese is enveloped in thin layers of pasta to make its intensely flavored ravioli.

Some restaurants have started offering a cheese course, another European tradition. This selection of cheese is served with a little salad after the entree, but before dessert. “It helps with digestion,” Rautureau explained.

Not surprisingly, Americans have been slow to warm to the idea.

“People think of cheese having all this cholesterol,” Lora Lea said. “But you don’t have to eat a whole lot of it. Just a taste.”

In the Misterly kitchen, they family might nibble on cheese throughout the day. But when company comes, they lay out a dazzling selection of their efforts on a gorgeous olive wood cutting board they picked up on their trip to Provence and serve it with flavorful home-baked bread, home-canned eggplant tapenade and a pinot noir they made with grapes grown on their land.

“We make as much of our own food as possible,” Lora Lea said.

One year, that included a project to grow wheat.

“It looked nice, but when we got out there and started cutting it, we got lazy,” she said.

But after milking the goats twice a day, making the cheese, tending their garden and canning their harvest, the Misterlys deserve to relax a bit.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 color photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: CHEESE TASTING Vino! wine shop, 1319 W. First, will host a tasting of Quillisascut cheese on Tuesday from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Specially selected wines will be poured to sample with the cheeses. Cheesemaker Lora Lea Misterly will be available to answer questions. For details, call 838-1229.

This sidebar appeared with the story: CHEESE TASTING Vino! wine shop, 1319 W. First, will host a tasting of Quillisascut cheese on Tuesday from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Specially selected wines will be poured to sample with the cheeses. Cheesemaker Lora Lea Misterly will be available to answer questions. For details, call 838-1229.