Floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with wheels of aging cheese are an impressive sight for a person who loves cheese. Last week I had the happy experience of touring Appel Farms' cheese-making facility, guided by cheese maker John Appel.
John's father was born in a town in Holland but he always wanted to be a farmer. He learned his trade by taking room-and-board jobs on farms, including one in France working for a Dutch cheese maker.
Later he emigrated to the U.S. and in 1967 finally bought his own farm, where the Appel family lives and farms today near Ferndale. He imported some Dutch cheese-making equipment and started making gouda cheese, mostly as a sideline to his farm operations.
"It was basically a hobby at that point," John says.
One day a German man who sold pickles and other products to German delicatessens came by to ask if John's father would make quark cheese. If he did, the man said he would sell it, as his customers requested it often.
That was the beginning of the commercial cheese operation that grew into the business John and his wife, Ruth, manage today. John's brother and sister-in-law, Rich and Ann Appel, manage the dairy operation that produces the milk for the cheese.
A contract with Brown & Cole for their Gouda cheese led to an expansion from the original 20-by-40-foot building. They now have a large vat that can produce 32 wheels of cheese at a time, with each wheel weighing 9 to 10 pounds. It takes about 10 pounds of milk to make one pound of cheese.
Later, a man from India approached the family about making paneer cheese. He also offered to sell it for them, and the family now produces paneer and yogurt for Indian restaurants all over the country.
We took a quick peek into the dairy barn where two rows of 10 cows were being milked at a time. The Appels have about 500 cows in their dairy herd, of which two thirds are Jerseys and one third are Holsteins. My grandson, who was taking the tour with me, found himself face to face with a beautiful Jersey cow that was as curious about him as he was about her.
Milking the entire herd takes about six hours, and the process is repeated three times a day. Needless to say, the milking barn is a very busy place.
To make cheese, the huge cheese vat is filled with warmed pasteurized milk. A bacterial culture is added (or vinegar, in the case of paneer), which begins to separate the milk into curds (the solid cheese) and whey (the remaining liquid). Depending on the type of cheese, rennet may also be added.
Large knives cut the curds, which are then squeezed to remove more of the whey. Finally, the curds are pressed into forms to make rounds. At that point, the cheese is ready to eat, although some of the gouda will be set aside to be placed in the aging room. Aged gouda has a stronger flavor and firmer texture.
For their artisanal niche market, the Appels flavor some of their Gouda to produce specialty cheeses - with herbs, cracked pepper, jalapeños, and more. Their smoked gouda is one of my personal favorites. Those, as well as their quark, cheddar and other products, are sold locally through their farm store at 6605 Northwest Road. They always have tasting samples available to help you decide what you would like to take home.
Appel Farms is currently finishing a new retail store beside the road. (The current store is down a long driveway and not visible from the road.) They hope to be able to open the new store in December. Can't wait to see!
1 hubbard squash (friend's garden, Lummi Island)
2 teaspoon hazelnut oil, plus enough to oil baking dish (Holmquist Hazelnut Orchards, Lynden)
1/2 large onion, chopped (Hopewell Farm, Everson)
2 cloves garlic, finely minced (Boxx Berry Farm, Ferndale)
1 teaspoon fresh thyme (Evergreen Station, Ferndale)
Salt to taste
4 ounces aged Gouda cheese, finely grated (Appel Farms, Ferndale)
1 cup half & half or heavy cream (Fresh Breeze Organic Dairy, Lynden)
Cut the hubbard squash in half, using a heavy knife to work your way around the squash. Then use a large metal spoon or a curved grapefruit knife to remove the seeds and stringy center of the squash. (If you like, save the seeds for roasting.)
(Optional: To make it easier to peel the squash, I recommend that you "prebake" it. To do that, put the two halves of squash cut-side down on a baking sheet lined with foil or parchment. Bake in a preheated, 350 degree oven for 15 minutes. That will slightly soften the outside of the squash, just enough to peel it with a sharp paring knife.)
If the squash is very large, cut the halves in half again. Peel the squash, and cut about 2 pounds of it into 1/2- to 3/4-inch cubes and put in a large mixing bowl.
If you didn't prebake the squash so the oven is already warm, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
In a large skillet, heat the hazelnut oil over medium-high heat. Add the chopped onions and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes until translucent. Add the minced garlic and sauté for another minute until fragrant. Remove from the heat.
Add the onion and garlic mix to squash cubes. Add fresh thyme and salt. Mix well.
Put half of the squash mixture into an oiled 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Sprinkle with half of the grated cheese. Make another layer with the rest of the squash mixture. Drizzle the half-and-half or cream as evenly as possible over all. Top with the rest of the grated cheese.
Cover with foil and put on a sheet pan to catch any drips.
Bake for 45 minutes. Remove foil and continue to bake for another 15 minutes until the top is nicely browned.
You'll find Whatcom County foods at these stores and farms. Many outlets have seasonal hours. We recommend you call or check websites for current hours.
Acme Farms + Kitchen, 1313 N State Street, Bellingham
Appel Farms Cheese Shoppe, 6605 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4996
Artisan Wine Gallery, 2072 Granger Way, Lummi Island; 360-758-2959
BelleWood Acres, 6140 Guide Meridian, Lynden; 360-318-7720
Bellingham Country Gardens (u-pick vegetables), 2838 East Kelly Road, Bellingham
Bellingham Farmers Market, Railroad at Chestnut; 360-647-2060
Boxx Berry Farm Store and u-pick, 6211 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-380-2699
Cloud Mountain Farm Nursery, 6906 Goodwin Road, Everson; 360-966-5859
Community Food Cooperative, 1220 N. Forest St. and 315 Westerly Road, Bellingham; 360-734-8158
Five Loaves Farm, 514 Liberty St., Lynden
Ferndale Public Market, Centennial Riverwalk, Ferndale; 360-410-7747
Grace Harbor Farms, 2347 Birch Bay Lynden Road, Custer; 360-366-4151
The Green Barn, 211 Birch Bay-Lynden Road, Lynden; 360-318-8869
Hopewell Farm, 3072 Massey Road, Everson; 360-927-8433
The Islander, 2106 S. Nugent Road, Lummi Island; 360-758-2190
Joe's Garden, 3110 Taylor Avenue, Bellingham, 360-671-7639
Lynden Farmers Market, Fourth and Front streets, Lynden
The Markets LLC, 1030 Lakeway, Bellingham; 8135 Birch Bay Square St., Blaine; 360-714-9797
Pleasant Valley Dairy, 6804 Kickerville Road, Ferndale; 360-366-5398
Small's Gardens, 6451 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4637
Terra Organica, 1530 Cornwall Ave., Bellingham; 360-715-8020
Reach Whatcom Locavore columnist Nancy Ging at 360-758-2529 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To follow her day- to-day locavore activities, go to Whatcom Locavore on Facebook or @whatcomlocavore on Twitter. For locavore menus, recipes and more resources, go to whatcomlocavore.com.