Say cheese! You’ll see why Marcoot sisters, their Jersey cows are smilingNews-Democrat–
GREENVILLE — The Marcoot sisters make cheese for a living.
Mozzarella, Alpine Forest, havarti, Tomato-Basil Jack, gouda and more on the family farm.
“We literally touch every step of the process,” said Amy, 29, manager of the Marcoot Jersey Creamery. She, sisters Brooke, 24, Beth, 27, and friend Audie Wall, 30, turn the milk of 60 Jersey cows into hand-crafted cheese.Amy Marcoot, manager of the Marcoot Jersey Creamery in Greenville, holds a wheel of cheese as she stands amid other cheese curing in the “cheese cave”. It’s an underground room, and is climate-controlled. She estimates they have between 12,000 and 15,000 pounds of cheese on hand, in various stages of curing. – BND
No skim-milk products sold here. Jersey milk is high in butterfat.
The young Marcoot women are seventh-generation dairy farmers. But they didn’t have to be.
“Our parents told us not to come back, that our feet weren’t nailed to the ground here,” said Amy of leaving the farm. “They told us all the time to give ourselves lots of options: Go to college, get a degree and find a job. Something stable to do.”
So they did. It just happened close to home. Literally, across the road from where they grew up.
That’s where they built the creamery, with viewing windows so visitors could watch the process.
“We’re passionate to educate people” about cheese, Amy said.
The two most common questions from visitors to this almost 2-year-old farmstead business?
“‘Can they pet the calves?’ ‘Do we make American cheese?'” said Amy. She laughed. “That’s not real cheese!”
A small retail store is attached so folks could take home their product, as well as ice cream and yogurt.
But what’s beneath the creamery is a key process that makes their cheese unique.
“We built a manmade cave — it’s really a cellar,” Amy said. “We had a diagram of a Swiss cave used to age cheese in.”
Row upon row of pale yellow wheels fill the dark and damp room. Cheese mellows there for at least four months, and the raw-milk varieties age a year.
“We work 20 to 30 hours a week down there,” said Amy.
Audie is the head cheesemaker. Brooke runs the store and handles tourism. Beth works on marketing downstate, including selling at a weekly farmers market, while finishing a master’s degree at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Another sister, Brittany, 25, lives in Iowa.
Their mother Linda, dietary manager at the Alton Mental Health Center, helps out on weekends, as does their uncle.
John, their dad, and Brooke’s husband, Tony Segrest, milk the cows twice a day.
The Jersey cows on the farm are a pampered bunch: They are grass-fed, with no hormones, no antibiotics.
John Marcoot switched to premium pasture about 11 years ago. Amy said her dad was convinced the Jersey herd was happier because of it.
She was skeptical.
“I thought he was crazy at the time, but now I really believe they’re more relaxed,” she said. “Before we switched, they’d live to 5 or 6. The average age now is 8 to 9. For some, it’s 12 or 13.”
The Jerseys, known for their ultra-rich milk, graze within sight of the creamery building and small retail store. A barn houses spindly-legged calves and some happy resident cats.
When their dad talked about retiring and selling the herd, the sisters began a conversation about how to keep the farm a viable enterprise.
“We didn’t want to break the seventh generation” to raise Jersey cows since the 1840s, said Amy. Ancestors emigrated from Switzerland to the Macoupin and Bond counties.
But the sisters didn’t wanted to continue doing what their ancestors had done.
“We put all of our milk into cheese. Before, it went to the co-op,” Amy said.
Raw milk is used for two of the cheeses; the rest are pasteurized. Their eight hand-crafted cheeses are sold throughout the state and used in upscale restaurants in St. Louis and Chicago.
The art of making cheese
The cheese, made three days a week at the creamery, starts as a painstakingly hygenic and messy process. Boots and hairnets are mandatory. Everything from instruments to buckets to countertops are hosed down and washed time and time again.
“We spend about 80 percent of our time on cleaning,” Amy said.
Amy and Audie are up before the sun.
The process starts about 5 a.m., when 170 gallons of milk are piped into a large vat. One gallon of milk will produce 1 pound of cheese.
Vegetable rennet is added to start the thickening process. The cows help, too.
“When they eat more grass, it coagulates faster,” said Audie. This batch will be a Tomme, a French-style, raw-milk cheese that will age in 6-pound wheels for about a year in the cellar.
“It has a Cheddar base with a Parmesan finish,” said Amy. “It’s dry enough you can grate it.”
She and Audie use long paddles to move the thickening liquid around and help the rennet do its job.
“She used to throw the javelin, so this is much easier for her,” joked Amy about Audie.
At specific times during the next two hours, they test temperature and pH, watch as clumps of butterfat rise to the top, cut through the liquid with stainless rakes and drain away the excess milky liquid called whey. They almost do headstands as they bend into the vat to gather what looks like drippy, extra-large curd cottage cheese.
They slap the loose, wet cheese into round plastic molds with slits in the sides. When stacked on topof one another, the weight presses out more milky fluid, reducing the cheese to about half its size.
Then, it’s down to the cellar.
“Cheese made today will go into a brining bath for a day,” Amy said, pointing to a long trough. “That makes the outer rind harder.”
Hundreds of wheels of cheese, covered in a protective natural coating, fill tall rows of wood planks.
“Ashwood is used because it is the only wood that won’t impart flavor” into the cheese, Amy said. There is special ventilation — “It has to be breathable so it ages well.” The temperature is kept at 50 to 55 degrees, with humidity at 80 percent.
Inventory was low, with about 15,000 pounds of cheese slowly aging to perfection.
“We sold 800 pounds in two weeks to a restaurant near Springfield.”
A plan for success
The family worked with Kaskaskia College’s Small Business Development Center to create a business plan. They also sought out experts.
“We began working with some cheesemakers. We took classes, read books, went to other creameries and asked a lot of questions,” said Amy. “Then we started making cheese.”
The first wheel was produced in March 2010. A year later, the total was 66,000 pounds.
“And we sold every bit of it,” she said.
Full production didn’t begin until May 2011. They sold the cheese at farmers markets, then started looking for wholesale distributors. The retail store on the farm accounts for only 10 percent of the sales.
“In March, we were in 25 retail (locations) and five restaurants,” said Audie. “By May, it was 45 retail and 50 restaurants.”
“We’d like to make cheese five, six, seven days a week, but for now it’s three,” said Amy. “We’re selling everything we make. We’re right where we want to be. Now, we want to make a better product.”
And educate the public. They encourage clubs and school groups to visit to see the process.
“It’s not an easy life, but it’s rewarding,” said Amy, who moved into the apartment upstairs of the creamery.
A personal life?
“I’m too busy for (marriage) now.”
When she finds time, she does demonstrations at stores.
“I don’t think I’ve been to a movie in the past year.”
Amy grinned when sister Brooke arrived with 3-year-old nephew, Matthew. He loves to come to work with his mom.
“This could be the eighth generation.”
Marcoot Jersey Creamery
Where: 526 Dudleyville Road, Greenville
Retail hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. The store will be closed Dec. 24, 25 and 31 and Jan. 1.
Products: Gouda, Baby Swiss, Havarti, Farmhouse Cheddar, Tomato-Basil Jack, Just Jack, Pepper Jack, cheese curds (four flavors) and cave-aged Alpine Forest and Tomme.
Available: At the creamery’s retail store or any Dierberg’s supermarket (not all varieties available).
Information: 664-1110 and marcootjerseycreamery.com.
Mozzarella, not skim and hand-stretched
Harvarti and Tomme, tied