Daniel Szoller walks down a wide hallway that runs through the centre of Monforte Dairy. He stops at a pair of double doors that open onto a cavernous room. The white walls soar to a ceiling hung with searingly bright lights.
“This is the make room,” says Szoller.
Three people work in the huge space. One woman sluices down a long rectangular stainless-steel cheese table. The table is used to hold, form and drain milk for cheese making. Another woman waves the wand of a pressure washer back and forth and directs the discarded whey towards the drain in the centre of the floor. A third woman lifts wet linen bags filled with curds from another table onto a cart.
They all wear the same uniform of blue hair cap—and in Szoller’s case, a beard net—white lab coat, apron and knee-high rubber boots. Their bare hands are pink from always being wet and the endless hand-washing.
“The paranoid person in me will tell you that safety is the most important part of cheese making,” says Szoller, artisanal cheese maker, dairy manager, and affineur—the guy who ages the cheese. The 39-year-old has a test for how safe things need to be. “I ask myself, would I feed this cheese to my friend’s 1-year-old?”
Established in Stratford, Ontario in 2008 by Szoller’s mother Ruth Klahsen, Monforte Dairy is Ontario’s oldest artisanal dairy.
In the make room, Szoller helps the woman who transfers the curd-filled bags from the table to the cart. Together they swing a bag onto the top of the pile.
“Cheese making is very physical. There’s a joke in the industry that inspectors are cheese makers whose backs have given out.” He laughs.
Szoller walks over to another set of double-doors that lead to the pasteurizing room. The pasteurizing room opens onto a darkened receiving room. He waves over one of the women. “This is Heather Hundt, our certified milk grader and pasteurizer.”
Hundt explains that she pumps raw milk through a hose from delivery trucks into one of three holding tanks in the receiving room. She chills the milk in the tanks if it needs to be kept for a day or two before she pasteurizes it and sends it to the make room.
“My favourite day is delivery day,” says Szoller. Hundt nods. “The whole floor just fills with this beautiful barn-y smell. You can smell the hay.”
Szoller’s mother trained Szoller and Hundt in cheese making. Hundt says that she quickly realized that she didn’t want to be a cheese maker. “I don’t have the science. It’s chemistry.”
Back in the make room, Szoller explains the variables he adds to his formula. Bacterial cultures, heat or cold, or seasonings added to the curds result in distinct cheeses. He makes a range of cheeses from water buffalo fresca to goat cheese ripened in balsam ash to their Hodge Podge made from a blend of milks.
Next, the curds are poured into forms and moved to the dry room. The dry room is bigger than the dairy needs, which makes controlling the humidity difficult, Szoller says. They need to make small artificial ripening rooms within the dry room by draping the racks with plastic.
Szoller works from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. but as the affineur, he can sometimes be found in the evening in the dry room clipping or rotating cheese. “So they don’t stick to the racks,” he says.
After nine days in the dry room, the cheeses are moved to the final aging room. Here, Szoller brushes the rinds of the cheeses to keep the molds under control and ensure the even development of the rind.
Shoulder-high stacks of racks loaded with cheese fill the refrigerated aging room from front to back and wall to wall. The youngest cheese, fat and yellow and speckled with fenugreek, stands nearest the door. “Those are over a year old,” Szoller says and points to shrunken, dark brown rounds in the back corner.
“I like making cheese. It’s hands-on and I like the variety of jobs. None of us are in this for the money.” Entry-level cheese makers at small facilities start at $12 an hour.
Szoller says that Monforte sold about $1.6 million worth of cheese in 2016 but that they need to sell $2.5 million to be profitable. They’ve got to get into more farmer’s markets, he says, and he has no interest in jumping from niche- to mass-market.
“I want to bring people back to farmer’s markets where they can get to know the people from the dairy.”
Szoller hopes that when someone bites into a piece of Monforte Dairy cheese, they get nourishment, satisfaction and a little bit of happiness from the cheese he makes.