Veronica Pedraza’02 originally chose her major to get in to law school, but today her rhetoric and discourse background helps her talk about the award-winning, farmstead cheeses she produces. What’s more, her very existence on a central New York farm is helping to preserve rural land and a vanishing way of life.
Sipping italian white wine and eating sheep’s milk cheese with Veronica Pedraza’02 raises the question: Why isn’t everybody in the Beloit family a farmstead cheesemaker? Like so many who come to Beloit, she decompressed, going from big city to small town, and began to find herself.
“Originally, I’m from Miami, Florida, and I had major culture shock when I got to Beloit,” Pedraza says. “I had never seen cornfields, never seen snow. My father’s from Cuba and 70 percent of the population of Miami is Spanish speaking. I felt like I was in the real America at Beloit. I did a lot of cheese eating. I never saw so much red meat or whole milk. I had a difficult time acclimating to Beloit, but I definitely knew that I wanted to go to school there.”
After a few detours post-Beloit, she decompressed even more, to a farm. The liberal arts experience at Beloit lit the way.
“I think with most Beloiters, there’s a kind of sense of social justice that people pursue with their education, and I think that rural economies are often never addressed,” she says. “The way I look at cheese is that this is a way to keep this farm from being developed into condos.”
That said, none of the courses she took at Beloit prepared her for making cheese.
“I took zero science classes, and I went to Beloit primarily because I realized I didn’t have to take math to graduate, now I use math all the time. The problem was, no one ever explained to me that I could use any of that stuff to make cheese. Why would I ever need to know about titratable acidity?”
She majored in rhetoric and discourse and sociology to prepare for law school. She has the confidence, analytical mind, and passion to be a good lawyer, and, fortunately, like a good liberal arts graduate, she’s fearless, and so she tried something completely different.
Like many Beloit experiences, it wasn’t just class work that made a difference. Pedraza paid her way through college by cooking at the Beloit Inn. She took advantage of an exchange program, taking her last semester in Morocco. She was fascinated by restaurants where they killed the chicken after you ordered. She decided to bring that experience to America and make food “fresh, real, and delicious.”
Five years in the restaurant kitchens of Chicago didn’t offer any chance to liberate food. So in 2007, on a drive back to Florida, she stopped at Sweet Grass Dairy in Georgia and got a job as an apprentice cheesemaker. Two years later, she became a creamery manager at Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont. She’s been operations manager at Meadowood Farm in New York state since 2012, attracted by their flock of East Friesian sheep.
Pedraza knew the market was saturated with artisan cow’s milk cheese, and that sheep’s milk cheese has more challenges and more rewards, more protein and more fat. “More protein means more cheese from less milk,” she explains. “More fat means more flavor.”
The sheep graze on a 225-acre spread east of Cazenovia Lake in central New York just southeast of Syracuse. Lake-effect snow buffs know that can mean 20 feet of snow in the winter. The impulse to save the farm from developers came from two Washington, D.C., investors who restored the farm buildings and brought livestock and the people to handle them. Pedraza’s sheep’s milk cheese brings in the money to pay the salaries and property tax.
“I do the marketing, the sales. I do all the administrative things and human resources,” she explains with a laugh. The farm has seven employees. Pedraza is a strong, take-charge woman but doesn’t milk the sheep. She collaborates with those who do and with the farm manager in charge of the pasture.
“Pasture quality ultimately affects milk quality,” she explains, since the pasture serves as the sheep’s food source. “I want my cheese to taste like it came from this farm.”
Ax blade scars in rude planks and joists greet Pedraza every morning as she goes out the back of the farm house and walks past the murmuring sheep. She has a few moments to savor the dew and then she’s in a white paint and stainless steel world with blue sanitizing pellets on the floor. “The FDA inspector likes to see that,” she quips.
Now it’s time for rhythm and rectitude. Music blasts as Pedraza’s team of three cleans all surfaces and cleans some more. Cleaning is a must. When capturing the taste of the pasture, the dirt and manure can’t hitch a ride. The cheese must be pure even though it’s created by bacteria.
In the history of cheese, America is famous for industrial scale production. American farmstead cheesemakers go back to the Old World for culture. Her sheep’s milk is “direct vat inoculated” with bacteria from France, creating what she explains is a microcosm of bacteria, yeast, and mold. “It’s like a planet they live on,” she says. “Cheeses are living things that breathe and they need oxygen to ripen.”
Cheese making is an ancient art, but today science helps.
“The milk is always changing,” Pedraza explains. “You are basically trying to make the same product, but the major ingredient is never the same. We have instrumentation that lets us know in real time what our fat and what our protein is. The challenge is to keep doing it over and over and make a consistently good cheese.”
Music is also a must. “It helps with the tempo because a lot of cheese making is being in a rhythm, having a flow, being in a fluid state,” she says. One morning that motion ended with 320 molds of cheese made from 90 gallons of sheep’s milk. Thanks to her digital notebook next to the pH meter on a desk, she knows all she scientifically can about that cheese and every other batch she made before.
The flow doesn’t stop in the refrigerated room where the cheese ages, but the science does. It’s time for her major at Beloit.
“I think all marketing is rhetoric and discourse,” she says. Pedraza names her cheeses after local historical personalities, then finds words to bring them to life, sometimes with a look to the cheese’s future: “robust, meaty, and built for the pint;” sometimes inspired by the pH meter and the music of James Brown: “lactic and funky, with a touch of the barnyard.”
She doesn’t leave it to gourmet food distributors to do the rest. Once a month she goes to New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, or Chicago where she talks up and shares her cheese.
Once a year she goes wedge to wedge with other cheesemakers. This year, Meadowood’s Ledyard cheese won a first place prize in the category of “American Originals” sheep’s milk cheese at the American Cheese Society competition and convention—the farm’s first blue ribbon. Last year at the same convention, experts judged 1,779 cheeses in two rounds, aesthetic and technical, of blind testing. Pedraza’s Rippleton sheep’s milk cheese with that taste of the barnyard won a second place ribbon in a farmstead cheese category. She knew the winner of a third place ribbon, a cheesemaker at Winter Hill Farms in Maine, but hadn’t seen him since college, Steve Burger’01.
Coming soon, a Beloit symposium on cheese making?
Bob Arnebeck’69 is a freelance writer, historian, and naturalist who divides his time between an island in the St. Lawrence River and 52 acres of woods and swamps.
Photos by Robyn Wishna
Taste the Cheese
Meadowood Farms sells its farmstead cheeses in a self-serve retail space located on the farm. You’ll also find them at these fine food retailers:
- Saxelby Cheesemongers, New York, N.Y.
- Foster Sundry, New York, N.Y.
- Formaggio Kitchen, Boston, Mass.
- Lucy’s Whey, New York, N.Y.
- Valley Shepherd Creamery, Long Valley, N.J.
- Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread & Wine, Chicago, Ill.
- Fairfield & Greenwich Cheese Company, Fairfield, Conn.
- Talbott & Arding, Hudson, N.Y.
- Antonelli’s Cheese Shop, Austin, Texas
- Honest Weight Food Co-op, Albany, N.Y.
- DiBruno Bros., Philadelphia, Penn.
- Zingerman’s Delicatessen, Ann Arbor, Mich.
- SideHill Farmers, Manlius, N.Y.