My hair is tucked in a white net, and the other five feet of me is swathed in plastic and rubber: blue rubber apron, black rubber clodhopper boots, four transparent surgical gloves stuffed on each hand.
The room is like a sauna. Steam rolls out of a giant vat filled with murky, white, 180-degree water. The Black Crowes wail out of a transistor radio.
I grab a big pan of spongy white cheese curds, douse them with five bucketfuls of water, sprinkle them with salt and wait. A few minutes later, I plunge my gloved hands into the vat, the hot water dribbling down my wrists and inside the gloves, and grab a wad of half-melted mozzarella.
I knead it slowly and rhythmically until the chunky pieces meld together into a sleek, shiny ball. I squeeze that ball between my fingers and thumb with all my might until it pops away from the rest of the mass. I drop that shiny cylinder of solid cheese into a bucket of ice water.
One mozzarella ball. Hundreds to go.
This is the weekly Tuesday morning mozzarella stretching routine at Branched Oak Farm, just outside Lincoln in Raymond, Neb.
Krista and Doug Dittman — who say only that they're in their 40s — started their boutique dairy farm as a lark. They cooked up the idea of a cooperative dairy over dinner and drinks with friends.
“We never sobered up from that,” Krista said, chuckling.
Now the Dittmans and their crew sell handmade artisan cheeses to restaurants and at farmers markets.
Their business depends on 21 heavy-lidded certified-organic Jersey cows, the changes of seasons, the work of young interns and employees, Krista's talent for cheese-making and customers adventurous enough to try something new that just happens to be made close to home.
“I love food,” said Krista, a former German teacher who taught college students in and around Lincoln before she became a cheesemaker. “I love knowing that I can create something beautiful and make someone happy. My heart goes into all of it.”
So does her sweat. And mine, at least for a day.
She warned me: “Prepare to sweat,” she told me before I arrived on a recent summer morning, so I wore shorts, a T-shirt and gardening clogs and thought I knew what to expect.
Three hours later, after we had filled lots of yellow buckets with mozzarella balls — hard but somehow still soothing work — we had to clean. We drained the vat of hot water and swept, wiped and hosed down the cheese-making room, which had been filled with tiny white bits of cheese in every corner. When we finished, I looked like a drowned rat. My fingers were prunes. And I was starving.
The mozzarella-making team — Krista; Drew Nelson, who works and lives at Branched Oak; intern Rikuya Inoue from Maebashi, Japan; and me — adjourned to the Dittmans' dining room for the breakfast Doug had prepared: fresh cooked beets, cabbage and carrots from the garden; farm-fresh scrambled eggs; hot coffee; some leftover cold rice from the night before; homemade yogurt with frozen berries; and a chunk of the stinkiest, most delicious homemade blue cheese I've had in years — Drew described it as “the good stuff.”
If this is life on the dairy farm, I'll take it.
Doug started farming in eastern Nebraska in 1991. He studied environmental studies at the University of Kansas and also attended an agricultural tech school. He and Krista married in 1997. She gave up teaching and moved to the farm in 1999, when they began raising grass-fed beef and free-range chickens on the land, which they own and Doug's grandfather had owned before them.
A few years later, the Dittmans and their friends Charuth and Kevin Loth started Farmstead First, a two-farm cooperative that pooled resources and used grant money to purchase cheese-making equipment for both farms to use. The Loths produce goat cheese under another label, ShadowBrook Farm's Dutch Girl Creamery. Krista began to make her cow's milk cheese under the Branched Oak name, and since 2007, the Dittmans' farm has been a certified-organic, grass-based dairy. They specialize in cheese and more recently started selling milk and yogurt.
The Dittmans' herd of cows descends from a New Zealand breed that thrives on a ratio of grass, water and minerals. They use bulls from within their own herd to maintain the line. The cattle are inquisitive and friendly — one was curious enough to walk right up to me — and as Doug moved them from the milking area to a field, they responded gently to his touch and voice. They were more social and less skittish than most cows I'd been around.
Doug's in charge of the cows and the pastures at the farm, which includes making sure the herd gets milked at 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. The couple's sons, Nelson and Andreas, help with farm chores.
The first cheese varietal Krista made using their milk, called Quark, is still one of the farm's main products. The soft, spreadable German cheese can be eaten on crackers or used in cooking, and sometimes Krista spikes it with herbs like rosemary. At the breakfast table that morning, Dean served the cheese mixed with some apricot jam and honey to be spread on toast, a sweet treat.
Krista makes Camembert, similar to Brie; Gouda infused with dill in the spring and with cumin in the fall; cheddar; Havarti; and mozzarella.
They sell some cheeses, like Quark and mozzarella, right after they're made. Some of the mozzarella made that Tuesday morning went to the farmers market in Omaha the next afternoon. But most of it went to Dante Ristorante, where chef Nick Strawhecker uses it on his west Omaha restaurant's Neapolitan-style pizza.
Strawhecker said he buys 150 to 250 pounds of cheese from Branched Oak each week.
“The No. 1 reason I buy it is the quality,” Strawhecker said. “The No. 2 reason is because buying local is the Italian way, and we're an Italian restaurant.”
Strawhecker said he likes watching how the mozzarella changes with the seasons and how the color of the cheese changes depending on what the cattle eat.
“I know in my mind that the cows were milked probably on a Sunday, Krista works on the cheese Monday and Tuesday, and it comes to me Wednesday,” he said. “It was in the animal three days before. It's quality, beautiful, local cheese.”
Compared with a large commercial cheesemaking operation, Krista said, Branched Oak is a “blip on the screen.”
Branched Oak produces about 500 pounds of cheese a week. On average, Krista works 12-hour days, though her schedule varies.
Contrast that with a cheese factory, which could make and package 2 tons on one average day.
Machines instead of hands would make the mozzarella in a factory. Krista said the curds likely would enter a machine at one end and emerge at the other end finished and packaged.
“In the food industry, you're either getting really big and efficient, or staying small and carving out your niche,” she said. “There's not a lot of middle ground.”
She has continued to carve out her own niche in part through restaurant sales. Krista sells cheese to other restaurants, too — Omaha's Twisted Cork and Benson's Lot 2 among them.
“When I realized I could sell as much cheese to one chef that I would otherwise sell during just one day at the market, my eyes opened,” she said. “This is one way — working with chefs — that my operation can grow.”
After breakfast, Krista takes me to the climate-controlled, dim “cheese cave,” which isn't a cave at all. Instead it's a cool room with wooden shelves full of chronologically organized heavy wheels of cheese.
All the cheese, aged or not, starts at the curd stage, like the mozzarella did. But from there, the process changes. Krista puts the cheese into a form that's the shape of a loaf or a round, depending on the cheese, and the curds get pressed into it for anywhere from two to 18 hours.
After the pressing, the cheeses go into a salt brine, and based on weight, stay there from 24 to 72 hours. Cheeses to be aged come out of the brine, are dried on boards and then are placed in the cheese cave, where they will stay for a minimum of 60 days or as long as 14 months.
Most of the cheese in the cave that day was covered in colored mold — white, green and blue, among other colors. Krista said that as long as it's in a controlled environment like this, mold is a good thing. Some of the flavor in Branched Oak's cheeses come from that mold, especially the flavor in the rind. The conditions in the cheese cave — 52 degrees and 95 percent humidity — make the environment perfect for it.
“Mold is just part of cheese making,” Krista said.
The dill Gouda is here, in a huge, flat round, as are rounds of Sonenberg cheese from the previous year and Gruyère that's also a year old. There's a Gouda cheese infused with spring nettles. It's made with milk from the herd after the cows ate the same nettles in the spring pasture. These are Krista's creations, and her care is evident: She gently wipes mold from the cheese surface with a rag and, deciding a couple are ready to go, carries them out of the cave cradled in her arms.
Before the cheese is cut and sold to customers, Krista washes the rinds with hot water and a scrub brush to remove most of the mold. She first saw cheese being washed at a sheep farm in Italy, where the aged cheeses floated in a tank of water before being cut and sold. The bath makes the cheese look less intimidating.
Branched Oak sold its first cheeses in 2006, Krista said. The Dittmans are still working to get people in Nebraska to try the more unusual varieties.
“This isn't Wisconsin,” she said. “People here think cheese comes vacuum-sealed in a package at the grocery store.”
Krista's cheese can be challenging. Some have pungent odors. Others have unusual textures.
“I don't think everyone is an adventurous eater,” she said.
But customers have become much savvier than they were 10 years ago.
“The questions that people ask at the market are much more complex now,” she said. “People are becoming more aware of where their food comes from and what's in it.”
Free samples at the local farmers markets help. The next day at the midweek market in Omaha's Midtown Crossing, farm employee Erin Frank was behind a glass-fronted cooler loaded with cheese cubes and toothpicks.
People crowded around the booth, asking lots of questions. What's Quark? What can you do with their cheese?
And how much does it cost? Mozzarella, for example, is $14 per pound, and the nettle cheese is $15 per pound, more than cheese produced in large quantities. The Dittmans say the farm makes a profit, though they didn't offer numbers. Neither has an outside job, though both have investment income.
At the farmers market, Frank also has a sample of the apricot spread Doug served at breakfast, not for sale yet but as an example of how to use the cheese. It's more popular than Erin guessed it would be.
All the customers eat the samples, and nearly all of them make a purchase.
“Samples bring people in,” Erin said. “Some people just sample and walk away, but at least they are trying something new.”
The more experienced cheese buyers, she said, don't need samples.
“The just know what they want, and they come back to try something new, too.”
I know what I'm after — three balls of mozzarella. Erin talks me into a hunk of the seasonal nettle Gouda, which is almost sold out for this year. It's delicious, savory and tangy with an intriguing texture. I also took a tub of soft Quark seasoned with rosemary, a favorite herb.
I thought about what Doug said to me the day before, after I was sweaty from cheesemaking and satisfied on his homegrown meal.
“Food doesn't have to be a bourgeois, elitist thing,” he said.
He pointed at a big bowl of yogurt on the table.
“This came from a cow,” he said.
Then at the bowl of root vegetables and cabbage.
“This came out of the garden,” he said. “Here's what I think: Everybody has to eat. Might as well eat well.”