Say Cheese!

Dos Lunas Produces Artisan Cheese

Story by Sarah Naron

Upon walking into the production room during a recent visit to Stryk Farm in Schulenburg, I was greeted by quite an unusual sight – a 480-gallon steel tank housing slabs of raw cheese.

As artisan cheese maker Joaquin Avellan explained, things looked incredibly different just six hours before, at roughly 4 a.m.

“This was milk that had just come out of cows at just under 100 degrees,” Avellan said. “The udder can be about 101 degrees, which is nothing. That’s just room temperature.”

Once the milk is obtained from the cows, it is stirred for approximately 45 minutes to ensure that it becomes unified.

“There’s a lot of natural fat floating around,” Avellan said. “These are all Jersey cows, which have the highest level of fat in cows. That’s why it’s called the Queen of Dairy.”

The milk produced by Jerseys, Avellan added, is ideal for producing cheese.

Avellan’s foray into the cheese-making industry started with his father.

“I was born in Venezuela, and so was my entire family,” he explained. “We went to Houston in the ’70s; my father wanted to do his master’s at Rice University. So, we moved up to Houston, and he became a builder.”

After nine years, Avellan’s father returned to Venezuela, and Avellan went with him and began working in the oil industry.

“My father retired to a farm to make cheese,” Avellan continued. “Ten years ago, he had open heart surgery in Houston, and he asked if I would help him with the dairy.”

Avellan honored the request, returned to Venezuela, and spent six weeks familiarizing himself with the cheese-making process.

“It wasn’t cheddar; it was farmer’s cheeses,” he said. “Farmers like their cheese very fresh. They make it, and they eat it. In Latin America, they call it queso fresco – fresh cheese. That’s what we make over there, but we make it unpasteurized.”

Pasteurization, Avellan said, is not a common procedure in Venezuela.

“We’ve never pasteurized,” he said. “That’s only done if you’re making big volumes of milk for industrial purposes to be shipped across the country.”

Avellan credits the “vibrancy” and “fiery nature” of members of Latin American culture to this disuse of pasteurization.

“It has to do with the health of the biome,” he explained. “The brain and the biome are directly connected. It’s been proven.”

As he continued to help with the operation of the dairy, Avellan was continuously encouraged by his father to completely take over the cheese-making business.

“I’d never made cheese myself,” Avellan said. “But I was like, ‘Alright, Dad, I’ll go make cheese.’”

The process began with much trial and error and with Avellan frequently presenting samples of cheese to his father for inspection – none of which seemed to make the cut.

“He kept saying, ‘You have to taste the cheese. This cheese doesn’t have enough salt,’” Avellan said. “He said, ‘You’re not checking the cheese.’”

 

As far as Avellan was concerned, he had a completely valid reason for not putting the cheese through the encouraged taste test.

“I said, ‘Dad, I can’t eat cheese. I’m lactose intolerant, remember?’” he recalled. “And he said, ‘You’re not gonna be intolerant to this, I assure you.’”

Upon inquiring further, Avellan was informed by his father that the cheese would not affect his lactose intolerance due to being derived from raw milk.

“I was like, ‘Raw milk? Isn’t all milk raw?’” Avellan said. “And he said, ‘Not really.’”

Having been reassured by his father that no detrimental health effects would be experienced, Avellan “very cautiously” began tasting the cheese that he was producing.

“I couldn’t do milk,” he said. “I mean, where’s the bathroom before I have a cup of coffee at Starbucks? It was that bad. So, I started tasting the cheese and doing all this stuff, and I said, ‘Wow, I’m not getting sick.’”

Avellan explained that many individuals who believe themselves to be lactose intolerant are merely casein intolerant.

“A2 milk can only come out of Jersery cows,” he said. “All cows used to be A2, and because of the industrialization in the last few hundred years, most of them have turned to A1. So, what happens is, there’s people who think they’re lactose intolerant, and they may be just casein intolerant. The liquid in the casein is the lactose. So, the liquid is the sugars, and the paste – which makes the cheese – is the casein.”

Avellan returned to the United States with the intention of making and selling the unpasteurized queso fresco he had become accustomed to working with in Venezuela.

“I found out that Texas allowed raw milk, which was awesome,” he recalled. “My dad said, ‘Make sure that the cows are grass-fed, son, otherwise you’re gonna have problems. You could be taking unnecessary risks.’”

Avellan explained that the milk produced by grass-fed cows contains high levels of beneficial microorganisms.

“All of the microorganisms that are in the grass get chewed up by the cows and digested by the cows, and they become part of the milk,” he said. “That makes the milk basically bulletproof.”

Allevan cited inordinate testing conducted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the results of which were used to pass the law that raw cheese must undergo a 60-day aging process.

“They inject listeria into raw cheese, and 15 days later, it’s nowhere to be seen,” he explained. “So, it’s very safe. They force you to age cheese for four times that long. That’s the law.”

This requirement, however, was one that Avellan was not familiar with upon setting out to make cheese in the States.

“So, here I am, trying to make a queso fresco,” he said. “A big cheese purveyor in Austin said, ‘Joaquin, you need to age this. This is illegal. You’ve got to check with an FDA inspector.’”

Upon consulting with the inspector, Avellan was informed that while it was permissible for him to make unpasteurized queso fresco, he would not be allowed to sell it unless he followed the 60-day aging law.

“I said, ‘So, it won’t be a fresco,’” he recalled. “The inspector said, ‘I don’t care. You age it, and I’ll let you sell it. I’ll give you a permit.’ So, I said, ‘What does age mean? Can I just, like, leave it vacuum-packed in the fridge?’”

The inspector approved the idea, and Avellan sealed the cheese in vacuum-packed plastic wrap and left it alone in a refrigerator for two months.

“And then, I cut it and tasted it,” he remembered. “I said, ‘Well, I like it. I wonder if other people will like it.’”

When Avellan began providing samples of the cheese, the response was a positive one.

“People loved it – especially at restaurants,” he said. “There’s a restaurant called La Condesa in Austin that has Central Mexico kind of cuisine. They melt about 100 pounds a week of this cheese. They love it. And they’ve done it for nine years now. So, that kept me going in the thick and the thin.”

Since he began his cheese-making endeavors, Avellan has experimented with aging different types of cheese for various amounts of time, also testing out a process called cave aging and managing to create natural blue cheese after three years of doing so.

“My passion is discovery,” he said. “I call it an evolution of milk. Milk, as it becomes cheese, starts evolving. The way it evolves has to do with what the cows ate and how the cows were taken care of.”

In addition to cave aging, Avellan is also well-versed in cheddaring cheese, a process which was designed in Somerset, England.

“The tank the milk is in is slightly heated so that the cheddaring process acidifies the actual casein,” he explained. “I calibrate a pH meter and stick it into the liquid that comes out of the cheese – the whey – and it’s gonna start dropping. This is what makes the environment almost more vinegary – not like vinegar, but more acidic – so that if there’s anything off in the milk, it gets killed.”

The ideal pH level, Avellan said, is 5.4.

“You drain the whey, and then, you flip the slabs, and you keep checking the pH,” he said. “The pH will drop to 5.4 or 5.3, which is pretty acidic. That means that nothing can survive in that.”

Avellan contributes part of his success to Stryk Farm, where he has been producing cheese for roughly eight years.

“I was just looking for raw milk,” he explained of how he came to find the farm. “I went to about eight different areas. I kept doing tests, and I kept getting flavors in the milk. I was like, ‘No, this doesn’t taste right. This is not grass-fed.’”

As soon as he stepped out of his vehicle during his first visit to Stryk Farm, however, Avellan knew he had finally come to the right place.

“My nephew was with me, and I told him, ‘This is it,’” Avellan recalled. “He said, ‘How do you know?’ I said, ‘It smells like a cow. The manure smells like the cows are eating grass. Everything else smelled like the cows were eating chemicals.’”

The farm, Avellan said, has been in the Stryk family for more than 60 years, and it has operated with a closed herd of cattle for the past five decades.

“That means that all of the cows have stayed within the loop of the farm, all A2 cows,” he explained. “Most farms have to be tested constantly, which is very expensive, because they’re bringing in bulls and can’t certify the semen that they’re inseminating with and all that stuff.”

Bob Stryk, who owns the farm with his wife, Darlene, Avellan said, “has been very smart” throughout his time in charge.

“He sells about 10-18 cows every year,” he said. “He milks the cows in their cycles for about six or seven years. He always keeps his herd very updated and very young so that production is high instead of injecting and doing all the horrendous stuff that is done to cows.”

Avellan is one of only eight artisan cheese makers in the state of Texas.

“There are people who take dry powder and turn it into cheese. That’s not cheese,” he said. “I call them hacks, really. All the artisan cheese makers in Texas – if they own cows, they’re better off. I’ve been in business for eight years because Bob and Darlene have helped me tremendously.”

Avellan’s business name and slogan stem from the FDA’s requirement that cheese must be aged for 60 days before it can be legally sold. He had already selected another name for the company, but after learning of the law, he was unsure whether he would continue pursuing cheese-making.

“I worked with a Mexican shaman; I had known him for about 18 years,” Avellan explained. “He worked during what he called Dream Time. When you’re sleeping, basically, that’s when you do the actual work. They believe when you’re sleeping, your spirit bleeds out, and you do work as a spirit.”

Avellan’s stress about the uncertainty of the company had been causing him to have nightmares, which the shaman was aware of.

“So, I woke up one night, and he was just staring at me,” Avellan recalled. “I was like, ‘Why is this guy staring at me? Why is he here?’ And I was like, ‘I know it has to do with cheese, because I have nothing but cheese nightmares.’”

As he continued to ponder, Avellan jolted awake – this time, for real.

“I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I was having a dream. Where is he? He’s not here,’” he said. “Now, I was really awake, and I started thinking, ‘Why would he care about me and what happens if I have to age this cheese 60 days?’”

Avellan then realized what occurs during the two-month period for which cheese must be aged in order to be legal for sale.

“Two moons go by,” he pointed out. “Moons are very sacred in our culture.”

With that, the name – Dos Lunas – and the slogan, “From the cow to the people in two moons,” was born.

For more information on Dos Lunas or to purchase cheese, please visit www.doslunascheese.com.

 

 

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