Gunn’s Hill Ar­ti­san Cheese

Grand Magazine - - FEATURE - 445172 Gunn’s Hill Rd. Wood­stock

Jen and I were meant to visit three more cheese­mak­ers, but we were al­ready two hours be­hind. Too much talk­ing and tast­ing. Gunn’s Hill would round out our day.

The drive up the lane is all fairy­tale: rolling green pas­tures, even the friendly farm dog run­ning up to greet us.

Shep Ys­sel­stein, 34, is the next-gen­er­a­tion cheese­maker. He grew up on his grand­par­ents’ farm right next door, run by his par­ents now who still milk the cows he uses for his cheese.

Ys­sel­stein is a per­fect com­bi­na­tion of busi­ness prow­ess, youth en­thu­si­asm, tra­di­tion and craft.

“It’s in­ter­est­ing with Gunn’s Hill,” says Jen. “The con­sumer wit­nessed no growth pe­riod. Ys­sel­stein made three cheeses his first month. Right away they were all ex­cel­lent, and he still makes each one the same.”

One of those cheeses, 5 Broth­ers, took the gold for best firm cheese at the 2013 Cana­dian Cheese Grand Prix just in Gunn’s Hill’s sec­ond year. The next year, Ys­sel­stein won the 2014 BDC Young En­tre­pre­neur Award $100,000 grand prize for his small busi­ness. With it he built a 2,000-square­foot, cli­mate-con­trolled cur­ing and ag­ing ex­ten­sion to his cur­rent build­ing so he could dou­ble his an­nual pro­duc­tion of cheese to 60,000 kilo­grams.

Ys­sel­stein grew up milk­ing cows as one of five broth­ers work­ing on his par­ents’ huge dairy and beef cat­tle farm. He never re­ally thought he’d farm him­self. In fact, he went off to do a busi­ness de­gree in Iowa. “I wanted to be far away from the farm so I couldn’t get called home to milk on the week­ends.”

In his last year of school, he went on a road trip with room­mates to Thun­der Bay where he hap­pened upon Thun­der Oak Cheese Farm. He re­calls think­ing that if it can work in Thun­der Bay, it can surely work in south­ern On­tario.

Yet, school ended and Ys­sel­stein re­turned home to milk cows. “I did that for two years, by my­self, just me and the cows, and thought, I don’t want to do this for­ever.” He had the en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit. He en­rolled in a few cheese­mak­ing cour­ses at the Univer­sity of Guelph and then at the Univer­sity of Ver­mont.

As a place­ment dur­ing school, Ys­sel­stein had worked in a dairy in up­state New York. They needed an ex­tra hand so he re­turned to help them out. As luck would have it, through a farmer there he learned of a cheese­maker in Switzer­land who wanted an ap­pren­tice.

“I got to make cheese the same way they did 500 years ago. Milk­ing cows when they are out in pas­ture in the alps. Mak­ing cheese by hand,” Ys­sel­stein says. The ro­mance of it all struck him.

He lined up a job with Van­cou­ver Is­land’s Nat­u­ral Pas­tures cheese com­pany to learn the ropes at the fac­tory be­fore com­ing home to Ox­ford County to com­mit to a busi­ness of his own. He bought 12 acres of land right be­side his fam­ily’s farm and be­gan practising his recipes.

With a $250,000 loan from a com­mu­nity de­vel­op­ment fund, Gunn’s Hill Ar­ti­san Cheese opened its doors in 2011, of­fer­ing three cheeses made in the Swiss Alpine style. Two of them do have the sig­na­ture holes we as­so­ciate with Swiss cheese –called “eyes.” You can see the cheese be­ing made through the large picture win­dows in the cheese shop.

5 Broth­ers is a hand­crafted, washed rind cow’s cheese that com­bines traits from Gouda and Ap­pen­zeller. It is creamy with a touch of sweet and zing.

Han­deck is pro­duced us­ing the same meth­ods as a typ­i­cal Swiss moun­tain style cheese and is a nod to Ys­sel­stein’s early train­ing. The firm nutty cheese is named after the alp in Switzer­land where Ys­sel­stein learned his craft, and it just won Best Farm­house Cheese at the Cana­dian Cheese Grand Prix.

The third is a young but­tery cheese called Ox­ford Harvest, mod­elled after a lit­tle­known Swiss cheese called Mutchli. To keep up with cus­tomer de­mands for “al­ways some­thing new,” Ys­sel­stein blends this cheese with cumin in one ver­sion, gar­lic and chives in an­other. Ev­ery Fri­day it’s Curd Fri­day at the dairy store­front with ched­dar curds of­fered in bulk. Pou­tine tonight!

From the be­gin­ning, Ys­sel­stein’s then girl­friend, now wife, Colleen Bater, ran the com­pany with him, in ad­di­tion to her job as a teacher. A busi­ness mind her­self, she looks after the mar­ket­ing end with an ac­tive Face­book page: “How many cheese wheels in our ag­ing room!? Lori Ch­es­ney guessed 10,500; the ac­tual num­ber is 10,399! She wins a wheel!”

Not all those wheels are strictly Gunn’s Hill’s. Ever the smart busi­ness­man, “I wanted to max­i­mize ca­pac­ity at the dairy so started mak­ing cheese for other peo­ple.”

In 2012, lo­cal farmers had an ex­cess of sheep milk and no one to buy it. With no cheese-mak­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, they asked Ys­sel­stein for help. Cross­road Farms Sheep Milk Gouda was born as a part­ner­ship prod­uct.

Then, Ys­sel­stein started pro­duc­ing cheese for an Amish co-op­er­a­tive, Hope Ar­ti­san Dairy Co-op in Aly­mer. Due to strict be­liefs around the use of elec­tric­ity, Shep­herd’s Harvest sheep cheese and El­gin Buf­falo Gouda is made by Gunn’s Hill on their be­half.

Now with cheese in more than 300 lo­ca­tions across On­tario, Ys­sel­stein and Bater are busy, to say the least – es­pe­cially now that they have a child, Willem.

Ys­sel­stein di­vides his day in three: baby time all night; cheese­mak­ing in the early morn­ing – some­times with baby on­board; and run­ning the boom­ing busi­ness in the af­ter­noon – also baby on­board.

In the shop, you can peek into the dairy through the view­ing win­dows. Ys­sel­stein in­vites us to taste a bit of his cur­rent favourite. “Last night I ate a whole wheel of this for din­ner,” he says.

That’s Brigid’s Brie, the very one my neigh­bour, Jen, brought over that night in my back porch. Named after his wife’s mom, Brigid is the pa­tron saint of dairy farmers. Jen says it is the best On­tario Brie she has had.

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