At a friend’s party, I talked to this very interesting make-up artist, that challenged me by saying, he could tell what everyone’s favorite food was, just by looking at their face. I thought he was kidding, but he was spot on with mine: Cheese. He also said that, given my blood type, it would probably help delay the aging process, if I excluded it from my diet. Well, whom am I kidding? I didn’t even consider that an option for a split second, but weirdly enough this conversation sparked a whole new interest in cheese in me. I wanted to know more, not just eat it, but also understand how to make it.
A week later I signed up for Basic Cheesemaking: Fromage Blanc, Crème Fraiche & Feta at The Cheese School of San Francisco.
To be honest, the image, that popped up in my mind, when I was thinking about, who makes cheese, is probably highly influenced by my early childhood memories of Heidi: I was imagining an old, grumpy grandfather type, whose face is almost completely covered by his greyish facial hair, and who lives a lonesome life with his cows and goats on a farm way up in the Swiss Alps. I realize that is just a little bit absurd, as I am with about 16 other cheese lovers eagerly waiting for our class to begin, and Louella, a tall, slender woman with the most amazing skin (So, just for the record: Cheese does not make your skin look old!) walks in with her milkmaid uniform. Louella is an artisan cheesemaker, who teaches students of all ages, how to make cheese. Needless to say – she is the complete opposite of the grumpy old man.
Her eyes are wide awake, and she radiates, as she enthusiastically and energetically talks about yoghurt, sauerkraut, pickling and how our ancestors accidentally made the first cheeses by transporting leftover milk in sheep stomachs across the savanna. Fermented food never felt more sophisticated, fascinating and entertaining. I bet she could sell a spoonful of yoghurt over a 3-course meal to anyone anytime. My brain is already a big fan and my taste buds are a close second, as I kind of automatically guide another piece of Asiago from my cheese tasting plate into my mouth and listen to Louella, who takes so much pride and pleasure in what she does.
Louella’s family has a rich heritage of unconventional souls, idealistic doers and artistic makers. Her namesake Louella Ballerino, who was her great-grandmother, was designing bathing suits in Los Angles in the 1940's. Her daughter, Louella's grandmother, owned a welding company in Tucson, Arizona in the 1970's. She vividly remembers visits to her house always involved sanding down light fixtures or playing with patinas. And finally her dad is an artist blacksmith. So, you see, Louella, in many ways, is completely in line with the family tradition - she just chose the milk protein casein over fabric and steel.
Growing up in Bisbee, a small town on the Mexican Border in Arizona, at a time, when the border was basically a line in the sand and cows roamed freely between both countries, she developed a genuine interest in food and feeding people - so much so, that she wanted to become a baker. At 14, she started cooking professionally at a little restaurant in town. What to others - most of the time - is merely a way to make money during high school, for Louella, it was much more than that. She loved being able to please others and connecting with the world around her through food.
Later in college she had an experience, working as a server at a catered dinner, that only reinforced her passion and forever changed her. While cleaning up at the end of the night, her supervisor asked her to throw out a whole sheet pan of salmon fillets - 85 in total. Louella felt like staring into the abyss of an oversaturated society’s disrupted relationship with food, represented by the big plastic-lined black hole, the fillets were supposed to go into. "At that moment, I realized, if I truly loved food, I had to know more about the systems that brought it to me. I had to work on this system so that less of it is wasted and more of it is appreciated.” She was fired that same night, but also decided to change her major to Environmental Studies and became a sustainable food activist, who years later brought a cow to campus to raise awareness for a local milk cooperative.
She started to immerse herself into basic artisan methods of food production, scouted out two farms in Italy via WWOOF (worldwide opportunities on organic farms) and spent her junior year learning how to make Pecorino cheese. "From the very first moment, I stepped onto my first sheep farm I knew something was up. I remember feeling 'this is what I want to do forever." It was the start of her ongoing love affair with cheese 12 years ago. Since then, she has worked on many farmstead operations in Europe and the US, managed her own creamery and developed her very own cheese making style.
Today Louella not only teaches and makes cheese, but she also serves as a Board member for the CACG (California Artisan Cheese Guild), where she organizes and executes trainings, fundraisers and manages a lot of the online communication. On top of that, she recently wrote her first book: Kitchen Creamery. It covers the essentials of home cheese making and is just one more way to share her wealth of knowledge and spread her passion. “I know times are a-changing and more and more people are considering careers that are essential and concrete - such as food production. I know that it's destined to be that at least one of my younger students grows up to be a cheesemaker.”
All she takes on is based on her desire to provide pleasurable experiences to others around her and a healthy and sustainable approach to food sourcing, production and consumption. She doesn’t preach - but she motivates. She doesn’t educate – but she excites. She doesn’t convert you - but she enlightens you. And if you ask me, yes she does make a whole lot of a difference.
What would you say were the biggest obstacles and challenges you had or have to overcome on your way?
I'm a bit of a bleeding heart. Sometimes I listen to the news and think "What the hell am I doing making and writing about cheese? There are real huge crises going on in this world!!” Social injustice, environmental degradation, unconscious consumption. I have a close friend who's a heroin addict. These things bug me, so I have to stay positive. I have to remember that I can't fix everything, that simply being honest and happy each day is my contribution.
What helped/helps you overcome them?
Being with inspiring people helps me. Being outside. Being around my children. Walking a lot. Working with my hands. Being married to a really grounded person. Eating really beautiful, pure foods. I have all these supports and they are all wonderful.
What's on the horizon for you? What do you dream about?
I want to have a TV show about how to ferment food, especially dairy. It will be zesty and counter our current anti-bacterial mania. I also want to have a creamery that is a women's cooperative and sheep and fruit orchards. These are just dreams but dreams are important.