Kenny’s Farmhouse Cheese – The Story of an Artisan
I had a rather interesting trip this past weekend. Early Saturday morning (7:30am!), I met up with a bunch of fellow food bloggers to travel 90 minutes from Nashville to Austin, KY. What’s in Austin, KY, you may ask? Let’s just say there is a really cool guy making some awesome small batch, artisanal cheese.
This is Kenny Mattingly and he’s a dairy farmer. But he really is much more than that. He’s a hard worker, a scientist, a comedian, a businessman, and an artist. When we walked into this cheese making lab, Kenny lit up the room. Here was this guy in a hairnet with a blue plastic sleeve up his entire arm, burying it in a vat of curdled milk! And yet, he was extremely welcoming to all of us. While he told the story of how he came from Indiana to Kentucky, decided to start making cheese, and success/failures along the way, you could sense Kenny was more than just a cheesemaker. His movements were effortless – like he had been doing them his entire life. While constantly checking temperature, caressing the curds, turning knobs on and off, Kenny told a beautiful story, answered our questions, and even told a few jokes!
Kenny knows a thing or two about cheese. After producing over 70,000 lbs of cheese last year, you would think he would have a pretty significant operation. But in fact, everything gets made out of this single vat. Fresh milk, from his farm, is pumped in daily and made into cheese that morning. This means that Kenny exerts a significant control over the quality and flavor of his cheese. Machines are rarely used here – it’s all about, what Kenny calls, “feel”. Sometimes, concentrating on “feel” has led to throwing out the whole batch. Once, Kenny mentioned how he was trying to make gouda and actually ended up with havarti! And now, after 12 years of making cheese, you can tell that he’s got it down.
Kenny caressing the curds.
As I started to write down this post, I was going to tell you all about how to make cheese. But as I thought more about it, this story is about the cheesemaker. To me, that was the coolest part of the trip. Making cheese, is of course, both an art form and a business. For someone interested in both those fields, I was fascinated with how Kenny would in an instant switch from talking about his experimentations with different cheese flavors to how he wants to build an underground cave on his property so he doesn’t have to pay rent somewhere else. Kenny’s business is a family one – with his son helping to make cheese and his wife, Beverly, with a big ole smile there to welcome you.
There is something comforting in that. It’s not just a huge factory where cheese is being pushed out by machines, without human interaction until it’s ultimately opened. It’s refreshing and eyeopening to talk to someone who makes cheese by hand everyday, who milks his own cows, who gives berth to new calves, and who really enjoys doing it. That to me, just blows my mind. They are so committed to a quality product that they do everything. The freshness and quality controls are certainly notable in this cheese. There’s no comparison. Kenny’s is a cut above the rest.
Freshly molded blue cheese – it’s going to become Kentucky Blue!
Cheese in the storing room.
Swiss Cheese in the aging rooom.
Here’s the famous Gouda – the first cheese Kenny made!
Some cheese put out for all of us to sample.
A Cheese named Pauline.
I always love the stories behind names of cheeses. The Kentucky Blue, obviously named after the University of Kentucky Wildcats – although Kenny, a Hoosier’s fan, isn’t part of the big blue nation. Some are named in the traditional sense – gouda, swiss, and asiago. But then there are those special ones, like Pauline and Ted. Neither of these names gives you an indication of what cheese you are about to try. Rather, what makes them special is their connection to the cheesemaker. Pauline and Ted are Kenny’s grandparents, and he has honored their lives by naming some great cheeses after them. Ted is that huge hunk of cheese on the right side of the picture with the cheese spread.
No story would really be complete, however, if we only talked about the cheese. This is an entire operation that first and foremost raises cows to produce milk.
The farming method here makes a lot of sense, as it focuses on the cycle of life. Kenny keeps some cows grazing so they can eat happily and move about the grounds. Some cows, after they have grazed enough, start to produce what will soon be manure. This one particular cow caught my eye as it just kept staring at me. So, naturally, I had to take this picture.
Young cows are fed milk, grains, and water. This particular calf was two days old when we got on the farm.
The cows are fed silage – which is made from corn ears to corn stalks, all ground up and fermented. It smells just like corn, actually
Here’s a picture of one of the farm dogs, Cheddar. Kenny claims he named the cheese after him.
At the end of the day, it’s more than just making cheese. It’s the story of a true artisan – someone who gets up earlier than most of us to make something he loves to. It’s helping to grow and nurture a small cow so it can grow strong and produce milk, which can then be used for cheesemaking. It’s about experimenting with different flavors and different techniques to produce consistent products that sometimes vary from batch to batch. But that’s the beauty of it. Cheese is an organic item, and as such is more than your grocery store yellow block. During the spring, the milk is more yellow because of the budding grass, and hence the cheese becomes more yellow. Sometimes you can pick up on the “terroir” of cheese. That is what makes cheese taste great, but also is a testament to the skill of the cheesemaker, who is able to adapt and “feel” his or her way through it in order to make a high quality product.
What’s best is when you can enjoy that quality with some folks that really appreciate it. This trip would not have been the same without our awesome group of food bloggers. This group can talk about food all day long. We can eat our fair share too! And since it was so sunny, I decided to close my eyes.
Thanks to all of you for a great time. Thanks to Jennifer, Kenny’s cousin and PR rep, for organizing this great trip. And lastly, hat’s off to you, Kenny. You and your family inspired me this weekend. I look forward to eating your cheese for a long time and wish you the best in your future endeavors. Until then folks, I’ll leave you with a picture that will always make me want to return to the country.
*PPS: To get some of Kenny’s Cheese in Nashville, they are at grocery stores like The Produce Place, Whole Foods, and The Turnip Truck. Kenny’s also has an online ordering system. And to stay in touch with them, follow them onFacebook and Twitter!