Cindy Callahan and her two sons have their hand full looking after 350 milking ewes on a 34-acre sheep ranch about 60 miles north of San Francisco. The flock can reach upward of 1,200 in total, including the lambs they raise for meat. Even though the Callahan family gets some help from foreign agricultural exchange students who come to stay with them for 3 - 12 months from countries around the world (they've had students from Bulgaria, Poland, Austria, Australia and France), they keep up a very busy pace milking the ewes twice a day, making cheese, and preparing other lamb for sale to restaurants and selected supermarkets.
Cindy and her sons started the sheep dairy in 1985 and focused their energy on making a Tuscan-style pecorino cheese using sheep's milk. When they started, they knew nothing about cheese-making and they learned all they know from several university courses and visits to sheep dairies in Tuscany, Umbria and Sardinia. In the last 9 years, Bellwether's pecorino cheese has received nationwide acclaim and has been compared to some of the best pecorinos made in Italy! We're fortunate that Bellwether Farms is in the Bay Area and that Cindy offers her cheeses at the Saturday Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market. Bellwether is the only sheep dairy in the western U.S. and one of a handful nationwide.
Making cheese is a year-round family affair. Twice a week, starting with 450 lbs. of milk collected during the week and frozen until the Callahans are ready to make cheese, they first pasteurize the milk and then use it to make 180 lbs. of pecorino (60 wheels, each weighing 3 lbs.). That's about almost 10,000 lbs. of cheese each year! During the first few weeks, each wheel must be turned once a day. As it ages, it's turned only once a week, but all the work is done by hand. The only chore not done by hand is milking the ewes. That's done by machine twice a day.
There' s a 40% yield of cheese to milk. The remaining whey is used to make a very special sheep's milk ricotta cheese. It's very much in demand at the Market so you'll have to go early to try to get some. When it's available, it's usually gone by 9:30 a.m. Cindy also distributes a very small quantity through the Cheese Board in Berkeley.
Using the same cheese making techniques, the Callahan family also makes a fresh farmers' cheese from cow's milk using organic milk from the Strauss Family Creamery. Unlike sheep's milk, cow's milk gives only a 20% yield of cheese to milk, so using 850 lbs. of cow's milk, they can produce only 170 lbs. of cheese each week.
|Sheep's Milk Cheese (pecorino)||Cow's Milk Cheese|
|Toscano aged over 90 days ($15.00/lb.)||Farmers' Cheese (sold in 6 oz containers):|
|Pepato aged over 60 days with whole peppercorns ($15.00/lb.)||Plain $5.00|
|Fresco like Toscano but creamy ($15.00/lb.)||Fresh herbs $5.00|
|Diavolo very creamy with crushed hot red peppers ($12.00/lb.)||Sweet Tomato $5.00|
|Caciotta very young Toscano aged 3 weeks ($12.00/lb.)||Smoked Salmon $5.50|
|Smoked 2-month old Toscano, naturally smoked ($15.00/lb.)|
|Grating Cheese aged 8 months ($16.00/lb.)||Sheep and Milk Combination|
|Roblar fresh cheese made of equal parts of sheep and cow's milk $ 6.00/8oz|
Cindy's sheep are a Polypay-Dorset crossbreed, which have the advantage of being able to breed year round, but have the disadvantage of producing only about a pint of milk a day and lactating for only 3 months. So to keep up her milking flock, she breeds her lambs 5 times a year. (Most sheep ranchers have to use the traditional practice of lambing the whole flock only once year resulting in the birth of lambs in the spring.) A major advantage of her year round, staggered breeding program is that she's able to offer baby milk-fed lambs to restaurant and retail customers on a year round basis. But because her overall operation is small, she only sells about 1,000 lambs a year, keeping 20-30%, from the best milking ewes, to add to the milking flock.
Most in demand are Bellwether's small milk-fed lambs which are 30-40 days old. The older lambs are only allowed to reach a maximum age of 3- 4 months before she sells them. Cindy attributes the delicate "European" flavor of her lamb to the fact that all of her lambs are much younger than lamb sold in the supermarkets. The taste difference is astounding!
95% of Bellwether's lambs are sold to Bay Area restaurants such as the French Laundry, Oliveto's, Citron and Masa's. The other 5% are sold direct to customers who come to the ranch or order from Cindy at the Market. With two week's notice, she'll deliver a whole lamb (weighing 20-30 lbs.) to you at the Market, trimmed, cut and sealed in plastic packs.
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