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A Day at Montellet Fromagerie

There's nothing cheesy about great cheese. At Dayton's Monteillet Fromagerie, they make some of the best cheese you'll ever taste.

As the sun comes up, Pierre-Louis Monteillet grabs a handful of grain, walks into the pasture and whistles to the "girls". Thirty Alpine milking goats come running. Six at a time, they are led into the spotlessly clean milking room where each sticks its head into a bucket of grain before being connected to a state-of-the-art milking machine.

The fresh milk is transferred instantly to the pasteurizer, and the depleted goats are led out into an adjoining pen as the next group enters the room. When the goats have finished their routine, 30 East Freisan-Lacaune sheep from a separate pen are led in groups into the same milking room, repeating the process.

When the milking is done for the day, Pierre-Louis immediately fires up the pasteurizer. And so begins the process that may end up as a delicious Causse Noir in a tasting room in Walla Walla or a tasty Sauveterre in one of the finest restaurants in Seattle.

Pierre-Louis is the co-owner and cheese-maker at Monteillet Fromagerie, the six-year-old business – and labor of love – he runs with his wife Joan. Located two miles west of Dayton, just off Highway 12, the Fromagerie offers a window into the ancient art of cheese making by hand.

We asked Pierre-Louis what makes cheese from goats' milk and sheep's milk so good. "It's the butterfat," he says. "Goat's milk has nearly four-percent butterfat, and sheep's milk has about seven percent." Compare that to about three-percent for whole milk from cows.

Adds Joan, "Our goats and sheep are fed the highest quality alfalfa and grain available. That also makes a big difference in the quality of the milk." The Monteillets stress that all of their cheeses are completely natural and contain no additives, preservatives or antibiotics.

To make the cheese, special cultures are added to the milk. It is then separated, with the curd ladled into special molds. The cheese is aged – two to three weeks for soft cheese and three to four months for hard cheese.

The Monteillets offer several varieties of soft and hard cheese, as well as fresh, unaged cheese. Most of the cheeses are made of a blend of sheep's and goats' milk, but their Sauveterre is a rich hard cheese made of just sheep's milk. To add color, texture and flavor, two of their soft cheeses, Le Roi Noir and Larzac, include a layer of special grape leaf ash, imported from France. Next year, the Monteillets plan to begin bottling and offering for sale fresh Grade A goat and sheep milk.

Joan and Pierre-Louis met at a small pensione where they were both staying in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 1978. "I had been traveling for about two years before going to Mexico," says Pierre-Louis, a native of the Roquefort region of France. Joan, a Walla Walla native, was there on vacation.

The Monteillets began farming Joan's family's wheat farm near LaCrosse, WA, in the early 1980s. Even after they bought and renovated the house and property on highway 12 west of Dayton, and moved in in 1985, Pierre-Louis continued to spend his weeks up north with the tractor and combine.

In the early 1990s, Pierre-Louis and Joan and turned their newly-remodeled house on the highway into a bed-and-breakfast. They had a few sheep and goats and had been experimenting with milking and cheese-making. In 1997 they stopped farming and began planning to build a dairy and fromagerie. They decided to get more serious about their cheese. "We spent over a month in France in 2001, visiting cheese makers and learning how to make hand-crafted cheese and set up a sustainable eco-friendly dairy," says Joan. When they returned, they immediately began construction of the dairy and cheese-making facilities and opened the Fromagerie in 2002.

Since last spring, the Monteillets have been assisted at the fromagerie by Jackie Freeman. Jackie grew up in Yarrow Point, near Bellevue, and came to Dayton last spring. She will soon be the lead cheese-maker at Monteillet Fromagerie. "Pierre-Louis spends so much time on the road at farmers' markets, that we needed someone else to stay here and make cheese full time," says Joan.

Each Friday, Pierre-Louis drives to Portland and sells cheese at that city's Saturday Farmers' Market. The Monteillets also sell cheese at the Moscow, ID, farmers market and at the Walla Walla farmers' market. And their cheese is available in more than two-dozen fine restaurants in the Northwest and throughout the country. Local restaurants featuring Monteillet Fromagerie cheese include Creek Town Café, T Maccarone's, The Marc and Bon Appetit in Walla Walla, the Whoopemup Hollow Café and Jimgermanbar in Waitsburg and the Weinhard Café and Patit Creek Restaurant in Dayton.

In their tasting area, next to the pasteurizing and milking rooms, the Monteillets offer tastings to visitors, and sell all of their cheeses, as well as crackers and wine and other gifts. The tasting room is open Saturdays and Sundays from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. and by appointment, by calling (509) 876-1429.

With newly molded cheese tucked safely in the aging room, and the animals all fed, Jackie, Joan and Pierre-Louis might just take a few minutes in the evening to enjoy some fresh cheese on organic crackers, paired with a local wine. Not a bad way to end the day!

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