On a Saturday morning visit to Kenny and Beverly Mattingly's dairy farm, there is nothing approaching a dull moment. Kenny is able to cut the curds in his 300 gallon milk vat, assist customers, confer with his son about a cow in heat that needs to be bred, and describe his cheesemaking operation, all without missing a beat. Such is the pace of the artisan cheesemaker whose product has become a favorite in the Middle Tennessee area.
Kenny's Farmhouse Cheese is produced on his farm in Barren County, Kentucky, just north of Gallatin, and has been a work in progress for the past eleven years. Kenny's effort to make a living at farming has evolved into a profitable cheesemaking business that produces 30 vari- eties of what is considered artisan cheese, meaning it is handmade in small batches, and is produced with the cheesemaker's unique style. His first teacher was his mother, who taught him the importance of getting his hands on the curds, and that cheese is a living thing. But as Kenny recalls, "I didn't see it becoming this. I thought if I could take some of my milk and make a Gouda cheese… I didn't really do this to be known as a cheesemaker."
A trip to Europe first sparked his interest. There he saw small family farms that were thriving making farmstead cheese made from milk produced on the farm. He began to compare that to the challenges facing dairy farmers in Kentucky, which he knew firsthand from his par- ents, who first farmed the land that he works now. Now the goal is to convert the operation exclusively to producing cheese from his milk.
"We're still in that transition of our milk becoming more cheese," he says. "A year like this really motivates you to do that, because we got the same price we did thirty years ago for milk. All the time it's getting clearer that the reason we're farming is to produce cheese."
Kenny is also focused on using sustainable farming methods. He says, "I'm more interested in biological farming, what I can do in my farming practices to ensure the health of my soil, cattle, and the people who eat the products we make. My interest is in using my own resources, like manure for fer- tilizer in a more planned way to mineralize the soil so that the food that comes from the land will be rich in minerals."
On this Saturday morning, Kenny's son was up at 3:30 am to milk the cows. "The milk is out of the cows by 7:00 and in the press by 1:00 or 2:00," Kenny says. Because almost all of the cheese is made from fresh milk, most of it never has to be heated above the cow's body temperature. "We have so many people say, ‘I've not been able to eat dairy products in so many years, but I can eat your cheese and it doesn't make me sick.' It's so natural. Anybody can watch what I add to this. It's the milk, the bacteria, the rennet, the salt. It's not pasteurized, so it has the enzymes, the protein."
Kenny's cheese garners praise from chefs and from those who know cheese for its unique qualities. Kenny describes those qualities, saying, "When you start heating and processing, pasteurizing milk, you get a grainier texture. So I think our cheese has a creaminess and depth of flavor. Because our cheeses are raw milk, you get different profiles in the taste." As the cheesemaker works on several cheeses that are in the process of being crafted, he manages to visit with a steady stream of cus- tomers. He obviously enjoys talking to his customers about his cheese and encourages them to try samples as he describes the nuances of fla- vors and the different processes that go into each one. Kenny sells his cheese regularly in a number of states, but as he says, "A little closer to home it means more to people. Your local customers are more loyal." You can buy Kenny's Farmhouse Cheese in Middle Tennessee at the Franklin Farmers' Market, Whole Foods, Marche, and the Turnip Truck. Visit www.kennyscountrycheese to order online.