It was a grayish, early spring day in western Washington when I set out to spend my day off doing what I do best: getting cheesy. I drove from my home in Federal Way through the town of Auburn and into an agricultural area beyond that I had never before explored.
The space between Auburn and Enumclaw is characterized by verdant, rolling hills, farms, cow herds large and small, tract-housing communities, and more homes with metal roofs than I have seen collectively anywhere else in the Seattle area. Driving through this part of the world gave me small pangs of regret that we weren’t able to buy our house on one of these plots of land; I could have some sheep and goats, grow a ton of vegetables, can and pickle all the things, and live happily ever after.
But that’s not what I have, and so I must live vicariously through people who are actually living the sustainable agricultural dream—which is what brought me out to that neck of the woods in the first place.
I rolled up to Fantello Farmstead Creamery and drove tentatively down the long driveway, hoping I was in fact where I was supposed to be (that fear we all probably have when we go to a new house we’ve never visited before). An old bloodhound greeted me in the driveway, and was then shushed away by Patty Fantello, the woman of the hour.
I had heard about Patty’s cheese through the interwebs, of course. She had unveiled her cheese earlier in 2019 at the January meeting of the Washington State Cheesemakers’ Association, a guild-like organization that supports and promotes the state’s cheesemakers, gives them group buying options, and connects them with a network of producers who have either “been there” at some point in their careers or are just starting out.
The farm was originally settled by Italian immigrants (including the cheese’s namesake, Paul’s grandmother Filomena Fantello). At that time, Jersey cows were milked on the farm and it was a subsistence farming operation. As the century went on, the farm became home to beef cattle, then to pigs, and finally in 2014, the dairy cows returned. When Patty and Paul made the decision to bring a herd of milking cows back on the land, they opted for Jerseys because of Paul’s fond memories of the breed. (Not to mention that Jersey cows’ milk also has the highest butterfat content and their milk carries that divine yellow color from the beta-carotene in the grass.)
Patty, who had spent some time wwoofing in Europe, happened upon Raclette during a meal at a restaurant in central France. It was love at first sight (and bite). The former barista decided that she wanted to devote the rest of her life to making cheese; as she put it, “I want to be the old woman, carrying a stick and bringing her cow up the path every morning to milk her and make cheese.”
The call to live a more deliberate, traditional lifestyle was not so hard with the farm back in Washington, and so Patty returned home, enlisted Paul in the dream, and dove in headfirst.
She learned how to make cheese, got a loan, built a real cheesemaking facility in an old garage, and acquired a herd of seven cows (which has now grown to 11 cows—seven of whom were pregnant this spring).
The first batch of Filomena was made in June of 2018. Visiting the cheesemaking facility, Patty allowed me to try some cheese from that first batch, from a batch made a few months later, and from a 5-month old batch that is representative of the cheese as she intends it.
At any age, Filomena has a lot going on.
The oldest batch is hard, no longer of melting quality, with condensed flavors that bring to mind both earthiness and cooked milk. The middle batch, which is speckled with crunchy tyrosine crystals, was my favorite as an eating cheese. Patty admitted that she didn’t initially care for that batch, but has now grown to enjoy it. It’s intense: nutty, lactic, grassy, firm, crunchy, with a slight earthiness and caviness at the rind to remind you where the cheese came from.
And then there’s the youngest age, which is semi-firm, the tallest of the three, and most similar in appearance to the French Raclette we sell in my shop. It is golden in color with a few eye holes here and there. The cheese smells of warm butter, grass, dandelion greens, and yeast. Once you get it into your mouth, the paste is smooth and toothsome. It tastes like brown butter, hazelnuts, dandelions, and grass. In general, it is nutty and ever-so-slightly spicy in an herbaceous sort of way.
Even though these cheeses were all made by the same recipe and bear the same name, you can see how each batch is different because they are made using traditional (artisanal) techniques. The older cheeses might now be categorized as tomme-style farmstead cheeses (‘Farmstead Cheese’ being the name the Fantellos have used to sell those older batches to restaurants and shops around the region). They are all interesting cheeses with plenty of complexity to entice the palate of the most discriminating cheese-eater.
That complexity is thanks in large part to the cows, who were still in the barn waiting for spring to finally hit when I met them. These ladies spend their winters eating hay (because, as I have written before, it is not feasible to pasture animals year-round in Washington) and their summers nibbling grasses in a silvopasture.
A silvopasture is a style of pasturing that combines trees and grass—meaning that the trees aren’t cut down to make room for the cows to graze. The area around Fantello Farmstead is home to conservation areas, and Patty and Paul have to work with the conservators to ensure their farm isn’t harming the natural habitat.
Patty said the Fantellos actually had to fight to keep their silvopasture, conserving the farm’s trees, as they work with their local authorities to conserve the creek that lies beyond their property. They are interested in doing things naturally and organically—even if the farm is not certified organic. It’s a lot of paperwork to get to that point, and Patty is already overwhelmed from all of the paperwork she has had to do to get her loan, become a licensed cheesemaker, begin safely making raw-milk cheeses, and to get those cheeses into distribution.
A consummate hostess who says that she and her husband also have an interest in making wine together—the interest that initially brought them together as a couple—Patty set up some folding chairs on the patio outside of her cheesemaking facility and melted some five-month-old Filomena for me in one of those little portable Raclette grills. One of hers has a design on it with mountains, and that reminds you that you are near the base of Mt. Rainier as you sit on the porch facing an expanse of green grass that stretches to the street, and then stretches beyond that into the next farm over.
Filomena melts like a dream, as you might expect from a Raclette-style cheese. We ate it with shards of La Panzanella crackers, but my mouth really wanted me to be consuming that cheese with boiled potatoes and ham.
You can see in Patty’s aging room that she’s come a long way in her journey as a cheesemaker. Every batch of Filomena looks a little different: some are taller or shorter, browner or grayer, and have slightly different rinds. She’s learned how to wash and brush her cheeses, how long to age them, and most importantly, how she wants them to turn out. She now knows what her goal is as a cheesemaker, and what it takes to recreate the work of achieving that goal.
Thanks to the land on which Fantello Farmstead sits, the local feed Patty and Paul feed their herd of cows, Paul’s family’s stewardship of the land, and the cows’ excellent milk as the end result, the creamery has all of the right conditions for a successful operation.
It may not seem very exciting to say that you only make one cheese, but if you do one thing and you do it exceptionally, that is worth celebrating. Patty is, after all, one woman doing the work of cheesemaking by herself.
And damn if she isn’t doing things well.