Kevin and Kristyn Henslee, proprietors of Yellow House Cheese, have been making cheese from their home-based farm in Seville, Ohio, for about two and a half years. Their blue cheese is a unique, high-quality offering like none other in our area.
There are fewer than 100 sheep dairies in the U.S. With Ohio's large sheep population, starting a small dairy seemed to the Henslees a natural fit for making sheep's milk cheese. Many popular and well-loved cheeses are made from sheep's milk, including Manchego, Pecorino Romano and Roquefort, to name a few. But here in the U.S., there are less than a dozen farmers making sheep's milk blue cheese, putting Yellow House in rare territory. The Henslees also make a cow's milk blue.
As Kevin explains it, "blue is its own thing, and it's extra labor." The process for making blue cheese requires its own aging room. "It's a living organism," notes Kevin, that demands a colder but more humid atmosphere than other varieties. If allowed to come in close proximity with other cheeses, the mold spores from the blue would transfer to other products, so the natural choice was to focus strictly on blue.
Kevin, who also is a 6th grade science teacher at Medina City Schools, comes from a family with a long history of farming. Back in Illinois after World War II, Ralston-Purina paid the down payment on his grandfather's farm and for several years, he raised turkeys for the company. The grandfather was part of a group of hard working farming people, mainly of German ancestry, who farmed anything and everything, including corn, beans, barley, feeder pigs and beef cattle. Kristyn has a degree in agricultural communications with a minor in animal science. She heads up the cheese-making operations, having sought additional studies in dairy sheep farming, including taking classes with some of Vermont's top cheesemakers. Together, they make a formidable and knowledgeable team. The Henslees do all the work themselves, currently managing nine cows and around 100 ewes. By mid-Spring they're expecting to have approximately 300 head of sheep.
Kristyn runs the sheep milking process twice each day from March to September, which results in about two quarts of milk per day, per sheep. Sheep produce less milk than cows, but the milk is richer in fats, milk solids and minerals, making it ideal for turning into cheese. At Yellow House, "Nothing is mechanized," says Kevin. They work the milk by hand in small batches at the creamery. This is a labor intensive, artisanal product, and the Henslees wouldn't have it any other way. "If it's not top quality, I'm not going to get involved," said Kevin, an indicator of the care and attention put into the operation.
The work is starting to pay off, with customers comparing Yellow House Blue to some of the finest European varieties. This year, the cheese snagged a 2nd place award in the "natural rind sheep's milk blue" category from the American Cheese Society.
The Henslees focus on building a local customer base, traveling no more than 150 miles from the farm. Their products can be found at a variety of area farmer's markets from June to January, including the indoor winter North Union Farmer's Market at Shaker Square. Customers can also find the cheeses at Whitefeather Meats in Creston, West Point Market in Akron and Weiland's market in Columbus.
The process starts all over next year, with lambs starting to arrive at the farm in mid-February and milking beginning the following month. That puts the next batch of fresh cheese hitting the market by next summer.
More and more local chefs are discovering the taste and quality of Yellow House Cheese, with the fine products appearing on plates at a number of restaurants, including Spice Kitchen, Fire Food & Drink, Flying Fig, Toast, Crosswinds Grille in Geneva and the Sycamore in Columbus.