Cheeses are both map and souvenir, the names linguistic roads leading back to their point of origin: Brie, Gruyere, Oaxaca, Colby. Each type of cheese reflects the subtle cues of environment, the way the traces of dust taste on the back of the tongue, or the way heat, humidity and the angle of light combine to create a unique signature of location on the tastebuds, unnoticed perhaps at the conscious level, but calling subtly to mind place, past, and culture.
Now Utahns in search of a deeper communion with the West can use another sense to appreciate Utah's majestic mountain vistas, through the work of Joel and Rachel Wilcox of the Oolite Cheese Company in Manti, Utah, where CATALYST caught up with them in March.
Joel and Rachel had long wanted to settle in the Sanpete County town—Joel hails from Southern California with familial ties to the area; Rachel is a genuine coal miner's daughter from Mount Pleasant, a town just north of Manti,. Even as teenage sweethearts, they talked of buying and fixing up one of the town's historical homes made of a soft golden-white stone that looks like the crystalized early spring sunshine. The stone is oolite, a limestone made up of fine, circular grains of calcite quarried nearby, and from which the Wilcoxes' cheese-making operation takes its name.
"It only took us 17 years," jokes Rachel, of the couple's quest to return from California to Manti in order to claim one of the pioneer homes for themselves—with the addition of five children—but it was this oolite that provided the means.
While living in California, Joel and Rachel went through what can only be described as a serious fromage phase: When asked what kind of cake he wanted to celebrate his 31st birthday, Joel responded: "Cheese." Rather than try to translate that request into the language of cake, Rachel took him literally. "I went to a fancy cheese shop in Orange County and looked for funky ones... four or five different types," which she shaped into a multi-cheese wheel. Standing around with extended family after the candles on the unusual "birthday cake" had been blown out, laughing and discussing the different qualities and properties that each person enjoyed turned out to be a "magic moment" for Joel.
"I was inspired, thinking 'maybe I want to do this...maybe I want to make cheese...' I think that night I was on the internet, and within a month I had some cheese supplies and I made my first batch," he recollects. The couple began educating themselves about their new hobby, buying books, examining recipes, and eventually taking cheese-making classes at Utah State, but those first nights of internet delving were what brought together two distinct threads from their lives, reconciling their newly uncovered passion with their longing to bring their family back to central Utah.
In researching Roquefort, one of his favorite components of his birthday surprise, Joel discovered its unique flavor comes from a sheep milk base, aged in the limestone caves in Roquefort, France. "The story goes that a shepherd left his cottage cheese in the cave and went off to chase a pretty girl," laughs Joel. This mythical shepherd returned a few days later to find blue cheese instead of cottage cheese. "The blue mold actually came from the limestone—the stone is porous and sort of alive," he notes. The pieces came together for the couple, who were ready to leave city life behind. "One he found out that it was sheep milk and limestone, that was it, that was our ticket back to Manti," says Rachel.
The Wilcox family was able to find a house in Manti, complete with a limestone basement where they could cure their creations; finding sheep milk was another proposition all together... or it would have been, if not for the tight word-of-mouth network that keeps information flowing in the countryside.
You can find, quite literally, only a handful of farmers in the region raising milk sheep, says Joel. "It's like liquid gold—you can't get your hands on it unless you own it...it's 10 times as expensive as cow's milk and people just don't let it go," Rachel adds.
Her father, still living in Mount Pleasant, was able to put the word out. Strangely enough one these rare farmers happened to live nearby. Known round about as that "one crazy guy who milks sheep," he too had wanted to get into the sheep milk cheese game, keeping East Friesians and Lacaune sheep (of Roquefort fame) but was starting at the other end of the process, and was happy to find a buyer for his sheep milk while he expanded his herd.
By January 2012 the couple was ready to go, and in July they cut the ribbon on a new "cheesery"-cum-storefront located next door to their home, where they can easily ply their trade.
Here, Rachel revealed the key to the Oolite Cheese Company: two chunks of limestone pulled out of their basement during a renovation project. Raw-looking against stainless steel equipment in the meticulous climate-controled building, these broken hunks of oolite stone may have some intriguing revelations for locavores and global cheese-lovers alike.
"We were aging [the cheese] in our limestone basement. Anything you put down there would be covered with this mold," says Joel. Now, after pressing and shaping the cheese, they let it cure at room temperature for a few days in big tubs next to these chunks of oolite, giving the molds time to come out of their microscopic hiding places and colonize the fresh cheese. One of the cheeses Joel and Rachel have developed with their locally sourced mold is pungent, spicy like a tablespoon of pepper, and leaves your mouth tingly and numb—a delicious kick in the pants that pairs quite well with the cheeky name of Boys Pants Rebellion. Joel notes, "We took it to USU, and they thought it might be a new strain of mold in the cheese world." While official testing is down the road, there is a chance that the Wilcoxes will get to name their own strain someday, or that Manti will find its way onto maps and plates alongside Brie and Cheddar: "I always tell people if you want to know what central Utah tastes like... this is it," concludes Joel.
The cheese can be found at a few places around Utah: Happy Valley Farmer's Market, Liberty Heights Fresh, The Market at Park City, and the Real Foods Market in Orem—you can also buy cheese through their website oolitecheesecompany.com or by contacting them directly if you'll be in Manti—and they hope that more stores in the Salt Lake region will be carrying it soon. The cheeses sell for about $30 a pound—but with the unique flavors the Wilcoxes are creating, you'll want to savor it slowly, anyway.