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Sue Cummings Has Taken A Cheesemaker’s Journey
Montana Senior News, June/July 2016
Like many of today’s grandparents, Sue Cummings has a Facebook page and grandchildren she adores. But unlike many of those same grandparents, she does not post photos of her progeny on Facebook. Instead, you will find pictures of something else that gives Sue almost as much joy as those five little Cummings—her homemade cheese.

“After I take the cheeses out of their molds, I get so excited by how they look and what they’re going to taste like, I take pictures to share with friends and family,” admits Sue. This Kalispell native still lives on the farm land where she grew up and where meals consisted of food typically raised by her father or made from scratch by her mother.

Sue’s path to becoming an artisan cheesemaker began with her first taste of fresh goat’s milk some eight years ago. It was love at first sip. She appreciated everything about the slightly sweet, creamy milk including the fact that nature delivers it pre-homogenized.

“I liked it way better than cow’s milk and decided to get my own goats just for the milk. I realized I’d have more milk than I could deal with and that I’d need to make yogurt,” recalls Sue. That, however, posed no problems since she happens to crave yogurt the way some folks do chocolate. “You can buy goat’s milk,” she adds, “but compared to raw it tastes terrible.”

Although cheesemaking never entered into her original decision, Sue figured correctly—even before bringing home three Nubian goats—that she would still have an abundance of post-yogurt milk to tinker with. And what better thing to make with it than cheese, she thought, since that rates high on her favorite-foods list.

Initially, Sue and and her husband Steve planned to buy young goats and raise them over a period of 18 months. That would have given them time to gradually learn how to care for their little herd. However, that plan changed the day they received an emergency phone call from the woman selling them their goats.

“Her two adult does and a doeling needed an immediate home, as in ‘come and get them today.’ There was no time to wait for babies,” remembers Sue. “We had to take all three right away.”

As the couple learned to feed, milk, and tend their herd, they also began to notice that these critters bore noticeable similarities to humans. Each one had a distinct personality and occasionally had trouble getting along with others.

“Some will tolerate hugs. Others won’t. Like people, they want to be together but they head butt and argue all the time—who gets the food first, who goes out the gate first. They are not warm and fuzzy like cats and dogs, but they like you back,” says Sue. Although she does not consider them as smart as dogs, she finds them way smarter than cows or sheep.

 “They’re very clever and creative at escaping. You need to have a really good fence because they are escape artists. They can even pick locks by jiggling a chain loose to unlatch a gate,” comments Sue, who once returned home to find her driveway dotted with goat poop and flower beds missing half their tasty blossoms.

 While she handles the milking detail twice daily during the seven or eight milk-producing months, Steve tackles other duties. He deals with the hay and straw, cleans the goat barn, and clips the goats’ nails. When Sue first introduced the idea of raising goats for their milk, Steve could not say he was surprised.

“Here we go again,” he thought, “a new experiment. It never ceases to amaze me.”

Fortunately for the two of them, their Nubians thrive in the Flathead’s year-round climate.

“The land is so dry, parasites are minimized. Plus the goats do well on the hay and alfalfa that grows everywhere here,” observes Sue. “They’re sturdy and tough. However, they do need a barn, someplace to get out of the snow and rain.”

To prepare for the day the goats would arrive, Sue spent a year reading books on the ancient craft of cheesemaking and experimented with creating cheeses from cow’s milk such as Neufchatel, feta, Colby, and Cheddar. While she had plenty of successes she also had enough failures to prompt her to want to improve her skills.

“I have always had a basic curiosity like a scientist, always had projects going and wanted to know how things worked,” states Sue. “For me, life is a game. Everything I can make by myself is a challenge, like a puzzle to be figured out.”

So she and Steve drove cross country to the University of Vermont where she enrolled in an intensive two-week cheesemaking course. Getting to talk with dairy experts and ask them her questions met her needs perfectly.

“Every class was a revelation,” recalls Sue. “I was constantly saying, Oh, that’s why that happens! When you understand the science, you know when to precisely follow a recipe and when you have some leeway. It depends on the type of cheese and the process used to make it. You have to know when you could kill the bacteria because the milk temperature rises too high or when it matters if you add 1/4th instead of 1/8th teaspoon of rennet.”

Sue’s desire to share her knowledge with others grew alongside her mastery of the chemistry behind this craft, Consequently, for the past two years she has taught several classes on cheesemaking to continuing education students at Flathead Valley Community College. She offers springtime classes before her goats have their babies and fall classes after harvesting and canning the bounty from Steve’s garden. No matter the season, her classes fill up faster than you can say, “Pass the Gorgonzola, please.”

In fact, so many people wanted to enroll in her “Introduction to Cheesemaking” the first year it was offered, she had to add an extra class session. And despite adding three more classes this spring, there are still names on the waiting list. As Sue has discovered: “There is an enormous demand to learn to make food from scratch and to eat real food.”

She also teaches how to make Cheddar, hard aged cheese, and several cheeses from Italy ranging from velvety slightly sweet mascarpone to sharp brick-hard Parmesan. The focus on Italian cheese came about because Americans eat so much of it. Mozzarella ranks as the nation’s best-seller, thanks to all the pizza consumed here. Cheddar, her personal favorite due to its flavor and versatility, takes second place nationwide.

According to Sue, making cheese is much like baking bread, which she also does frequently. In both cases you start with a few basic ingredients but have the potential of creating a seemingly infinite number of delicious variations.

“I think cheesemaking is as close to magic as we’re going to come. I know the science behind it. I know what happens to the molecules. But every time I see that curd set up and make cheese,” she says, “it still feels like magic.”