The seasonal rhythms of sheep farming and cheesemaking suit Julia Inslee perfectly. Through the summer months, she focuses all of her creativity on making cheese. By fall, she’s ready for a change of pace and other activities, which might include leading workshops on cheese-making or felting—either at the farm or through Chester County Night School. “Participants really enjoy making Ricotta, a simple, fresh cheese they can make in an hour and take home,” she says. The quieter winter months are perfect for felting with the wool fiber that Julia and her mother fashion into charming little creatures, each with its own personality. Julia is also a published author, and on long cold winter nights she’s usually inspired to write again. By February and March, lambing begins and the cycle continues.
Julia grew up in a 250-year-old farmhouse on three acres that her parents bought in 1977, the year before she was born. “It was a shell of a house with a falling-down barn in a barren landscape,” she says. She remembers snowdrifts blowing in during the winters, but over the years her parents restored the property and her mother planted trees, plants, and a vegetable garden. They had goats, which they milked to make yogurt and some basic cheeses. They also raised sheep for wool production.
About 15 years ago, she bought her first dairy sheep, East Friesians, from beloved Highland Farm cheesemaker and dairy farmer Martha Pisano. “I thought I’d have to go somewhere far away to find this breed,” Julia says, “but they came from just the other side of Coatesville.” A few years later, she began milking them and dabbling in cheese production. With a kit from the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company, various recipe books, and a spirit of experimentation, Julia made “a lot of failed batches.”
Although one of her initial goals had been to make Pecorino Romano, “I discovered I wasn’t built to make hard cheeses—they take too long,” she says. She tried the whole spectrum of cheeses and found her niche in age-ripened fresh cheeses in the French style. Seven years ago, she established her business, setting up a milking parlor and cheese kitchen with a pasteurizer, three sinks, and four refrigerators—two of which keep cheeses with white and blue molds separate. “It took four or five years to get from starting the business to being able to sell cheese,” she says/ She’s been doing markets for a few years now, but this is her first season at the Kennett Square Farmers Market.
She has 14 sheep, including one ram. This season she’s milking nine of them, and since all will lamb next season she’ll be able to increase her production. “I love these sheep,” she says. “They have very individual personalities and I’m glad I get to hang out with them a lot.” Some of their idiosyncratic characteristics are reflected in their names, and in the cheeses named after them. Desdemona, for example, likes nothing better than to start every morning kicking until she gets her breakfast, and the aptly named Kickin’ Desi cheese has a cayenne pepper kick. Ophelia, Julia’s “nuttiest sheep,” climbs shrubbery and is more goat-like. Her eponymous cheese is “a little spicier,” flavored with pepper and garlic.
Julia loves the “sort of magical process of fermentation. One basic entity yields such a diversity of cheeses, from stinky blues to feta and very mild cheeses and everything in between.” One of her favorites is Cypress Blue, a new cheese this season. “It was one of my experimentations,” she says, “combining a blue recipe with an advanced chèvre.” Another that she particularly loves is a blue that ages for three months. “It’s fantastic, and you can only have it every so often,” she says, “so part of the enjoyment is the anticipation.” Cheesemaking is such an involved process that it’s immensely satisfying to take a cheese she’s made out of the refrigerator where it’s been aging, sample it, and taste that “it worked.”
Julia has gained lots of inspiration from her travels to Italy and other European countries that have a long history of using sheep’s milk. “Some of the most famous cheeses in the world, like Manchego, Roquefort, and Ricotta, are all traditionally made with sheep’s milk,” she says. Sheep are more manageable, take up less space, and eat less grass than cows. Sheep’s milk also has more vitamins and minerals, and many people are finding that it’s milder and easier to digest. “Milking sheep isn’t an American thing,” she says, “but there is a long tradition of cheesemaking, as immigrants have brought their different traditions here. Sheep are the next phase in the evolution of milk and cheese in this country.” She’s happy to be following in the footsteps of these rich traditions, but she also loves the freedom she has to create new cheeses. “Cheesemakers from various regions in Europe are locked into making only that particular style of cheese,” she says, such as AOP cheeses in France and Switzerland.
Even in the midst of her busiest season, Julia experiences many satisfying moments—from knowing that her animals are happy and content to sharing the cheeses she’s making with people who appreciate them.
Julia is at Market this season with her cheeses and wool products on first, third, and fifth Fridays.